Book Review: A History of Masculinity, Ivan Jablonka

The job of the historian is to understand the history passing through us.

Ivan Jablonka

A History of Masculinity by French historian Ivan Jablonka joins the dots between the persistence of war, violent strongman leaders, the devaluation of care in modern societies, and the systemic discrimination against women and girls that still lies at the heart of the modern state.

The Narcissistic Hypermasculine State

Jablonka begins with the observation that masculine domination is one of the most universal and enduring features of human societies, and he traces this deep wound at the heart of human civilisation right back to the very advent of the State. From its origins millennia ago, the State has been predominantly the purview of male God-Kings, Emperors, Sultans, Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Up until the, historically recent, advent of democracy, male rulers relied largely on violence, and on all-male armies, to maintain their power. In this world of all-against-all, the most ruthless gained and managed to remain in power. This dynamic of violence and militarism, as Vladimir Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine tragically reminds us, remains at the core of global geopolitics, and favours men with a very specific psychology – namely the violent, the aggressive, the ruthlessly ambitious, the pathologically narcissistic, those without conscience.

As Jablonka explores, the ascendancy of this particular type of violent hypermasculine male involves gender wars on two fronts. First, hyperaggressive narcissistic males assert their power by ridiculing and debasing, even destroying, other forms of masculinity. This ‘war within masculinity’ targets men who exhibit ‘feminine’ qualities of empathy, respect and care, intellectual curiosity, ‘deviant’ sexuality (gay men), weakness (disabled men, poor men), as well as other ‘inferior’ men (immigrant men, Jewish men, and men of other races, ethnicities and cultures). This war within masculinity precedes the war between the sexes and is more violent. It must result in the victory of the ‘real’ hypermasculine men, in whose hands power must be centred.

Jablonka also explores the, at first sight, curious fact of men’s enduring domination of women. Such domination, he argues, is puzzling given that women seem to be ‘objectively’ superior to men, since they are capable of both giving birth and nourishing the baby with their body. But while women clearly play a fundamental role in daily life in every society, their childcare and other activities have consistently been seen as ‘inferior’. This too can be understood as the consequence of the hypermasculine narcissistic males who dominate society. The division of labour and the value ascribed to tasks in society are apportioned on the basis of a hypermasculine value system whose circularity defines whatever is done by hypermasculine males as highly valuable, and whatever is done by women as being inherently of less value. As a result, the very functions which are essential to the survival of humanity, producing and nurturing life, are denigrated and devalued.

The creation and persistence of the narcissistic hypermasculine state has had profound and lasting consequences. In every sphere of society, spanning politics, economics, religion, technology, education, health, and care, whatever was done by ‘superior’ men was deemed of value, while whatever was done by women and ‘lesser’ men was deemed to be of less worth. And so it largely remains, where even today’s democratic states, Jablonka argues, are largely hypermasculine narcissistic dictatorships with gender polarisation at their core.

Models of Masculinity. Acknowledgement: James Dornan SNP on Twitter

Gender Polarisation and the Evolution of Democracy

In Masculinities, Raewyn Connell theorised the concept of hegemonic masculinity as that which dominates the order of gender, while subordinating other masculinities. Chief among these hegemonic masculinities is the ‘masculinity of ostentation’ which asserts itself by displays of aggression, arrogance, rigour, swaggering, talking loudly, taking risks, and eagerness to fight. An allied hegemonic masculinity is the ‘masculinity of control’, whereby unbridled confrontation goes hand in hand with rigorous conduct, a sense of duty, and refinement of mores (think leaders of the British Empire and today’s Mafia).

These forms of masculine domination aim to distinguish “real” men from the others – the wimps, cowards, and sissies – and establishes a masculine/feminine binary that is coupled with a range of other binary value judgements – superior/inferior, strong/weak, intelligent/stupid, competent/incapable, rational/emotional, active/passive, hard/soft. Peace in this hypermasculine value system is equated with weakness and the Feminine, while war is equated with strength and the Masculine. Science is equated with masculine superiority and control, while the humanities are denigrated as lesser and feminine. This polarisation acts to make one polarity (hypermasculine men) feel normal and superior and the other polarity (women and other masculinities) inferior and ashamed.

Those who step outside of this hegemonic gender order typically pay an enormous price, as is evidenced, for example, by the centuries’ long persecution of gay men. It is also painfully evident in the history of my own country, Ireland, during the 20th century, where women who stepped outside the norm of the ‘good Catholic woman’ by getting pregnant outside marriage were punished in mother and baby homes, and Magdalen laundries. The appalling injustices suffered by these women and their children served to police the societal norm of the ‘good’ family mother, linchpin of the family marriage and Irish Catholic society.

In this compelling narrative, Jablonka traces the history of women’s equality as one in which the narcissistic hypermasculine State has been gradually, and partially, eroded through both women’s activism and the actions of men who have been supportive of women’s rights and freedoms. The list of feminist victories includes increased access to prestigious professions (law, medicine); the right to vote; women’s attainment of political positions (although these are usually confined to ‘feminine’ Ministries of Health, Social Welfare, and Children); increased security of bodily integrity (legal protections from rape and harassment); and sexual autonomy (contraception, abortion).

These advances, however, have largely left gender polarisation intact. In the public realm, for example, Jablonka recounts how women’s access to employment has come about largely through what Jon Eivind Kolberg has called ‘the family turned public’. Changes in social policy and the development of the welfare state – maternity leave, childcare support, and tax allowances, for example – have supported women’s employment predominantly in particular sectors – education, nursing, care, civil service.  The result is that what was formerly found in the family is now delivered largely by women via public healthcare, education and social services – ‘the family turned public’. In Jablonka’s telling, care has been the vector through which women have improved society because it is the vector in which they have been allowed to advance. When women do manage to move beyond these sectors, they rarely reach top positions and often can only do so by displaying hypermasculine behaviours on which the dominant culture places value. Those professions that are now most accessible to women – education, health, and care – remain chronically devalued.

Undoing the Narcissistic Hypermasculine State

The hypermasculine state comes at a high price for both women and men. The harshness to which boys are typically subjected, as the learn to become ‘real men,’ translates into violence against themselves and against others. Throughout the world, men commit suicide three to four times more often than women, with the suicide risk being even higher for young gay men. 90% of homicides are committed by men, who also make up 77% of the victims. In the US, one in four women has suffered serious acts of violence from her spouse. In France, a woman is killed every 3 or 4 days by her husband or former husband. Globally, the majority of the world’s poor and illiterate adults are women. And in the national and international arenas, violent hypermasculine males, now euphemistically known as Strongman Leaders, make up for their transparent psychological and maturational deficiencies through violence, oppression and war.

While democracy has so far only partially undone the narcissistic hypermasculine State, Jablonka is adamant that a deepening of democracy is the only way to achieve further progress. Authoritarian states, whether under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Putin or Xi Jinping, are invariably gender dictatorships which glorify force, the military and obligatory sacrifice, while sending women back to their households. While democracies remain deeply imperfect, authoritarian states enforce gender polarisation and sex inequality while denying voice to those women, and men, who seek to rectify injustices, overcome ignorance, and promote greater freedoms. Democracy, Jablonka writes, is both the origin and the outcome of rights for women and girls.

Jablonka’s analysis of the causes and consequences of gender inequality is deeply insightful. So too is his assessment of what needs to be done. The relation between men and women can be gauged by a twofold criterion:” he writes, “the distribution of material wealth, and the distribution of symbolic value.” If human civilisation is to move away from dominance by a minority of violent hypermasculine narcissistic males, what is of material and symbolic value in society must change away from hypermasculine values of money, status and power. Gender roles and gender identities must break from their current rigidities and polarisation, so that care, empathy, and closeness to nature are accepted as non-binary, attributes equally of women and men. And women and girls must attain equal ease of access to resources, opportunities and power as men and boys.

‘A History of Masculinity’ demonstrates that the State was founded on deep pathology (violent male pathology) and fundamental untruth (the denigration of the essential core values of life-giving, nurture and care). And so, tragically, it largely remains today. At this turbulent moment, as Jablonka clearly lays out, the task of healing this deep wound at the heart of civilisation is a major factor in the history that is currently passing through us.


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