The Fragilities and Fault Lines of Masculinity

The burning of American and British flags in Baghdad, Iraq

The psychodynamics of hate, humiliation, and masculinity which are based in the paranoid-schizoid splitting that results from felt threats to the self, and humiliation that reacts to narcissistic injury which are experienced by humanity in general, are expressions of the psychodynamics almost exclusively expressed by men. There is a small percentage of women, however, who possess and express female masculinities mimicking that of male masculinities. It would seem the perpetrators, enactors of extreme violence and the psychodynamics that underlie it must predominantly relate to masculinity. On the other hand, the identity involved in much of this violence is ideologically ethnic-religious-national. The sense of gender in this context comes in only secondarily, as the language of ethnic or religious hatred is often cast in gendered and sexualized terms. Moreover, national and religious-ethnicity of peoplehood are experienced psychodynamically not directly as gendered but as cultural selfhood, and threats to such identities are experienced directly as threats to the cultural-national self. Therefore, elements of cultural hatred of Other is evidenced and placed in the arena of men who commit acts of terrorism and extreme violence against those who possess difference in terms of the selfhood of the perpetrator. We can extend this thinking to the more individualized stroke of sexual orientation; homosexual, bisexual, and transgender peoples who become targets of a person’s own perceived sense of sexualized heterosexual supremacy.

A first psychic fault line of masculinity involves gender and selfhood in relation to women and femininity. Men’s relationships to women, forged originally in the relationship to the mother, bring up a range of threats to masculinity and the male’s sense of self — especially fears of dependency, abandonment, and loss of self, as well as an intolerance and fear of women’s sexuality. Just as a side note, some men’s relationship to their mothers may invite feelings of feminine longings and a desire to possess, as part of their own identity, the feminine gender identity as a creative solution to a problem, a desire to be the weaker, masochistic, “fragile” sex, as the other who has been castrated. It is important to note that all perversions are creative solutions to a problem. But for the purposes of this discussion, we are focusing not on the female perversion of homosexuality, but on the Islamic extremist who commits brutal acts of violence. For this discussion, we observe a negotiation of maleness in relation to the mother and is seen as the dominance of masculinity. This masculine development is not-female, and is not subordinate to women, is one of the components of masculinity. Masculinity, here, has to do, fundamentally, with not being a woman or dependent upon a woman. Freud, Horney, Stroller, and many psychoanalytic feminists have shown how the repudiation of women and fears of feminization, beginning with the threat of humiliating inadequacy vis-a-vis the powerful mother, are developmentally fundamental to masculinity and tied to the male sense of self.

Because of this developmental context, issues of selfhood as well as of gender tend to differentiate men from women, such that the male’s sense of self may typically be more defensive and in need of protecting its boundaries than the female’s typical sense of self. Masculinity thus defines itself not only as not-femininity and not-mother, in a way that femininity is not cast primarily as not-masculinity or not-father. Seeing the self as not the other, defining the self in opposition to the other, does not seem generally as important to women as to men, nor does merging seem as threatening (see Chodorow, 1978, 1979). Dominant masculinities that result in extreme violence are defensive strategies that may be employed when faced with a powerful female presence or a powerful male presence who may seek to emasculate.

Closer to home, we might wonder whether the threat of maternal power and female sexuality help fuel extreme anti-choice activists, but as far as I know, they do not blow up clinics or shoot doctors who perform abortions. That humiliation seems in some way to affect men and women in different ways can be expected from the classical Freudian account of challenges to phallic narcissism and from feminist descriptions beginning with Horney, of the humiliation of being a little boy in relation to a grown woman.

If the male’s basic sense of self — thus, not only his sense of masculinity — is more defensive, than insofar as a cultural politics of identity is involved, it makes psychological sense that women would not feel as psychologically endangered as would men by threats to political, religious, and cultural selfhood. Men’s sense of masculinity is generally more fragile than women’s sense of feminity.

The male’s need to maintain his masculinity against the threat of feminization and developmentally related anxieties of identity and selfhood has been well theorized, but we need to consider a second fault line. For men, individual and cultural narcissism and humiliation derive also, and perhaps more prominently, from male-male relationships than from the relationships of men to women. An equal and fundamental component of male selfhood and identity to the dynamic of male as not-female — a fundamental dynamic that perhaps particularly underpins terrorism and other male political and ethnic violence — is masculinity as being an adult man and not a little boy. Humiliation, specifically, is especially male-to-male — originally father-son — affair. In the normal developmental course of events, much hinges on how a boy relates to his father and turns into a man — the delicate negotiation of this transformation, of identification, of how to replace or join without bringing on retaliation, castration, or humiliation. All of these, in turn, depends partly on a father’s own sense of confident masculinity and selfhood. As much as it is being not-female, then, masculinity is not being a boy/child in relation to an adult/father, and it is signaled psychically by not being subordinate to, shamed by, or humiliated by other men. Gay male psychoanalytic writing has been particularly clear about how a becoming-gay, not-masculine-enough little boy (thinking back to the father of the peewee goalie, we might extend this in some cases to any son who displays softness, not tough behavior) can feel rejected and turned away from by his father.

If we want to capture the father-son, male-to-male, superordinate-subordinate relationship looking towards the actual Oedipus myth does not do this topic justice. In order to capture the intense and driven power in male psychology of male-male/superordinate-subordinate conflict, I would suggest that men are vulnerable to an Achilles complex, that a core developmental and psychodynamic narrative comes not from Sophocles but from Homer. Who can forget the opening lines of the Iliad, when Homer calls on the goddess to sing of Achilles’ rage at Agamemnon and in a few short lines summarizes for us how this rage will almost destroy the Greeks? Achilles is a junior man, powerless, humiliated, and taunted by Agamemnon, a senior man who already has a wife and children. On a whim, to feed his own narcissism and to humiliate and taunt this challenging young warrior, Agamemnon takes away Achilles’ prize, Briseis, a woman of Achilles’, not of Agamemnon’s, generation. In his sulking retreat bred of humiliation, Achilles does not care if the entire war is lost. There is a woman involved her, certainly — Briseis (and earlier in the narrative, Agamemnon has sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia, who had been promised to Achilles) — but the attachment to her seems minor compared to Achilles’ passion about his treatment by Agamemnon.

As the invocation of Achilles would imply, the superordinate-subordinate male-male relationship may particularly underpin terrorism and other male political and ethnic violence. Another way to formulate this mythic developmental story is to suggest that the Achilles heel of men and boys — that is, of both father’s and the son’s generation — is the fear of narcissistic humiliation by another man, or by other men, and that the currency of this humiliation is often capricious and arbitrary control through war and conquest, or the monopolization, not of the mother, but of younger women who should rightfully belong to the younger man.

As a side note, it is also interesting to postulate this formation as an unconscious defensive strategy of men to ward off anxieties and fears about their own sense of mortality. We could postulate on the theme of the aging king monarch who take for himself young concubines as secondary wives, who belonging to the younger generation, and who are more suited for younger men, but who are also more suited for childbearing and rearing, as younger fertile women would promote and further his legacy. We could turn this around to the superordinate female (mother figure) and her subordinate male sex partner. The aging female, facing the prospect of confronting her aging body, takes on a subordinate male partner in order to ward off anxieties and fears about her own sense of mortality. This arrangement helps her to identify with her youth, thus clinging to a form of dominance in retaliation to her aging body, thereby warding off anxieties about her ensuing decrepitude. One only needs to look at the dating history of Madonna to analyze how older women “creatively age.” This is a hypothesized twist to the theory of superordinate/subordinate arrangement of the Achilles complex and the taking of a younger woman not of “Agamemnon’s (king of Mycenae and who defeated Troy) generation”. It has been theorized that young women who marry older men have unconscious fantasies about a “father figure” who will take care of them. Likewise, it has been theorized that younger men who marry older women have unconscious fantasies about a “mother figure” who provide and take care of them. All these may be based in the unconscious fantasies and early conflicts of childhood.

Yet, the worst male violence may occur when fantasies of humiliation by men — the man-boy dichotomy of the Achilles complex — become linked with fears of feminization — the male-female dichotomy — especially as this intertwines with threats to selfhood, that is, when the fantasy and developmental relation to men and to women are combined. In the present context, this occurs when challenges to ethnicity and nation threaten individual or collective selfhoods, and the close developmental and experiential interlinking of selfhood and gender mean that masculinity is also threatened. Some images of humiliation by mendefeat in war, subordination to a leader, occupation by another country, watching a father’s (personal or political-religious father’s) humiliation and being powerless to help — become ideologically and in unconscious collective fantasy intertwined with threats to selfhood and gender, as challenges to social order or the individual psyche may be figured as softening, weakening of boundaries, and feminization. To extend the gender theme in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (Freud, 1921) links between men who see themselves as equals or who identify with a powerful male leader also stave off male-male humiliation and further enforce the repudiation of femininity and sexuality.

The psychic fault lines of masculinity and male selfhood — the structure revealed when the crystal shatters — include two developmental and defensive fantasy components: first, masculinity as not-female, and the male self as defensively separate from and warding off the female other, and second, maleness as adult man rather than boy-child, not humiliated, shamed, or defeated by another man. These structural fault lines in masculinity, in turn, give psychic meaning, respectively, to the splitting dynamics and the dynamics of humiliation that are found in the extreme nationalisms and ethnocentrisms that underpin terrorism and national-ethnic violence.

Both components of masculinity fuse in the Holocaust and in other genocides, where ethnic cleansing often includes mass rape of women and the murder of helpless old men and boys, in the sexual humiliation and torture of men as well as women by right-wing dictatorships, and in those Islamic countries that restrict and terrorize women and punish severely those who violate sexual codes. Male sexual terrorism against women and men expresses ethnic, religious, and state power in reaction to national and ethnic humiliation through gendered and sexual psychic lenses.

The Homophobic Connection

We find similar dynamics in homophobia, which is often latent in terrorist ideology and direct in the torture and murder of gays, both in the United States and as we find homosexuality proscribed and brutally punished in other countries. In this context, homosexuality is figured both as submissiveness to other men and as challenging the male-female divide, making some men feminine. The particular dynamics that lead to homophobic violence are, of course, complex and varied, but I think it is worth stressing the regressive pull toward and fear of old libidinal and identificatory positions — in the case of men, schematically, to the attachment to father and to a terrifying identification or fusion with mother.

Characteristically, femininity and submissiveness to men have to be split off and projected outward, where these, in turn, become extremely persecutory possibilities. Those — like homosexual men — who represent these split-off projections threaten not only persecutory return but also disintegrative flooding: melding and fusion with the self. Accordingly, in the West, attacks on gays are often instituted by those who first “pretend” interest and then turn on the victim who has (or has not) responded.


The psychic fault lines of masculinity and male selfhood express two developmental and fantasy components: first, maleness as not-female, the male self as defensively separate from the warding off the other, defensively needing to split self from other if hatred takes over; second, maleness as an adult man rather than boy-child, not humiliated, shamed, or defeated by another man. When these components are challenged, individually or in cultural or political experience, men react with violence. We cannot explain terrorism, religious or ethnic hatred, extreme violence, expressions of misogyny, or the creating of enemies by assuming that external factors -history, politics, or society — simply cause these individual and social processes.

Psychoanalysis helps to explain what underlies and motivates the most frightening and desperate of human actions and beliefs, helping us to learn about the dark side of human motivation and behavior, which is always a product of unconscious fantasies and conflicts — even as it also theorizes and models forms of subjectivity and intersubjectivity that provide images of meaningful well-being. It addresses internal senses of self and feelings about others, humiliation, hatred and self-hatred, envy, terror of disintegration, attacks against the self or attacks by the other, and the incapacity to see the other, or even the self, as a self, all of these expressed behaviorally in violence and rage and ideologically in justification of such behavior.

It is important that we study and analysis hate, humiliation, and masculinity in order to see the point of view of the other and to recognize that people’s actions, however seemingly irrational, unacceptable, self-destructive, or destructive in the world, have motives and reasons that need to be understood. The psychoanalyst models for the patient an openness to understanding the self and the other and a form of listening to the other’s subjectivity and many-layered meanings. Such intersubjectivity, based on the recognition of the other as a subject — even if this other engages in heinous acts and holds terrifying or alien beliefs — seems to be crucial to our understanding of terrorism.



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Karen Barna

Karen Barna


I am a Targeted Individual suffering electronic harassment. I write about gender difference and object relations and feminism. I am Gen. X