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Reviewed by:
  • Changing Men in Southern Africa
  • Ivor Chipkin (bio)
Robert Morrell (ed) (2001) Changing Men in Southern Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, London and New York: Zed Books

Changing Men in Southern Africa is an important text for being the first major work in South Africa dedicated to the study of masculinity. As such, it is a theoretical challenge to the academy. In reviewing the book I want to ask some questions about the theoretical pin that holds the book together: the notion of masculinity itself. I do this not so much as a critique of the book, or an attempt to dismiss the notion of masculinity, but in the spirit of the theoretical challenge that it represents.

In the 1990s a growing interest developed in the international literature about whether 'men are in crisis' and about the 'New Man' —in other words, men who favoured women's liberation, looked after the children, supported women pursuing careers, were sensitive and introspective. Campaigns to promote women's rights and gender equality were associated with the organic rise of a 'new men's movement', which emerged from men coming together to discuss the role of men in the exploitation of women. The earliest public expression of this movement was the British publication, Achilles Heel, founded in the 1970s. By the 1990s governments and the UN were including issues of masculinity within the purview of their gender policies. The question that was often posed was the following: if equality is to become a reality there has to be a genuine desire for change on the part of men and women. Hence the 'New Man' was one defined as 'wanting to change'. Once 'man' was posited as 'able to change', this implied, contrary to a version of feminism that took men as given, that men were potentially allies in the struggle for equality. Why? Precisely because being a man was not fixed to any necessary 'identity'. It is precisely this diversity that the term masculinity seeks to capture. Unfortunately, the focus on reducing inequalities between [End Page 129] men and women, Morrell suggests, has obscured the way masculinity is defined and practiced in Southern Africa since 1994. Hence the book.

This shift to an interest in diversity, at first glance, seems to insinuate itself from the historical and social record. The view from masculinity studies wants us to see men as constructed in the context of class, race and other factors, interpreted though the prism of age (8). Morrell contrasts, in this regard, the Talib(m)an with, say, a man that does not believe all women are nags, or belong in the kitchen or should be pretty but quiet. At stake are the different conditions under which these men have been made as 'men'. Masculinity wants men treated in a similar way, say, to how some feminists regard 'woman' —a historical and social production. Masculinity studies are a sort of disciplinary corrective, a will to even-handedness in the domain of gender studies.

Let us note from the start that studies in masculinity are dogged by a theoretical challenge which did not necessarily arise before. When 'men' are defined by virtue of their a priori relations to women (domination, exploitation), then the ontological status of 'man' is precisely these relations. Simply put, man was identical to these relations. Studies in masculinity, however, unsettle precisely this ontology. If masculinity is a historical and social construct, such that 'men' are diverse, what is the quality of identity (man-ness) that makes Taliban men, 'New Men' and gay men, somehow, all men? Morrell himself does nothing more than note this difficulty. He observes that there are those for whom men are associated with a core set of transculturally similar/identical activities or traits (7). Others are satisfied that the only commonality between men is their penis. This is no negligible matter. At stake is the raison d'etre of the book itself, and moreover, the conceptual integrity of the notion of masculinity. What do the men in Changing Men in Southern Africa have in common? Does the notion of masculinity want to have its cake and eat it? Does it want both to reduce...


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pp. 129-132
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