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The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada

By Christopher Dummitt

Review By Jarrett Rudy

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 166 Summer 2010  | p. 117-9

Theorists of modernity have often been particularly blind to the roles of gender. In numerous otherwise thought-provoking theoretical works on modernity, gender either disappears from the analysis or is treated awkwardly. Historians, to a degree, have been more successful. A case in point is The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada. Christopher Dummitt brings together five diverse BC case studies that elucidate what he calls in his conclusion an authoritative voice of “the manly modern” during the postwar era. He argues that, after the Second World War, technological modernity became the basis for a new hegemonic ideal of masculinity. His work shares much in common with recent writing on modernity. Instead of portraying modernity as a triumphal retooling of capitalism into a more humane system or as one of Walt Rostow’s stages of “proper” development, Dummitt shows it as a dynamic process with contradictions, ironies, and anxieties all inherent to an economic boom and the concomitant transformation of daily life. 

In the first case study, Dummitt focuses on a 1947-48 Royal Commission into veterans’ complaints about poor treatment by government agencies and, in so doing, demonstrates that the same sense of authority was seen as both the justification of veterans’ claims and the root of their problems. On the one hand, veterans claimed that, because of their risk-taking during the war, they were the ideal modern subjects; yet, on the other hand, they claimed that they were treated poorly by the experts and bureaucrats of the modernist welfare state – a state established to manage the risks in Canadians’ daily lives. The second chapter moves to the physical work of building the megaprojects of this postwar modernist project. By focusing on the 1958 Second Narrows Bridge collapse, Dummitt is able to show that views of risk were linked to class-based norms of masculinity, once again leaving some men, largely workers, frustrated with and defiant towards the new norms of risk management and the localization of expertise (among engineers rather than workers) that came with this mega-modernity. 

Managing risk was not only done in the workplace. The third case study in Manly Modern looks at the growth in popularity of mountaineering as a way in which middle-class men sought to escape the alienation and feminine influence of postwar suburban modernity. Climbing was an opportunity for these men to lead, to evaluate risk, and to triumph over nature: for some, it was an opportunity to perform modern masculinity. Once again pointing to irony and contradiction, Dummitt shows how mountaineers both lobbied for roads in order to open up new possibilities of discovery and lamented the loss of isolation that came with the increasing numbers of climbers that arrived using these roads. 

The fourth case study uses capital murder cases to look at the rise of psychology and psychiatry as new fields of expertise that ubiquitously provided a normative language of modern masculinity – a process that Dummitt calls the medicalization of manhood. Psychologists and psychiatrists presented their scientific explanations before the courts and elsewhere, becoming the leading managers of risks pertaining to men’s violent behaviour. They maintained that a man’s ability to control his violent urges could be rationally explained by a poor environment slowing his maturity (or, in some cases, racialized primitivism) rather than by his biology. 

The final case study focuses on the expansion of car-centred culture in the postwar era, with Dummitt uncovering the qualities of what made a good driver. Cars were the foundation of suburban Vancouver development. They allowed the city to spatially expand and were promoted as family space – with men in the driver’s seat. What made a good driver was strikingly similar to what made a good man. Indeed, safety “experts” maintained that traffic safety was a matter of learning how to successfully manipulate the carefully engineered automotive technology. The path to becoming a responsible driver was through driver education and the enforcement of traffic rules, much like the structures of risk management in other case studies found in the book. On the question of car culture, however, a far more radical and sustained critique developed, beyond any of the anxieties discussed in earlier chapters. In Not Safe at Any Speed Ralph Nader pointed to technology, not the driver, as the problem. No amount of education, risk management, or sense of responsibility could make cars safe. Car culture was also condemned by anti-urban renewal protestors of the late 1960s and 1970s who challenged the male, bureaucratic “expertise” of those who sought to redevelop their Vancouver neighbourhoods. According to Dummitt, these kinds of critiques signalled the decline of manly modern authority, which had risen to a hegemonic position in the postwar era. 

In all of these studies, Dummitt gives readers impressively nuanced, highly theoretically contextualized insights into questions that have rarely been studied by Canadian historians. Yet, readers of this journal may find that the book tells us very little about the experience of modernity in British Columbia. As Dummitt admits in his introduction, it is not a book about “the history of Vancouver modernity and masculinity but a history of manly modernism as it took shape in Vancouver” (26). Still, the questions of what the Vancouver example tells us about masculinity and modernity that studies of other cities would not, and what these case studies say about the experience of modernity in Vancouver, lurk in this reader’s mind. 

Certainly, some of the case studies do provide insights into these questions, but some leave the reader wanting more. In the final case study, for example, one gets very little sense of the impact of Nader’s critiques on Vancouverites (though we hear about a Quebec MP’s initiative in the House of Commons). Similarly, it would have been useful to have concrete examples of Jane Jacobs’s influence on those fighting against urban redevelopment rather than simply being presented with the suggestion that activists could rely on her work. Were there reading groups? Did she visit? Was greater public consultation built into development projects of the future? More details would have been nice, especially considering that these last two case studies constitute an important part of how Dummitt shows change over time. In conclusion, The Manly Modern will leave some readers wanting to know more about whether this kind of masculinity was similar to or different from identities elsewhere and whether the experience of modernity was similar to that which occurred in other places. Still, Dummitt offers a great deal of creativity in problematizing new historical subjects and proposes useful thoughts on the relationship between modernity and masculinity that will, no doubt, be taken up by historians and social theorists of the future.


PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 166, Summer 2010