Mr. Natural

Is Masculinity a Cultural Construction or a Biological Fact? Science (and Sci-Fi) Enter the Gender Fray.

But when it comes to capturing the rage this panic provokes, nothing is as compelling as Fight Club, the new guy-fi epic in which Brad Pitt arouses the animal within the postmodern man— and plays it to the hilt. While David Fincher's film reminds us that there's a direct link between male resentment and fascism, it also can be enjoyed as a spectacle of feminized guys recovering their primal energies in the timeless arena of the fight. All the tropes of male bonding are here, from the stripping away of weakness in a violent secret rite to the worship of an alpha male. It's Nietzsche meets Orwell, except that this time Big Sister Is Watching You. "We're a generation of men raised by women," Pitt tells his querulous alter ego, "and I'm not sure another woman is what we need."

Back in the 1980s, the male backlash needed a social justification, as in those Michael Douglas revenge thrillers where a fed-up white guy strikes back at rapacious minorities, an unscrupulous female boss, or an unfaithful wife. But in the age of Fight Club, masculinity itself is under siege, so it's not enough to listen to Rush and vote Republican. Manhood must be reinvented in terms that legitimize its demand for power. Instead of railing about feminazis, how much more righteous is it to regard masculinity as a force of nature, a pressure cooker that will pop if it's too tightly sealed by the culture. This is the new return of the repressed.

Not that there's anything novel about the idea that sex is grounded in human nature. Feminists have always had to do battle with the assertion that, in Freud's famous phrase, "anatomy is destiny"— and there were ample data to prove it, just as scientists before the Enlightenment could show that women were imperfect versions of men by demonstrating that the vagina was an interior penis and the ovaries were junior-miss testicles. Every social order finds its justification in nature, so it's no surprise that the current quest for male legitimacy hinges on a certain reading of biology and evolution. These "hard sciences" are a fortress against the argument that gender is a social construction.

Of course, it's no contradiction to say that nature and nurture interact to create the sexes as we know them. The question is, to what extent? Striking recent findings about the impact of hormones bolster the contention that biology plays a powerful role in being a gal or a guy.

We know, for example, that maleness is conferred upon the fetus by a flood of certain hormones, and that absent this chemical soaking the resulting child will be female. This has led psychologist John Money to note that "to differentiate the male, something must be added" (quite a turnaround from the traditional view of women as deficient men). Estrogen, the female hormone, confers a greater immunity to illness than men possess, not to mention a longer life span. So much for the myth of the weaker sex.

As for testosterone, the macho elixir, recent research shows that it rises and falls dramatically according to the circumstances of life. Stressed out guys have lowered levels of testosterone, but so do happily married men, suggesting a biological basis for marital bed death. But perhaps the greatest implication for the sex wars is the finding that men with high status have higher testosterone levels— hence the alpha male not only fucks more but feels more vital. In the drive for that hormonal high, science writer Deborah Blum observes, "the link between high testosterone and the quest for dominance looks fairly real."

Of course, it's not the data that are debatable, but their interpretation. Backlashers look at this research and see a man who is physically strong but fundamentally fragile, especially when it comes to keeping his testosterone flowing. This biochemical image is an oddly fitting correlate to Susan Faludi's description of the American male as "shafted." Whether he's a victim of the culture or a hormonal casualty of his reduced status, the consequences are clear. Sociologists report sharply rising rates of depression and suicide among men. So there really is a crisis of masculinity, though it probably has less to do with the earning power of women than with a world where the traditional ways of celebrating masculinity have all but lost their glory. You can't even bask in the glow of a champion if he might be a she. And if a woman can be the alpha, how do you keep that pecker up?

One answer is to find new ways of generating spunk, such as discovering that powerful women can be sexy and that nurturance can be a source of pride. But instead of considering the libido as a force plastic enough to function in a changing world, scientists with a big investment in trad masculinity are promoting a much more fatalistic reading of the current moment.

Among the most influential of these macho apologists is Lionel Tiger, the anthropologist who coined the term "male bonding," grounding it in a particular view of anthropological reality. Tiger's description of life in the primordial era— when men hunted in groups while women cared for babies and gathered crops— was immensely important during the 1970s, when feminism was struggling for an intellectual foothold. Tiger's speculations still haunt many discussions of human nature, though there's no conclusive evidence that his view of primitive society is accurate. "You essentially made up a story," Barbara Ehrenreich railed at Tiger during a recent Harper's dialogue, "and what made it so suspect is that the picture of prehistory you created looks so much like Levittown in 1957."

« Previous Page
Next Page »