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Analysis: Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization

I chose Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization because every single faculty member I sought out to discuss my thesis told me her name first and told me that this book should be the first book I read for my thesis.  So here is a view of my understanding of Bederman’s book.

Thesis:  “this book will investigate this turn of the century connection between manhood and race.  It will argue that, between 1890-1917, as while middle-class men actively worked to reinforce male power, their race became a factor which was crucial to their gender…whiteness was both a palpable fact and a manly ideal for these men.”—pg. 4-5

Argument:  She argues that race, gender, and power were the defining attributes of the discourse of civilization.  This is important because each person whom Bederman discusses uses race, gender, and power in their own unique way to show how their people group was more civilized than others.  She further argues that race and gender cannot be studied as separate categories, because they work in tandem throughout American history.

Chapter 1 looks at pugilists Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, two strong manly men, the only difference, Johnson is black and Jeffries is white.  Bederman argues that Americans saw the impending out between these men as a means of determining racial dominance.  White men around the country eagerly awaited Jeffries victory that would show that white men’s capacity for violence was as powerful as black men’s, but when Jeffries lost white men had to find another way to proclaim their superiority over black men.  Bederman argues that white men continually claimed different kinds of authority based on their particular body types.

Chapter 2 builds on this argument by showing how black women used the relationship of race and gender to promote themselves as the most civilized.  Ida B. Wells manipulated dominant middle-class ideas about race, manhood, and civilization in order to force white Americans to address lynching.  She often spoke out in Northern cities against lynching and convinced many Northerners that they needed to take lynch law seriously because it imperiled both American civilization and American manhood.  While white men argued that they lynched blacks because they were uncivilized savages and they were purifying the country, Wells argued the exact reverse of white men being the most civilized people.  She argued that because black men were the ones being killed in such savage manner, they were actually the most civilized.  Although Wells’ writing eroded the ideals of masculinity, white men simply opted for a more primitive form of masculinity so that they could continue to dominate blacks peoples.  They now began to argue that the ideal man was a perfect blend of civilized and savage.

Chapter 3 is a study of G. Stanley Hall, a doctor and psychologist that believed that white families should promote savagery in their children so that they could gain the proper mix of savagery and civilization to be ideal American men.  He argued that being over-civilized promoted effeminacy in young men and too much self-restraint would cause ‘neurasthenia,’ a physical and mental disease that made men soft and unable to act like real men.  Because it was caused by civilization, neurasthenia was a racial disease, and the only cure for it was a strenuous life and a proper balance between civilization and savagery.  This was all about young white men.

In Chapter 4, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a white woman, tried to combat the gender aspect of civilization, by arguing that matriarchal societies ran for centuries with little to no problems until men rose out of their place to take control.  Like Hall and Wells, she argued that her people group was most civilized, but she also was the first to attack only the gender aspect.  Gilman argued that white women were just as civilized as white men because she held whiteness.  She argued that race was the essential aspect of civilization.  The problem was that white men’s new interest in primitivism as a source of masculinity weakened Gilman’s most important claim: that Anglo-saxon men ought to see Anglo-Saxon women as racially akin to them, and to see this racial similarity as far more important than sexual difference.

In chapter 5, Bederman uses Theodore Roosevelt’s transition from effeminate congress member to Cowboy, warrior, and big game hunter to show that white men had opportunities to remake themselves continuously.  He went from being constantly ridiculed for his high voice and fancy clothing to being the inspiration to all American men as virile leader of the manly race.  He even used his trips to Africa to exploit the black communities and demonstrate white superiority over the black men in their own countries.

In the Epilogue, Bederman shows how white men used TR’s trip to Africa to create allegories of ideal men.  Bederman discusses how Tarzan was the epitome of ideal masculinity and manliness because of his superior white skin, his savagery when killing animals and black cannibals, and his civilized, Victorian nature when he falls in love with Jane, the white women marooned on the island later.

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