“Is it worth it to be a stereotypical man?”


Dr. Murray Knutilla speaks about his 2016 book Paying for Masculinity

Dr. Murray Knutilla was interviewed in the evening of June 27, 2018 by Douglass Hook.

Dr. Murray Knutilla is a professor of sociology at Brock University and an adjunct professor at the University of Regina. The book referred to in this interview is Dr. Knutilla’s 2016 work, Paying for Masculinity: Boys, Men, and the Patriarchal Dividend.


DH: In simplified terms, what is “Hegemonic Masculinity” and what is Patriarchy?

MK: Patriarchy is a form of organizing human social relations in which males are dominant, males are more privileged, maleness is more highly esteemed than femaleness. An example of patriarchy at work is I’m a golfer, not a good one, unfortunately, but when I’m golfing with my male friends if someone leaves a put five feet short it’s not uncommon to hear someone say “Nice putt, Sally. You did that like an old woman. Are your panties too tight?” That’s humour, but underneath that humour is the notion that girls couldn’t putt well. That old women are useless.

Hegemonic masculinity is just the dominant way in performing masculinity as a man or boy in the world. So, what I argue happens is coming to understand how, in the last 300 to 400 years, a particular form of masculinity became hegemonic because during feudal society, for example, there was much greater equality in men and women’s relationships. Something happened with the emergence of the industrial revolution and capitalism that codified a particular way of “being men” and that emphasized power, control, and domination. 

DH: You talked about how approximately 350 years ago there were more egalitarian modes of being for families, what did this look like?

MK: It was an era that the family was also the productive unit. So, if I were a cobbler or if the history of family was  cobblers, we all worked in the home and the kids were in the home and I might be cutting the leather or my partner, or my wife, might be cutting the eyes in the shoe and sewing the soles, children underfoot, and so the production happened literally in the household. It was still a patriarchal society, so when we went to church on Sunday we might have heard a sermon that emphasized the nature of patriarchy but when we got home on Monday, the truth of the matter was that in order to make the shoes, we worked together.

DH: So, what changed?

MK: That system eroded during the 1600s, 1700s, and the 19th century Victorian period, when the production moved from the home to the factory, when the mechanization of production happened these factories could make shoes at a fraction of the cost of the artisan-produced home shoes and so we were all driven into the factory. Myself, my female partner, my children, and for a period of time the entire family worked together. They liked small children working in mines (and factories) because children could get into small spaces. But a variety of social forces led to change. Men, unions, people of good conscience and, social reformers were important in this; “No we can’t do this to our children, this is not right.” Men increasingly began to realize that if they restricted the work of women and children and if they could get the government or state to do that, they could demand higher wages. In the transition from the feudal family to what became, three centuries later, the traditional western nuclear family, the woman stayed at home raising children and the man brought home the family wage.

DH: How important was the income that women earned to the family household?

MK: In the pre-industrial era, it was absolutely essential. 

DH: How did this change become entrenched if household production was so important?

MK: The notion of domestic labour as a labour of love was really interesting because, on the other hand, “I’m this poor working class man in Manchester, I work long hours in a textile factory, work is nasty, it’s dirty and dangerous. When I come home from my ten or 12-hour shift, it’s really sweet if there’s a meal ready, I don’t have to start doing the laundry, if the kids, whom I love, have been properly taken care of. All of those are really sweet benefits to me.” As patriarchy takes on a new form in the era of industrial capitalism, we begin to understand the benefit that accrues to men from this new division of labour, it’s an element of the patriarchal dividend.

DH: Even though there was this dividend for men, it was reinforced with this kind of Victorian chivalry where the women were expected to be dainty, delicate, and fragile and they needed to be protected from this new industrial world?

MK: The interesting thing about the Victorian middle class, the emerging entrepreneurial capitalist class, they wanted to emanate certain things and imitate the aristocracy, and how they lived. Think of Downtown Abbey, though it was in decline, it was still a lifestyle that many in the middle class and many in the upper echelons of the working class sought to emulate. 

DH: In the book, you talk about the patriarchal dividend, and the benefits that men enjoy because of their status, but there are some significant downsides to this dividend. Can you talk more about that?

MK:  Unequal social orders bear up some of the most lonely and alienated people in the world, which often are men who are unable to establish human relations with other people. One of my favourite movies is Stand by Me, about four boys looking for a dead body. Those boys have not yet gone through the process of “manning up,” but if you know the movie, there are two groups of boys, eleven and twelve, and the older boys who have “manned up,” one played by Keifer Sutherland, and he’s basically a psychopath. What happened between twelve and sixteen? At the end of the movie it’s narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, and he says “I’ve never had friends like I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?” In a totally non-erotic and non-carnal way these boys love each other, they genuinely love each other, they’re genuinely capable of expressing love and affection. In my chapter on boys, I use Niobe Way’s work a lot, where she has done twenty years of cross-cultural work [on boys] and the profound need for connection in love and friendship and that gets drubbed out of us and that’s a tragedy.

Let me tell you about the corporate executives I interviewed about masculinity. I had a number of cases that, by an hour into the interview, the man cancels his other appointments because he hasn’t talked about himself for a long time. One question in which I asked them was “Tell me about your relationship with your children,” so you hear me on the tape say that, and you’re listening to the tape — let me imitate the sound on my tape: “[deep sigh and silence].” You hear this silence because they don’t have memories of the first six to eight years of their child’s life. 

DH: How does this happen?

MK: It’s back to that cost, it’s not just about us, in terms of unhappiness and so, I think men are lonely. In the chapter on boys, I talk about how, as we move from our best friend to our good friend to our acquaintance. In your life, ask yourself, did you have best friends with whom you shared intimate secrets? Then you had good friends, and then you had acquaintances to talk to about stuff, but the corporate executives I talked to, they had no one to talk to about this stuff. They couldn’t talk to their wife, or their competitors in the office or the guys at their golf club, or the people that worked for them. If you have people working for you, you can’t display any weaknesses. Certainly can’t do this with your “good friends,” you’re going to talk about sports and other things, not about your masculinity or sexual frustrations.

DH: Even within that bottling up, there are compartmentalizations that happen, where men display different masculinity to different people based on context, which creates further issues within one’s own concept of their masculinity. 

MK: A really common comment from young girls, when talking about their boyfriends is that, “they’re so nice when we get together, but when he’s with his friends he’s just an asshole.” 

DH: Some of the chapters in your book talk about the rules for men, like, no sissy stuff, don’t be gay, etc. I wondered, that when it comes to masculinity and gay men, do they get a kind of “pass” on masculinity or the competitive aspects of hegemonic masculinity? 

MK: Well, there are multiple masculinities. One of the weaknesses of my book, I think, is the treatment of the whole community of LGBTQ+ and so on. And a part of that is that there is material out there about gay masculinities. I know some gay men who practice hegemonic masculinity. In some ways he acts towards his same-sex partner very much in the way a dominant heterosexual man would act towards his female partner. So, he’s very comfortable in his skin as a gay man practicing hegemonic masculinity. The other point is that there are a range of gay masculinities, just as there are a range of heterosexual masculinities. One of the particular challenges for gay men in our society is the phenomenon of homophobia, which is commonly associated with hegemonic masculinity.

DH: What is it about manhood, or masculinity, that makes it so fragile or difficult to maintain status?

MK: The interesting thing about masculinity as opposed to femininity, is that it has to be earned and granted. You’re not automatically a man, you have to prove you’re a man. For different cultures there are different rites of passage and the interesting thing for advanced western society is that we don’t really have a right of passage. We need others to tell us that we’re men, and recognize we’re men and sometimes we do stupid things to do that...

DH: I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it’s something I will be thinking about for some time to come. This was a pleasure, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

MK: You’re very welcome.