We are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of models attempting to define masculinity each day. Clearly, in the media there is a glorification of a small number of particular body types above all others. Also, the men that seem to be the “coolest” and most successful tend to be portrayed in mainstream pop culture as the most aggressive, dominant, and tough. Just like women, men are pressured to adapt to distinctive physical and behavioral standards in order to be socially accepted.
There are clear ideas prevalent in Western societies about physical features and stereotypical character traits a man has to have to be “a real man”. Unfortunately, an authentic concept of manliness which lies outside of gender-stereotypical attributions seems hard to grasp. What is manliness? At which cost is “a real man” produced? Is there any grief that comes with his production? To answer those questions, I let some men in my social environment speak for themselves. Although my survey is in no way representative due to its small size and its focus on a certain geographical region, age and level of education, the answers made me aware of some aspects which are useful for a deconstructive view on masculinity.
Even in 2015 there are many people who are convinced of the fact that there are character traits which are specifically – and to some people even exclusively – “male” or “female”. Still, there is a general societal acceptance of the belief that women are for example more emotional, soft, empathetic, and reactive in their actions than men. Men on the other side are considered to be rational, logical, and aggressive in their behavior and decision-making.
Some of the men I asked reproduced or indirectly referred to the stereotypes listed above:
“Being a man means to have a more logical and ‘colder’ overall approach to life.” Adam, 26
“Being assertive, not ducking down, not being whiny.” Georg, 65
“Responsibility.” Oliver, 23
On the other hand there also seemed to be a general sense of awareness among most of the men surveyed that masculinity is something that in some sense needs to be “produced” as it does not come to you naturally – one explanation for this awareness could lie in the composition of the sample which comprised mostly men with an academic education based in the humanities and/or gay/bisexual/queer men. Thus it became clear that a majority of those I asked are aware of the fact that the character traits listed above are mere stereotypes and that there is no such thing as a fixed and natural “male” or “female” personality:
“There is not much left of manliness if you subtract societal role expectations. Manliness is a concept that doesn’t play a role in my thinking. But most people would associate it with aggression, competitiveness, technical knowledge, and heterosexuality, I guess.” Neo, 28
“It means being authentic. I freely adopt ‚male‘ as well as ‚female‘ traits to form my own gender identity. Saying anything else would just be stereotypical or a quotation of insignificant statistical tendencies.” Björn, 31
“I experience masculinity as something artificial. Something that is imposed on you through societal norms.” Matthias, 28
Gender as an Interactive System
If being a man does not come to you naturally, but is something that needs to be performed, how can masculinity be achieved? According to Raewyn Connell, gender is constructed in interaction – it is an interactive system based on power and exclusion. Instead of speaking of gender identities, she sees gender as a system of multiple patterns of social practices and behaviors which need to be learned – for example through gendered socialization and repeated. Social settings in which masculinity is reproduced are for example football teams or armies, fostering an athletic form of masculinity and placing a focus on strength and physical power. Others are, amongst others, companies and governments, favoring the production of knowledge- and technology-oriented patterns of masculinity. For this reason there is no such thing as the “one and only” masculinity, instead there are multiple forms of “manliness” which often have a hierarchical relationship or compete against each other.
In this context, Connell sees gender as a system of hegemony/subordination, cooperation and marginalization/empowerment. With regard to gender stereotypes, masculinity is not to be understood as the sum of specific character traits, but as “configurations of practice which are accomplished in social action”. Masculinity – and gender as such – is dynamic in the sense that it undergoes historical development and is thus subject to change – and although this is where we can find potential for subversion in Connells approach, the change of constructions of masculinity and femininity over time does not automatically have to be for the better in the sense of greater equality.
For Connell, demands and limitations evolve around male dominated societies – this includes that men need to adapt to certain behavioural patterns and fulfil certain expectations in order to fit into the pattern of conduct which is considered superior within the social and cultural hierarchy of masculinity. By many, men are still put under the pressure to be solely active, courageous, outspoken, rational and so on, while at the same time denying them other equally important character traits which are stereotypically considered “female” and therefore weak.
“Manliness for me is a stereotypical societal projection of traits or certain expectations. Even aside from old-fashioned or outdated structures, you are still expected to be strong, to show leadership skills and so on. People are irritated if you don’t fulfill these expectations.” Philipp, 27
In her work “Gender and Power” and with reference to Antonio Gramsci, Connell calls this form of dominant masculinity hegemonic. Hegemonic masculinity is marked by cultural authority over other forms of masculinity which are produced in distinction from it and are consequently marginalized. Also women are central in many of the processes constructing masculinities.
“During a festival a woman walked by our tent. A friend of mine shouted at her: ‘Nice tits!’ Afterwards he looked at me like he wanted my approval. [sighs] I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to start an argument at this moment, but I just thought: ‘Why do you have to be like this?!’ It was embarrassing, rude, and inappropriate.” Dorian, 31
Some women may have masculinities (tomboys) and there is also a hegemonic femininity, but neither have the same cultural authority as hegemonic masculinity. This fact relates to the unequal opportunities of men and women. There are different strategies of hegemonic masculinity that women adapt to and there are reactionary forms of femininity that developed in reaction to dominant masculinity. Most often, the hegemonic – the most powerful – version of masculinity is heterosexual, whereas marginalized – rejected – forms of masculinity are frequently associated with being gay and frowned upon.
As mentioned above: there is not only one masculinity, but rather different patterns of masculinity, forming around different sets of skills and knowledge and competing for hegemony. This fact pressures many into feeling the need to live up to a standard which is an unattainable illusion, a mere cultural ideal.
“One part of being a man for me is constant comparison, an ongoing competition with other men concerning looks, strength, etc. This happens unconsciously and is something that is hard to stop.” Alexander, 23
The nature of hegemonic masculinity is dynamic, meaning that it can be challenged by other forms of masculinity that in time gain or lose their hegemonic power. Through its aggressive and dominant character and its enforcement though methods of brutalization and hardening, it aims at maintaining its privileged status.
“Hegemonic masculinity – I don’t find that concept easy to define. I guess for me it is a distinctive way to talk that does not allow for any other opinions except your own. It is for example saying: ‘This is my opinion and you have to accept it. Even if some part of me knows that you are right – I won’t change my opinion, no matter what!’” Max, 31
Pressure, Competition, Showmanship
If masculinity is nothing but a cultural construct, a behavioral pattern, how can authentic masculinity ever be achieved, especially if there is no basis for authenticity given? Clearly, a man who conforms to the hegemonic standards of society cannot be produced without losing something of himself.
The nature of hegemonic masculinity is aggressive, ruthless and bases itself on domination. Internalizing this behavioral pattern not only includes creating an image of yourself for everyone else to see reflecting those attributes, but also creating a certain self-concept – a mode of how you want to perceive the world around you. Thus, hegemonic masculinity always comes at a cost. If a man needs to conform to the social expectation of being unemotional, not vulnerable and always rational, and if he again and again needs to reassure himself and others of this fact through his actions and statements, this automatically means that he will lose a part of himself in this process. The reduction of your own complexity of character is one price you have to pay: being strong and in control and thick-skinned means not being able to be soft and passive and sensitive.
For some this loss is deep-felt and painful as they perceive societal expectations of how “a real man has to be” as harmful. They can distance themselves to a certain extent from the restrictive power of societal pressure to adapt to certain behavioral and physical expectations by means of articulation and/or by finding other forms of societal gratification through the adaption of alternate patterns of masculinity – which don’t have to be marginalized.
Others – in varying degrees consciously – seem to decide to conform to patters of hegemonic masculinity in order to find stability and to orientate themselves to the standards and role expectations that come with hegemonic masculinity, and this have the potential to reduce the complexity of social reality and the possibilities for action.
“Masculinity is one attempt among many to find your own place in life.” Christian, 29
Yet others seem to be unaware of the harmful consequences of hegemonic patterns of masculinity for themselves and others around them, and have internalized hegemonic social-role expectations. In the course of this internalization the loss of parts of themselves becomes unconscious. Thorough self-reflection could be one measure to prevent falling into patterns of “toxic” hegemonic masculinity.
Connell, Raewyn. (1987). Gender and Power. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.
R.W. Connell – “Masculinities”: Relations within Masculinity. (2011). http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.de/2011/07/rw-connell-masculinities-relations.html
Masculinities – Raewyn Connell interview at Women’s Worlds 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1U03DIXQfo8