What is Masculinity?
Daniela Gennrich explains that ‘masculinity’ refers to what it means to be a man as defined by specific socio-cultural contexts (Gennrich, 2013). Several socio-cultural norms influence how societies view what it means to be a man of which vary, and often include sexual identity, family life, as well as religious and cultural beliefs (Gennrich, 2013). Boys are often taught what constitutes socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for males, and this is reinforced by the dominant [hegemonic] masculinity within society (Gennrich, 2013). Importantly, when this paper refers to hegemonic masculinity and the variants of masculinities it by no mean assumes or suggests that all men necessarily ascribe to the views and traits described.
A dominant form of masculinity suggests there are those that are subservient. Different kinds of masculinities possess different levels of power (Gennrich, 2013; Morrell, 1998). Professor Robert Morrell of the University of Natal identifies four types (Morrell, 1998). Hegemonic masculinity is the dominant form often held in the collective consciousness of members of society that designates boundaries and qualifiers of what it takes to be considered the “ideal man” (Gennrich, 2011; Morrell, 1998). Understandably, this kind of masculinity, has received critique (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Kupers, 2010), and that through reinforcement it can negatively affect the well-being of boys and men (Haenfler, 2004; Nagel, 2003). Hegemonic masculinity enforces the notion that to be considered a “real man” a male must necessarily express certain traits including a high sex drive (men having multiple sexual encounters), authority, aggressiveness, strength, and competitiveness (Brenner, 2016; Cook, 2006). These are celebrated in sports culture within which strength and skill are valued and often required to defeat opponents (Bryson, 1987; English, 2017).
Importantly, traits ascribed to hegemonic masculinity are not necessarily always negative. Hegemonic traits such as competitiveness and strength, for example, are not necessarily destructive and/or oppressive, and can be shown to be necessary at times. Issues arise when such traits come at the expense of appropriate emotional expression which can negatively affect the psychological well-being of boys and men.
Morrell identifies three other masculinities held by boys and men within South African society (Morrell, 1998). Complicit masculinity includes those who are aware of the traits and characteristics, both positive and negative, of hegemonic masculinity and how it influences society but do not challenge its presence or advocate any form of social change (Morrell, 1998). Subordinate masculinity refers to those boys and men who evidently fail to achieve or live up to the dominant notion and expectations of what it is to be the “ideal man/male” (homosexual men and effeminate men fall into category) (Morrell, 1998). Lastly, marginal masculinity shares numerous traits ascribed to hegemonic masculinity (competitiveness, lack of compassion, avoidance of weakness) except they appear in males who belong to exploited and oppressed groups (men who are unemployed, immigrants, and in gangs) (Morrell, 1998).
Arguably closely aligned to certain expressions of hegemonic masculinity is toxic masculinity (Kupers, 2001). This masculinity says that men are to be unemotional, violent, sexually aggressive, and must avoid appearing weak and/or feminine (Kupers, 2005). Professor Terry Kupers is a lead researcher on toxic masculinity and explains that it is “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence” (Kupers, 2005, p. 714). As Kupers shows, this masculinity is witnessed in the regular occurrence of fights in prison yards, assaults on wardens, prison rape, and other hyper-competitive interactions between male inmates (Kupers, 2005). Similarly to hegemonic masculinity, toxic masculinity likewise enforces a restriction of the emotional expression of men and boys, and suggests that for males to be considered ‘real men’ they must be dominant and easily exert anger (Wong et al., 2017).
Brenner, H. (2016). It’s Good, I’m Straight, I’m Thinking About Girls, and I’m Masturbating. Heterosexual Masculinity, Pornography, and Doing Gender. Journal of Men’s Studies, 15(1), 57–70.
Connell, R. & Messerschmidt, J. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859.
Cook, I. (2006). Western Heterosexual Masculinity, Anxiety, and Web Porn. Journal of Men’s Studies, 14(1), 47-63
Gennrich, D. (2013). Men and Masculinities in South Africa: Essays and Perspectives. PACSA and Sonke Gender Justice Network. Retrieved from pacsa.org.za/images/docs/men_and_masculinities_in_south_africa_volume_2.pdf
Haenfler, R. (2004). Manhood in Contradiction: The Two Faces of Straight Edge. Men and Masculinities, 7(1), 77-99.
Kupers, T. (2005). Toxic masculinity as a barrier to mental health treatment in prison. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(6), 713–724
Kupers, T. (2010). Role of Misogyny and Homophobia in Prison Sexual Abuse. UCLA Women’s Law Journal, 18(1), 107–30.
Morrell, R. (1998). Of Boys and Men: Masculinity and Gender in Southern African Studies. Journal of Southern African Studies, 24(4),
Nagel, J. (2003). Sex and Nationalism: Sexually Imagined Communities. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality. Cary, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press.
Wong, Y., Ho, M., Wang, S. & Miller, I. (2017). Meta-Analyses of the Relationship Between Conformity to Masculine Norms and Mental Health-Related Outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(1), 80-93.
This is a nice overview of the topic. I appreciate your attention to nuance, and the balanced way you parsed the argument. I’ve written a few blogs related to this, and actually just yesterday published one on hegemonic masculinity, so I was pleased to see this entry! My central argument is that women play a vital role in the liberation of masculinity from its tradition of hegemony. I try to show that sometimes we’re given a bad wrap or treated unfairly, admittedly due to the (perfectly reasonable) expectation of hegemonic intentions. But this expectation can be counter-productive, so to aid in the evolution of masculinity men need women’s help, an empathetic hand toward a more balanced identity.
Appreciated. It’s only a tiny part of my original essay which I’ll be releasing here over the next few weeks. I think I would benefit from engaging some of your own blog posts. I look forward to it.
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