Iron John
Robert Bly

Iron John was resoundingly attacked by feminist scholars when it appeared in 1990, and Bly himself associated in many circles with pseudo-intellectual anti-feminist backlash. In this discussion of myth and gender, social psychology and the nature of strength, the well-known poet lamented the disappearance of manhood and the tendency to consider masculinity a four-letter word, and argued the time was long overdue for a movement by, for, and about men. The response was massive. A men’s movement did indeed begin to emerge with the conversation Bly initiated; or, more accurately, several men’s movements emerged – some of them thoughtful, reflective, and entirely consistent with the project as Bly himself understood it, but some articulating exactly the misogynist politics that feminist critics feared.

Influenced by Jungian psychology and the myth-based work of Joseph Campbell, and structured as an analysis of a famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Iron John argues, in a nutshell: Throughout human history, there have been mythologies, stories, rites of passage and collective processes explicitly designed to teach boys what it means to be a man in a given society. These have been largely absent in western industrial society, with disastrous results. Contemporary men are trapped, psychologically speaking, in something not quite adolescence but sitting between boyhood and maturity, as the birth-school-office/factory-grave progression provides no means for men to learn about gender, about strength with compassion, about mature masculinity; while a positive notion of manhood was nurtured and passed along in previous generations, then, we have for some time been passing along a partial, weak and altogether more dangerous version. Men who cling to masculinity in its immature incarnation find themselves trapped in the John Wayne model – isolated, mistaking violence for strength, positing their manhood as a force of power over or in conflict with women, and unable to form nurturing relationships with and among themselves.

The feminist movement articulated the crisis of gender politics for women, and successfully built new models of womanhood that were less dichotomous; no such development has occurred among men, which has serious implications for society in general. Feminist mothers, sisters, mentors have tried to articulate new models of manhood, but cannot do so effectively – these models can inspire men of gentleness and creativity and partnership, but they also engender in these lovely but damaged men an unease with their bodies, their sexualities, their identities as men, and make them afraid of their own strength. A society that is to have fully-functioning, strong women and strong men needs a way for women to initiate girls into womanhood, and for men to initiate boys into manhood.

Bly is not quite the pariah he used to be. New generations of feminist scholars and men influenced by feminism have increasingly begun to examine masculinity and to recognize that gendering cuts all ways. They don’t necessarily start with Bly; he’s not exactly rehabilitated, his name still associated with backlash in a great many quarters. But don’t be surprised if rehabilitation comes.