Precarious Manhood in Zadie Smith's "Embassy of Cambodia"

Term Paper, 2015

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Masculinity and Manhood

3. Precarious Manhood Theory

4. Main male character in “Embassy of Cambodia“

5. The Precarious Manhood of Andrew Okonkwo

6. Conclusion

7. Appendix

8. Literature cited

1. Introduction

The following term paper deals with the question in how far the theory of precarious manhood can be applied to novel “Embassy of Cambodia“ by Zadie Smith, that was first published in 2013.

As the main female character Fatou, a woman from Ivory Coast, who works as a live- in maid with Pakistani family, the Derawals, in a working-class suburb of London, is a very strong character, who, apart from her gender, does not show many traits of character that are stereotypically female, the implications of the theory of precarious manhood suggest, that a male character behaves accordingly next to a strong femine hero.

Therefore, the main goal of this term paper is to analyse in how far the main male character, Andrew Okonkwo, complies with this theory in his behavior and actions. Although there are also other male characters, for example Fatou’s father, Mr. Derawal, Faizul Derawal, the man from Russia and several other miscellaneous male persons, but due to the limitations of this term paper and the fact that all other characters do not have enough appearances or are even mentioned only once, this paper is limited to an analysis of Andrew Okonkwo. In addition to that the behaviour of the other male characters largely could only be only be inferred by interpreting the situation they are living in or making assumptions, that go beyond what is written in the book.

At first, the term paper gives a brief overview about the terms masculinity and manhood and the theory of precarious manhood is introduced. Later, the main male character in the novel is described and his behaviour is being analysed according to being stereotypically male and compliant to the theory of precarious manhood. In the conclusion, the author summarises the findings and also adresses topics for potential further research.

2. Masculinity and Manhood

When trying to define masculinity, one quickly comes across the question where to begin and where to end. One major issue is the fact that at first one has to distinguish between masculinity and manhood. While Oxford Dictionary defines manhood both as “the state or period of being a man rather than a child“ and “the qualities traditionally associated with men, such a courage, strength and sexual potency“, the same dictionary defines masculinity as the “possession of qualities traditionally associated with men“ (XXX). This means that, while womanhood being the opposite to manhood, inferring, that only men can show manhood, while only women can show womanhood, the terms masculinity and feminity are not restricted to gender.

While this is not fundamentally new, but rather “conventional wisdom“ (Schrock & Schwalbe, 279), it gets difficult when trying to find a valid scholary definition. Some scholars follow the definition of masculinity being a “configuration of practices“ (Carrigan et al., 105) that are functioning to subordinate women. However, scholars even do not agree in so far, as to define said practices (Schrock & Schwalbe, 279) and therefore one can only say that “masculinity is not created by single persons or groups, as it is far too wide spread, diffuse and complicated“ (Reeser, 17) and also is “constantly being created, but also constantly being challenged” (Reeser, 18).

The same problems arise when trying to give a scholary definition of manhood, as again, there is no clear definition. Vandello and Bosson try to answer the question for the qualities that determine manhood by applying most of the aforementioned criteria that where already utilised for the definition of masculinity, on the term manhood. To them, manhood can be defined as a “stable set of personal traits and behavioral tendencies that [...] shift across time and cultures“. In addition to that, Vandello and Bosson argue that manhood, from a psychoanalytic and behavio[u]ralistic point of view, is about the antifeminity mandate, that means avoiding behavior, which is stereotypical for women, as the core component of masculine identity (Vandello & Bosson, 102).

Building on the fact that when growing up, men are expected to fulfill the antifeminity mandate by shunning feminine behaviour linguistically, behaviouristically and emotionally (Vandello & Bosson, 102) and, as mentioned before, manhood is not something that is attributed to the basic fact of being a man, the theory of precarious manhood has been developed.

3. Precarious Manhood Theory

The theory of manhood being a precarious state means that the “state of manhood as a precarious social status [...] is hard won and easily lost” (Vandello & Bosson, 101). In comparison to womanhood, which is usually deducted from the fact that women are needed for reproduction and the survival of humans as a people and thus is not being questioned once attained by reaching adulthood, Vandello and Bosson argue that manhood is a status, which “requires continual public demonstrations of proof“ (101).’

Vandello and Bosson proved that manhood has three basic conventions. Firstly, manhood is elusive and has to be achieved. Secondly, it is very delicate as well as easy to be lost. Thirdly, manhood is defined by society or as the authors put it, “is confirmed primarily by others and thus requires public demonstration of proof“ (Vandello & Bosson, 101). Especially the third tenet leads to the fact, that men, who feel threatened in their masculinity either, because they are forced to engage in activities, that they themselves value as unmanly (Bosson et al., 2009) or because they receive feedback towards their own personality being particularly feminine (Willer et al., 2013), will try to restore their manhood afterwards by engaging in activities which they regard as being masculine (Vandello & Bosson, 105).

According to Vandello and Bosson, these finding have three major implications, which can also be used to predict and explain men’s behaviour. The first implication is that men in general will feel more anxious and stressed about their gender status than women, especially when they are in a situation in which their gender is in being questioned or threatened. The second implication states that men in general will take measures to proof or restore their manhood, even if they involve risk or agression. Thirdly, men will avoid situations or behavior that they value as being feminine and that might put their manhood status at risk (Vandello & Bosson, 104).

When trying to apply the theory of precarious manhood and its implication on the behavior of the male characters in “Embassy of Cambodia“, it is important to keep in mind, what is being looked for. As mentioned before, the theory of precarious manhood postulates that men will engage in stereotypical masculine behavior if they regard their masculinity as questioned or in danger. As Vandello and Bosson do not explain, why they chose certain actions and behaviours as being stereotypical for men or women, the objectives for this term paper’s analysis are taken from the examples stated by Bischof-Köhler (2006), who based her analysis on the Bem-Sex-Role-Inventory. In this inventory that is used to assess gender role identy, the stereotypical behaviour for men for example would be assertiveness, dominance and self-reliance, while female behaviour and attitude would comprise compassion, gentleness and compliancy (see table 1 in appendix). Although it has to be kept in mind that stereotypes tend to change within the social structures and social norms of a society (Ponhofer et al., 2) and thus applying stereotypes that have been developed in a german environment, as Bischof-Köhler did, might be misleading. This might especially hold true, as “Embassy of Cambodia” is a novel, whose main protagonists are of African origian. However, for reasons of simplicity and due to the fact that the author herself is born in the UK, it can be assumed that Bem’s assumption will also hold true for the characters of “Embassy of Cambodia“.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Precarious Manhood in Zadie Smith's "Embassy of Cambodia"
University of Göttingen  (Englisches Seminar)
Black British Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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516 KB
Precarious manhood, Embassy of Cambodia, Masculinity, Zadie Smith
Quote paper
Holger Weinreich (Author), 2015, Precarious Manhood in Zadie Smith's "Embassy of Cambodia", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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