By Val Reynoso
Gail Bederman explicates in Manliness and Civilization how manhood and manliness has been defined historically throughout the decades and how the ideology of manhood ties into race, class and gender constructs and analyses.
Bederman argues that civilization is defined as discourse and that in the progressive era, discourse of civilization is shaped mostly by modern constructs of race and gender. Philosopher Michel Foucault stated that each society has certain discourse that is accepted and socialized as the truth, which relates to Bederman’s arguments seeing that constructs of race and gender have evolved with the times and people in those eras internalize them as the truth.
Manhood and womanhood are historical, ideological processes through which people are positioned and position themselves as a certain gender. Manhood is a continual dynamic process in which historical contradictions of what manhood is defined as being are hidden to conceal the fact that gender is dynamic and always changing. Bederman claims that in order to study the history of manhood, the historical ways different ideologies of manhood develop, change and combine must also be studied in order to be rendered as being true. Bederman also argues that manhood is the cultural process through which people are regarded as members of a preexisting social category, such as that of men.
Gender is also entrenched in a variety of institutions, ideas and common practices. Bederman’s analyses on constructs and intersections of race and gender deviate from non-analytical perspectives on race and gender seeing that people are socialized in patriarchy such that it is normalized as a default structure so people do not tend to give it much thought nor connect it to greater ideologies, such as evolving constructs of masculinity and white supremacy.
In addition, the American Museum of Natural History serves the purpose of displaying Western scientific research and education, and a dedication to Theodore Roosevelt; the museum is portrayed through the white man’s gaze of non-Western countries and people that European settlers colonized. The Western construct of manliness is characterized by Western clothing, whiteness, ownership of private property and an elevated socioeconomic status in capitalist society—as is emulated by Teddy Roosevelt, the figure of white supremacist, imperialist patriarchy. African men were portrayed as “boys” by the Westerners because they did not fit white constructs of manliness because of their race and because of their subjugation due to imperialism and white supremacy.
The African men were seen as “savages” and akin to the lions and other animals in the landscape in contrast to the “civilized white man.” At the facade of the building is a large, elevated statue of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse with a Native American and African man to each side of him below him. Teddy Roosevelt is depicted in Western-style equestrian apparel with sturdy shoes fit for riding a horse; this contrasts with the traditional clothing the Native man and African man are wearing—which are socialized as inferior to Western apparel because they are perceived as being characteristic of a primitive culture.
Roosevelt is descended from people who enslaved and colonized African and Native American lands and people, which fueled contemporary American capitalism in which white men like Roosevelt had possession of majority of private property. Along with Roosevelt’s capitalist ownership of assets, he has more wealth than his Native American and African male counterparts who have been historically socioeconomically deprived and exploited due to capitalism and imperialism for centuries; additionally, him being positioned as physically above the other two men is a metaphor for his elevated status in Western society.
When one enters the museum through the revolving doors, there are two dinosaur skeletons positioned in the middle, admissions at each corner, and four quotes by Teddy Roosevelt—two on the wall of the entrance door and the other on the wall leading towards the Akeley African Hall. Roosevelt’s quotes were on nature, manhood, youth and the state; the purpose of these quotes was to assert patriarchy, capitalism, and male hegemony particularly to younger white boys who have yet to transition to manhood.
The “civilized” nature of the Roosevelt quotes contrasts with the primordial dinosaur skeletons at the center which are reminiscent of a prehistoric time before white civilization came to be. The ceiling has multiple lights which illuminates the space well in contrast to the Akeley Hall which is dark. The darkness of the Akeley Hall alludes to the Western concept of Africa being the “Dark continent” which Westerners would then colonize and exploit for their gain.
At the entrance of the Akeley Hall was a colonialist mural on the walls portraying interactions between white settlers, African people, and African animals. South America is shown in the mural behind a construction site—which is an analogy for the construction of the “New World” that European settlers colonized. Furthermore, a significant part of the reason why Black men are historically perceived as inferior to white men is because of imperialism and capitalism, Black people, including men, were commodified as private property of whites and as means of capitalist exploitation at the hands of the slave masters.
The “effeminization of the Black man” was an assertion of white male dominance and white supremacy as well as the reinforcement of the patriarchal systems capitalism also birthed. Gender is not transhistorical, what constituted as manhood in the past is what defined men of that time even if those ideas do not fit the social constructs of manhood in contemporary societies. Given that patriarchy is hegemonic because everyone is exposed to it in all aspects of society due to mainstream media and the capitalist system, no man is exempt from the sexism and misogyny that socialized them, they perpetuate misogyny and patriarchy merely by existing.
The ways in which a man’s misogyny can manifest itself varies, as it can be behaviors that the man does not perceive as misogynistic but that stem from sexism in their subconscious, or they can be completely conscious of their male privilege and actively exercise oppressive behaviors towards women as a means of establishing power and male dominance.
This manifestation of patriarchy and misogyny is also white supremacist in nature when perpetuated by white men because of the racism that socialized them and that they also benefit from, whereas Black men do not benefit from racism. Moreover, after the Akeley Hall is an exhibit that features African and Middle Eastern people and their cultures in their precolonial societies. The room is situated below another floor with an open roof and the displays under huts meant to imitate those that precolonial Africans used to live in.
The fact that the room is below another floor illustrates how the “savage” people are inferior and hence physically below the “civilized” people walking down the halls above. The Africans and Middle Easterners were displayed as if they were artifacts along with the objects as opposed to real people—which is how the white settlers viewed them given that they enslaved and exploited them for capitalist profit and to feed the white man’s ego. The encounter between the Native Americans and the pilgrims was indicative of White Man’s Burden, in which the white settlers felt “burdened” by feeling the need to teach the “savages” their lifestyle and force them to assimilate to protestantism and Christianity. The exhibit went from the Akeley Hall to the exhibit featuring Teddy Roosevelt, it was designed to go from the “savage” to the “civilized” just like the settlers perceived it.
Val Reynoso is a Politics and Human Rights undergrad, journalist and Marxist-Leninist activist.