Masculinity, Men's Bodies and the Great War

Joanna Bourke on how new ways of looking at masculinity are revising our view of men’s experience in the First World War.

Less than ten years ago, the words 'gender history' were interchangeable with 'women's history'. Not any more. Thanks to the efforts of a wide range of scholars engaged in mapping out a distinctive narrative concerning masculinity, 'gender' has become a much more complex, interactive concept. Indeed, the new 'invisible actors' in history are revealed to be men. Much of the early work on masculinity focused on institutions such as public schools and boys' organisations. Historians also turned to an examination of manliness in the context of literature, the empire, liberalism, religion, sexuality- and domesticity.

Within this historiography, there is considerable diversity about what defines 'masculinity'. For many writers, 'masculine' is simply what men 'are': it is what differentiates them from women. How men came to 'be manly' is only rarely regarded as unproblematical (it is part of men's 'nature'). More commonly, it is assumed to be the product of socialisation. Other historians have been stimulated by the work of Michel Foucault in which he attempted to demonstrate how human interactions are constructed through particular genealogies and systems of knowledge. This knowledge produces networks of power. Voluntaristic individuals are replaced by socially constructed subjects. Inspiration for much of the best work on masculinity has come from feminist and gay theory. By using the plural 'masculinities', these scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which any gender analysis must take into account the power of certain men over other men, and the way pleasure is engendered.

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