On Monday, Feb. 26, Common Hour explored how anxiety can be triggered by a sense of loss in masculinity. The session was presented by Dr. Wendell Smith, Associate Professor of Spanish at Wilson, and was based on his research inspired by the play El Medico y su Honra and the book Anxious Masculinity in Modern England by Mark Breitenberg.
Professor Smith’s presentation covered the recurring fear concerning lost masculinity in male society that has lasted throughout history. This typically happened around times of crisis regarding the order in society and changes to social norms. Smith found that manhood was based on an ideal of vulnerability as feminine and typically required constant proof and validation, making it difficult to earn, but easy to lose. He argued this fear often results in men seeking excess and risk-taking behavior to promote themselves and improve their status. In the modern U.S., Professor Smith cited a tendency to promote aggression, involvement in violent sports, and an avoidance of seeming gay. This aggression has tended to make men more supportive of inequality and laws that hurt women and gays.
Professor Smith was inspired to explore the subject from researching hypochondria and its connection to the play El Medico de su Honra. In the play, the main character Don Gutierre becomes worried his wife is having an affair and views it as an affront to his masculinity. This triggers anxiety and causes him to imagine himself suffering from severe ailments triggered by his loss of masculine honor.
Smith argued that this theme still resonates strongly today within certain populist movements such as the white power movement. He felt that this theme is often linked to nostalgia, where people look towards the past as an idealized time when everything was “perfect, adding”, “It is interesting to see it in the past where we think of men as more manly and women as more womanly.” This perception of a lost paradise helps to fuel anxiety about a man’s ability to live up to the ideals of masculinity, often in times of strong social change such as the rise of feminism.
One possible antidote Professor Smith found was in changing the comparison of manhood to that of boyhood instead of womanhood. He cited Denmark as an example of this sort of culture, where masculinity is based on maturing and taking on responsibility instead of projecting strength and concealing vulnerability. By redefining the terms of comparison, Smith argues that Danish men show less anxiety and aggression compared to their American counterparts because manhood is a natural part of growing up rather than an easily lost status.