The Gendering of Men, 1600-1750, Volume 1: The English Phallus, By Thomas A. King

Reviewed by LJ Frank   

My particular or peculiar read within and beyond the text: Gender and Gendering is contextual…. That is, it has cultural, tribal, historical, social, and especially political, and perhaps religious roots and colorful textures of masculinity both “normative and performative / queer”.  The concept and actuality of gendering is rooted in the accumulation of power within the structures of patriarchy.  I would add – whether patriarchy is a form of collective narcissism. In social psychological words, patriarchy is group psychology linked to a sense of self-entitlement, fragile self-esteem, and objectification of others deemed inferior. 

(First sidebar) Is there such a thing as universal manliness that requires a need to struggle for? How many games of what constitutes masculinity must be played out before men and women realize that none remain? 

In this particular thoughtful study, Professor King, a brilliant scholar, delves into the idea that gender and gendering or in my translation gender(ing) was and is not determined by a person’s sexual organ, and if that sounds familiar, it should as other scholars on history and sexuality have found similar developments. Gendering identity is not about the phallus as this work argues. Rather it’s about the “performative” nature of the role of a person, based on their place in a patriarchal structure. That again, is not wholly remarkable…. it’s in the details of the patriarchy and the opportunities afforded those retaining status with that structure – the status enjoying higher position/role in the patriarchal continuum. That status, like a courier, is about performance, loyalty, permission (asked and given or not given), dominating and submitting or subjecting. The performative is baked into patriarchy.

(As a second side bar), etymologically gender is an archaic term, Middle English/French. (See Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, among other etymological sources.) Gender is a modern term within the whole of human existence. It’s a form of classification used to designate and control the discussion. That designation changes with time.

A gender theorist like King in this work, observed that a person may be born with a particular sex organ but “gender(ing)” is not determined by that sex organ. He argues that notions of gender (and related idea of “masculine” privacy) fall within the social, political, cultural structures created by patriarchy.

In England (1600-1750) “body practices were strictly regulated by a pederastic social structure…. social spaces and places required the enactment of different body practices.” In another way of putting it, where you existed or placed in the patriarchal power structure, (including slaves, boys, women – personal property) and so forth, regardless of your genitals, your performative role determined how you were treated. Gender(ing) was tied to the performative.

Within the textures of that structure male (and female) subjects presented themselves as performing objects. Status is everything. Masculinity as one example didn’t imply privacy – you were an “object” and an “object” has no privacy. (Objectivation applies to personal property – boys, women, slaves, though not limited to them). Again, status is the chief marker in you as a “person”. That objectivation transcends your genitals.

The War for Independence (American Revolution) and the French Enlightenment changed aspects (privacy, sexuality, and gender) of the dynamic in the late eighteenth century.  Still, patriarchy is foundational and has been for centuries. What changes is knowledge, language, perception, meaning, and resulting daily body and mind practices. 

The author finds himself at odds with some historians but in agreement with others as early modern England was male dominated. He differs in how others have interpreted their reading of the historical period in literature, theater, etcetera, that he is covering as well as its historical roots, especially in heterosexual terms. Whereas King observes privacy as applied to gender(ing) is relevant as he reads it. His reading of texts from that period has intriguing nuances. The author has provided an opportunity to ask what else is there about roots of modern thought that may have been misread.

This is an insightful resource tool on the formative nature of gender(ing) and though not the easiest read, it is accessible…. footnotes offer thought-provoking sources for the curious reader and researcher.