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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

male bonding

(1980’s | academese | “camaraderie,” “esprit de corps”)

An expression created by a known, specific person, like “hot button” and “factoid.” “Male bonding” was coined by anthropologist Lionel Tiger; the term played a prominent role in his book, “Men in Groups” (1969), and the only earlier sighting in the OED comes from a 1966 paper by Tiger and Robin Fox. Google Books turns up no instances before 1969. From the seventies, only a few hits come up on LexisNexis, but they generally had at least a faintly technical tone and had little to do with beer-swilling, or even disciplined communal pursuit of athletic or military glory, which is closer to what Tiger had in mind. Writers used it narrowly to talk about organization of all-male groups and how leaders were chosen. An interesting thing happened in the early eighties: arts writers adopted the expression to talk about characters in books, plays, movies, etc. That sort of use has remained common from that day to this, and is probably the avenue by which most Americans first encountered the term. That’s noteworthy because arts writing has funneled a lot of therapese expressions into everyday language, and “male bonding” could easily have been coined by a therapist. But Tiger’s priority is clear. Now, the images most often conjured are auto shops, bowling alleys and bars, or other all-around guy stuff. It can happen at a restaurant or senior center — anywhere men gather without women. And even if they do little and talk about less, just sittin’ and spittin’ in the same room gives all us guys a charge.

There are many examples of all-male duos and larger groups in ancient history: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Spartan warriors, Jesus and the apostles. Such images occur plentifully in more modern times as well, as in Elizabethan acting companies, football locker rooms, and any number of chain gangs. There is a general sense that such untrammeled intimacy has disappeared, or severely declined, since the sixties, when feminists started getting uppity again and men surrendered, instead of standing up for themselves and using that old male bonding to put down the latest ladies’ insurrection. That strategy had worked pretty well for several thousand years, but the guys just couldn’t get it up any more ca. 1963, probably due to fluoride in the water or Russkies in Cuba or something like that. So instead of saying, “Gee, we’ll have to pay more attention to women now,” we said, “Our ancient fortresses have been stormed, and men shall never laugh together over the Three Stooges again.” The eighties saw the rise of the aggrieved American man, a tiresome John Updike hero twenty years on, resentful that women have become more suspicious, or just more knowing, about stag parties and beer busts. A minor genre bloomed in which men lamented the death of comfortable male companionship and the need to defend their right to assemble without women. Not that it had really become more difficult for most men to gather in single-sex groups, but they felt guilty about it and blamed feminism.

Tiger traced male bonding back to hunting and gathering societies and found examples among other animals, although many scholars took issue with his primatology. He argues that it is partly rooted in biology (so it gets a pass — if we inherited the behavior from our ancestors, then objections are more or less futile), and it has profound social implications. The way men form small groups within groups (I wonder if there’s any resemblances to the way schoolgirls form social cliques) is deeply important to the development of society. He goes beyond the simple assertion that male bonding is significant because a lot of it goes on. He ascribes a powerful force to intense male friendships, diminishing by implication the social significance of other kinds of human cooperation. And he betrays a certain nostalgia for a past in which it was taken for granted that grown men could exclude women from decision-making whenever they felt like it, as boys post “Gurlz keep out” signs on their treehouses. It is undoubtedly true that most men benefit from a certain amount of time away from women, but must we demand social betterment from such vacations? Tiger claimed not just that men behave differently when no women are around (a trivial observation), but the relationships they develop inform customs and government of society as a whole.

Mainstream culture has taken Tiger’s phrase and turned it into a bit of a joke (cf. the recent neologism “bromance”). Part of the slippage of this term results from the fact that Tiger had little to say about politics or corporations, where men still make decisions with little or no contribution from women (though this is changing at a glacial pace), which gave critics an easy line of attack. Tiger also did not use the concept of male bonding to address interplay between fathers and sons, but inevitably the term has grown to embrace such interactions as childrearing has taken up more and more room in our discourse. In common usage, there is no nobility inherent in male bonding; it’s as likely to lead to mayhem or sophomorism as improvements in the human condition. Another trend of recent decades has also played a role in the failure of Tiger’s concept to take a more exalted place in our culture: a sharp increase in individualist rhetoric. There’s something suspiciously communitarian about male bonding, which after all involves by definition a bunch of men acting in some kind of concert — a far cry from the sort of every man for himself, no holds barred, to the winner go the spoils esthetic that has flourished recently in American politics, one hopes temporarily. Such cartoon individualism veers so far from life as we know it that it cannot help but lead us astray if we take it seriously.

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