A song of changing genders a literary gender analysis of

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It seems clear that no man would be able to live up to this ideal of hegemonic masculinity. The demand alone to be equally successful in both career and family has already proven impossible to meet for most people (men and women). In order to be successful in the professional job market (and by successful is meant reaching the very heights of one’s career, going as far as it can possibly take you) it is necessary to forego or neglect other spheres of life, like a family. Furthermore, the ideal of every man being a winner in a professional context defies the laws of logic. Trailing in the wake of a single winner will be a handful of losers; those coworkers who did not receive that promotion, that raise, that relocation. Therefore, hegemonic masculinity is only one form of masculinity, surrounded by other subordinate forms – and it is one that is impossible to live up to.

The continued struggle for equal rights for women is still highly visible in the media and the gender debate today. The debate focuses especially on equal wages for women in the job market21 and the discrepant relationship between men and women in elite power positions22. However, these debates neglect to mention that men not only inhabit the majority of top positions but are also the main inhabitants of the bottom rungs of society – the homeless, the dispossessed, the sick and the traumatized.

In today’s society there are a range of different social issues that target men who have failed in one way or another to uphold the hegemonic, masculine ideal. Their continued struggle to meet the demands upon their male gender is having a detrimental effect on their own wellbeing. And despite the fact that Andrew Kimbrell’s book, The Masculine Mystique, was published two decades ago in 1995, the social issues that he describes23 are still highly relevant today and are revisited by Anthony Synnott in 200924. They portray other, subordinate masculinities where men have failed in one way or another to meet the demands made of them by social ideals and are now suffering the consequences.

The ideal from the industrial age of being a machine-man, one who never succumbs to the pressure, is the source of many of the different issues that men face today. Men’s work hours have seen dramatic changes since the arrival of capitalism and although the average work week today has been greatly reduced compared to during the Industrial Revolution25, the principle behind these work hours has endured: that men must work and continue to work until they are unable to work any more – otherwise they are not ‘real men’. Having one’s entire identity as a man dependent on one’s work has clear damaging effects on the male psyche and physical wellbeing. Men suffer at a much greater rate than women from fatal diseases, work accidents, homelessness, substance abuse, homicides and fatal assault cases, and suicides (for a more detailed description of the statistics supporting this observation, see appendix 7.1 “Statistical Data on Social Crises”).

These issues draw attention to different aspects of postmodern masculinity that have been influenced by the hegemonic ideal. For example, the fact that men suffer from heart attacks, cancer and chronic lung disease at a far worse rate than women is partly caused by men’s unlikelihood to see a doctor, which is indicative of their unwillingness to admit to any sort of physical ‘malfunction’ and weakness26. The fact that men fall victim to the vast majority of work accidents and that women are barred from active combat duty in the military (to the malcontent of female soldiers) are indicative of an inherent attitude that women are the frailer sex, which need to be protected; that men are expected to sacrifice their own health for the sake of protecting women. An American study in 2011 interviewed men whose employment was terminated during the global recession that started in America in 2007: “Some became emotional while talking, even weeping. Many referred to feelings of worthlessness or a loss of dignity after losing their jobs. Depression was common”27. And yet, despite the clear disillusionment following sudden unemployment for many men, depression as a mental illness has primarily been associated with women, who are diagnosed twice as frequently as men28. The cold statistics of men’s lives in contemporary society are a clear indication of the struggles they face; and yet most men are still unwilling to accept or admit that there is even a problem, which makes improvement of these matters difficult.


Based on the assessments conveyed by Andrew Kimbrell and Anthony Synott, I would argue that the understanding and supportive family man is connected to the chivalric ideal of the gentleman and embodies one of the aspects of the masculine ideal that a man must try to uphold. However, among men in today’s society it is usually shameful for a man to show emotion, since it signifies weakness and a level of emasculation that is uncomfortable for many men to experience. The traditional meaning of honor was that a man’s word was trustworthy and that a shake of his hand was sufficient for him to keep a promise. Capitalism and the valorization of personal ambition in an aggressive business world put an end to that kind of faith in another person – today a man willing to trust someone without some kind of assurance that they will remain honest (eg. a signed contract) is seen rather like a naïve and gullible fool. Synnott argues that the “ideal of the gentleman is dead or dying. The concept of honour as a prime male value, and duty, might almost be defined as the value of a sucker or loser today. Is a man’s word his bond? Is a handshake enough to seal a deal or a bet?29 In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, this decline of the chivalric ideal is embodied in the character of Eddard Stark whose identity is intimately connected to traditional values of honor and honesty. In the emerging society of capitalist ideals, Ned Stark struggles to concede to these new societal norms.

Chivalry in our postmodern world has come to signify a belief that women and children must be protected above all. Implicit is therefore the idea that that makes them more valuable than men. Men are expected to protect women and children – with no protection for themselves30. Wars, homicides, suicides all have a majority of male deaths and yet, as Synnott argues, at a legislative level the United States only has a ‘Violence against Women Act’. No ‘Violence against Men Act’ exists, which indicates that the so-called oppressive patriarchy in which we have lived for many years is “indeed protective rather than oppressive of women – and, by omission, oppressive of men31. Chivalrous ideals of self-sacrifice and bravery have therefore transformed into a postmodern male sexism that expects men to not only protect women and children, but also “to work hard and to provide for their families; to do their duty to defend their countries and, if necessary, to die for their countries […] This male ethic of self-sacrifice, altruism and bravery is a bedrock of male identity32.


In his Rethinking Men, Synnott describes the six largest and most influential men’s movements that have come into existence since the feminist wave in the 1970s. And he argues that a central issue with all six of them is that they have so far been unable to cooperate in favor of men’s position in today’s society. Each organization has its own perspective on the male gender in contemporary America – and none of them agree on what the central issues are33. The objective of the modern gay rights movement is to eliminate the doctrine of shame connected to homosexuality and aspire towards equal legislation for openly homosexual individuals. The National Organization of Men against Sexism (NOMAS) was founded in 1975 and has distinct feminine viewpoints. Members work against traditional masculinity and misogyny and aim to improve women’s rights. The National Coalition of Free Men (NCFM), founded in 1977, aims to improve men’s rights and work against the advance of misandry. So while NOMAS’ focus is on the wrongs done by men, NCFM focuses on the wrongs done to men. The Promise Keepers (Christian movement founded 1990) and the Nation of Islam (founded 1995) both advocate a spiritual and personal, rather than political, transformation in men’s self-identification but their two different faiths “are not known for their mutual co-operation and affection”34 as Synnott puts it. Lastly the mythopoetic movement founded in 1990 seeks “to connect head and heart, to turn men from a material life to an interior life35”. Thus it rather looks inward and “does not address systemic discrimination against one sex or the other […] nor a hypothesized spiritual crisis […] but rather a positive sense of a masculine self36. The men’s movements are simply too fragmented and contradictory in their goals to have any real political impact. There is no single national organization to combine their efforts and determine a single common incentive, which they can all cooperate on achieving, such as is the case with the National Organization of Women.

Ideals, ambitions and opinions shift throughout history in response to prevailing social and cultural customs. So it is with gender and the notion of masculine heroism. In his 2005 publication, From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity, Leo Braudy writes that in our contemporary society, the clever but physically weak man is more likely to succeed in his career than the uneducated but physically strong man. How does that affect our perception of heroism?37 Military heroism is still admired in America today. Anthony Synnott describes how a poll in 2007 showed that Americans still consider military experience the most desirable attribute in a president. And he quotes 101 World Heroes (2007), which argues that “[we] live in an unheroic age, and an unheroic age has a desperate need for heroism”38. Why has our world become so lacking of the individual hero who rises above the rest? Synnott will argue that past events involving various wars, dictators and tyrannies have taught us that a single individual with too much power is likely to be corrupted by it. We shy away from anyone who risks being corrupted by elitism and violence39. Additionally, in order to live up to the hegemonic ideal of masculinity, all men are expected in some fashion to be heroes today, which results in many falling short somehow. The male characters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire support this assessment of Anthony Synnott’s, since they cannot be regarded as true heroes – each and every one of them also possesses aspects of darkness and villainy in addition to courageous heroism.

Andrew Kimbrell argues that in recent years many men have been feeling confused and powerless due to shifting gender roles and the social issues mentioned earlier. In these environs the media has attempted to recapture and portray an excessive and almost caricatured masculinity that might resonate with the average male. As Kimbrell writes, “The media managers search for resonances to the Wild West, working-class America, and mechanized war in order to convince men that power is their destiny and purpose”40. He argues that,

The dominating, controlling, and manipulative power exercised by CEOs and corporations is the favored form of power in our society. The exercise of such power is what our society teaches men to strive for and women to admire. We are told that “power is an aphrodisiac” and that the gaining of power is the crowning accomplishment, the ultimate achievement, of masculinity. The power to dominate, exploit, and control is the final prize for the machine, competition, and profit man. It is the ticket to manhood, freedom, and respect”41.

The power associated with hegemonic masculinity is therefore that which dominates and controls others. It is a negative, Machiavellian form of power that tends to corrupt its subjects and benefits no one but the power-holder himself. As Anthony Synnott argues, however, “Paradoxically, negative connotations also attach to the lack of power: powerlessness is not a goal, nor is impotence”42. Some of the characters in George R.R. Martin’s series (Littlefinger, especially) are heavily influenced by Machiavelli’s power doctrine, which has no basis in ethics whatsoever, but is solely an attempt to “scientifically [analyze] how a ruler could gain and maintain power by the most efficacious means”43.

It is important to draw attention to the fact that the Industrial Revolution changed people’s perspectives on the values that comprised the masculine ideal. Former values like honor, duty and honesty lost their worth in this new world of business. A man’s word was no longer to be trusted without an additional assurance of some kind. These traits were replaced by success, self-interest and personal ambition, which became the new driving force for most men. The rest of the older values persisted and kept their position in the masculine ideal, such as dominance, autonomy, control, bravery, self-sacrifice and emotional invulnerability. Some of the new values clashed with the old, such as the natural conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest. Women and children have always been to be protected and yet self-interest promotes putting yourself first. This signifies that hegemonic masculinity is not one, but multiple different masculinities in order to include all the characteristics that we find worthy in a man.

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