Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Masculinity and violence against women

During this period of encouraging the “proper” ethical behaviour towards women and children on the part of men, I have listened to a number of discussions on this topic on my car radio while driving, and I have not heard a single reference to Susan Faludi’s exemplary work in this field. Maybe it is because most South Africans are just not well read (forgive me if I missed a discussion that was broadcast, and in which Faludi was referenced), or maybe it is simply because most South African psychologists and social workers have still not made the paradigm switch from a determinist understanding of the link between childhood abuse (of boys) and violence against women on the part of grown men – and note my qualification: “determinist”. While there is always the possibility of a causal link like that, it is not a matter of being absolutely determined and predictable.

A far more fruitful approach is to be found in Faludi’s work, which consists in the investigation of power relations between men and women in the context of changing power relations in the encompassing social and cultural field. Needless to stress, this approach is indebted to thinkers such as Lacan and Foucault, both of whom demonstrated that the way one acts is the manifestation of the discursive power-relations in which one is embedded. Faludi, who is probably better known for her book, Backlash – The Undeclared War against American Women (Crown, 1991), has shed virtually irrefutable light on the roots of pervasive violence against women in the US (to which many countries, including South Africa, can be added) in her later book, Stiffed – The Betrayal of the American Man (Harper-Collins, 1999). Although she focuses on American masculinity, because we live in a globalised world, her diagnosis is equally applicable to South Africa, the peculiarly local factors interacting in every country with what she identifies as the grounds of violent treatment of women by men notwithstanding.

In a nutshell, it has to do with masculinity, or rather, with how men experience their masculinity in this era of the globalisation of a specific image of masculinity, with which men identify. But let me put this summary statement in perspective. In the book Faludi relates how, after publishing Backlash, she felt that something was not quite right about her thesis in the book, that the wave of abuse inflicted upon women at the time was a reaction (“backlash”) against the successes of feminism, or more broadly, the women’s movement, in America. There had to be more to it.

Hence, she set out to track down this “more” by criss-crossing America, talking to working men in places like dockyards and steel companies, or at support groups of men found guilty of women-battering, whether it involved their wives or girlfriends. Usually it was the same story that she heard at these groups, that the men did not know how it happened, or kept happening, that they beat up their female partners – normally the explanation was that they “lost control”, or “did not know what came over them”, or perhaps that “something just snapped”, and the next moment the woman was lying on the floor; something along these lines. I’m willing to bet the South-African scene is pretty much the same as far as this goes.

But then, on one of her visits to a male support group called Alternatives to Violence, she heard something different, and it made the penny drop, as it were; or, as one might say in the philosophy of science, her working hypothesis fell into place for the first time. The two counsellors in charge tried to make the men understand that they had actually been in control, as shown by their choice not to use knives, but their fists, or not to hit women in the face, but in the stomach. In Faludi’s words (1999: 8-9):

“A serviceman who had turned to nightclub bouncer jobs and pastry catering after his military base shut down seemed to confirm the counselors’ position one evening shortly before his ‘graduation’ from the group. “I denied it before,’ he said of the night he pummeled his girlfriend, who had also worked on the base. As he spoke he studied his massive, callused hands, lying uselessly on his lap. ‘I thought I’d blacked out. But looking back at that night when I beat her with an open hand, I didn’t black out. I was feeling good. I was in power, I was strong, I was in control. I felt like a MAN.’ But what struck me most strongly was what he said next: that moment of control had been the only one in his recent life. ‘That feeling of power,’ he said, didn’t last long. Only until they put the cuffs on. Then I was feeling again like I was no man at all’.

“He was typical in this regard. The men I got to know in the group had without exception lost their compass in the world. They had lost or were losing jobs, homes, cars, families. They had been labeled outlaws but felt like castoffs. Their strongest desire was to be dutiful and to belong, to adhere with precision to the roles society had set out for them as men. In this respect, they were prototypical modern wife beaters, who, demographic research suggests, are commonly ill equipped to fulfill the requirements of expected stereotypical sex roles, men who are socially isolated, afflicted with a sense of ineffectuality, and have nothing but the gender rule book to fall back on.

“There was something almost absurd about these men struggling, week after week, to recognize themselves as dominators when they were so clearly dominated, done in by the world… The men had probably felt in control when they beat their wives, but their everyday experience was of feeling controlled – a feeling they had no way of expressing because to reveal it was less than masculine, would make each of them, in fact, ‘no man at all.’ For such men, the desire to be in charge was what they felt they must do to survive in a nation that EXPECTED them to dominate.”

I have quoted Faludi at length because these paragraphs neatly summarise the book’s argument, which rests on more than six years’ research on her part. Within the space allowed I can only add a few things. First, Faludi sketches in the background to this collective feeling among men, that they have been let down by the world, tracing the image of the American man as a frontiersman – the Daniel Boone type, who conquered the wilderness to make space for communities to settle and flourish. Sure, these were patriarchal men, but they had a strong sense of social duty and of what they had to do as men to fulfill this.

Then, during the Second World War American men carried this role further, again doing their duty, this time against the Nazis and the Japanese to ‘safeguard’ the world, particularly America, and with morality on their side. But things went horribly wrong during the Vietnam war: instead of feeling that they were fighting a just war, like World War Two, this one was entirely ambiguous in moral terms, and left them foundering. But most importantly, in today’s world men are seldom given the impression that they have a role as men to fulfill their social and civic duty as before. Today they live in what Faludi (1999: 34-35) calls “ornamental culture”, where – unlike the “old model of masculinity” that “showed men how to be part of a larger social system”, they are emasculated and turned into cardboard cutouts for corporations like fashion houses (p. 35):

“Constructed around celebrity and image, glamour and entertainment, marketing and consumerism, it is a ceremonial gateway to nowhere. Its essence is not just the selling act but the act of selling the self…

“Ornamental culture has proved the ultimate expression of the American century, sweeping away institutions in which men felt some sense of belonging and replacing them with visual spectacles that they can only watch and that benefit global commercial forces they cannot fathom.”

Does this seem familiar? I’m convinced that what Faludi has so perspicaciously diagnosed as being at the root of domestic violence against women is equally valid for all countries locked into the globalisation of corporate power through “ornamental culture”. And South Africa is such a country.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • Male feminist tears
  • The early 21st century: Taking stock
  • When do intimate relationships work?
  • Approaching women’s month: The misconception about the politically connected women