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Do We Already Know the Answer to the Question, ‘Are Men Animals?’

Matthew Gutmann's Are Men Animals is and interesting but flawed, rushed look at masculinity that suffers from digressions and an unwillingness to be as political as it could have been.

Are Men Animals? How Modern Masculinity Sells Men Short
Matthew Gutmann
Basic Books
November 2019

Matthew Gutmann‘s Are Men Animals?: How Modern Masculinity Sells Men Short starts promisingly. His premise is simple enough, but in that simplicity there are some major problems. He writes: “I believe that the ways in which people think about men and expect men to behave can be dramatically renegotiated.” It’s certainly a compelling statement that’s hard to deny.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much provided in the way of how we can renegotiate these expectations. “Acting as if men can’t control themselves is hazardous,” he writes. He argues (not a hard position to take) that women are central to the lives of most men, and he looks at the origins of masculinity. There are myths and half-myths. Do men really spend less time in parental activities than women? Are there really no social structures on earth run by women?

Gutmann travels through Mexico and Shanghai to look at cultures of masculinity beyond US borders. He’s looking for clues, for counter-histories to write something different. His approach to the subject is effective to a point, but there’s no sense (even in these early pages) that the result of his work is unique.

Are men genetically pre-conditioned to commit sexual assault? Is rape and murder pre-destined and eventual because of destiny? Gutmann considers the notion that more such acts would occur if men thought they could get away with it, but this mixture of anthropological and gender studies clashing with a cursory look at the legal system is tough to swallow when it’s not done in equal parts. In his opening Chapter “Gender Confusion”, Gutman argues that The Human Genome Project of the ’90s was “…after eugenics, the second major push of the century for…’hereditarian scientific ideology.’ He asserts that the concept of “Gender Confusion” (aligning with traditional male roles of hunter and provider) is historical and cultural.

The problem here is simple. To propose we are “confused” about gender identity and social roles suggests that there is in fact a definite way to see men on their own and as reflected through their relationships with women. Gutmann continues to ask that we renegotiate what it means to be a man, but he leaves the reader at a loss by never proposing what that new masculine identity should be. By opening with a discussion on gender confusion, he implies that trans identity (which is given a very minor consideration in this book) is complicating rather than enhancing a progressive sense of gender fluidity.

Indeed, “The Science of Maleness” chapter has some problematic conclusions. In particular, Gutmann proposes that aggression elevates testosterone secretion, not the other way around. He proposes that murderers are predominantly men (“…about nine men commit murder for every one woman…”), and he indicates that some researchers have simply surrendered to the idea that men are, by and large, destined to murder. It’s an interesting notion, but once again he seems to contradict himself by noting “…most men never kill or even commit assault.”

The problem here is that Gutmann introduces these ideas but he doesn’t fully explore them, as the informed reader would hope to happen. Does he believe men are doomed? Gutmann’s argument is strongest when he makes his connections between human and animal males. Are we all that similar? He writes: “The words we use and the meanings behind them influence how we understand human relationships and events.”

Later, he makes a strong argument about the way we are as a species and how we can be better: “Humans don’t have to act like other animals…To lose sight of human mutability and the range of behavior among humans is to give men a morphological free pass to tyrannize others under the guise of ‘acting like a guy.'”

Gutmann carefully brings us through men’s libidos and natural aggressions. Why do men make war? He draws connections between the fact that sex workers of The Dominican Republic were used to satiate the sexual compulsion of UN Peacekeeping forces and the inherent male trait for aggression. Is rape really “…rooted in a feature of human nature,” as proposed by psychologist Steven Pinker? Gutmann introduces these ideas and then shuts them down: “Men’s bodies are biologically no more or less choosy, coy, or capricious than women’s.”

This is a long chapter that could very well have been expanded to better purposes, especially when he includes Donald Trump (not by name, but we all know the story) in his example of “Bad” violence and “Good” violence. He re-prints the transcript of Trump’s famous “Grab ’em by the pussy” interview with Access Hollywood and asserts that the greatest sin here was not that Trump said these words. Instead, there was “…complicity in the acquiescence, and that collusion was rooted in bedrock beliefs about men and women and violence.” In other words, the nation got what it wanted when it voted for him, and there is nobody to blame but ourselves for the consequences.

The more interesting and effective chapters are set in Mexico and China. Regarding the latter, “Reverting to Natural Genders in China” looks at Shanghai’s Blind Date Corner, where aged parents meet with matchmakers to offer their children as prospective mates. This is a place where “…the intellectual and career accomplishments of daughters are generally included on their flyers, along with their physical attractiveness. Men’s flyers list their height, professional trajectory, and whether they can already provide housing…” The argument is that there are three genders in China, and their third gender is women with PhDs. Gutman adds: “It didn’t take long before a fourth gender was added: men married to women with PhDs.

“Biology can’t be changed, and it won’t matter (as Gutmann notes about Mexico) if the transit system offers gender-segregated train cars to eliminate (or cut down on) crimes against women. Gutmann seems to rush through other issues in the later chapters: pronoun choices, Bret Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination case, and the all-pervasive truth of “toxic masculinity”. It’s a whirlwind of issues that Gutmann presents, but the volume of material should not be perceived as a comprehensive answer to whether or not men are animals.

“If we accept that violence is a core feature rather than a flaw of male behavior, and that assault is men’s essential nature reasserting itself, we cripple our ability to identify and combat misogyny, gender bias, and discrimination.” It’s hard to dispute this, but the rushed sense of this book’s final third gives the impression that Gutmann preferred to stuff his text with ideas and perspectives that would please all sides. Had he been more brave and emphasized the political consequences of toxic masculinity, this could have been a stronger book, even incendiary, as we all wait a possible second Trump presidency, where the worst aspects of manhood (primitive, predatory, animalistic) are elevated and rewarded.

The ground Gutmann walks throughout these pages is flat and wide, well-worn by those who came before him. He’s not forging any new paths here that can’t be accessed through deeper texts, different texts. Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis, and Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that have done a better job looking at the nature of violence and masculinity as expressed by men.

There is sound and solid research to be found about the way men are perceived in Mexico and China, but Gutmann’s questions on gender identity are problematic. His presumption that there is a definitive notion of masculinity hurts this book’s potential to make a major difference. Most of us can already answer the title’s question: Yes, men are indeed animals, “modern masculinity” is fluid and therefore not as lethal as he might assume, and we can raise ourselves up higher if we accept these truths.

RATING 7 / 10