Posted in African Americans, film, gender studies, imperialism, masculinity, material culture, myths, propaganda, racism, violence

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Prior to the 1990s, most literature on American whiteness and its relationship to masculinity emerged out of the historiography of labor and the working class.[1] Gail Bederman helped to shift this emphasis by her work which explored the political and cultural implications of whiteness, manliness, and civilization.[2] Bederman is considered to be one of the “first generation” of gender historians to study masculinity in the United States. Her 1995 seminal work, Manliness & Civilization, investigates connections between manhood, race, and power, which she identifies as the defining attributes of the “discourse of civilization,” during the Progressive Era.[3]  Her study is based on the premise that gender is an ongoing “historical, ideological process.”[4]  Bederman insisted, in a 2011 article entitled “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” that “masculinity,” as scholars use the term, is a heuristic category and is most useful when recognized as such.[5] But, she confessed that she had not worked on masculinity studies since 1995 and felt like “Rip Van Winkle, awakening from his twenty-year nap.” She noted huge changes in the field of gender studies since she stepped away and admitted that she did not understand what members of this generation of masculinity scholars really want to know, or why.[6]

Manliness & Civilization opens with an exemplary model for Bederman’s argument: the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1910 between Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the title, and Jim Jeffries, who was marketed as the “Hope of the White Race.” From the beginning, the Johnson-Jeffries fight was framed as a contest that would prove racial and masculine superiority.[7] After “Johnson trounced Jeffries,” interracial violence and riots broke out across the United States and government officials colluded to imprison Johnson. His victory was perceived as an affront to the power of white masculinity.[8] Bederman concludes that Johnson’s triumph “implicitly challenged the ways hegemonic discourses of civilization built powerful manhood out of race.”[9]

To build her main arguments in Manliness & Civilization, Bederman analyzes key experiences in the lives and work of four prominent and diverse American figures, Ida B. Wells (anti-lynching activist), G. Stanley Hall (psychologist), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (feminist), and President Theodore Roosevelt, who each worked to shape the meaning of manliness using their own conceptions of “civilization.” She shows how their work challenged or upheld notions that “civilization” is predicated on white masculinity. In her conclusion, Bederman analyzes the original 1912 rendition of the character Tarzan to show how the previous four examples combine into an image of perfect manhood that is both civilized, signaled by his descent from noble English aristocracy, and primitive, marked by his childhood among the apes and his drive to rape and kill.[10]

For Bederman, Tarzan is Teddy Roosevelt’s great white hunter who conquered racial inferiors and even nature itself.[11] Tarzan, who lynches Africans, is more savage than Wells’ lyncher because he enjoys killing as a sport (much like Roosevelt enjoyed killing animals). Kill or be killed is the law of the jungle.[12] He is Gilman’s “brute” who progresses from potential rapist to a chivalrous and civilized man due to his genetic superiority.[13] Tarzan is also Hall’s savage little boy who is allowed “racial recapitulation” to emerge as the most powerful civilized man.[14] Bederman admits that Burroughs most likely was not directly influenced by the works of any of these four individuals; however, the alignment of these “discourses of civilization” illuminates the pervasiveness of the “cultural project to remake manhood” during the Progressive Era.[15]

Before wrapping up discussion on Bederman’s work, I must digress to consider a couple of modern cinematic remakes of the Tarzan story. Hundreds of films, radio and television shows, stage plays, and video games have featured Tarzan. Most adaptations have continued to propagate the paternalism and racism found in the original.[16] Walt Disney employees decided to completely remove all African natives from its 1999 children’s animated Tarzan, a move that helped them to avoid any hint of racism found in the original stories.[17] Although, it makes one question the underlying message for a diverse global society. Yet, in an even more surprising move (at least for me now that I know the original storyline), the film’s villain, a white hunter by the name of Clayton (Tarzan’s family name), dies in an accidental hanging (lynching?) that viewers witness through the shadows. And in 2016, a new film, The Legend of Tarzan was released.

In this most recent reimagining of Tarzan, the storyline begins in England, where Tarzan and Jane are happily married and living as Lord and Lady Greystoke. The action takes place in the 1880s during the colonization of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium. African American diplomat George Washington Williams, whose character is based on a real American Civil War soldier, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and historian, enlists Greystoke/Tarzan’s help to thwart King Leopold’s plans to enslave the Congo. Although the filmmaker attempted to upgrade the story for twenty-first century sensibilities, there are foundational problems inherent to the Tarzan storyline. As Richard Brody points out in his New Yorker review of the film, “There are inescapable underlying racist horrors built into the very notion of Tarzan—the idea that, as a white man raised by apes, he’s the white-skinned equivalent of black Africans, their equal as a force of nature but with the natural aptitude to be rapidly civilized, and that, as a white man, he is Jane’s one acceptable African mate.”[18] If we understand films to be a way to gauge how we see the world and how our world is reified, these examples illustrate that gender and race are indeed ongoing historical, ideological processes that we need to question.

Looking today at the continued influence of Bederman’s work, Google Scholar returned 2,189 results for Manliness & Civilization. Searching within these results, 83 results related to publications in 2016, which indicates that the work continues to have relevance. However, I found that numerous works that cited Manliness & Civilization over the years did so only in passing. By citing a page or two from the work, these publications seem to acknowledge the importance of Bederman’s contributions, but few seemed to actively engaged with any of her arguments. This may indicate that scholars of gender and/or race studies are at least expected to be familiar with this work. Some of these titles include Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2014) by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998) by Karen Brodkin, and Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (2000) by Uta G Poiger, each of which were cited by hundreds of additional publications.

“So where does that leave us in the twenty-first century?” Bederman asks.[19] She does not offer an answer; however, one point she makes is clear. There is nothing self-evident about what it means to study “masculinity.” The term is a heuristic category that allows us to ask certain kinds of questions and is useful only when scholars clearly define what they want to know and what they mean when they use the term.[20]

[1] Tanfer Emin Tunc, “Recapitulating the Historiographical Contributions of Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color and Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization,” Rethinking History 12, no. 2 (2008): 281. The author of this article suggests that Jacobson’s and Bederman’s contributions should be looked at together in order to better understand their contributions to the field.

[2] Ibid., 282.

[3] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4-5. She posits that as “middle-class men actively worked to reinforce male power, their race became a factor which was crucial to their gender…whiteness was both a palpable fact and a manly ideal for these men.” In addition, Bederman’s use of the term “discourse” was influenced by the work of Michel Foucault. By simultaneously looking at the intellectual constructs and material practices of a society, this methodology helps historians understand ways in which a society defines itself and how that society deploys social power. Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid., 7. Emphasis in original.

[5] Gail Bederman, “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” Culture, Society and Masculinities 3, no. 1 (Spring, 2011): 14. The paper is based on a keynote address given at the conference “Performing the Invisible: Masculinities in the English-Speaking World,” Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3, September 25-26, 2010.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, 2.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Ibid., 42. This example provoked me to think about Jesse Owen’s win at the 1936 Olympics. Many American history and sports sites publicize how Owens, who was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. Yet, we don’t often hear about how Americans treated Jack Johnson.

[10] Ibid., 218, 21.

[11] Ibid., 220-21. “Tarzan’s cultural work was to proclaim that ‘the white man’s’ potential for power and mastery was as limitless as the masculine perfection of Tarzan’s body.”

[12] Ibid., 225.

[13] Ibid., 229-31.

[14] Ibid., 222. “…civilized man could be powerful if, as a child, he repeated the primitive life of his savage ancestors.” Hall believed that children grew up literally repeating the psychological experiences of their primitive adult ancestors. Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid., 232.

[16] Rebecca Keegan, “Can You Make a Non-Racist Tarzan Movie?,” The Los Angeles Times  (July 1, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016,

[17] Ibid.; J. Weeks, “Reprints of `Tarzan’ Books Soften Racism,” Florida Times Union  (1999), accessed October 19, 2016,

[18] Richard Brody, “Tarzan Cannot Be Rebooted,” The New Yorker  (June 30, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016,

[19] Bederman, “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” 24.

[20] Ibid., 16.