The reassertion of masculinity surrounds us and takes a multiplicity of forms. It is Newtonian, in that it’s a direct and opposite response to feminism and the dilution of traditional male roles. In many instances the reassertion of masculinity is positive, for it is often an attempt to re-cast the male away from narrow categories of the emotionally distant provider. But in its hyper-masculine forms, where gender confusion contributes to overcompensation in the forms of violence, misogyny or homophobia, it underlies some of our most pressing social and political problems, including terrorism.
In my work, I see the gender confusion present in the form of pathology. There has been an extraordinary growth in male eating disorders in recent decades for example, from representing one in twenty of all eating disorders in the 1980s to now comprising one in five. The vast majority of these do not present for help and they usually take the form of manorexia, of boys and men taking supplements and working out to excess to sculpt an Adonis like physique.
I also see it in the form of violence, both within the home and in the community. However, throughout the Western world there has been a steady decrease in violent crime but recent increases in figures surrounding intimate partner violence. This is particularly pronounced in countries like Australia and is attributed to greater awareness from public campaigns. However the causes are consistently put down to male privilege and lack of gender equality, yet there have been extraordinary changes in every measure of gender relations, from educational outcomes, workforce participation and female income yet domestic violence rates appear not to have improved. How then can male violence towards women be attributed to gender inequality? I’d argue that at least an element of the lack of improvement is because of the clumsy reassertion of masculinity particularly in the more disadvantaged groups, such as the working class and newly arrived ethnic groups.
The trend is particularly interesting among males within ethnic groups. Financial Times journalist and former anthropologist, Gautam Malkani, wrote a book called “Londonstani” soon after the London bombings in 2005. He essentially records the behaviours and rituals of his old peer group in a relatively poor, immigrant neighbourhood of London. He studies the phenomenon of male youth from South Asian backgrounds often incorporating the symbols of hip hop fused with Bollywood sounds all packaged into a posture of aggressive oppositionality. He writes:
“The assertion of ethnic identity is sometimes better viewed as a proxy for the reassertion of masculinity.”
These trends are particularly paramount in Australia through Lebanese youth, who have far greater rates of incarceration, affiliation with street gangs and bikie groups and are also over-represented amongst terrorism recruits to ISIS. They are amongst the largest minority groups within Australia and were implicated in the Australian race riots of 2005.
This holds a great deal of relevance when confronted with the problem of home grown terrorism in particular. While there is the obvious overlap with religious zealotry, a core feature of Western recruits to terrorist acts is identity disturbance, often caught between the traditional culture of their parents who are eager to distance their children from the social permissiveness of the West but which only results in many adolescents feeling a sense of traumatic unbelonging. The place they can assert their identity and, to some extent, their masculinity is within various versions of religious extremism. When mixed with the generational gap within ethnic groups and lack of healthy role models or structured rites of passage, the ingredients for over-compensatory acts through violence coated with missionary zeal are more pronounced.
Author Bonnie Mann asserts that “spectacular acts of violence are redemptive and thus required for an aggrieved or wounded masculinity,” and professor David Plummer of Australia’s Griffith University notes that counter-terrorism raids across the world have sometimes overlapped with gyms, steroids, strip club and weapons. He also cites the growth in pornography as part of the reassertion of masculine posturing.
Hypermasculinity is an emerging force within global, social trends and is most pronounced where gender relations have transformed dramatically. It can be harmless and possibly a transient phase within the realignment of gender relations, but it is also a contributor to some of the most difficult and pressing problems of our times. Dismissing or pathologising the behaviours through the prism of outdated gender theories is no longer useful and hurts us all in fostering meaningful solutions.