Introduction to Conflicting Masculinities and Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 4

Conflicting Masculinities and Science Fiction

Introduction to Conflicting Masculinities and Science Fiction

Michael Pitts

This special issue on masculinity and science fiction is in many ways timely. Current popular discourse surrounding sex, sexuality, and gender frequently hits upon the ongoing so-called crisis of masculinity. Every segment of society is plagued with heated discussions surrounding the future and validity of contrasting masculinities. In global politics there has been a return of the “strong man” persona as authoritarian leaders utilize patriarchal gender scripts to appeal to their voter bases. Online social platforms capitalize upon the supposed crisis, funneling aimless young men into ever more dangerous corners of the internet where pick-up artists offer their male listeners misogynistic strategies for seducing women, and other groups such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) and Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) foment anger into real social and political action. From this side of the aisle arise accusations of anti-male bias in contemporary society. Men, it is argued, face historical levels of criticism simply for behaving “like men.”

Yet, there is a simultaneous, opposing push to broaden the borders of masculinity and disrupt traditional conceptualizations of gender. Such efforts are bolstered by sociological accounts of the crisis as one resulting not from some lost essence of masculinity but rather from patriarchal entitlement. Dan Cassino and Yasemin Besen-Cassino note the centrality of male aggrievement to the crisis, which they define as “the tension between how men view their own roles at home, at work, and in society, and the reality of a society in which their privilege is being reduced. Men still enjoy a lot of advantages in our society, but those advantages—especially for white men in working-class jobs—are not as great as they used to be” (1). The crisis of masculinity is, therefore, not a legitimate response to supposedly anti-male societies but rather a dispute over how men must approach gender in a changing world. As the social advantages afforded men dwindle, they face the options of either reevaluating their beliefs concerning gender or of fortifying and intensifying their original, patriarchal conceptions of masculinity. The study of masculinity is therefore vitally important to this particular moment in history since as a discipline it provides tools and avenues for men to recognize the ideological underpinnings and real-world repercussions of their gender performances and it grants them, through the rethinking of gender, a new, better way to express and fully realize their identities.

This rethinking of gender incorporates the theoretical apparatuses established since the inception of masculinity studies as an organized subset of feminist theory in the 1990s. Originating in the 1970s in opposition to the anti-feminist men’s right movement, critical men’s studies initially focused predominantly upon normative masculine gender identities in the United States and Europe. Such approaches were problematic in the way they overlooked important factors such as race and sexuality and did not analyze the experiences of men marginalized according to these and other non-normative identity elements. What followed in the 1990s was the introduction of complexity and nuance to the burgeoning field. Notable texts such as Raewyn Connell’s Masculinities (1995), for example, consider the connection of cultures and masculinity, tracing links between patriarchal gender identities and a greater system of power or gender order. Recent scholars build upon Connell’s efforts to trace such pivotal connections between masculinity and power. Todd Reeser, for example, theorizes about the gendered nation, which normalizes particular, often patriarchal, gender identities to preserve its current networks of power. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Evelyn Nakano Glenn, broadening the scope of this analysis, illuminate how white men in North America and Europe buttress social constructs that work to legitimize their power over, among other groups, nonwhite and economically disadvantaged men. Building upon this scholarship, the scholars contributing to this symposium apply the sociological apparatus developed within masculinity studies to SF narratives in order to determine how these texts work to either normalize or challenge disparate masculine gender identities.

Such an application of masculinity studies to literary analysis is ideally suited to SF, a genre that enables the imagining of new societies, human interactions, and identities and which is therefore uniquely equipped to critique and rethink gender. In the introduction of Gender and Environment in Science Fiction (2018), Bridgitte Barclay and Christy Tidwell note this suitability of SF texts for gender readings since such “texts often ask questions such as where is nature, what is natural, and who is equated with nature” (ix). SF is certainly capable of normalizing patriarchal gender norms. Since its inception, the genre has played host to the aforementioned crisis of masculinity. Fearing the loss of a mythologized, essentialized man, adherents to traditional ideals of manhood have contributed speculative works that attempt to stabilize essentialist, patriarchal views of manliness. Yet, SF may also call into question traditional, essentialist understandings of femininity and masculinity. Writers across the eras of SF have contributed diverse works united by their socially-situated, radical presentations of masculinity. The close analyses of gender in speculative texts making up this special issue of the SFRA Review illuminate how the genre enables writers to both normalize and in turn marginalize contrasting masculine gender identities.  

The suitability of the genre to host such conflicting views on masculinity is a recurring theme in my own research. In my examinations of golden age SF, I, for example, consider the super man character and his role as a central symbol of masculinity. I posit that such characters, empowered and emboldened by newfound or developed supernatural abilities, act both as idealized, hegemonically gendered figures and, in other, fewer narratives, as challengers of patriarchal masculinity. Such a divergence of masculinities illustrates once more how central the so-called crisis of masculinity has been to SF historically and the ways by which the genre acts as a battleground for opposing perspectives on gender. My research has likewise led me to the feminist utopias of the 1970s and 1980s and the alternative approaches these narratives take, essentialist or materialist, in framing masculine behavior. In Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction: A New Man (2021) I, for example, consider how integrationist feminist utopias rethink masculinity as part of the larger project of imagining the better society. What unites my own research and the work of the scholars making up this symposium on the conflicting masculinities of SF is our mutual interest in how the genre uniquely allows writers to comment upon the crisis of masculinity.   

This special issue seeks broadly then to understand how masculinity, presented as divorced entirely from or inextricably linked to biological sex, is negotiated in speculative fiction. Accordingly, the articles in this issue seek to complicate the history of science fiction and illuminate conflicts between its competing portrayals of masculinity. Brad Congdon, for example, traces important connections between the character of Conan in Robert E. Howard’s fiction and the racist nationalism prominent in eugenic thought of the time. As Congdon illustrates, Howard’s Conan narratives and specifically the protagonist’s gender performance acted as cultural tools by which patriarchal understandings of gender were disseminated and fortified. Similarly, R.B. Lemberg considers what Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Snail on the Slope (1965) reflects about Russian society and theories of masculinity in the mid-twentieth century. Through a careful analysis of four characters central to the novel, Lemberg considers the ways the novel presents their various traits, including complacency, determination, and absence, and models gendered behaviors specific to the Soviet era.

Similarly considering connections binding the nation and gender, Rachel Harrison examines separatist and integrationist feminist utopias of the 1970s and 1980s and the transformations of masculinity they present as central to the utopian project. Somasree Santra considers non-traditional portrayals of male characters, analyzing the protagonist of A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale (2001) as a transgressor of the traditional gender line. Through her examination of two contemporary novels, Sara Alegre Martín illustrates how SF as a genre uniquely enables writers to examine and critique traditionally masculine overcommitments to work and careers. Jordan Etherington, like Brad Congdon, examines patriarchal texts, three novels under the Warhammer 40K banner, possessing a mutually constitutive relationship to hegemonic masculinity. As Etherington explains, these novels, though presented as satirical, reinforce problematic notions of masculinity. Concluding the issue by shifting its focus onto military masculinities, Ezekiel Crago emphasizes the manner by which the recent television program The Expanse problematizes such gendered behavior, which stabilizes patriarchal networks of power.

Each of these contributions illustrates the instability of masculinity, which shifts across geographic space and time, responds to outside social and political pressures, and may act as a tool both of hegemony and subversion. As this scholarship emphasizes, the crisis of masculinity is hardly new. In reality, it has been a fixture of SF since its inception.

Michael Pitts is the Fiction Reviews Editor for SFRA Review. He is a lecturer at the University of New York in Prague.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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