Men out of Focus

Men Out of Focus: The Complicated Politics of Masculinities (Robert Corber)

Robert Corber

The question of how to determine the political significance of alternative models of masculinity, especially when they are anchored in normatively raced, classed, and sexed bodies, has long been central to queer studies, the field in which I work.  Marko Dumancic’s richly textured analysis of the crisis of masculinity that emerged in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev era suggests why this question is not always easy to answer.  In riveting and meticulous detail, Marko traces how Thaw-era filmmakers’ rejection of the heroic masculinity celebrated in the social realist cinema of an earlier era threatened to undermine the Communist Party’s authority.

But the Party’s opposition to the depiction of Russian manhood in Soviet cinema following Khrushchev’s rise of power doesn’t really settle the question of how we should view the politics of the refusal by a new generation of filmmakers to interpellate male spectators into a Party-sanctioned subject position.  As Marko makes clear, despite their aspiration to deheroicize male identity, Thaw-era filmmakers avoided challenging the patriarchal order of Soviet society.  Thus Men Out of Focus affirms one of the central claims of queer studies regarding the difficulty of disentangling masculinity from the subordination of women, namely, that the reconfiguration of dominant masculinities in the media and other social institutions often serves to prop up patriarchal arrangements at moments of potentially destabilizing political and social change.

            The treatment of masculinity by Thaw-era filmmakers also didn’t differ all that much from that of their Stalinist predecessors in that it continued to affirm the normative alignment of masculinity with maleness.  Queer studies scholars have sought to expose the ideological processes that have naturalized this alignment by emphasizing the mobility of masculinity, its lack of a necessary relationship to particular modes of embodiment.  As Jack Halberstam demonstrated in Female Masculinity, one of the field’s founding texts, masculinity becomes most legible as masculinity when and where it becomes detached from normatively raced, classed, and sexed bodies.  For this reason, queer scholarship has tended to focus on the formation of non-normative masculinities, masculinities that are female, Black, or trans.  According to this scholarship, the stigmatizing of these masculinities, their identification especially with deviant or perverse sexualities, has worked to insure that masculinity remains the property of cis-gender straight white men.  Thus the forms of male identity explored in post-Stalinist cinema were problematic from a queer studies perspective because they not only avoided challenging patriarchal privilege but also indirectly contributed to the continuing subordination of queer masculinities, their representation as inauthentic and abnormal.

            In this respect, Soviet cinema seems to have differed significantly from Hollywood cinema of the same period.  Hollywood had a long history of exploring female forms of masculinity in particular.  Granted, in many of these films the heroine is eventually punished for her (mis)appropriation of masculinity.  Her gender nonconformity might also mark her as a lesbian and therefore contribute to the normalization of male masculinities.  But several films, from Queen Christina and Stage Door in the 1930s to Johnny Guitar and Calamity Jane in the 1950s, provided audiences with more destabilizing models of female identity.  In these films, the heroine’s masculinity enables her to elude patriarchal authority and to achieve a happy ending decoupled from marriage and motherhood. 

What’s more, Hollywood studios frequently assigned their most popular female stars to roles that exploited the masculine elements of their personas, thereby reinforcing the sexual ambiguity of their gender presentations.  A few notable examples of this seemingly counterproductive commercial strategy include Katharine Hepburn’s tomboy roles before the feminizing of her screen image in Philadelphia Story (1940); Joan Crawford’s roles following her Academy-Award winning performance in Mildred Pierce (1945), which upset the carefully calibrated balance between the masculine and the feminine elements of her gender presentation earlier in her career; and Doris Day’s roles in musicals like Calamity Jane before her glamorous make-over in Pillow Talk (1959).  In other words, mid-twentieth century Hollywood cinema simultaneously reproduced and disrupted normative understandings of gender identities.

            I note this difference between the two national cinemas because Marko admirably complicates his analysis by incorporating a transnational perspective.  This aspect of Men Out of Focus guarantees that it will make an important contribution to queer work on gender.  Despite the transnational turn in the field, scholars of gender and sexuality have ignored the so-called second world and concentrated instead on the Global South.  But in reading Men Out of Focus, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the crisis of masculinity that Marko explores and the one I focused on in my second book, Homosexuality in Cold War America:  Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity.       

Unlike the Soviet version, however, the American crisis of masculinity was compounded by a homosexual panic precipitated in part by the publication of the Kinsey report on male sexuality in 1948.  One of Kinsey’s goals was to normalize homosexuality by demonstrating that significantly more men had engaged in homosexual activity than previously thought.  His findings also suggested that gender presentation did not necessarily correlate with sexual orientation.  Partly in response to these findings, the federal government embarked on a campaign to ferret out gay and lesbian employees.  It justified this campaign on the grounds that such employees could be blackmailed by foreign agents and therefore posed a threat to national security. Historians of sexuality have argued that one of the effects of the “lavender scare” was to consolidate the homo/heterosexual binary in the United States.  In its wake, normatively masculine men who engaged in sexual relations with other men could no longer claim they were “normal” but were automatically classified as sexual perverts.  The displacement of gender role or identity by sex of object choice as the organizing principle of modern sexuality has been used increasingly in our own time to distinguish the liberal democratic societies of the Global North from the supposedly more traditional or “backward” societies of the Global South.  Let me end, then, by asking a question.  Did the crisis of masculinity play the same role in solidifying modern forms of sexual subjectivity in the Soviet Union that it did in the US?

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

2 replies on “Men Out of Focus: The Complicated Politics of Masculinities (Robert Corber)”

Thank you for bringing in an additional comparative perspective! It’s very thought provoking (and makes me want to rewatch some of the films you mention). It also brings me back to a question that’s been kicking around in my mind for a while: Should we expect to find crises of masculinity across post-industrial societies, as a kind of endemic feature? Do these crises get resolved, or simply peter out, or do they evolve? Considering the Soviet context, it seems as though the crisis of masculinity carried on through the 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s, when it appears (at least to me) to have been compounded by economic collapse and its attendant woes. Considering this in the realm of cinema, I wonder what films like Taxi Blues and Brother have to tell us?

Like Adrienne I found myself wondering about both Marko’s analysis of masculinity in crisis and the discussion of it in the posts here. Can we even pinpoint a time/place when masculinity is *not* in crisis? It is striking how frequently the word ‘crisis’ is invoked with respect to masculinity. How can we explain why we don’t speak in similar terms about the gender order when discussing the place of women, particularly given the mutual constitution of such notions? I find myself wondering if this perpetual anxiety about masculinity in crisis speaks to the rigidity and fragility of a normative gender order. As soon as that is relinquished, poof!, there is no crisis. Crisis seems to emerge from a kind of white-knuckled grip on maintaining hierarchy (with, of course, racial and class hierarchies laminated to it).

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