THE BUFFALO ARE GONE:
THE DECLINE OF THE MALE IMPERATIVE
In our modern age there is little that can be said about the issues or differences between the sexes that does not prompt controversy or debate. We are in the middle of a sex role revolution that is challenging and changing aspects of our lives which not very many years ago seemed timeless, permanently cast in either Genesis or genes. In this revolution we are dealing with patterns and practices, some of which have been entrenched through centuries, across cultures, and over continents. Human life everywhere and always has built around the relationship between the sexes. Any major change in these relationships thus impacts upon the central features of social structure.
Curiously, only during the past several decades have sociologists given more than passing attention to the topic of sex roles. Most of that attention has focused on the female role, while the male role has been relatively ignored. The result has been detrimental to an understanding of both roles.
Offered as a partial remedy, this paper looks at the male role and especially the prerogative of male superiority. To facilitate this examination, three conceptual typologies are utilized, those of sexual asymmetry, historical phase, and personal identity.
Sexual asymmetry, the ways in which the sexes differ, divides nicely into three categories: the biological, the instrumental, and the symbolic. These three asymmetries catalogue a number of observations about the human sexes which, in turn, are instructive in understanding the development of sex roles through the span of human evolution and history.
In all human populations there are consistent morphological, physiological, and demographic differences between the sexes. These are related to bisexual reproductive specialization, and include differences in chromosomes, hormones, reproductive physiology, anatomy and musculature, neurological functioning, patterns of growth and development, and rates of natality, morbidity and mortality.
All human societies recognize, institutionalize, and assign different behaviors to each of the two sexes in the form of sex or gender roles. These roles regulate activities and tasks as well as same-sex and cross-sex relationships. These differences appear in every institutional sphere including child rearing, kinship, subsistence, warfare, politics, religion, education, recreation, language, and display. These assignments are not required by biological asymmetry so much as they take advantage of it. Social labor is initially divided on the basis of sex roles in such a way as to effectively utilize the different biological capacities that each sex offers. As societies build on these divisions of labor these differences penetrate and color entire cultures.
Almost all societies evaluate the two sexes differently. And of the nearly universal number that do, within the public sphere males are always more highly valued than females and are superordinate to them. The extent of this differential evaluation may vary but its result is always to grant males greater power and privilege. This asymmetry builds on and influences the other two: As males are more highly valued, their instrumental activities are more highly valued and vice versa; access to these activities is then restricted on the basis of sex. It is important to bear in mind that symbolic asymmetry refers to the extensive political practices of human groups in evaluating the two sexes, and not to any scientific "truthfulness" of such evaluations.
These asymmetries can be described, in ascending order, as increasingly "artifactual." Biological asymmetry, to a very large extent, is given by nature out of an evolutionary inheritance. Instrumental asymmetry appears providential in accomplishing necessary and valued activities through a socially amplified division of labor. For example, on average males carry more muscle and females more fat; thus men can throw things farther and women can transport things farther. And so divisions of labor tend to embody these differences.
If there are reasonable accountings for the existence of biological and instrumental asymmetries, could there not also be an accounting for symbolic asymmetry? It is important to note that accounting for male "superiority" may not be the same as accounting for female "inferiority," so the question should read: Is there a reasonable explanation for the nearly universal practice of assigning to males and their activities higher social value? At least part of such an explanation would seem to reside in history.
Beginning with the emergence of the human species some million years ago, the sequential development of the three asymmetries was set in motion. The deeply rooted biological phase, in which biological asymmetries provided essential elements of survival and adaptation, formatively shaped the emergent cultural phase with its increasingly articulated instrumental asymmetries. These instrumental asymmetries, increasingly removed from immediate or practical necessities, in turn fostered the appearance of symbolic asymmetries as their rationale and justification. With the cumulative interaction of these asymmetries producing an ever-greater total effect, sex roles ultimately became institutionalized in highly elaborate and exaggerated forms.
It is in the industrial phase, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, that the sexual asymmetries, having been relatively stable and well ensconced for thousands of years, received renewed attention and elaboration. The industrial phase of the past two centuries represents a quantum change in the nature of human life, as momentous as the development of language or the domestication of animals. But the shift was much more abrupt and discontinuous. Prior to the industrial phase social change was slow enough that individuals, generations, even whole epochs or civilizations could be programmed with very explicit content. This "mechanical solidarity" of the cultural phase was invested with a relatively immutable ontology. The industrial revolution ruptured that constancy and altered it forever, not across eons or centuries of imperceptible change but between generations and with the brevity of years. Industrialization required a specialization and division of labor more pronounced, and faster, than ever before. What society now had to do was to shape its participants in terms of capacity rather than content. More exactly, society needed to expand its resources by shaping some of its members to the abstract level of capacity - open-ended adaptability, while circumscribing others to the concrete level of content - closed, stable conformity. Industrial societies accomplished this largely by further differentiations between their members, especially in terms of social class and sex.
The result of this qualitative change in the nature of specialization was the development of two increasingly distinctive "tools" of industrial culture: the male and female sex roles. The repression and sublimation dramatically described in Freud's Civilization and It's Discontents (and clearly echoed in Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) were the sophisticated mechanisms for shaping these roles, especially the open-ended capacity of the male role. And so the male role was honed into industrial culture's "instrumental tool" - its cutting edge, while the female role was assigned a supportive task as society's "nurturing tool" - its sustaining resource.
To shape either sex role required repression, a narrowing of alternatives, and an inhibiting socialization. When contrasted with its opposite (or other), neither role was fully whole or expansive. But there were differences in the construction of the two roles. The male role attended to more extrinsic qualities such as overt action and decisiveness; it focused more on power and the pragmatics of environmental manipulation. The female role attended to more intrinsic qualities such as emotional expressiveness and sensitivity to nuance; it focused more on refined dimensions of human life, on the culturally "higher" values of aesthetics and morals. The industrial phase also increases the separation of human activities into domestic and public spheres, with females often principally limited to the former, an increasingly "protected" enclave.
The full significance of the third and seemingly most arbitrary asymmetry, that of symbolic evaluation, now becomes evident. Two key factors established the value of the male role. First was tradition, the long cultural patterning which, out of an earlier history, had already given to the male role its precedence and domination. The second was priority, the need to solve problems in a certain sequence if the exponential increase in the material basis of society was to be successful. The male role, already more highly valued on the basis of size, strength, and energy, and the social tasks which were its ancient birthright, warranted an even greater ascendancy in return for these newly assigned tasks.
In the process, the male role became the less "natural" of the two roles, further removed from biology, more contrived, artificial, and socially fragile, and, as many recent feminists suggest, further removed from the humanity common to both sexes. The male role thus required a more elaborate cultural scaffolding to support it. Restated in Freudian terms, the male role required more superego repression and deferment of gratification. The result was a more "neurotic" set of character traits.
Appropriate compensations for these impositions provided the rationale for greater rewards, deference, and domination. Male definitions and values implicitly came to determine overall cultural definitions and values. Males became more highly prized via both their sex role behaviors and their consonance with the overall culture. All these factors combined into an ideology of superiority, which still acts as the ultimate motivation for males to demonstrate what Tom Wolfe called "the right stuff." In the earlier cultural phase this prerogative had already achieved such sublime expressions as chivalry, primogeniture, and the chastity belt. But male superiority came into play as a much more powerful enticement in the industrial phase.
PATTERN VARIABLES REVISITED
There is a theoretical analogy, which makes this point graphically. Parson's pattern variables, arranged as five parallel continua in a vertical plane, as in the accompanying diagram, describe the major dimensions of social organization. Two polar types of society - Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft - anchor opposite ends of the five sets of variables. Coincidentally, these two polar groupings also describe dimensions of the industrial sex roles of female and male, respectively. Female sex role characteristics cluster toward the Gemeinschaft end while male sex role characteristics cluster toward the Gesellschaft.
Several observations emerge from this spatial conceptualization. First, as society moves into the industrial phase, away from Gemeinschaft and toward Gesellschaft, male sex role characteristics will increasingly be required. Second, the male role can be seen as a constriction of Gemeinschaft/female characteristics; obviously, this can be enabling as well as restricting. While our western cultural bias may be to see Gesellschaft/male characteristics as "industrially preferred," we can understand nostalgia for Gemeinschaft/female characteristics; they embody a romantic, hometown human-ness which we often long for. Third, to the degree that industrial society assigns these contrary characteristics on the basis of sex, both sets can remain operative, especially if they are, in addition, separately concentrated in the domestic and public spheres. Fourth, to move at least some people away from the apparent comfort of their Gemeinschaft roots some increase or change in rewards would seem to be needed. The industrial phase categorically impelled males to make this shift, by virtue of qualification, opportunity, and duty.
ON BEING SPECIAL
The dynamics of personal identity play an essential part in this process. Ernest Becker argues convincingly that every individual accomplishes identity by being special. Each person becomes special by comparison, by contrast with others; for the unspecialized human in need of a point of reference, there is nothing else available. When not special as a particular individual, a person can still become special via membership in a group. Sex or gender membership provides such a group identity and always provides a counter-group in the form of "the opposite sex" against whom special-ness can be achieved and measured.
Male superiority is such a group-granted form of special-ness, awarded males in recognition of the peculiar forms of restrictedness and distortion that their sex role requires. The very narrowness of the role that males typically accept as their due (and in so doing translate into a perceived asset) includes a blind belief in the superiority of their role, a failure to realize its liabilities, costs, and constrictions, and an ingrained feeling that the attendant rewards are earned, valuable, and rightfully theirs.
THE TECHNOLOGICAL PHASE
The fourth and current phase of human development is the technological, the period of history we inhabit although we are not yet at home in. Many of our personal and social roots remain in the recent industrial past, out of which the technological phase has just barely emerged. At one level, the technological phase is simply an extension of industrial development. Yet something more has happened than just an escalation to a complex, sophisticated industrialism. Society enters the technological phase when the replacement of human activities by tools and techniques is so comprehensive that the biological asymmetry with which human life began its division of labor is totally superceded. This is a radical break with the entire previous history of the human species. For the very first time in human experience biological differences need not be taken into account in accomplishing the work of the group. This momentous transformation of society has occurred as a result of technological change, which happens - is happening - at a fantastic pace. Social change is no longer experienced in biological eons, in cultural centuries or even in industrial generations. It happens now, within individual lifetimes and at an ever-increasing rate.
These two facts together - disinheritance from our biology and every more change - confront us with an unprecedented social era. Understandably, it is in this phase of human development that sex roles, in all their complex dimensions, are being constantly re-examined and often challenged.
THE DECLINE OF THE MALE PREROGATIVE
These heightened levels of conscious awareness of the technological phase clearly foreshadow the decline of the male prerogative. The buffalo are gone, finally and forever. With them has gone most of the need for that most peculiar cultural construction, the male role: the self-punishing, achievement compulsed stoic, displaying heroic worth, grimly confronting and conquering the harshest challenges. In the literal sense, neither the buffalo nor the male role has died out completely. But it is apparent that western society has less and less need to consign a whole social category, the male half of the human population, to this peculiar specialization.
The fragile fabrication of the male role and its ultimate reward of special identity, the prerogative of superiority, deserve a final review. Let us step back and look at the dynamics at a cultural level: In the industrial phase of history a large number of people who will endure severe distortions of their intrinsic humanity in order to become highly specialized human instruments are needed for environmental manipulation and social exploitation. A whole ontological category - males - is assigned to these tasks and their behavior prompted by alluring rewards - power, wealth, and privilege. And while these rewards encourage male sex role behavior, most males fail to achieve much of what is promised. However, (given the ontological convenience of two sexes), there is one reward that can be guaranteed to all the members of this category: the feeling of superiority to all the members of the other category. Cultures are full of such ingenious - and ingenuous - mechanisms, as Philip Slater clearly illustrated in The Pursuit of Loneliness. There he identified the "stunning cultural invention, more important than the acquisition of fire," of placing restrictions on sexuality. Through this "weird device of making his most plentiful resource scarce," Slater wrote, man managed "to make most of scarce ones plentiful." Redirecting man's sexual energies through this singularly powerful instance of sublimation made them available for the creation of human culture.
The fact is that most men do not reap many of the material or social rewards promised them; thus their great investment in the singular prerogative of feeling superior to women. Yet as the technological phase increasingly renders biological sex, as well as much of the male role, irrelevant to the assignment or accomplishment of tasks, the male justification of superiority is severely undermined. And as men can no longer lay automatic claim to the prerogative of superiority they lose the centerpiece of male identity, the sense of their own special-ness. Except for insemination, males as organisms with particular, biologically rooted qualities or as role occupants with unique abilities are less and less necessary. Males are less able to claim any special contribution to society and are increasingly undone by the very technological success achieved in large part by their willingness to pursue the industrial ideal of the male role. Even for those many men who experienced this superiority second-hand, in theory or myth, it had important psychological impact as a fundamental and poignant touchstone of self-worth.
As Marcuse suggested, part of the technological harvest is an abundant surplus of repression. Because of the explicitness with which the female role has been defined as subordinate, secondary, and inferior, it is not surprising that women would realize this first. So, at the ideological level, the technological phase is ushered in with the discovery and exposure of "the feminine mystique," the ontology of which could finally be revealed and understood as a cultural artifact. Since the equating of cultural definitions and values with those of the male role has been one of the implicit expressions of male superiority, the women's movement in western society initially and understandably saw the acquisition of male role characteristics as a move in the direction of greater value and worth. Only later would they see, and reveal to males as well, the ways in which both sexes were taken in by the male mystique - the myth of male superiority.
In addition, at some level males may resent having to give up what they perceive as hard-won and rightfully exclusive privileges; and not just give them up to others, but to their very opposites: women who, having been protected by men, have not had to pay the social price to acquire these privileges. Finally, as men especially are likely to explain, there are instrumental behaviors, such as discipline, detachment, and deferred gratification, required of anyone who would contest the forces of nature. In this view, the rewards attendant to performing the male role are necessary inducements. Indeed, as women move into previously all-male roles, they are finding that they too need such reinforcing rewards. They are discovering many of these previously coveted roles to be less than fulfilling. To be continually struggling to achieve, or simply to return to the organizational grind day after day is not by itself to be clothed in glory.
As women introduce men to the intrinsic values of behaviors, viewpoints, and feelings from which men had cut themselves off, and as men slowly gravitate toward these attractions, the cultural chores remain to be done. It these tasks are no longer to be assigned on the basis of a paired-set of responsibilities and rights of two asymmetrical sexes, must not some other pattern of assignment emerge, equally compelling and credible? And if the special male role prerogative of superiority is eliminated, must it not be replaced with some reward equally dramatic and enticing? The demands, constrictions, and distortions required of the work the male role was designed to accomplish are clearly not that attractive without the compensating prerogatives of superiority. Even with our technological sophistication, perhaps even because of it, some of the behaviors traditionally associated with the male role still seem necessary. Perhaps even modern cultures will always require some personal disfigurement in the fulfillment of required social roles. As western society expands fully into the technological phase of human development, who will fill these no longer sex-typed roles and how they will be compensated are important questions that remain to be answered.