Gender Tensions and Emotions History

Recently, as many readers doubtless know, Melanie Hamlett published an intriguing piece in Harper’s Bazaar that quickly won wide comment. The subject was male emotional isolation –“Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden” – and it clearly struck a chord with many female readers and some agonized or apologetic men as well. Clearly lots of women feel that they are providing therapeutic service for emotionally crippled male partners and boyfriends, and at least some men believe that their own emotional limits require compensatory action. Conclusion: along with admiration for the (unnumbered) men who are trying, a belief that we need a “total revolution” in the ways we raise our children.

One enters this discussion gingerly, as a male, for it is easy to hit a wrong note. But without fully assessing the merits of the argument, I was impressed with how helpful it would have been to frame the topic more clearly in light of what we know about the history of emotion. So, two or three points, briefly, in this vein.

First, as not only a male but an old one, I was struck by the virtual identity of the current argument and the 1970s attacks on emotionally limited masculinity, associated with second-stage feminism and, quickly, with a response in what was then called the male liberation movement (linked to authors like Jack Sawyer, Joe Pleck, and Jack Nichols). To be sure, there was less emphasis on women’s burdensome therapeutic service, more simply on men’s emotional unavailability. And the current vogue term, “toxic masculinity”, had yet to be devised (according to Google Ngram, it emerged very suddenly in the mid-90s, quickly gained popularity dimmed only briefly by 9/11 followed by an even more dramatic ascent to the extent that it is now sometimes taken as a given that requires no definition). The fact of a mirror history may simply confirm the correctness of the current diagnosis – men have been emotionally deficient for a long time. But it may also suggest the desirability of looking more closely at the previous episode, which did create a male liberationist flurry that lasted about a decade but then trailed off – perhaps the deficiency argument is not the best way to get men to change? There are at least some historical reminders that deserve attention.

Second – possibly – it would be interesting to take a look at earlier periods (between the first and second feminist phases, primarily) when a leading charge against some men was that they were spending too much time with other men (bars, men’s clubs) rather than with women. Boys’ night out patterns were not, to be sure, usually assessed in terms of emotion, but the topic would bear inquiry. It may not be easy to strike a balance in an age of companionate marriage.

Most important, however, is the desirability of reminding interested participants that we already have a history of male friendships that at least complicates some of the current arguments while inviting an update. For the Hamlett argument, and some subsequent echoes in commentary by people like Rebecca Onion in Slate, assume that male emotional deficiency is deeply rooted in the nature of patriarchy and so very old indeed (linking the problem to Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider’s recent work on the persistence of patriarchy). “Patriarchy harms men” is the basic claim. But this ignores the historical work on male friendship that clearly suggests a more complex past – without in any sense necessarily denying a current problem. Patriarchy indeed has all sorts of deficiencies but it does not inevitably kill off emotionally rich male friendships.

Thus Edmund Leites and others have written – though some decades ago – about intense male friendship as a primary emotional expression in Europe at least until the growing commercial rivalries of the later 17th century. Anthony Rotundo’s work on the 19th century was built around the impressive emotionality of friendships among young men (though waning after marriage). Thus Daniel Webster terms his best friend “the partner of my joys, griefs and affections, the only participator of my most secret thoughts.” Many men wrote letters to each other in terms of great endearment –“my dearest”; “accept all the tenderness I have” , along with pledges “ever to love, ever to cherish and assist each other.” The language, in fact, and the apparent emotion were strikingly similar to the sentiments being exchanged among middle-class women in the same period, as Carroll Smith Rosenberg has described. This is simply not the emotionally deprived stuff that apparently characterizes many contemporary men.

And from this, two related points, along with possibly and gently suggesting adding a bit more complexity to the toxic masculinity claims. First: it is really important to keep alive, in active use, findings that were established before the formal rise of the history of emotions – in this case, work published in the 1970s and 1980s. Rebecca Onion, who so readily linked Hamlett’s claims with basic patriarchy, is normally a gifted user of historical perspective, but in this case I have to assume that earlier work on friendship has simply faded from view; we should try to figure out how to keep it available.

And second: the earlier work on 19th century was so good, and so clearly delineating emotional commitments that were quite different from 20th-century patterns, that there was a clear invitation to carry historical analysis into more recent decades, to offer 20th-century histories of friendship that could be compared to the Victorian findings, with differences explicitly analyzed. But for whatever reason, with only a few exceptions (Linda Rosenzweig, on female friendships), the challenge has not been taken up, opening the way for historically sloppy generalizations about our most recent past.

Keeping older work alive, and using emotions history to address contemporary concerns (along with other approaches in the field) strike me as two goals that are worth attention. And if one response is some relevant new work on gender and emotional friendship, this would be a great start.

         Comments from William Reddy, Ph.D.

I would add that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) launched a whole research theme on male-to-male relationships that used or exploited heterosexual ones. Later Sedgwick set aside the idea of “desire” as an explanatory key to gender or sexuality (in Touching Feeling, 2003).

Also relevant are Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love (1995), who treat romantic love as a kind of “earthly religion” and backstop for ever-more risky careers for both women and men; and Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) which, if I remember correctly, decried a general decline in associational life outside the home.

There is also some interesting research on male friendship in relation to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Julie de Lespinasse’s salonregulars were said to be united by the deepest friendships. Robespierre’s fellow Jacobin (and friend?), Saint-Just, insisted that a man without friends was a traitor to the Republic (Vincent-Buffault, L’exercice de l’amitié(1995), pp. 110-111).

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