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.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, borderlands, historiography, marginalization, material culture, myths, Native Americans, racial cleansing, racism, resistance

Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

(This is also a borderlands historiography.)

Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron do not share the same conception of a “borderland” as Ned Blackhawk precisely because Blackhawk gives voice to the pain and violence suffered by Native Americans in his story, while Adelman and Aron remain focused on boundaries of imperial conquest.

What is borderlands history? Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett argue in their essay “On Borderlands” that borderlands histories are not traditional frontier histories, “where empires and settler colonists prepare the stage for nations, national expansion, and a transcontinental future.” They explain,

If frontiers were the places where we once told our master American narratives, then borderlands are the places where those narratives come unraveled. They are ambiguous and often-unstable realms where boundaries are also crossroads, peripheries are also central places, homelands are also passing through places, and the end points of empire are also forks in the road. If frontiers are spaces of narrative closure, then borderlands are places where stories take unpredictable turns and rarely end as expected.[1]

After recapping several early milestones in borderlands history, Hämäläinen and Truett identify Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay on the state of the field.”[2] Hämäläinen and Truett assert, “With an eye to distinctions, definitions, and membership, Adelman and Aron proposed a new frontier-borderlands grammar to connect current work and give it a shared lineage.”[3]

Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis once again is brought into focus as Adelman and Aron attempt to differentiate the terminology of “frontier” from “borderlands.” They claim that recent historians have simply substituted one term for the other, when in fact, the terms should be used quite differently. Adelman and Aron define a frontier as “a meeting place of people in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined” and borderlands as “the contested boundaries between colonial domains.”[4] They assert that these distinctions should allow historians to address the often overlooked “competitive nature of European imperialism and the ways in which these rivalries shaped transitions from colonies to nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[5] However, by framing borderlands history around European imperialism, instead of Native American experience and agency, Adelman and Aron appear to have replicated the same “triumphalist and Anglocentric narrative of continental conquest” that Turner was guilty of.[6]

In a scathing critique of Adelman and Aron’s “new paradigm for understanding Indian and EuroAmerican relationships,” John R. Wunder and Pekka Hämäläinen accuse the authors of relegating Native Americans to the “historical scrap heap” just as Turner had.[7] “In many ways,” Wunder and Hämäläinen argue, “Adelman and Aron’s model marks a return to a Turnerian tradition in which native populations are objects rather than subjects, mere pawns in the great colonial board game.”[8] Their article, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” identifies and challenges four major problems in “From Borderlands to Borders” that include factual errors as well as conceptual ones. The biggest complaint was that Adelman and Aron left out the very people whose homelands were invaded. Wunder and Hämäläinen assert that

[Adelman and Aron] evidently believe empires are European and lead to nation-states; empires are never indigenous, nor is there such an entity as an Indian nation. By definition, treaties are fictive or cynical tracts. Frontiers are ambiguous, borderless meeting places that involve cultural mixing. Borderlands are places of European imperial rivalry where Indians slyly seek micro-diplomatic openings. Once the rivalry is over, borderlands can become bordered land, where national borders are defined, and indigenous peoples are swallowed up by national cultures.[9]

Hämäläinen and Truett show in “On Borderlands” how new borderlands historians have begun to rewrite North American history “as a history of entanglements—of shifting accommodations—rather than one of expansion.”[10] Historians now recognize that Early America was more native than formerly assumed. Native Americans played a “decisive and frequently unexpected role in the movements of empires and the rise of modern nations.”[11] Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land fits into this new form of borderlands history.

In Violence Over the Land, Blackhawk emphasizes the pain and the violence endured by the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute peoples during and following European and American conquests of the Great Basin region. He argues that for Native Americans, violence “became a necessary form of social, economic, and political survival, a practice that beleaguered as much as benefited.”[12] He underscores the pain and terror that Native Americans endured under European and American powers, and how many of these Indians inflicted similar violence on other indigenous groups. Blackhawk notes that “violence weds the history of these Native groups to larger imperial histories.”[13] Yet, his story is not just about the subjugation of Native Americans. He shows how they influenced imperial nations as well as other Native Americans.

Horses, introduced through Spanish colonization, became a defining technology for the indigenous people in the Great Basin region.[14] By 1730, Comanches were entirely equestrian.[15] Blackhawk asserts that “the emerging imperial borderlands between New Spain and French Louisiana became the primary centers of the Comanche world, and their former Ute allies lost the influence they had once achieved with their Comanche kinsmen.”[16]  Horses remade Native economies and polities.

Blackhawk claims that even though historians, such as Turner, “declare the process of American expansion as the foundational experience of American history,” few historians acknowledge that the effects of American expansion on Indian peoples are representative of the American experience.[17]

The challenge with addressing borderlands, according to Hämäläinen and Truett, is to “find ways to reconcile old empire-centered and nation-centered narratives with indigenous and nonstate space and territoriality.”[18] I think that Blackhawk’s work has done an excellent job of reconciling the two.

[1] Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338. Pekka Hämäläinen is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University. Samuel Truett is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

[2] Ibid., 344.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in between in North American History,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 815-16.

[5] Ibid., 815.

[6] Ibid., 814.

[7] John R. Wunder and Pekka Hamalainen, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1230. Note that these criticisms were published concurrently with Adelman and Aron’s article. Hamalainen’s (and Truett’s) (re)assessment of “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay” came twelve years later.

[8] Ibid., 1232.

[9] Ibid., 1229. Evan Haefeli also challenged aspects of Adelman and Aron’s essay. Adelman and Aron published a rebuttal to the three authors in the same issue of The American Historical Review. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “Of Lively Exchanges and Larger Perspectives,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1235-39; Evan Haefeli, “A Note on the Use of North American Borderlands,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1222-25.

[10] Hämäläinen and Truett,  346-47.

[11] Ibid., 347.

[12] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 265.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 61.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] Hämäläinen and Truett,  352.

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Posted in civil religion, commemoration, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, myths, religion, rituals

Monuments of Civil Religion

Caterine, Darryl. “Monuments of Civil Religion.” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, edited by John Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur. London; New York: Routledge, 2015.

In this chapter, Caterine presents religious and national notions of memorial space as distinct. He bookends his argument with Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay on American civil religion to show that the Puritan-derived national mythology has not unified the nation. According to Caterine, “Bellah hoped that by directing public attention to the mythic core of national identity—an amalgam of biblical ideals inherited from the Puritans—scholars of American religion could lend a hand to the cause of national reconciliation.” (393) But memorials since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have “enshrined dissent as the unifying ideal of the citizenry. (Bellah’s essay was written at the height of the Vietnam War.) These memorials speak to American pluralism rather than a unified identity.

Caterine describes the creation of the National Parks Service and Washington, D.C. as national tourism spaces. As a transportation infrastructure developed, tourism provided Washington with a new way of conceptualizing and showcasing national memory. The National Mall became the memorial hub of the nation with the Washington Monument at its center. War memorials, which commemorated and sanctified the ultimate sacrifice that citizens undergo for their nation, “come closest to traditional religious monuments—analogous to temples of human sacrifice dedicated to the gods, or shrines built to house the holy remains of martyrs.” (388) Sacrifice is venerated because it is through sacrifice that the nation continues.

Caterine notes that during the 1960s, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the mass protests against the Vietnam War, the National Mall was transformed from “a memorial space of unity into a theater of protest.” (390)

Interestingly, he also points out that national unity was originally undercut by the Republican ethos of political decentralization and individualism. He states,

A striking example of this perspective was reflected in the proposal made by John Nicholas, a Virginian congressman and close friend of Thomas Jefferson, during the first debates over how to memorialize George Washington. Rather than building a crypt or erecting a statue, Nicholas suggested leaving a plain tablet in the nation’s capital, upon which each citizen could express what the Revolutionary hero meant to him. Further, the ambiguous meanings of Civil War battlefields, as interpreted alternatively by Northerners and Southerners during the heyday of national consolidation, offers a precedent for the political battles over national memory in the late twentieth century. (391)

Posted in anti-war movements, censorship, material culture, military, myths, photographs, propaganda, resistance, Vietnam War

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Traditionally, Americans have shown their appreciation for soldiers returning from war, believing that they all deserve a warm welcome for their sacrifice.  Newspaper columnist Bob Greene collected accounts from Vietnam War veterans about their experience of returning home in his 1989 book Homecoming.  Many of these recollections involved stories of hippies and other anti-war activists spitting on them as they arrived stateside. In Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke investigates the myth of Vietnam War veterans returning home only to be spat upon by representatives of the anti-war movement. His research reveals that no evidence exists to support that such incidents ever occurred.  Barry Romo, who was the head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and an active collector of Vietnam War historical materials, literature, and oral accounts, confirmed that no news source documentation (such as photographs) exist to validate this myth.[1] Contemporary newspaper reports and police records document no such incidents. If soldiers had been spit on, someone would have collected photographic evidence showing the alleged perpetrators.[2] Lembkce contends that the myth was propagated by government officials in order to demonize anti-war movements and the political Left in order to gain public support for current and future wars.[3] He shows how this myth and PTSD diagnoses worked to stereotype Vietnam War veterans as mentally unstable.

Few people realize that World War II veterans were early demonstrators against the Vietnam War and instrumental in reaching out to Vietnam era soldiers and veterans.[4] Veterans’ groups led some of the earliest protest marches against the war and developed tactics, such as burning draft cards and returning military medals in mass, which became emblems of the anti-war movement.[5] Lembkce argues that the anti-war movement established credibility with drafted and enlisted men, which helped form tight relationships between veterans and anti-war activists by 1970. Many veterans of previous wars, however, were openly hostile to the anti-war veterans and were the source of much of the grist for the myth.[6]

Lembkce explains that stories about war veterans being spat upon frequently occur in modern histories around the world. Many stories involve, on one hand, soldiers who fought on the losing side of the war and, on the other hand, their abusers who were traitors to the national cause. For example, following Germany’s loss in World War I, Fascists spread similar rumors to incite public anger against groups and individuals who had opposed the war. Some historians claim that images of abused veterans were critical to Nazi propaganda that fanned the flames of patriotism to lead German masses into World War II.[7]

According to Lembcke, it was extremely important for the Nixon administration to discredit the anti-war movement, so the government worked with Hollywood and other popular cultural media creators to propagate this false collective memory. To discredit anti-war veterans and mobilize support for the war, the administration drew a distinction between “good” pro-war veterans and “bad” anti-war protesters who symbolically spit on brave and loyal fighting men. The figurative symbol became a literal reality for the American public. Years later, the Bush administration exploited this anti-American image to gain public support for the Gulf Wars, convincing Americans that not supporting the troops was a fatal mistake of the Vietnam War. However, both administrations had enormous stakes in depicting the anti-war movement as anti-veteran. In order to achieve this goal, the true collective memory of protesters demonstrating at induction centers while recruits and draftees went off to war was rewritten into a story of protesters demonstrating at airports when the worn veterans returned home.

Recent analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War in American culture has revealed that the primary focus of Vietnam veterans’ stories is how they were treated after their return from the war, rather than their experiences in the war.  Lembcke notes, however, that most documentation of abusive behavior against Vietnam veterans show that pro-war people acted against anti-war veterans.[8]  In several interesting revelations, Lembcke argues that members of conservative veterans’ groups, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, rejected soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.[9] Claiming that Vietnam was not a “real war,” Vietnam veterans were excluded from participating in veterans’ parades and treated as second-class citizens in veterans’ hospitals.[10] When VVAW conducted its march and guerrilla theater from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1971, pro-war members of the VFW publically harassed the marchers.[11]

[1] Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 5.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] We can see from recent events in the United States how powerfully “fake news” can influence public opinion.

[4] Lembcke, 4.

[5] Ibid., 29.

[6] Ibid., 76-83.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Ibid., 78.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.