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The Masculine Self (3rd Edition)

reviewed by Christopher Wilcox Elliott - June 27, 2007

coverTitle: The Masculine Self (3rd Edition)
Author(s): Christopher T. Kilmartin
Publisher: Price, Stern, and Sloan, Cornwall-on-Hudson
ISBN: 1597380059, Pages: 376, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

In his third edition of The Masculine Self, internationally-recognized Professor of Psychology, former stand-up comedian, and Fulbright Chair of Gender Studies, Christopher Kilmartin synthesizes three decades of burgeoning literature in Men’s Studies. In a field that casts across an increasingly interdisciplinary and complex landscape, this task has become considerably more challenging. The most successful attribute to this edition of The Masculine Self is its commitment to the interdisciplinarity of source materials. This work draws on Kilmartin’s expertise in clinical psychology and therefore includes a strong psychological foundation for the study of men and masculinities. Moreover, Kilmartin astutely draws from history, sociology, social psychology, anthropology, critical feminist theory, philosophy, cultural and ethnic studies, and the field of sexual violence prevention – all within the broad context of social scientific research – to carve out a descriptive scholarly terrain for the continually emerging field of men’s studies.         

Kilmartin’s objectives in writing the book are threefold: to introduce the audience to contemporary concepts of masculinity and gender, to shepherd male gender theory into mainstream discourse in psychology, and to summarize and organize the available research on men and masculinities across and between disciplines. Throughout The Masculine Self, Kilmartin illustrates the dynamic contemporary tension between essentialist (men are biologically predisposed to a certain behavioral repertoire) and social constructionist (men construct gendered meanings in relation to others) arguments in gender studies (p. 18). Kilmartin remains balanced in cataloguing both essentialist and social constructionist views, which is simultaneously admirable for a professor and aggravating for readers who would like Kilmartin to elucidate his own position in the debate.  

Kilmartin divides The Masculine Self into three parts: Frameworks of Understanding Men, Personality Theory and Male Development, and Men’s Issues. In Part I, Kilmartin distinguishes between biological categorizations of sex and behavioral, cognitive, or social categorizations of gender. He situates these constructs in systems of patriarchy, social power, and sexism, subtly demonstrating a critical feminist epistemological stance. Kilmartin carefully explores the origins and consequences of masculine gender roles with cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. He slices delicately through complex jargon to explain masculine gender roles in clear and concise terms, focusing intently on the power and function of these roles for both individuals and social groups. He then succinctly outlines a number of psychological tools used to measure gender role identity, from the earlier bipolar models used to describe (and consequently to reinforce) a gender binary to modern measures identifying gender role conflict and nonconformity.   

Kilmartin modified Part II, “Personality Theory and Male Development” (Ch. 3-7), most dramatically in both content and organization since the second edition in 2000. While deemphasizing psychoanalytic components to gender development and focusing more intently on socially based theoretical perspectives on males and gender, Kilmartin excavates a broader range of content from disciplines outside of his immediate areas of expertise. While the depth of this analysis sputters on occasion, particularly in connecting masculinity with social class (p. 115), the author clearly demonstrates an impressive breadth of analysis in a well-organized and accessible fashion.  

Chapters 5 and 6 (Masculinities I and II) present some of the more salient intersections of masculine identity with other social identities – race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and age. Kilmartin begins to disaggregate American ethnic groups as they intersect with masculine identity development, leaving the reader intrigued yet somewhat unsatisfied by the cursory glance at historical and empirical data. This topic represents one of the more vibrant conversations in contemporary Men’s Studies, invigorated by a recent proliferation of research around ethnic or racial identities as they intersect with gender identity. Additionally, Kilmartin spends considerable time explaining the problematic social construction of masculinity in both anti-feminine and homophobic terms. He describes a sociohistorical context for heteronormativity in the United States. Then he craftily situates the conflict in both intra- and interpersonal contexts as “homophobia functions to trap men into rigid gender roles and limit their friendships with other men” (p. 124). Kilmartin uses a wide sampling of research-driven theories to skillfully address possible origins and functions of homophobia as they intersect with masculine identity development. Another notable addition in this third edition is a brief acknowledgement of transgendered identities (p. 95), which this reviewer hopes will grow stronger in Kilmartin’s future work as research continues to emerge. While the titles of these two chapters appear uninspired at first glance (Masculinities I and II), it is important to note the shift from singular (masculinity, as used in preceding chapter titles and headings) to plural noun (masculinities), marking a similar ideological plurality. The author demonstrates a commitment to consider the variations of experiences among individuals and different groups of men in any given culture.  

Kilmartin commits a significant portion of the book to Part III: Men’s Issues, describing the origins and consequences of certain aspects of traditional masculinity while presenting alternatives and counter-stories for destructive or unhealthy aspects. Kilmartin identifies common themes, including emotion, physical health, work and careers, sexuality, violence, relationships, and mental health, which are each explored and synthesized in separate chapters of reviewed literature. The final chapter (Struggles and Changes) concisely articulates a number of (mostly ephemeral) men’s social movements over the last 35 years, followed by modern emergent themes in Men’s Studies research.  

Supplemented with boxes and figures that connect theoretical materials to practical applications, The Masculine Self encourages reflexive analysis while immersing the reader in theory, models, and data. The book flows nicely from differentiating introductory terms to distinguishing between biological and socially-based theory, then moves into identity development, a lengthy description of consequences of masculine identity, and concludes with men’s social movements. Though Kilmartin writes primarily for a student audience, his contributions are valuable for any scholar interested in an introductory interdisciplinary perspective on Men’s Studies. Kilmartin has stepped back into the conversation about the current landscape of American masculinities with The Masculine Self, vigorously waving a banner with two sides. One side faces the psychology community and proclaims that male gender theory requires our research attention. The other side of the banner faces the Men’s Studies community and advocates for psychological measurement of gendered identities. Kilmartin pushes his readers to encourage the development of masculine identities which break the “cycles of violence and self-destruction that have stood in place for centuries,” to engage authentically with individuals and communities, and to reconnect the “masculine self with the human self” (p. 309). Modern feminist scholars have legitimized the study of gender during the last 40 years by demonstrating that one’s gender affects virtually every aspect of one’s life. Kilmartin acknowledges this groundbreaking work and argues that Men’s Studies should also participate in that same conversation in order to understand how constructions of masculinity influence both individuals and societies.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 27, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14539, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:52:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Elliott
    University of Virginia
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER L. WILCOX ELLIOTT is the founder and director of the Menís Leadership Project (a community-based leadership development and mentoring program involving undergraduate men and elementary school boys) in conjunction with the Curry School of Education, the Womenís Center, and the Office of the Dean of Students at the University of Virginia.
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