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The Gender of Terror and Heroes? What Educators Might Teach About Men and Masculinity After September 11, 2001

by Marcus Weaver-Hightower - August 12, 2002

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 destroyed more than lives and buildings. Seemingly wounded, too, was the national masculinity of the United States. One of the outcomes of the events, therefore, has been an effort to rearticulate manhood through a media barrage of images and stories about firefighters, police, soldiers, and politicians--all manly images meant to restore faith in U. S. manhood. Hardly remarked upon, however, has been the gendered nature of these images and stories as well as the way that such representations erase the contributions of women and persons of color as well as the realities of working-class labor. The article argues, therefore, that critical educators have a unique opportunity to explore with their students the masculinity and related issues evident in coverage of the terrorist attacks.

Driving along a Midwestern interstate one recent winter afternoon, a billboard woke me from the hypnotic spell of the road.  A firefighter, his heavy helmet and coat covered in yellowish soot, stared expressionless out at me.  Covered in dust, too, were his stoic, strong-jawed face, bushy mustache, and hair.  His engaging, masculine presence reminds me of the Marlboro man, the weight of his toils absent yet somehow understood.  To the right of the image are the words “When others ran out, he rushed in.”  Then, the word “Courage” in white letters lies over a red field and, underneath, lies the phrase “Pass it on.” 


In close proximity to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I immediately index the firefighters of New York, those who perished as well as those who attempted rescues in spite of extraordinary circumstances.  This billboard image, I know, is not coincidental.  The Foundation for a Better Life, a non-profit organization promoting “traditional” values, has put up this billboard and others showing firefighters at “ground zero” looking up at a fluttering U.S. flag.  Along with the memories of the many images of firefighters I have seen in recent months, the billboard inspires in me admiration for the job that these people do, a job that my great-grandfather did.  Too, I recognize the familiar appeal to the traditionally masculine that has become a major feature of media coverage in the aftermath of terror.  As I pass I wonder what young boys—who may have received the very popular firefighting toys for their birthdays or holidays this past year—will remember of this billboard.  What will their sisters and mothers remember of it?  Will viewers remember that men are to rush in, are to use courage alone as a shield?  Will they take from it a sense that, as citizens, they have a broader responsibility to help those in need? 


Even while I hope that all who see this public “service” message draw from it the latter, I am scared that the small word “he,” in its specific reference to males and its troubling individuality, will leave in the minds of its viewers a message about men and masculinity that may be harmful.  Must a man act alone?  Must he endanger himself to prove his courage?


The Great Wounding


The terrorism of September 11, 2001, in New York, Washington, D. C., and Pennsylvania, has taken massive human, emotional, and material tolls on the United States and its citizens.  The national economy, public morale, and—most especially—individual lives have been shattered in the wake of these horrific events. 


Perhaps a less obvious wound than the human and material toll exacted, the United States has also seemingly suffered a tremendous blow to its national manhood.  One need not look very hard to find evidence of this challenge to U. S. masculinity.  Traditionally masculine traits of protecting others (families and neighbors), of courage and bravery, of emotional stoicism, and of reliance on science and technology have come under attack, and in many instances have been fatally injured.  Pre-September 11 efforts and abilities to protect airplanes and their passengers, to build supposedly impervious buildings, to gather and control information, or to save those imperiled have been proved lacking.  Little wonder, then, in the aftermath of the attacks, that the United States--its media and its citizens--should focus attention on these traditional masculine traits of protection, courage, sacrifice, and technological superiority, trying to prove once again that the United States’ masculinity should not be in question.  To prove this has thus far required a governmental and cultural rearticulation of and renewed reverence for the traditionally and stereotypically masculine.


Even Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, has seen this resurgence post-September 11, and her glee shows clearly.  In her October 12 column for the Wall Street Journal editorial page (2001), Noonan announces that “men are back.”  Because of “feminists . . . peaceniks, leftists, intellectuals, [and] others,” the John Wayne version of U. S. masculinity she valorizes had been “killed” and left amidst the “rubble of the last quarter century.”  That is until the September 11 tragedies came along to resurrect it.  “A certain kind of man,” she tells us, “came forth to get our great country out of the fix it was in.”  This certain kind of man resides in the U. S. ideological and cultural imagination of what masculinity ought to be, what Noonan describes as: “men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe.  Men who are welders, who do construction, men who are cops and firemen.”  Noonan, though transparent in her conservatism, has tapped an important well of understanding about the reaction to the terrorist atrocities.  In this ideology, U. S. masculinity was attacked (and wounded), and therefore it must be rebuilt, reasserted; U. S. masculinity must come to the United States’ rescue.  Part of this rebuilding has come through media images and representations.


These images of the September tragedies and their aftermath will haunt many who saw them for years to come.  Just as the scenes of planes hitting the World Trade Center and the eventual collapse of both towers burn in the memory, so too do the (now) iconic photographs of firefighters draped in their dark, heavy coats and gear, covered in grime.  So too do the photographs of flags, tearful memorials, and fatigue-clad soldiers.  So too do the steady flow of photographs and film of world and city leaders, terrorists, and pundits of every ilk.  The gender of the subjects stands as the common denominator for much of the barrage of images.  What viewers mainly have seen of the September 11 attacks and aftermath are images of men and masculinity--not men in moments of defeat, but in moments of virtue.  The billboards tout “courage” rather than loss.


Such rearticulation of masculinity in media images should give us pause, for the images are not accidental, apolitical, or inconsequential, not pictures that flash by with no lasting effect.  The things that children (even adults) see and hear do matter, and this is why educators have a role to play.  Both Vygotsky (1978) and Bakhtin (1981; 1986) suggest that children take symbols (language, images, actions) from the social world of adults around them to build what Vygotsky calls “higher psychological functions” (p. 46).  Children may use the pictures that appear on television, in magazines, and even on billboards in the course of their psychological development (including gender).  In short, children use such images to construct notions of what men and women should be or do.  While theorists such as Paul Willis (1977) and Anne Haas Dyson (1997) remind us that children are able to resist the allures of popular culture, often reshaping the symbols of popular media to fit the children’s own social goals, other theorists posit that images have power on their own.  For example, Erving Goffman (1976), one of the first to connect advertising to the maintenance of the gender order, illustrates the ways in which repetition of arrangements, expressions, and poses in photographs transmit powerful information about what a culture thinks gender means and about how to perform gender.  Those who have analyzed the messages women get about body image and weight from advertising (e.g., Bordo, 1993; Kilbourne & Jhally, 2000; Pipher, 1994) would also certainly argue that gender and its expectations are learned (at least in part) through media images.


Thus, the many depictions of men surrounding the September 11 terrorism have the potential to teach all of us about a certain raced and classed image of men and masculinity (and, often indirectly, about women and femininity).  What we will learn (or should learn) about gender from examining images of September 11, however, no one can easily predict.  Rather, educators at every level have a unique opportunity to use the images of terror and responses to it to teach students about men and masculinity in a way that might challenge traditional notions of gender and instill critical media skills in their students.  As Henry Giroux (2001) argues in his recent article on educators’ roles in teaching about September 11, there exists a need for educators to use their classrooms not only to help students think critically about the world around them but also to offer a sanctuary and forum where they can address their fears, anger, and concerns about the events of September 11 and how it affected their lives.  He states that:


[T]he events…provide educators with a crucial opportunity to reclaim schools as democratic public spheres in which students can engage in dialogue and critique around the meaning of democratic values, the relationship between learning and civic engagement, and the connection between schooling, what it means to be a critical citizen, and the responsibilities one has to the larger world. (“Unity, Civil Liberties, and Patriotism” section, paragraph 1)


I would add that gender (and race, class, sexuality, and religion) has a central role to play in the analysis of the events of September 11 and the images produced from them.  Though schools’ ability to create a new social order has long been contested (after Counts, 1932/1978), educators, at a minimum, have the ability to ask students to critically consider images and texts, possibly interrupting the status quo of (gendered, raced, and classed) representation and instilling in students the skills necessary to resist, or at least to make informed choices.


I must add an important caveat here, however.  A number of public schools, in the wake of September 11, have taken the opportunities for reflection on the tragedies to (re)enforce patriotism, while others have had patriotism forced upon them.  The school board for metropolitan schools in Madison, Wisconsin, as an example, drew criticism from all over the country when, shortly after the attacks, they decided not to enforce a new Wisconsin law requiring a daily show of patriotism (particularly the Pledge of Allegiance).  The board’s valid concern for rights of freedom of speech and religion, as well as concerns that students who chose to exercise these rights by not reciting the Pledge would be physically endangered, seemed irrelevant to the majority of those protesting the board’s decision.  Many individuals unhappy with the decision even made death threats and racist invectives against members of the board (a validation of the fears for student safety).  Those charged with making the “unpatriotic” decision to protect students from the potential risks were also made the targets of a recall attempt (similar to impeachment) which eventually failed.  This incident should serve as a reminder that the avenues of discussion opened by the events of September 11 can lead just as easily to regressive, racist-nativist ends as they can to progressive democracy building.  In the media and societal rush to allay the fears of the dominant groups of U. S. society, the pains of those who are “Other” (from racial profiling or assaults or incarceration) are pushed from view.  As I turn to an examination of masculinity, it is crucial to focus on the ways in which rearticulating white U.S. manhood contributes to the “Othering” of certain gender, class, sexual, and racial groups, and, in turn, how it hides the violent outcomes of this marginalizing.


Images of Masculinities and September 11, 2001


Taken as a whole, the iterations of masculinity presented (created?) in the aftermath of September 11 hold contradictory messages about gender, some positive and many negative.  In order to suggest topics educators might raise about masculinity with their students, I first want to read some of the presented versions of masculinity, speculating on the ramifications that such versions might have on the cultural imagination.  Finally, I want to suggest the opportunities (indeed, the responsibilities) for educators to respond to, interrupt, and shape the messages about men and masculinity that students see.


Viewers have seen many types of masculinity in the wake of the tragedies.  Really, though, in such close proximity to the events (at the time of this writing), one might more productively refer to masculine traits rather than unitary, coherent typologies.   Supposing a discernable “wholeness” to the stream of images, text, and talk would be rather premature (though I argue that these traits eventually will take coherence within the struggle for hegemony between masculinities [Connell, 1995]).  Nevertheless, certain traits valorized in the wake of September 11 have taken on a masculine valence (not limited to men, but seen as masculine).  There are contradictions and resistant readings, of course, but the dominant readings as presented are decidedly masculine. In the sections that follow, I describe some of these more visible masculine traits found in the media coverage generally.


The Good, the Bad, and the Creation of Terror


Some of these purportedly “masculine” traits arguably could count as positive, that is socially beneficial.  Self-sacrifice, for instance, seems to be the trait valued above all in the frequent talk of the “heroes” of September 11.  Those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 frequently receive the honor “heroes.”  More often revered, though, have been the police and firefighters who, in efforts to save others, sacrificed their own lives when the buildings in New York collapsed.  Also, those who have sacrificed time with their families and risked life and limb sifting through the wreckage or in military missions overseas have received the appellation “hero.” Thus, a second, closely aligned trait with self-sacrifice has been the valorization of risk-taking.  Both self-sacrifice and risk-taking have long been associated with traditional, hegemonic forms of masculinity in the Western world (closely tied to the chivalric code).  That the media and the public revere these traits again in a time of crisis should elicit little surprise.  Those who risked their lives to assist others, like those who helped the disabled down the stairwells in the World Trade Center, represent the potential good in the masculine.  Such traits are not always good, however, for self-sacrifice and risk-taking behaviors are often responsible for the many injuries and deaths that men and boys suffer (see, for example, Sadker & Sadker, 1994, chapter 8).  A useful distinction can thus be made between risk-taking of a noble variety (helping others) and destructive risk-taking (driving fast, abusing drugs, or having unprotected sex). 


Another potentially positive image of masculinity in the wake of the terrorist attacks has been the relatively free expression of men.  From the “man” on the street, to the firefighters at ground zero, to the President of the U. S., men have shown expressions of deep emotion (sadness, fear, and depression) rather unabashedly.  Stoicism in the face of emotional situations, one of the stereotypical “problems” of masculinity, has, for a brief period, taken a back seat.  On the other hand, anger—the emotion most available to men—has also reared its head.  This surge of anger should arouse concern because, in the minds of the military or politicians, anger can be dangerous.  Military campaigns can be the instruments of revenge, and economic policies can be the weapons of vengeance.  We might also productively ask what emotions—such as empathy for peoples of the Middle East or deep anger at the United States government from its own citizens—are missing, left out of the discourse.


With these mainly positive masculine traits have also come problematic images of masculinity and masculine traits.  The most obvious of these problematic images has been the use of destruction and violence by men.  First, and most heinous, was the destruction at the World Trade Center and Pentagon by terrorist organizations run (almost exclusively, as far as we know) by men.  The faces of terror have thus been men’s faces.  The United States confronted masculine violence before September, but a new and unique opportunity to explore males’ use of violence to solve (or create) problems has presented itself.  Scholars of masculinity, such as Anne McClintock (2002), have begun to ask questions about the relationship between masculinity and terrorism, asking what in the lives and minds of men could drive them to such extraordinary measures to redress grievances or exact revenge.  For McClintock, much of the answer lies in the “wounded” masculinity present around the world.


McClintock has indexed, in essence, the worldwide phenomenon of what others have called a “crisis of masculinity.”  While the uses of the term have varied, “crisis of masculinity” generally refers to perceptions (sometimes moral panics) that men in a culture are acting in harmful ways (to themselves or others) due to conditions in the culture, economy, or politics that prevent them from fulfilling a “traditional” (culturally specific) hegemonic masculine role. As an example, Susan Faludi in her recent book Stiffed (1999) describes a crisis of masculinity in the United States in which “broken promises” (promises of patriarchal dividends, secure futures, and civic roles) have created a masculine culture of lashing out, resulting in a rise in both domestic and public violence.  More relevant to September 11, Michael Kimmel (2002), though not using the term “crisis masculinity,” suggests that terrorism stems from perceptions of economic disenfranchisement and threats to masculine “birth rights,” particularly within extremist groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and white supremacy groups in the United States. Kimmel uses the example of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.  While the cultural and economic contexts of countries producing terrorism (including the United States) are very different from one another, some of the same processes of “crisis masculinity” apply; indeed, all masculinities—because they compete for hegemony against femininities and other masculinities—always tend toward crisis (Connell, 1995).  Each context may involve different configurations of this process, but crisis masculinity across the globe has fed on (mostly young) men being excluded from local economies, being faced with doing worse than the previous generation, being denied “full, waged citizenship in the nation-state,” and being deskilled and displaced by the feminization of post-Fordist labor (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2000, p. 307). While economics has an important role, cultural and political conditions have also likely played a part in the production of terrorist masculinity, particularly the incursions of the United States’ (and other countries’) military and culture through processes of globalization and neo-imperialism.  The combinations of poverty and domination by foreign actors mixed with masculinist forms of religion and nationalism provide fertile ground to begin studying the genesis of terrorism, but this largely remains to be done.


The Masculine State


Related to solving problems with violence rather than with other approaches is the policy of no-negotiation and wild-west justice discourse from the U.S. executive branch.  While the merits of such an approach are debatable, one could hardly deny the particularly masculine character of this tack.  The President has thoroughly established a cowboy persona for himself through his twang, his western dress while on vacations, his oft-stated love for his ranch, and his frequent use of western idioms.  His responses to the tragedies have included more of the same.  Gunslinger catchphrases like “dead or alive” and refusals to conduct diplomacy with a sovereign state under threat of war are examples of particularly masculine posturing.  Violence before discussion (whether right or wrong in this particular case) certainly fits the pattern of hegemonic masculinity in the Western world, typified by the rugged men of the John Wayne western--the epitome, according to people like Peggy Noonan, of U. S. masculinity.  In this trope, a man gives an order and it is followed or else.  These tactics pose a problem, however, when social actors construe them as the only (or best) way to handle conflict.  Even more dangerous, such approaches gain new legitimacy, both domestically and abroad, when they become sedimented as official state policy, touted from the highest levels of government.  The broad expansion of police incursions on civil rights in the United States as well as other countries’ state-sponsored atrocities under the (now safe) guise of managing terrorism are fed on the legitimacy of this discourse.


Perhaps inspired in part by calls from leaders and pundits for vigilante “justice” overseas and “justifiable” racial profiling domestically, many bigots in the U. S. have perpetrated unconscionable verbal and physical assaults against people in Muslim dress or with dark skin (often without concern for their racial or ethnic background).  The majority (but certainly not all) of these incidents have involved men’s violence toward other men.  That mainly men have committed such mayhem should come as little surprise given two conditions: the climate encouraging acting before thinking or discussing and the tendency of men, as mentioned above, to channel intense emotional experiences through anger and its sure outlet, violence.  Perhaps, too, many of the attacks on persons of color (particularly those of Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Indian sub-continent, and Sub-Saharan African descent) were a release of racism and aggression that already existed.  September 11, for some, may have simply been an excuse to act on existing hatred.  Masculinity unavoidably comes to the fore of these attacks, for such racial violence has a long, male-dominated history in the United States as expressed, for example, in the Ku Klux Klan). 


Absent Presences and the (E)Race-ing of September 11


Manly posturing of the sort conducted by the United States executive branch, by itself, cannot accomplish the reinvention of United States manhood.  The construction of gender (and race and class and any other subjectivity) occurs relationally.  That is, masculinity and whiteness and heterosexuality and “middle-classness” must be defined as not what their opposites are: feminine, black or brown, homosexual, or working class.  Often such subjectivity creation by negation—what Greg Dimitriadis and Cameron McCarthy (2001), after Nietzsche, call “ressentiment”—is shown explicitly and publicly, but just as (if not more) often these identities are created by making “Others” invisible.


Crucial to the rearticulation of masculinity, particularly, in the media coverage of September 11 and its fallout has been the eliding of the contributions of and effects on women.  One could watch coverage of the events and reasonably conclude that men are the only ones involved. The wound to U.S. national manhood seemingly must be mended through a rearticulation of stereotypical masculinity, evident in the constant (nearly exclusive) focus on the deeds and opinions of men. One rebuilds masculinity, it seems, by showing men in control, victorious over adversity.  Let us not forget, though, that white, middle- and upper-class men, their actions and their concerns, have long dominated most news coverage anyway.  This problem, though, has been exacerbated by the terrorist attacks.  As just one example, the White House Project (2001), a nonpartisan women’s group that tracks media representation, showed that, while women were outnumbered nine to one by men as guests and experts on Sunday morning political talk shows (e.g., Meet the Press on NBC) before September 11, after the tragedies the number of women actually decreased by an astounding thirty-nine percent.  The further elision of women has potentially severe consequences.  Women have suffered greatly in this tragedy.  Women have been killed, have lost loved ones, and have played and will play crucial roles in digging out at ground zero, in aiding the injured and grieving, in developing and implementing policy and law, in fighting and otherwise serving in the military overseas, and in living for and encouraging peace.  To this point, though, the media has hidden these many contributions amidst a slew of images of men.  Where, for example, has the public heard “heroes and heroines” rather than just “heroes”?  One could conceivably argue that “hero,” after years of feminist interruption of sexism in language, may have taken on a gender-neutral meaning.  More likely, though, in the context of almost exclusive attention to men, the lack of the word “heroine” in the media really signals that women are not in consideration.  While some might point to the demographics of the police and fire departments and the military to argue that the representation of women amongst “heroes” has been fair, this ignores that these organizations (historically and presently) have been openly hostile to the entrance of women (Diamond, Kimmel, & Schroeder, 2000; Kimmel, 2001).  Women’s absence, then, is not obvious or natural.  Not only is the elision of the contributions of women intensely disrespectful, but also it robs everyone involved of alternate perspectives and sources of knowledge they could productively use to solve problems and create peace.  The many contributions of women must be recovered and publicized, and the (diverse) perspectives of women (just as those of persons of color) must be applied in the reconstituting of democratic discourse if it is to be based on social justice (a point I return to below).


Race, too, in certain ways has been rendered invisible in the post-September 11 media coverage and discourse.  While race has been highly visible within the context of violence, as a central category in coverage of the subjects of terror and the objects of assaults and profiling, there has been a marked “whitewashing” of the representations of heroes and stakeholders.  From television “news magazines” to newspaper articles, from documentaries to radio broadcasts, the vast majority of images of “heroes” (particularly firefighters, police, and soldiers) have depicted white men.  Most of the politicians in the public eye, too, have been white men.  Again, it is important to note that this is not a break from pre-September 11 coverage, but this has important implications both for who has voice in our response to terrorism and for the shape that the United States’ collective memory will take.  To illustrate, take the controversy over the proposed statue to reside outside of the Fire Department of New York’s Brooklyn headquarters (see Associated Press, 2002).  The statue is based on the now-famous photograph taken by Tom Franklin of The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey in which three firefighters raised a United States flag on top of a heap of World Trade Center rubble (reminiscent of the photograph of World War Two soldiers on Iwo Jima raising a U. S. flag).  Controversial, though, has been the decision to alter the racial features of the firefighters in the photograph; the three men in the photograph are all white, whereas the statue depicts one white, one black, and one “Hispanic.”  Charges of “political correctness” run amok have circulated amongst some white members of the fire department and their families, who say that the planners and sculptor are erasing “history” by altering the photograph.  Rather than being an issue of “history” or “reality” or “political correctness,” though, the fight over the statue has become a struggle for the symbolic, a telling reminder of the culture wars’ tensions on both sides: for whites who feel their history and standing is under attack and for African-Americans and Latinas/Latinos whose contributions are (once again) being ignored.  This is no less than a fight over what will constitute collective memory about September 11, its heroes, heroines, and victims.


Most apparent in the invisibility of persons of color from the discourse of heroes is the intense disrespect for the sacrifice these men and women have made.  Racial “erasure,” though, has implications beyond unacknowledged sacrifice.  Seemingly, part of the post-September 11 project of rearticulating masculinity is also rebuilding whiteness, a coupling Toni Morrison (1992) calls, in literature, the creation of “the new white man,” a (narrowly) raced and gendered symbol of national character and identity.  As the United States and its citizens, in terror’s wake, struggle to redefine (both in discourse and in policy) some of the most basic concepts of our democracy—“democracy” itself, “civil rights,” “acceptable risk,” “justice,” “sacrifice,” and “responsibility”—being visible as “stakeholders” becomes an urgent need.  As Michael Eric Dyson (in his interview in Chennault, 1998) argues, the original expansion of the United States’ culture and its state was predicated on the exploitation of blacks and women and, importantly, the invisibility of this exploitation.  Whiteness thus, because it was unchallenged in public discourse, became intimately tied to the United States’ definition of democracy; it became a “foundational myth” (p. 301).  Great danger of this reoccurring lies ahead.  The invisibility of certain races within media discourse on the terrorist attacks and their aftermaths (in ways other than as terrorists or assault victims) makes it harder to place racial justice centrally within the reconstruction of a democracy shaped in response to the “new world” of September 12 and beyond.  Of critical importance, then, is making visible the many contributions, sacrifices, and promises of persons of color to the reengineering of the United States and its democracy.  As the struggles over representation in the firefighter statue attest, however, such a fight to re-center race will not be easy or apolitical, tied up as it is in relations of identity and power.


Similar to the elision of women and race, the rearticulation of post-September 11 masculinity has caused a flattening of class dynamics, as well.  This has been accomplished through images of men and masculinity, particularly through a reverence for a heroic working-class masculinity.  Paul Willis analyses a similar dynamic in his famous ethnography, Learning to Labor (1977), in which “the Lads” assert a reverence for manual labor (in contrast to mental labor) in order to assert a specifically masculine identity.  This masculine ethos ultimately, though, masks many of the negative consequences of working-class manual labor for Willis’ “Lads.”  In the present context of terrorism, the masculine, heroic mystique of the firefighters and those digging out the ruins of the World Trade Center (and soldiers in some respects) has thus far similarly masked class dynamics and the poor conditions in which these (mostly) men labored before September and in which they continue to labor.  Poor equipment, long hours, scant benefits, low pay, and health hazards have been a continual source of conflict for many years in firehouses and police divisions, and many of these complaints have been leveled during the post-attack high visibility of public safety workers (though few mainstream media sources have given such protest much attention).  So far, the media attention on firefighters has not translated into much more than valorization. Alongside the redefining of the United States civil sphere and democratic contract, the U. S. has before it an opportunity to reexamine class dynamics, labor conditions for the working class, and the middle-class tendency to give praise but not funding to those who serve the public interest (something teachers will recognize in their own profession).  Part of seizing this opportunity to re-center the concerns of the working class (just as for women and people of color) is a great need to make the invisible visible again, to publicize the conditions and contributions of the working class.  Educators have an important role to play in these projects.


Issues of Teaching About Masculinity After September 11


Giving a step by step design (or lesson plans) for how to teach about masculinity and September 11 is beyond the scope of this article.  A number of other resources are available to help with teaching critically about September 11 and terrorism. The above analysis does, however, provide educators with useful starting places as they begin discussion of September 11 and its coverage.  In this section I suggest a number of points that teachers, specifically, might consider.


First, and perhaps most central, there is great need to begin examining not only what is missing from the discourse, but also to examine what is there—not to participate in centering it, but to trouble its centrality.  The most pressing task is making the invisible—that is, masculinity and whiteness—opaque.  Much of the pedagogically-oriented writing on September 11, 2001 has been focused (quite appropriately) on what we are not seeing, such as civilian deaths in Afghanistan, criticisms of the United States’ executive branch, or the indefinite detention of hundreds of innocent persons for “questioning.”  My own analysis has pointed to some of the absences in the coverage, as well, specifically women’s issues, race, and class.  As I have also argued, though, these absences are the direct result of presences, specifically of (white) men and masculinity, the result of an attempt to rearticulate a masculinity that will triumph over terror.  Thus, examining the presences of the images placed before us can be a productive way to understand the events of September 11.


At a minimum, teachers can explore the myriad ways in which masculinity has been placed front and center in the swirl of images after the tragedies.  From the exclusive portrayal of men as heroes to the use of masculine posturing from politicians, from crisis masculinity as a catalyst of terrorism to racist and nationalist forms of masculinity involved in assaults on persons of color, the possibilities of examining the masculine “center” and its relation to the feminine and non-white “margins” are many.  Doing so can provide insight into the ways certain groups are excluded by the (unseen) centering of dominant groups and into the implications of this process.


Such examination of masculinity is fundamentally a critical media/critical literacy project.  Each new image and story on television and in newspapers provides an opportunity to trouble the center and to “bring in” the margins.  Using methods of critical pedagogy (e.g., Morgan, 1997; Shor, 1992), educators can help students “read” the masculinity (and race, etc.) of the images and stories coming from the media about terrorism, the attacks, and U.S. history and foreign policy.  Ultimately, the task becomes identifying, developing, and extending the positive attributes of masculinity (and femininity) found in the press while mediating and interrupting the negative aspects.


Admittedly, educators have many lenses through which they, along with their students, might critically examine the many stories and pictures of terrorism, its antecedents, and its outcomes.  I am not advocating a curriculum that focuses solely on masculinity and men.  Masculinity is but one topic among many on which educators can productively pursue to attempt to make sense of the tragedies of September 11.  The imperative to continue teaching discipline-specific skills and content has not gone away (and will not), but these can be taught simultaneously with issues of gender.  By leading discussions of images and events from September 11 and after as masculine, teachers can have students reflect on relations of gender, class, race, politics, sexuality, power, violence, representation, and even economics.  Masculinity stands as a kind of center of gravity for a constellation of issues related to terrorism and responses to terrorism, a springboard into other areas of inquiry.


Perhaps most important to any pedagogy concerned with the September 11 tragedies, educators must work hard to create a safe space (emotionally, intellectually, and physically) in which to discuss these issues.  Terrorism accesses difficult and often very personal themes.  Truly meaningful work cannot succeed in an environment in which students are scared to speak their minds or where diverse opinions are neglected, refused, or punished.  Much work within critical pedagogy might inform such a project.  Whiteness research, for example, has much advice to offer on creating the right atmosphere for discussing sensitive topics (e.g., Kincheloe, Steinberg, Rodriguez & Chennault, 1998).  Feminist research, too, has given particular thought to the creation of environments conducive to transformative work (e.g., Lather, 1991; Scering, 1997).  Particularly relevant for the discussion of masculinity, U. S. teachers might draw upon international research on pedagogy specifically targeted to boys for advice on creating safe spaces and broaching the subject of masculinity (e.g., Denborough, 1996; Jackson & Salisbury, 1996; Salisbury & Jackson, 1996).


Masculinity, as a topic of discussion, can be daunting and inchoate, with many definitions and many contradictions.  As a relatively young field, research on masculinity may be unfamiliar to many educators.  More fundamentally, masculinity and its operations (like whiteness) have been intentionally hidden from scrutiny so as not to invite challenge to patriarchal privileges (e.g. see Kimmel, 1996).  This can make masculinity a difficult subject for teachers to discuss, for expertise is difficult to come by in this topic.  Resources are available to help, though.  In addition to work cited in this article, “The Men’s Bibliography” by Michael Flood provides an exemplary source of readings—from the scholarly to the popular—on men, boys, and masculinity.  Particularly helpful, Flood has categorized these resources for easy searching by topic.  I should stress, though, that it is not necessary to do massive amounts of background reading in order to approach the subject of masculinity.  Given the importance and urgency of the topic, trust in one’s self and one’s students, along with a willingness to experiment, are a good place to start.  Expertise and comfort will develop from experience talking about these complex matters.


Concluding Remarks


In many ways, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a crushing defeat for the United States.  Despite the strength, resolve, and military successes that have followed the events, the bruise to the United States, its people, and its national manhood may never completely heal.  The attempts to deal with the tragedy, I argue, have centered thus far on reclaiming United States manhood through a return to stereotypical, John Wayne versions of masculinity.  Such rearticulations, while they may give some amount of pride and hope in difficult times, are not, I submit, enough to fix current problems or to prevent future attacks.  Instead, such tendencies merely put off (in the true masculine tradition) dealing with the realities of (at least temporary) defeat.  Educators of every kind have a tremendous opportunity to help all of us not only deal with the problems of terrorism, but also to tackle the other great social ills and inequalities that terrorism has highlighted.  I encourage all educators to seize this opportunity.

* Author’s Note:  Michael Apple, Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, and Bekisizwe Ndimande were instrumental in helping me think through my arguments and in the revision of earlier drafts.  Thanks are due to Laura Garner for her comments.  Also, I owe a tremendous debt to Nadine Dolby and Nicholas Burbules for their insightful and helpful commentary on the essay.



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This billboard can be viewed on the Internet at the Foundation for a Better Life website http://www.forbetterlife.org/billboards.

I borrow this phrase from Dana Nelson’s (1998) book, National Manhood.  I use the phrase national manhood (and national masculinity) to mean the general population’s sense of the efficacy, power, and strength of their nation state.  Thus, national masculinity does not refer only to the males of a country, but to all citizens (male and female) and their nationalism.  Anne McClintock (personal communication, January 17, 2002) has made similar arguments about the etiology of terrorism lying, in part, in the wounded masculinity of men.

Such typologies have been a central trope of much of the academic research on masculinity.  See, for example, Connell (1995), Mac an Ghaill (1994), and Ferguson (2000).

Because images can be the carriers of ideology (e.g., Goffman, 1976; Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996), they are subject to the same struggles for hegemony as any other “text.”  Thus, few images are solely masculinist or completely non-masculinist.  Hegemony must compromise and sometimes include non-dominant representations in order to maintain its legitimacy.  This explains why, for example, a singular image of a female police officer might be present among many images of male firefighters and police officers.  Such singular representations of non-dominants, however, pose little challenge to the overwhelmingly masculinist valence created by the majority of the images.

The genesis of crisis masculinity becomes complicated when speaking of exclusion, and any analysis requires contextualizing.  In certain countries and regions, this “exclusion” is more perceived than “real,” particularly if we look at the crisis from a meso-economic level that accounts for the groups to which the men belong.  Thus, in the United States and elsewhere, a “crisis” of white middle-class men cannot be said to stem from broad cultural and economic “exclusion.” In fact, as I show in this essay, these men are in many ways culturally “centered.”  Still, in other areas of the world, particularly “developing” regions, crisis masculinity can grow in powerful ways from “true” exclusion.

Kathleen Blee’s (1991, 2002) work demonstrates that women, in large numbers, also take part in organized hate movements like the Ku Klux Klan.  Her argument, though, is that women, rather than dominating the movement, used membership instrumentally (to escape domestic violence) or were in certain ways less committed to the cause than the men they joined with.  In short, men were still in dominant roles despite the large numbers of women.

Lesson plans dealing with the tragedies are available from many sources online.  Of particular interest are The New York Times’ lesson plans archive (search for “September 11” at http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/lessons/archive.html), a special September 11 section on the Teaching Tolerance website (http://www.tolerance.org/teach/current/event.jsp?cid=262), and resources related to the attacks from Rethinking Schools (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/


The Media Education Foundation (http://www.mediaed.org/) provides a number of video and audio clips of prominent progressive voices of dissent speaking on the events of September 11.  Educators may find these useful to present students with alternative perspectives from the mainstream media coverage

This source of readings can be found at http://www .anu.edu.au/~a112465/mensbiblio/mensbibliomenu.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 12, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11012, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:08:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Marcus Weaver-Hightower
    University of North Dakota
    E-mail Author
    MARCUS WEAVER HIGHTOWER teaches in the Department of Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a former English teacher at Goose Creek High School in South Carolina. His research centers on gender and education, particularly masculinity’s impact on schooling and policy. He is currently conducting research on Australia’s federal policy on boys’ education. Weaver-Hightower is the author of "The 'Boy Turn' in Research on Gender and Education" in Review of Educational Research and “The Gender of Terror and Heroes? What Educators Might Teach About Men and Masculinity After September 11, 2001.”
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