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Men and Masculinity


The potential in Freud's work for a radical critique of masculinity was apparent very early. It was taken up by Alfred Adler (1870–1937), a socialist psychiatrist convinced of the importance of social factors in disease. He was one of Freud's first and most important professional supporters but broke with him in 1911, partly over the analysis of masculinity.

Adler's argument started from the familiar polarity between masculinity and femininity but immediately emphasized the feminist point that one side of the polarity is devalued in culture and associated with weakness. Children of both sexes, being weak visà-vis adults, are thus forced to inhabit the feminine position. Submission and striving for independence occur together in a child's life, setting up an internal contradiction between masculinity and femininity. In normal development, some kind of balance is struck. But if there is weakness, there will be anxiety that motivates an exaggerated emphasis on the masculine side of things. This "masculine protest," in Adler's famous phrase, is central to neurosis, resulting in overcompensation in the direction of aggression and a restless striving for triumphs.

Adler considered the masculine protest to be active in both normal and neurotic mental life. The masculine protest was a feature of women's psychology as well as men's but was overdetermined by women's social subordination. In men it could become a public menace. Adler took a highly critical view of dominating masculinities, commenting on "the arch evil of our culture, the excessive pre-eminence of manliness."

World War I left Adler in no doubt about the connections between masculinity, power, and public violence. His 1927 book, Understanding Human Nature, made a clearer statement of a psychoanalytic case for gender equality than was found anywhere else until the 1970s.

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