Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Multiplicities of Masculinit(ies)

When Emily announced the theme of the month for August, I was really excited. After all, masculinity- and especially the carefully-guarded, narrowly-defined masculinity of the White trendsetting elite- was the focus of my 80-page undergraduate honours thesis. The way masculinities interact with each other and with particular types of femininity plays a fascinating role (at least from my perspective) in a broader pattern of sex-based discrimination that punishes everyone who deviates from this elite "norm." So here, belated and in brief, is a summary of some of the ideas that I proposed in that text a few years ago- and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

A lot of what I wrote- and continue to believe- about masculinities was informed by Gramsci's notion of hegemony; that is, a social structure in which multiple groups/clusters/subsets compete for dominance over the others. Think of it like the stereotypical midwestern high school- the White cheerleaders and football players are the school's elite, with other social categories (band geeks, goths, nerds, artists) forming their own cliques that function at a level of "hipness" lower than that of the cheerleader/jock crowd. The elite set the rules, and to a certain extent everyone follows them- whether it's buying Hollister clothes because the quarterback did, or refusing to buy them for the exact same reason (depending on your clique). With masculinities, I argue, it's the same way. The cheerleader/quarterback equivalent is some variant on the handsome, upwardly mobile, relatively affluent, heterosexual White man, and all other male categories are defined by differentiating themselves from this unspoken norm.

What I spent most of my thesis discussing, however, was the role that metrosexuality played in both challenging that norm and highlighting how that norm relied on sexism in order to maintain its dominant position in the hegemony. Remember the metrosexual? He was an urban male, usually affluent and White, and took on many of the characteristics of gay stereotypes (fashion-conscious, single, good cook, sensitive and unafraid of crying) while up-and-down claiming his heterosexuality. For a long time he received media attention and accusations for being a clown, being in the closet, or for creating new terms such as "manscaping" at the salon. He also received a great deal of hostility for not being a "real man" and for being the poster boy for- gasp!- the downfall of the Great American Man.

Now, point #1- that metrosexuality blatantly challenged the unspoken masculine norm- is fairly easy to discuss. Even the defining characteristics of a metrosexual, and the stiffly straight-laced men from whom he had "evolved," demonstrate that masuclinity isn't a homogeneous entity. Does making millions of dollars at an investment firm make you more of a man, say, than the guy who makes minimum wage doing difficult construction work? Each would answer differently. What about being a boxer, or a Rasta, or a Marine? Those put you in different categories of masculinity, to be sure, but in a knock-down, drag-out fight for power between the "norm" previously mentioned and, let's say, a gangster in LA, my money would be on the gangster- even though the norm should win according to how much of a man American society claims he is. The power wielded by the elite is temporary at best, and tends to be maintained by creating the illusion that the norm is something to be attained at any cost. The metrosexual- one of the most visible social groups to be heard on a massive scale- deliberately defined himself in opposition to many of masculinity's most prized characteristics, including stoic, strong, and hardworking, and essentially taunted the norm with the question, "Whatcha gonna DO about it?"

The challenge comes in point #2- that masculinities are often created at the expense of all non-masculinities. To use the most culturally blunt of terms, metrosexuals dove in at the deep end of (urban, affluent, White, magazine-generated) femininity. Waxing at the salon? Diets? Fashion? Shoes and handbags? This is the terminology that America has assigned cis women for decades. Metrosexuals embraced it wholeheartedly. What is interesting is how cis men of all stripes- not just the elite, but of a variety of races and American cultural backgrounds- united in their response to metrosexuality. No cheers, no talk of equality. No, the response was uniformly negative, often downright homophobic, and condemned these "sissy" men for their unmanly behaviour. Real men, all other men seemed to say, have more pride than to act like a woman.

And that's the crux of what metrosexuality did- and does- in managing to have more of a voice in mainstream media for a while than pretty much any other "alternative" masculinity: it pointed out that masculinity exists in stark contrast to that shameful Other, femininity. Men in trendy shoes and concealer were responsible for single-handedly destroying the last of the Great American Men because they were an indication that Men were turning into women...and that was unacceptable. Men might be in crisis, might have lost their way, but at least they hadn't become women. Until the metrosexual. In short, the metrosexual was the beginning of the end of the American social patriarchy.

I bring this post in at the end of the month because I think the (very convoluted) ideas I've set forth point out a lot of the challenges that Not Another Wave takes on. When we say "masculinity," we're often referring to a social norm that is very culturally, racial-culturally, bodily, sexuality, geographically, and economically defined- but we almost never realize that. We're also all too willing to talk about how cis boys are growing up psychologically damaged by the restrictive expectations that come with impending manhood, but fail to realize the broader implications that this has for everyone, masculine or otherwise. Segregating emotions and activities by sex and gender hurts everyone involved, but I believe it's significant that the worst insult you could call a man is a woman. As it currently stands, elite masculinity- and many of the other masculinities competing for power in its wake- gains a significant amount of standing because of its dominance over not only other masculinities, but all femininities as well.

So some questions I have for you then, to discuss at will: if this is true, do we need to dismantle masculinities in order to achieve sex and gender equality? How do non-binary gender expressions fit into this power hierarchy? What kind of additional pressure for maintenance is generated for males who apparently "have it all" in the masculinity department? How are the rules for dominant/elite masculinities set?

1 comment:

  1. Erica, you are absolutely right about the psychological damage that is done to boys who don't fit the rigid Boy Code and its gender straitjacketing (see Dr. Pollack's book 'Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood'). Loved the post! I guess you could consider me somewhat of a metro. Heterosexual? Yes. Afraid of doing things normally seen as 'feminine'? Not really.

    I almost wonder if we should stop using masculine and feminine as terms. But at the same time, I am quite uneasy about it. I think we just need a standard for both terms that fits.