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Analysis: Manhood in America, Michael Kimmel

I chose to read Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America because it is more about American men in general, than about men and their relationship to sports, class, gender, or race.  It is one of the most cited, most recognized histories of American masculinity since gender history became a discipline about 4 decades ago.

Thesis:  Kimmel aims to do “2 things:  first, to chart how the definition of masculinity has changed over time; second, to explore how the experience of manhood has shaped the activities of American men.”—pg 1

Argument:  He argues that the quest for manhood–the effort to achieve, to demonstrate, to prove our masculinity–has been one of the formative and persistent experiences in men’s lives.  That we remain unaware of the centrality of gender in our lives only helps to perpetuate the gender inequality.  Beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century, the idea of testing and proving one’s manhood became one of the defining experiences in American men’s lives.  The long-term causes of the idea of proving one’s manhood were structural–change in the work world, the political arena, and the family.  The consequences of those changes, however, have been both social and psychological, carried out both in the relationships between different groups throughout our history as well as in men’s sense of themselves as men.  And the idea of proving one’s manhood continues to reverberate to the present day.  Kimmel also says that one’s manhood is directly related to their race, ethnicity, class, age, and sexuality.

Part 1 describes the fitful birth of the Self-Made Man and observes how he sought to secure his sense of himself in the years before the Civil War.  At the beginning of the 19th century, manhood was understood as an arbitrary move from boyhood to adulthood, but as the century progressed the term manhood fell out of use in favor of the term masculinity.  Masculinity was understood to be a set of characteristics and actions that men had to constantly perform in order to be seen as a man among their peers.  Men had a few ways to prove their masculinity in the first half of the 19th century, including moving West in order to live a more strenuous life away from the ease of the city, living a life of self-control—both personally and sexually, and keeping the public and private spheres separate—especially making sure that women stayed in the private sphere.

Part 2 traces the experiences of the American man from the end of the Civil War to the first decades of the 20th century as he confronted new challenges in an increasingly industrialized, urban, and crowded society.  His working life became too precarious to provide a firm footing, so the Self-Made Man turned to leisure activities, such as sports, to give his manhood the boost he needed.  In the post-bellum era, families moved to urban areas in droves because of the economic opportunities there, but men thought that the ease of city life and working side-by-side with women and immigrants would effeminate the white men and their sons, so they sought out physical activities such as sports and gym workouts to offset the femininity and display their masculinity.  The move to the cities seemed to over-civilize white men, so they sought a way to become more physical and even a bit more savage, so they turned to violent sports such as boxing and football, because sports make boys into men.  Sports were also a way to resolve some class and racial tensions, offset others, and siphon off working-class discontent into other arenas.

The first two parts of Kimmel’s work are the one’s that are pertinent to my research, so I have a much shorter analysis of the rest of Kimmel’s work.

Part 3 traces the American man’s efforts during the first half of the 20th century, following him through two world wars, one Depression, and adding the new media of film and television.  The first part of the 20th century brought changes to the ideal American man.  He became a pristine balance between civilization and physical savageness.  He was understanding and tolerant, while also being virile and decisive.

Part 4 follows his move to postwar suburbia and brings his saga up to the present day.  Suburban men tried to live vicariously through other virile, athletic, ideal American men.  They watched movies with actors like James Dean and John Wayne, attended athletic events and idolized athletes like Babe Ruth and Sammy Baugh, and hoped to one day have the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Kimmel says that contemporary men are more like the boys of old in that they are more understanding, compassionate, and gentle.

The Epilogue calls for a new type of manhood–democratic manhood–one based more on the character of men’s hearts and the depths of their souls than about the size of their biceps, wallets, or penises.  Masculinity is a constantly changing ideal throughout American history.


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