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Christopher E Forth.
Masculinity in the modern west: gender, civilization and the body, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. xi, 285, £17.99 (paperback 978-1-4039-1241-1).
Claims that masculinity is “in crisis” have been a favoured trope of modernity and, in post-modernity, the rhetoric of crisis might even be part of an attempt to incite a sense of emergency. Women have been chipping away at male privileges. They curse men with impotence; they threaten to feminize them. The fragility of the male body is manifested everywhere.
Christopher Forth, a brilliant young historian from the University of Kansas, sets out to tell us how men came to be in this position. His book is a cultural history of the male body in the west since 1700. Although Forth does not pay enough attention to differences between western nations, his passionately argued prose and meticulous presentation of evidence are compelling.
Forth’s central argument is that modern civilization promotes the interests of men while simultaneously “eroding the corporeal foundations of male privilege”. He makes this argument by focusing on a vast array of themes, including the meaning of civilization, class, diet, degeneration, consumption, disease and health, violence, work and leisure—all refracted through the body-corporeal.
Masculinity in the modern west is a carefully structured book. It moves from the self-controlled yet deeply anxious gentleman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century to the commercialization of primitiveness in the late twentieth century, which has created a generation of men with “body image problems”. Forth reminds us that, since the 1970s, the male centrefolds in Playgirl have gained 27 pounds worth of muscle. The “bulking up” of men, combined with the relentless attention to powerful performance (even if aided by drugs like Viagra), points to the insecurity at the heart of masculine identities.
Since 1700, the idea that civilization and masculinity are somehow in tension has been repeated. Warfare is one example of this tension. On the one hand, war was portrayed as a descent into barbarism, leading to the dismemberment of man and nation. On the other hand, it provided men with the opportunity to display true male bravery and honour, and was productive of strong bodies. The civilizing process also constructed and deconstructed national identities, based on a model drawn from representations of the male body. Just as the body-corporeal had to be defended against forces that threatened it, so too the body-politic had to be defended from “soft” and “corrupting” foreign cultures. In both cases, military-like drill and other processes of “hardening” could construct the body in a way that reinforced differences between male and female, national and foreign. As Forth convincingly shows, true men were “civilized”, but they simultaneously needed to be protected against the effeminizing qualities of that civilization.
Masculinity in the modern west is not an optimistic book. Forth is broadly sympathetic to the view that dominant forms of masculinity can be challenged, even completely deconstructed. However, Forth reminds readers not to underestimate the “entrenched and durable nature of certain dominant images of manhood in Western culture”. Traditional warrior-codes and conservative gendered identities are still loudly and powerfully articulated in twenty-first-century western cultures. Fears of women—with their allegedly “softening” and unmanning tendencies—still make many men and women nervous. Modernity seems to threaten men with literal extinction: industrial chemicals diminish sperm counts and girls are thriving in schools. Forth’s book is a fascinating meditation on the diverse ways that predictions about the collapse of masculinity have been narrated in the past.