On “Masculine” Friendship

I sometimes resent the term ‘masculine friendship,’ because I suspect it of referring to friendship which is masculine only in the sense that its members happen to be men and are therefore unencumbered by the slavery associated with being a woman. The claim that masculine friendship is somehow essentially unique may (implicitly) hinge on the idea that friendships between women must necessarily be centered on more feminine (read: metabolic) considerations and that friendships between men and women are necessarily sexually tempting (read: the woman’s body tempts the man’s passions). The two roles presented for women here–domestic servant and passive temptress–are not roles that lead to human flourishing, assuming that the ergon of (even female) humans is neither to labor nor to merely appear, but to contemplate/act/speak/create. (Cf. Arendt and Aristotle.)* 

First, I should note that my metabolic/non-metabolic distinction isn’t fair, at least in the most stereotypical masculine/feminine friendships. For instance, masculinity is often in our society associated with a lack of concern for aesthetic questions or local-political questions. Women, on the other hand, stereotypically discuss what people are up to, books and music and fashions &c. Of course, insofar as this is characterized by pop-culture, much of it is metabolic** in its own way, but this cuts both ways: “masculine” discussion topics (sports, politics, cars) can be social rather than political, which makes them a bit metabolic. And as much as women are expected to talk about bread-making and child-rearing, budget-keeping, housekeeping, fitness, so are men expected to discuss another realm which is characteristically means-ends rational. Of course, the level of organization is almost always higher or concerns something less immediately necessary for the masculine conversations, and often these conversations are more hypothetical or explanatory than characteristic of actual deliberation over something in the agent’s control: what should the coach do for this team to win, which is the best sort of stereo to buy if you had enough money, how does my car work/what did I do to fix it (rather than teaching you what you should do). 

Equality of mediocrity isn’t the standard I want here, but ideally some sort of equality of flourishing. Of course, it’s impossible for everyone to have a fully active/contemplative life, with no metabolic considerations. This can be dealt with by giving some people (men? Some men? The wealthy? Professors? Children of professors?) particular leisure, and giving none to the others. Or perhaps in an industrialized society it can involve everyone living more simply, dedicating substantial time to arts and culture, and devoting very little energy to metabolic considerations. Obviously households, especially those with children, have their own metabolic concerns: cooking, cleaning, diapers. And here there is a choice. Mom does it all, or the mother does what only she can while the father does the rest, or they have help from other women and/or men, either outsourced or in the home. The mother doing it all normalizes a gender standard, that girls–whether ultimately celibate or married–have substantial metabolic and low-level logistical responsibilities, whereas men do not. Arguably it is bad for women to learn as children that womanhood is primarily about laboring domestically, which is to say that woman is essentially a slave.

When we say ‘masculine friendships,’ I think we can also mean friendships that are not colored by these considerations. It is convenient for a friendship to keep these injustices out of sight, out of mind.

Contra my (perhaps unfounded) suspicions, there are other reasons one might consider masculine friendships, feminine friendships, particular mixed-gender friendships, social friendships, and romantic friendships all as different categories. So my question is: if masculine friendships and feminine friendships are distinctive things, what characterizes them other than a dichotomy between contains-slaves and does-not-contain slaves? (Yes, I agree that women and men are essentially different, albeit that this essential difference is something like “has potentiality for mothering” and “has potential for fathering” so one way of putting it is that masculine friendships are those containing men and feminine ones are those containing women. However, in this case they would be the same insofar as they’re not reproductively viable and different insofar as they’re masculine vs. feminine, but I’d like to hear if anything can be said about the different structure of a masculine vs. feminine friendship.) I’m also sympathetic to the view that masculine friendships have been neglected in a way that feminine ones haven’t, and that this is an injustice which needs particular attention, just as the difficulty women face working on wall street needs particular attention.


*The argument goes: we labor for the sake of living, but we don’t live for the sake of laboring. If we did, we’d be essentially slaves, or essentially beasts. However, as rational animals, we have other characteristics, namely we can act in accordance with our reason, and for reasons other than survival.


**Pop-culture as metabolic: I mean (cf Adorno) that pop-culture is ordered toward giving us things that we don’t need, and giving us the desires for them. e.g. there’s an industry which constantly produces new pop-music, even though we don’t need a constant supply of new pop-music, and which gives us the desires for more and newer pop-music (it gives us an appetite that constantly needs to be replenished, just like our hunger for food). As industrialization makes food-production more efficient, industrial interests would undermine themselves (the market shrinks, relatively), so industrial interests are also to create more metabolic needs for things. (Schaengold and DJP and a number of others of you know more about this than I, so please correct my summary freely.)

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4 Responses to On “Masculine” Friendship

  1. Michael W. Hannon says:

    This is wonderful. The best part is that you call your husband “Schaengold” though. :-)

    Will think on this and weigh in soon.

  2. Clare says:

    This is basically the email I sent to Schaengold the Curlier, minus the mushy stuff:

    I think you have gotten to the crux of the matter by linking the kind of friendships we are supposed to have with what we are supposed to be for. The infuriating question–what are women for? And once we ask the question, we know the answer is that somehow, they are for others, to make other’s lives easier; not in the rational subjection of autonomy to good of the whole, nor the free selflessness of Christian charity, but a totally subject posture that constitutes their essential character. Women are for doing others’ work, for allowing them to achieve some good.

    We see this in the way women are taught to approach friendship, and relationship in general–to accommodate, but more than that, to smooth over, handle delicately, understand; what anthropologists in part call kinship work. I think the glorified southern “steel magnolia” is the best example of this. It is not simply the virtues associated with interpersonal relationships, but a craft and adroitness at handling them.

    Of course, work has to be done. But when women do it, and they do the lion’s share of many kinds of work, it is not really work–it is “femininity,” or “choice” or “fulfillment,” because to be fulfilled as a women is to devote your life to the pursuit of someone else’s good (again, not in a Christian sense). Men have easier lives when women are doing all the messy emotional bridge-making and fence mending, and both men and their corporate masters find their paths to public honor and success clearer when a women is at home doing all the reproductive labor–the labor involved in directly making a life–in a way that is neither recognized as labor nor connected to its role in underpinning and enabling the work done in the public economy. And it’s not a question of this or that women leaving home to get a job–as long as there is a sphere of “feminine” work that is not recognized as such, this can only mean women doing twice as much work with the for the Pyhrric victory of some public life. There can never be a live-and-let live solution to the much discussed and abominably named “mommy wars”, for the same reason that there is no real conflict; the problem is not this choice or that but the economy and conception of womanhood it depends on.

    It seems that there are a few solutions. A gendered economy in which the men, say, hunt and the women raise children seems fine, as long as the leisure left over from these metabolic pursuits is split between them, and neither sex is being barred from the political and cultural life.

    Once we have an industrial waged economy, the problem becomes much thornier, especially as there are pursuits that both are visibly waged and much less metabolic in character–politics, scholarship, artistry, and these are open, in practical terms, far more to men than to women, in great part, I believe, because women are still doing all the invisible reproductive labor that has remained necessary without being redistributed. I am fairly sure that there will *not* be a satisfactory answer to this problem under capitalism.

    If there is a possible answer, it will consist of some kind of communal sharing of reproductive labor–men spending more time scheduling dentist appointments, cooking meals, meeting with the teachers, etc. It may involve more hands–more involvement by children, more outside domestic workers, but finally, if this is not to mean outsourcing to many women what remains conceptually a woman’s function, it will mean greater involvement by men.

    I am of the opinion that the social work women do will not become better distributed until they stop doing it. Until the interpersonal abilities inculcated in them over centuries are no longer put at the general service and the cult of feminine sweetness loses it’s power, I don’t think men (in general, not absolutely) will start cultivating and using these gifts. (This is one of the reasons articles touting women’s interpersonal skills as a sort of feminine genius gold star annoy me intensely. It’s part of a general substitution of affirmation for equality or flourishing that seems to particularly plague things directed at women.) This is unfair to men, whose lives are stunted by the inadmissibility of male tenderness or sensitivity.

    There is more to be said regarding erotics, aesthetics, and norms of hospitality, but that deserves its own discussion.

    I am wondering about men and women being essentially different. It seems to me that they are “essentially” human, and that human nature is essentially reproductively bifurcated while remaining whole and complete, although that sounds strange. It seems to me, and I may be extremely wrong about all this, that men and women are accidentally different, if accidental is the word for a kind of difference that inheres in human nature without constituting a different nature? I believe men and women are materially, and importantly different, but I also don’t think that men and women have male or female souls, so there’s that. I think you are right that the difference consists of potential for motherhood/fatherhood

    I am a bit crippled in these discussions by having almost no philosophy, so forgive obvious errors.

    Masculinity and femininity seem to be both social constructions relating to sex, and possibly the internal awareness of one’s relation to the erotic/reproductive potential of a sexed other. So I think that masculine friendships have men in them and vice versa, such that they are subjectively unique (my shared experience of the reality or expectation of mothering can bind me to a woman in a way it will not to a man), but structurally unimportant.

    I think romantic friendships exist for for all sexual combinations. Romantic friendships seems to me the inclination to pay a kind of dulia or homage to the excellence of a beloved friend, or a particular attention to and delight in it. My friendship with most women is fairly romantic. (It seems that the commonness of homoeros among adolescents is not particularly shocking or worthy of note for this reason.) Romantic friendship seems more structurally important than “masculine” friendship. However, in a more conventional sense, it seems less: where there is a possibility of sexual longing or fulfillment, the normal virtues should be applied: prudence, temperance, wisdom, charity, chastity, as well as the special duties of friendship.

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