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Man Up!

March 14, 2011

“Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.” ~ Norman Mailer

In the last few blog entries we’ve explored concepts of gender from distinctly feminist perspectives, in which notions of masculinity are either left out or perceived to be understood as part of a larger social structure. However, we’ve also been considering gender through a primarily binary Western lens. In light of this, if we are to study the notion of femininity we must also look at its counterpart, masculinity.

What does it mean to be man?

As the Norman Mailer quote above suggests, masculinity is commonly seen as something that is cultivated over time and something that must be proved and fought for over and over again. Thus, the masculine man — who is often seen as physically strong and dominant — is prized in the social hierarchy for having attained an ideal that is outside of himself. This dominance is not just over women but over other men who often find themselves labeled in “less masculine” categories. As the commentary on Disney movies (see video below) suggests, this notion of masculinity is normalized (along with notions of femininity) early on in childhood and arguably strengthened in school and other social institutions. Moreover, because “the masculine” is set apart as an ideal for which to strive and fight, many boys and men are unjustly pushed to the margins of society and asked to repeatedly question their own identities.

R.W. Connell and James Messershmidt consider this masculine hierarchy in their article Hegemonic Masculinity (2005), in which they posit that the categories that boys and men are defined by are too limited and static, and thus do not account for the dynamic discourses of everyday life. To come to this conclusion, the authors take an historical account of the concept of hegemonic masculinity, a term that is used to describe a model of multiple masculine hierarchies that has been used in social science and masculine studies since the 1980s (830).

Connell and Messershmidt offer five critiques of this model: (1) that the underlying concept of masculinity “essentializes male-female difference … as if women were not a relevant part of the analysis” (836-837). It also places masculinity into static categories without recognizing the fluid nature of the human existence. (2) There is ambiguity and overlap in the definition of “masculine.” For example a football player is recognized for his masculinity through his physique and athletic prowess on the field; a business man is recognized for his masculinity through his swagger in the board room as well as his perceived wealth. In both situations the men are recognized as being on the top of the social hierarchy, however, in very different ways. (3) The lack of differentiation between historical structures of patriarchy and interaction in terms of gender, and thus a justification for actions deemed masculine. (4) The subject of “masculine” is flawed in that it is a category sought but rarely experienced by any man. (5) The reliance on seeing relations between men and women as self-contained experiences. The authors, note, however that “masculinity is open to challenge and requires considerable effort to maintain” (844). Just as Mailer said, dominance — and thus masculinity — is not a given.

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What purposes do Connell and Merssershmidt’s critiques offer us in terms of understanding masculinity?  My take-away is that the something that men are asked by society to fight for does not exist. It is an ideal that is inherently flawed and misleading and does not account for the multiple identities that men must navigate daily. Although the authors do suggest that further research should consider the dynamics of multiple masculinities, including from a regional perspective , they stop short of looking at myriad other identities men are asked to assume outside of gender. This is where Greg Noble’s research steps in.

‘Countless acts of recognition’

Noble considers identities in terms of how they are created, reinforced and often rejected. He writes:

... identities are not simply given, but emerge as complex and conflicted acts of self-identification by others: what we call identities are the result of a dialogic process with others who have the ability to validate one’s identity claims ( 877).

In this way, Noble suggests that people develop their personal identities through others’ perceptions and recognition. This recognition falls into categories, such as gender or ethnicity, or attributes, such as personal accomplishments. Either way, humans navigate this world like the little metal ball in a pinball machine, bouncing back and forth and thus renegotiating space between obstacles (recognition) or falling through the cracks. However, although people may be putting on a face to achieve some degree of acceptance, their actions rarely reflect the people they really are.

Part of Noble’s ethnographic research looked into the lives of young Arab men in Sydney, Australia, who are often marginalized by their immigrant status. Interviews with the men demonstrated how they chose to often ignore the categories, such as ethnicity, in order to avoid being singled out or asked to speak for an entire group of people. They also rarely noted their gender in interviews. What Noble’s interviews offered is that the men strategically chose to hide and highlight their multiple identities in different social contexts. Through his research he argues that “reducing complex social experience to the reproduction of power means foreclosing on the analytical power of recognition as social process” (887). In a similar way to McConnell and Messerschmidt, Noble suggests that we should move to acknowledge human beings as individuals as well as bearers of myriad social identities.

This point is further highlighted in the 1998 film Head On (trailer below), in which a young gay Greek man is asked to navigate of sea of identities, battling with himself and the world around him for both recognition and isolation. Because Ari is from a Greek immigrant family, he is immediately “othered” in Australian society — and like many immigrants, his prospects for a prosperous career are somewhat limited. However, Ari, as a gay man who lacks a job, wife and family, does not easily find recognition in the tight-knit Greek community in which he has grown up. Although recognized for his ability to dance and his good looks, he often runs away into the shadows to embrace his gay identity. Yet, there are short moments when Ari embraces an identity that comes off as inauthentic and forced, yet is received well by others in his life. While watching Head On, the viewer rides the movie like a wave, experiencing Ari’s ups and downs as he goes through them. In this way, the film does a fantastic job in highlighting the fluid nature of identity and demonstrates the limits of static categories.

Men’s Lib: Re-imagining Masculinity

Recently, there have been calls in the press and in online forums to reconsider what it means to “be a man.” Some suggest that women’s access to the workforce and freedom from forced domesticity have resulted in a “weakened man,” whose role is no longer defined by the same social constructs. As the Newsweek article “Man’s Lib” points out, with the “mancession” of the last few years, the term metrosexual has faded off the popular radar and has been replaced by retrosexual, a desire to return to the image of the burly “masculine” Marlboro man — a man with a purpose, drive, strength, and dominance in the social sphere.

Brad Pitt with Children - A New Popular Image of Masculinity?

However, the two writers of the article, both men in the their twenties, suggest that the “musty” image of masculinity is no longer relevant in a world driven by technology — a world in which physical strength is no longer an indicator of success or even masculinity. Rather, the authors suggest that this new world offers an opportunity for men to explore other aspects of their personalities, such as embracing fatherhood, taking on more artistic projects that have personal value, or signing up for jobs that their fathers may have considered too feminine. The authors argue that do this policies will have to change at a government level (for example, extending parental leave to fathers). Yet, they note that greater gender parity will allow both men and women to embrace their individual identities in a less restrictive, categorical manner. (However, in writing the piece, the authors do in fact limit themselves to age-old identifiers of gender, perhaps for journalistic, storytelling purposes.)

Although this article may lean a bit to the romantic, it does highlight a new trend. A unscientific, 2010 survey on suggests that many of the sites readers (who I would suggest from a quick scan of the site are mostly heterosexual) view masculinity at a turning point:

Now collected, compiled and analyzed, the results of the survey suggest that modern-day manhood is made up of a range of discernible characteristics, some well-established and some still in emergence. More specifically, our findings indicate that “the new masculinity” is a combination of, on the one hand, “old-school” values such as honor, loyalty and hard work and, on the other hand, a more contemporary set of beliefs about gender roles at a time when they are changing both at home and on the job.

What most of these reports leave out, however, is that we are still defining masculinity through the lens of a heterosexual, male-female binary. Where does this leave men who identify as transgender or gay … or as feminine? Moreover, what elements of the old “masculine” category linger? Physique, wealth, honor? And what popular images define and support these notions? There is just not enough space in this post to explore these topics.

The point is, even as categories evolve, they still exist, meaning that men (and women) will continue to seek or shy away from recognition in terms of what has been deemed socially acceptably.

For further consideration:

“Mr Mom.” A 2010 New York Times article on shared parenting and gender equality. (By Lisa Belkin)

For further reading:

Connell, R.W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19.6 (2005): 829-859. Print.

Noble, Greg. “‘Countless acts of recognition’: young men, ethnicity and the messiness of identities in everyday life.”Social & Cultural Geography 10.8 (2009): 875-891. Print.

Romano, Andrew, and Tony Dokoupil. “Men’s Lib: Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity.” Newsweek 20 Sept. 2010: n. pag. Men’s Lib. Web. 13 Mar. 2011.

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