Manliness and Violence: From Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination

“If women, subjected to a labour of socialization which tends to diminish and deny them, learn the negative virtues of self-denial, resignation and silence, men are also prisoners, and insidiously victims, of the dominant representation. … Being a man … implies an ought-to be … which imposes itself in the mode of self-evidence, the taken-for-granted. Like nobility, honour – which is inscribed in the body in the form of a set of seemingly natural dispositions, often visible in a particular way of sitting and standing, a tilt of the head, a bearing, a gait, bound up with a way of thinking and acting, an ethos, a belief, etc. – governs the man of honour, without the need for any external constraint. … This higher force, which may lead him to accept as inevitable or self-evident, that is, without deliberation or examination, actions which others would see as impossible or unthinkable, is the transcendence of the social that has been made body and which functions as an amor fati, love of destiny, the bodily inclination to realize an identity that has been constituted as a social essence and so transformed into a destiny.”

“Male privilege is also a trap … imposed on every man by the duty to assert his manliness in all circumstances.(“… The rush to produce Vigara, both in Europe and the United States, when it first appeared in early 1998, together with many writings by psychotherapists and doctors, shows that anxiety over the physical manifestations of ‘manliness’ is far from being an exotic peculiarity.) … Manliness, understood as sexual or social reproductive capacity, but also as the capacity to fight and to exercise violence (especially in acts of revenge), is first and foremost a duty. … Everything thus combines to make the impossible ideal of virility the source of an immense vulnerability  It is thus vulnerability which paradoxically leads to sometimes frantic investment in all the masculine games of violence, such as sports in modern societies, and most especially those which tend to produce the visible signs of masculinity,[Footnote 80; see bottom] and to manifest and also test what are called manly virtues, such as combat sports.[Footnote 81; see bottom]

Like honour … manliness must be validated by other men, in its reality as actual or potential violence, and certified by recognition of membership of the group of ‘real men’. A number of rites of institution, especially in educational or military milieux, include veritable tests of manliness oriented towards the reinforcement of male solidarity. Practices … stripped of all the devirilizing tenderness and gentleness of love, and they dramatically demonstrated the heteronomy of all affirmations of virility, their dependence on the judgement of the male group.

Some forms of ‘courage’ … – and which, particularly in the construction industry, for example, encourage or force men to flout safety measures and to deny or defy danger with reckless behaviour that leads to many accidents – spring, paradoxically, from the fear of losing the respect or admiration of the group, of ‘losing face’ in front of one’s ‘mates’ and being relegated to the typically female category of ‘wimps’, ‘girlies’, ‘fairies’ etc. What is called ‘courage’ is thus often rooted in a kind of cowardice: one has only to think of all the situations in which, to make men kill, torture or rape, the will to dominate, exploit or oppress has relied on the ‘manly’ fear of being excluded from the world of ‘men’ without weakness, those who are sometimes called ‘tough’ because they are tough on their own suffering and more especially on that of others – the assassins, torturers, and ‘hit men’ of all dictatorships and all ‘total institutions’, even the most ordinary ones, such as prisons, barracks or boarding schools – but also the new ‘hatchet men’ of modern management, glorified by neoliberal hagiography, who, themselves, often subject to ordeals of physical courage, manifest their virility by sacking their superfluous employees. Manliness, it can be seen, is an eminently relational notion, constructed in front of and for other men and against femininity, is a kind of fear of the female, firstly in oneself.” 


Bourdieu, Pierre. 2001. Masculine Domination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [From the section Manliness and violence, pp. 49-53. See Bourdieu’s footnotes below.]

Footnote 80: Cf. S. W. Fussell, Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Body Builder (New York: Poseidon, 1991), and L. Wacquant, ‘Why men desire muscles’, Body and Society, 1, no. 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 163-80. Loic Wacquant rightly stresses the ‘predicament of masculinity’ as revealed in body-building, a ‘passionate battle, as Barry Glassner calls it, against their own sense of vulnerability’, and the ‘multisided process through which the masculine lillusio . . . becomes progressively instilled and inscribed in a particular biological individual’ (pp. 171, 173).

Footnote 81: The construction of the traditional Jewish habitus in central Europe, in the late nineteenth century, can be seen as a kind of perfect inversion of the process of construction of the male habitus as described here: the explicit refusal of the cult of violence, even in its most ritualized forms, such as duelling or sport, led to a devaluing of physical exercises, especially the most violent ones, in favour of intellectual and spiritual exercises, favouring the development of gentle, ‘peaceful’ dispositions (confirmed by the rarity of rape and other crimes of violence) (cf. V. Karady, ‘Les juifs et la violence stalinienne’, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, no. 120 (Dec. 1997), pp. 3-31).

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