In gender studies, hegemonic masculinity is a concept popularized by sociologist R.W. Connell identifying practices that, it is argued, guarantee the dominant social position of men, and the subordinate social position of women. Conceptually, hegemonic masculinity proposes to explain how and why men maintain dominant social roles over women, and other gender identities, which are perceived as “feminine” in a given society.
As a sociologic concept, the hegemonic nature of “hegemonic masculinity” derives from the theory of cultural hegemony, by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, which analyzes the power relations among the social classes of a society. Hence, in the term “hegemonic masculinity”, the adjective hegemonic refers to the cultural dynamics by means of which a social group claims, and sustains, a leading and dominant position in a social hierarchy; nonetheless, hegemonic masculinity embodies a form of social organization that has been sociologically challenged and changed.
The conceptual beginnings of hegemonic masculinity represented the culturally idealized form of manhood that was socially and hierarchically exclusive and concerned with bread-winning; that was anxiety-provoking and differentiated (internally and hierarchically); that was brutal and violent, pseudo-natural and tough, psychologically contradictory, and thus crisis-prone; economically rich and socially sustained.
Yet, sociologists criticized that definition of hegemonic masculinity as a fixed character-type, which is analytically limited, because it excludes the complexity of different, and competing, forms of masculinity. Consequently, hegemonic masculinity was reformulated to include gender hierarchy, the geography of masculine configurations, the processes of social embodiment, and the psycho-social dynamics of the varieties of masculinity. Moreover, proponents argue that hegemonic masculinity is conceptually useful for understanding gender relations, and is applicable to life-span development, education, criminology, the representations of masculinity in the mass communications media, the health of men and women, and the functional structure of organizations.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Criticisms
- 3 Reformulation
- 4 Lifespan development
- 5 Applications
- 6 See also
- 7 References
The concept of hegemonic masculinity first was proposed in field reports from a study of social inequality in Australian high schools; in a related conceptual discussion of the making of masculinities and the experiences of men’s bodies; and in a debate over the role of men in Australian labor politics. These beginnings were organized into an article which critiqued the “male sex role” literature and proposed a model of multiple masculinities and power relations. This model was integrated into a systematic sociological theory of gender. The resulting six pages in Gender and Power by R. W. Connell on “hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity” became the most cited source for the concept of hegemonic masculinity. This concept draws its theoretical roots from the Gramscian term hegemony as it was used to understand the stabilization of class relations. The idea was then transferred to the problem of gender relations.
Hegemonic masculinity draws some of its historical roots from both the fields of social psychology and sociology which contributed to the literature about the male sex role that had begun to recognize the social nature of masculinity and the possibilities of change in men’s conduct. This literature preceded the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminist theories of patriarchy which also played a strong role in shaping the concept of hegemonic masculinity. The core concepts of power and difference were found in the gay liberation movement which had not only sought to analyze the oppression of men but also oppression by men. This idea of a hierarchy of masculinities has since persisted and strongly influenced the reformulation of the concept.
Empirical social research also played an important role as a growing body of field studies documented local gender hierarchies and local cultures of masculinities in schools, male-dominated workplaces, and village communities. Finally, the concept was influenced by psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud produced the first analytic biographies of men and showed how adult personality was a system under tension and psychoanalyst Stoller popularized the concept of gender identity and mapped its variation in boys’ development.
Originally, hegemonic masculinity was understood as the pattern of practice that allowed men’s dominance over women to continue. In Western society, the dominant form of masculinity or the cultural ideal of manhood was primarily reflective of white, heterosexual, largely middle-class males. The ideals of manhood espoused by the dominant masculinity suggested a number of characteristics that men are encouraged to internalize into their own personal codes and which form the basis for masculine scripts of behavior. These characteristics include: violence and aggression, stoicism (emotional restraint), courage, toughness, risk-taking, adventure and thrill-seeking, competitiveness, and achievement and success. Within that overall framework there were also specific gender relations of dominance and subordination between groups of men. The most salient example of this approach in contemporary European and American society is the dominance of heterosexual men and the subordination of homosexual men. This was manifested in political and cultural exclusion, legal violence, street violence, and economic discrimination. Gay masculinity was the most conspicuous subordinated masculinity during this period of time, but not the only one. Heterosexual men and boys with effeminate characteristics ran the risk of being scorned as well.
Complicity to the aforementioned masculine characteristics was another key feature of the original framework of hegemonic masculinity. Most men do not actually meet the normative standards of hegemonic masculinity and the number practicing the hegemonic pattern may be quite small. Yet still since men benefit from the patriarchal dividend, they generally gain from the overall subordination of women. However, complicity is not so easily defined as pure subordination since marriage, fatherhood, and community life often involve extensive compromises with women rather than simple domination over them. In this way hegemony is not gained through necessarily violent or forceful means, but it is achieved through culture, institutions, and persuasions.
The interplay of gender with class and race creates more extensive relationships among masculinities. For example, new information technology has redefined middle-class masculinities and working-class masculinities in different ways. In a racial context, hegemonic masculinity among whites sustains the institutional oppression and physical terror that have framed the making of masculinities in black communities. It has been suggested that historically suppressed groups like inner city African-American males exhibit the more violent standards of hegemonic masculinity in response to their own subordination and lack of control. This idea of marginalization is always relative to what is allowed by the dominant group, therefore creating subsets of hegemonic masculinity based on existing social hierarchies.
As the earliest model of this concept grew, so did the scrutiny and criticisms surrounding it. The following principal criticisms have been identified since debate about the concept began in the early 1990s.
Underlying concept of masculinity
The underlying concept of masculinity has been argued as flawed from both a realist and a poststructuralist point of view. To Hearn, the concept of masculinity is blurred, uncertain in its meaning, and tends to deemphasize issues of power and domination. To Petersen, the concept of masculinity is flawed because it reduces the character of men or imposes a false unity of a fluid and contradictory reality. The concept of masculinity is criticized for being framed within a heteronormative conception of gender that oversimplified male-female difference and ignores differences and exclusions within the gender categories. The concept of masculinity is said to rest logically on a dichotomization of sex (biological) and gender (cultural) and thus marginalizes or naturalizes the body. Brod observes that there is a tendency in men’s studies field to proceed as if women were not a relevant part of the analysis and therefore to analyze masculinities by looking only at men and relations among men. Therefore a consistently relational approach to gender is being called upon.
Ambiguity and overlap
Early criticisms of the concept raised the question of who actually represents hegemonic masculinity. Many men who hold great social power do not embody an ideal masculinity. Martin criticizes the concept for leading to inconsistent applications sometimes referring to a fixed type and other times to whatever the dominant form is. Wetherell and Edley contend this concept fails to specify what conformity to hegemonic masculinity actually looks like in practice. Similarly Whitehead suggests there is confusion over who actually is a hegemonically masculine man.
The problem of realness
It has also been argued that the concept of hegemonic masculinity does not adequately describe a realness of power. Holter argues that the concept constructs power from the direct experience of women rather than from the structural basis of women’s subordination. Holter believes in distinguishing between patriarchy and gender and argues further that it is a mistake to treat a hierarchy of masculinities constructed within gender relations as logically continuous with the patriarchal subordination of women. In response to the adverse connotations surrounding the concept, Collier remarks that hegemonic masculinity is solely associated with negative characteristics that depict men as unemotional, aggressive, independent, and non-nurturing without recognizing positive behaviors such as bringing home a wage or being a father.
The masculine subject
Several authors have argued that the concept of hegemonic masculinity is based on an unsatisfactory theory of the subject because it does not rely enough upon discourses of masculinity. Wetherell and Edley argue that hegemonic masculinity cannot be understood as the characteristics that constitute any group of men. To Whitehead the concept fails to specify how and why some heterosexual men legitimate, reproduce, and generate their dominance and do so as a social minority since they are outnumbered by women and other men they dominate. A related criticism also derives from psychoanalysis which has criticized the lack of attention given to how men actually psychologically relate to hegemonic masculinity.
The pattern of gender relations
There is considerable evidence that hegemonic masculinity is not a self-reproducing form. Demetriou suggests this is because a kind of simplification has occurred. He identifies two forms of hegemony, internal and external. External hegemony relates to the institutionalization of men’s dominance over women and internal hegemony refers to the position of one group of men over all other men. Scholars commonly do not clarify or acknowledge the relationship between the two. This suggests that subordinated and marginalized masculinities do not impact the construction of hegemonic masculinity as much as critics suggest it should.
In one of the most widely cited works analyzing the concept, Connell and Messerschmidt sought to reformulate their theory of hegemonic masculinity in light of certain criticisms. They readjusted their framework to address four main areas: the nature of gender hierarchy, the geography of masculine configurations, the process of social embodiment, and the dynamics of masculinities.
Gender hierarchy seeks to explain not only why men hold a superior position to women but how each group influences one another. Research has documented the durability of nonhegemonic patterns of masculinity, which may represent well-crafted responses to racial/ethnic marginalization, physical disability, class inequality, or stigmatized sexuality. Hegemony may be accomplished by the incorporation of such masculinities into functioning gender order rather than by active oppression in the form of degradation or violence. An example would include that of the mainstream adoption of black hip hop culture which was created in response to urban structural inequalities. Another example is that of “protest masculinity” in which local working-class settings, sometimes involving ethnically marginalized men, embodies the claim to power typical of regional hegemonic masculinities in Western countries, but lack the economic resources and institutional authority that underpins the regional and global patterns.
This new emphasis on gender hierarchy seeks to take a more relational approach to women as well. Women are central in many of the processes constructing masculinities, as mothers, schoolmates, girlfriends, sexual partners, wives, and workers in the gender division of labor. Gender hierarchies are affected by new configurations of women’s identity and practice so more attention has been given to the historical interplay of femininities and masculinities.
Geography of masculinities
Change in locally specific constructions of hegemonic masculinity has been a consistent theme of masculinity research, but given the growing attention to globalization, the significance of transnational arenas for the construction of masculinity has also been argued. Hooper described the deployment of masculinities in the arenas of international relations and Connell proposed a model of “transnational business masculinity” among jet-setting corporate executives. Because of this, Connell and Messerschmidt have proposed hegemonic masculinities be analyzed at three levels: local, regional, and global. The links between these levels are critical to gender politics since interventions at any level giving women more power and representation can influence from the top down or from the bottom up. Additionally, adopting a framework that distinguishes between the three levels allows one to recognize the importance of place without making generalizations about independent cultures or discourses.
Social embodiment calls for a more rigid definition of what a hegemonically masculine man is and how the idea is actually carried out in real life. The pattern of embodiment involved in hegemony has been recognized in the earliest formulations of the concept but called for more theoretical attention. The importance of masculine embodiment for identity and behavior emerges in many contexts. For example, in youth, skill in physical activity becomes a prime indicator of masculinity. This notion continues to manifest itself into many different health and sexual practices such as eating meat or having multiple sexual partners. The emergence of transgender issues has made it particularly clear that embodiment be given more focus in reconceptualizations. The circuits of social embodiment may be very direct and simple or may be long and complex, passing through institutions, economic relations, cultural symbols, and so forth without ceasing to involve material bodies.
Dynamics of masculinities
New theory has recognized the layering and potential internal contradictions within all practices that construct masculinities. This is a departure from a unitary masculinity and focus on compromised formations between contradictory desires or emotions. Masculinities are configurations of practice that are constructed, unfold, and change through time. One area of focus may represent that of Western fathers given the gender division of labor in child care, the “long hours culture” of professions and management, and the preoccupation of rich fathers with managing their wealth. While these practices may adhere to conventional Western ideas of hegemonic masculinity, this may not necessarily translate into a satisfying life experience. As gender relations evolve and women’s movements grow stronger, the dynamics of masculinities may see a complete abolition of power differentials and a more equitable relationship between men and women and between men and other men. This positive hegemony remains a key strategy for contemporary efforts at reforming gender relations.
Children learn at an early age, mostly through educational and peer interactions, what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl, and are quick to demonstrate that they understand these roles. This notion of “doing” gender involves differentiating between boys and girls from the day they are born and perpetuating the discourses of gender difference. The idea of dualism of the genders are misconstrued by dominant ideology and feeds into social norms of masculinity. Children learn and show development of gender identity as an ongoing process, based on social situations. Gendered toys can play a large role in demonstrating the preferred actions and behavior of young boys in early childhood. The male role is also reinforced by observing older boys and reactions of authority figures, including parents.
Although gender socialization is well underway before children reach preschool, stereotypical differences between boys and girls are typically reinforced, rather than diminished, by their early educational childhood experiences. Teachers have a large role in reinforcing gender stereotypes by limiting children’s choices at this young age, thus not allowing boys to explore their feelings or their understandings about gender freely. This is done through the endorsement of hegemonic masculinity embodying physical domination, strength, competitiveness, sport, courage, and aggression. These gendered performances are based on society’s construction of femininity and masculinity in relation to heterosexuality. Heteronormativity is the standard for children; despite their obvious sexual innocence, heterosexuality is engrained in children in their acting of gender from an early age.
Another factor that contributes to gendered behavior and roles is the greater visibility, importance, and presence of males than females in literature, and in the language that teachers use for communication and instruction. Male-generic pronouns are a special problem in early childhood settings. A recommended method to help gender barriers disappear is specific training for teachers and more education on the topic for parents. Though, an ultimate conclusion by one author notes that young children know, feel, and think gender despite the wishes of adults to make gender disappear in their lives.
A lifespan perspective must be considered when discussing gender normalization. But one must also consider cultural hegemony in this stage of the lifespan as a child develops more of an understanding of their culture and begins to display original ideas of cultural norms as well as social norms. According to the constructivist emphasis, the man/woman dichotomy is not the ‘natural’ state, but rather a potent metaphor in Western cultures. Building social relationships and developing individuality are essential benchmarks for this age of middle childhood, which ranges from eight years old to puberty. A young boy is trying to navigate falling within the social structure that has been laid out for him, which includes interacting with both sexes, and a dominant notion of maleness. The gender environmentalism, which emphasizes the role of societal practices in generating and maintaining gender differentiation, still plays a part in this stage of life, but is possibly more influenced by immediate and close interactions with boys close to their age. The boys organize themselves in a hierarchical structure in which the high-status boys decide what is acceptable and valued- that which is hegemonically masculine- and what is not. A boy’s rank in the hierarchy is chiefly determined by his athletic ability.
When a child engages in behavior or uses something that is more often associated with the opposite sex, this is referred to as crossing gender borders. When gender borders are crossed in adolescence, the children are policed by themselves. Conflicts and disagreements between boys are resolved by name-calling and teasing, physical aggression, and exclusion from the group. This brings confusion to the natural order of building their individualism, and stifles their creativity and freeplay, critical to developing lifelong skills in problem solving and decision making. Another notion which further confuses youth is ‘multiple masculinities’ is introduced where variables such as social class, race, ethnicity, generation, and family status determines how these young men must perform their masculinity. Boys who fail to fit the social norm are forced to enter adolescence having experienced alienation from their social group and marginalized from the social order they strive to achieve in this stage of life.
The last stage of childhood, adolescence, marks the onset of puberty and the eventual beginning of adulthood. Hegemonic masculinity then positions some boys, and all girls, as subordinate or inferior to others. Bullying is another avenue in which young men assert their dominance over less “masculine” boys. In this bullying schema, adolescent boys are motivated to be at the top of the scale by engaging in more risk taking activities as well. Oftentimes bullying is motivated by social constructs and generalized ideas of what a young man should be. Gendered sexuality in adolescence refers to the role gender takes in the adolescent’s life and how it is informed by and impacts others' perceptions of their sexuality. This can lead to gay bashing and other forms of discrimination if young men seem not to perform the appropriate masculinity.
The male gender role is not biologically fixed, yet it is a result of the internalization of culturally defined gender norms and ideologies. In this stage this is an important point as developmental psychologists recognize change in relations with parents, peers, and even their own self-identity. This is a time of confusion and disturbance; they feel influenced as a result of asserted hegemonic masculinity as well as social factors that lead them to become more self-conscious. Keeping this in mind, there have been some studies which indicate that the males who adopt traditional male role norms have adjustment issues later in life. De Visser et al., show that although men need not engage in all masculine behavior to be considered masculine, enacting in more masculine behaviors increases the likelihood they will be considered more masculine, otherwise known as building “masculine capital”. It has been suggested that boys’ emotional stoicism leaves them unable to recognize their own and others’ emotions, which leaves a risk for developing psychological distress and empty interpersonal skills. Boys in their adolescence are pressured to act masculine in order to fit the hegemonic ideals, yet the possibility of suffering long-term psychological damage as a result looms overhead.
Hegemonic masculinity has been used in education studies to understand the dynamics of classroom life, including patterns of resistance and bullying among boys. It was also used to explore relations to the curriculum and the difficulties in gender-neutral pedagogy. It was used to understand teaching strategies and teacher identities among such groups as physical education instructors. This concept has also been helpful in structuring violence-prevention programs for youth. and emotional education programs for boys.
Hegemonic masculinity has greatly influenced criminology as data reflect that men and boys perpetuate more conventional crimes and more serious crimes than women and girls. Moreover, men are responsible for much more white-collar crimes than women as well. The concept of hegemonic masculinity helped in theorizing the relationship among masculinities and a variety of crimes. It was also used in studies on specific crimes by boys and men, such as rape in Switzerland, murder in Australia, football hooliganism and white-collar crime in England, and assaultive violence in the United States. Regarding costs and consequences, research in criminology showed how particular patterns of aggression were linked with hegemonic masculinity, not because criminals already had dominant positions, but because they were pursuing them.
Media and sports
Hegemonic masculinity has also been employed in studying media representations of men. Because the concept of hegemony helps to make sense of both the diversity and the selectiveness of images in mass media, media researchers have begun mapping the relations between different masculinities. Portrayals of masculinity in men’s lifestyle magazines have been studied and researchers found elements of hegemonic masculinity woven throughout them. Commercial sports are a focus of media representations of masculinity, and the developing field of sports sociology found significant use of the concept of hegemonic masculinity. It was deployed in understanding the popularity of body-contact confrontational sports which function as an endlessly renewed symbol of masculinity and in understanding the violence and homophobia frequently found in sporting environments.
Hegemonic masculinity has been increasingly used to understand men’s health practices and determinants. Practices such as playing through physical injuries and risk-taking sexual behavior such as unprotected sex with multiple partners have been studied. The concept has also been used to understand men’s exposure to risk and their difficulty in responding to disability and injury. Applying this concept can also explain why men avoid talking about health problems or consulting health care when it is needed. On a global scale, the impact of hegemonic masculinity has been considered in determining unequal social and political relations which are deleterious to the health of both men and women.
Hegemonic masculinity has proved significant in organizational studies as the gendered character of workplaces and bureaucracies has been increasingly recognized. A particular focus has been placed on the military, where specific patterns of hegemonic masculinity have been entrenched but have been increasingly problematic. These studies found that negative hegemonically masculine characteristics related to violence and aggression were required to thrive in the military at all ranks and in all branches. Additionally homophobic ideals were commonplace and further subordinated men in these positions. Studies have also traced the institutionalization of hegemonic masculinities in specific organizations and their role in organizational decision making. This can be related to the glass ceiling and gender pay gap women experience.
War, International Relations, and Militarism
Hegemonic masculinity has impacted both conflict and international relations, serving as a foundation for militarism. Charlotte Hooper discusses how US foreign policy, following the Vietnam War, was seen as a way of bolstering America’s manhood. It was believed that the Vietcong, often categorized “as a bunch of women and children,” had humiliated and emasculated America. In order to regain its manhood – both domestically and internationally –America needed to develop a hyper-masculinized and aggressive breed of foreign policy. Hooper also discusses the idea that since the international sphere is largely composed of men, it may greatly shape both “the production and maintenance of masculinities.” War, then, exists in a unique feedback loop whereby it is not only perpetuated by hegemonic masculinity, but also legitimates masculinity.
Hooper discusses how military combat has been fundamental to the very composition of masculinity, “symbolically, institutionally,” and culturally through body shape. Moreover, Hooper discusses how women are seen as life givers, while men are believed to be life takers. Men then, can only exist as men, if they are willing to charge into war, thereby expressing their “enduring ‘natural aggression.’ Furthermore, this perception also explains the traditional “exclusion of women from combat,” while furthering the myth “that military service is the fullest expression of masculinity.” This has troubling implications for the continuation of war, and for the enshrinement of masculine norms. Hooper also ideates about the instillation of militarized masculinity in boys, discussing how military service is a “rite of passage” for young men. As such, “war and the military represent one of the major sites where hegemonic masculinities” are formed and enshrined.
Militarized hegemonic masculinity has also impacted perceptions of citizenship as well as the LGBT community. Conscription is fairly common throughout the world, and has also been utilized in America during key conflicts. The majority of men expect conscription to be the price of adult citizenship, but religious objectors and homosexuals have been largely excluded from this. These restrictions have led to the perceived subordinate status of these groups, and their subsequent exclusion from full citizenship, in the same fashion that women have been excluded. This is reflective of the notion that men unable to, or unwilling to fight for their country are more effeminate, as they are breaking with hegemonic norms. The perceptions that homosexuals are unfit for service, and that women have a responsibility at home, is reflective of the heteronormative nature of the military. The institutional composition of the military, itself, reinforces this hegemony through the armed branch’s subordination to a “dominating and organizationally competent” branch. Essentially, there is an armed wing, which is masculinized through conflict, and there is a dominating branch that is masculinized through power. The hierarchical nature of the military is used to enforce, replicate, and enhance hegemonic masculinity.
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