Hegemonic masculinity is literally killing men, so we look at the people changing, challenging and re-establishing the gendered order
19 Noviembre 2017 10:00
Let's examine masculinity. In this context, masculinity being an unfixed, performative way of ‘doing’ gender, rather than a biologically determined attribute of maleness.
With suicide rates among men being almost double that of women globally, and the biggest killer among 20-49-year-olds in the UK alone, the unique pressures of ‘acting like a man’ have created an epidemic. Boys don’t cry, right? Women are habitually the victims of a toxic masculinity, but men are too. The notion that there is the right way to be a man, and the wrong way, is quite literally costing lives. So, when we talk about damaging hegemonic masculinity in relation to other masculinities, we’re talking about the difference between a constructed position of power and ascendancy that only a small number of men have access to, compared with all the individual ways of performing one’s gender.
Scholars R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt describe hegemonic masculinity as embodying ‘the currently most honoured way of being a man, it requires all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimates the global subordination of women to men.’ Think straight, white male. There is also a ‘hierarchy of masculinities’, they argue, that was directly born out of the gay male experience, whereby biological men couldn’t enjoy the benefits of maleness because of their sexuality. What is so plaguing about hegemonic, or normative, masculinity is that it is free-floating, immaterial, disembodied, yet entrenched in every aspect of our lives. We often can’t put a name on it, but it’s always there.
Although there have been strides in the fightback against the pervasiveness of systemic masculinism, there is still a lot of work to do. Here, we look at seven cultural figures who are changing, shifting and challenging normative masculinity - for the good, and the bad.
Yes, really. On the surface Donald Trump may present himself like the chest-beating, misogynist, pussy-grabbing neanderthal that we’ve all come to know, and while he is all of those things, there is more to it than meets the eye. Trump’s election to power, and his subsequent gaffe-ridden presidency, put a spotlight on the ways he constantly attempts to establish and reinstate his male dominance. The former reality TV star profoundly illustrates how masculinity is a performance, a panicked production of power, that is always in a state of defensive aggression. Far from being a comfortable picture of self-assurance, Trump allows us to see the building blocks of (white) heteronormative masculinity manufacturing; a fragile ego teamed with an exaggerated sense of grandeur. Even Trump’s speaking style, which is inarticulate and fragmented, indicates a man uncomfortable living up to the ‘male’ standards he has set himself. And, if you needed any more convincing, his tangerine-tinted glow suggests he likes a sunbed or two as well.
Rapper Young Thug has been waking waves for his gender-bending aesthetic within the hip hop community. He has swapped the surface-level machismo typically seen from his contemporaries with an eccentric style of dress, and even famously announced that he would be wearing a frock to his wedding, just like his bride. Publications like Dazed have showered praise on Young Thug for his disruptive identity within this historically misogynist and homophobic genre. He told Dazed: ‘You could be a gangster with a dress, you could be a gangster with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.’ Young Thug subscribes to feminist academic Judith Butler’s theory that ‘all gender is like drag, or is drag’. In other words, dressing in typical ‘feminine’ clothes highlights the imitative and self-aware ways we live our gender. At the same time, however, Young Thug’s music and lyrics are often deeply misogynist, so perhaps such feminine performance is only skin-deep.
The recently-elected French President has come to represent the New Man. The Modern Man. A sensitive, cultured, extremely white, excessively palatable leader of a generationally-shifting political landscape. Unlike the powerful leaders of Yore, Macron is an archetype for soft masculinity; old-style shows of strength like that of Vladimir Putin and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy are becoming outdated and old-fashioned. Asserting his lukewarm support of social issues like feminism, immigrant activism and working class mobility, while actually occupying the privilege of his predecessors, has enabled Macron’s rise (and inevitable fall). He is matched by his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau in creating a young, articulate and stable WASP-esque leader who finds more success the more emotional he is. Tight-lipped sternness is out. Macron’s relationship with his wife Brigitte, who is nearly 25 years his senior and his former high school teacher, also subverts the typical older-man-with-younger-women trope.
Yeezy is as complex as celebrity and success get. Kanye West’s transition from down-and-out rapper to emotionally expressive lyricist to husband of Kim Kardashian has presented a contradictory masculinity that is authoritative, absurd and incredibly fragile all at once. In the context of his music, West has systematically challenged the conventions of hip hop; nowhere is this more apparent than in his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak. Through his musical canon, West gives us a glimpse into the royalties, hardships and isolation that goes hand-in-hand with being one of the most famous people on the planet. He has explored black masculinity on a celebrity platform in a way not seen before. West is the ultimate juxtaposition: emotive yet stone-faced, bizarre yet measured, private yet extremely garish; he complicates the hyper-masculine representations of black males that pervade mainstream popular music and hip hop.
There is no caging in Mykki Blanco. His gender fluid, in-your-face but playful embodiments of gender, has made him one of today’s shining lights. The American rapper, performance artist, poet and activist, born Michael David Quattlebaum Jr., has joined an ever-growing list of queer performers who navigate between masculinity and femininity with creativity and style. Critical coverage has tried to place him as a drag queen, or a transvestite, as a homosexual rapper, a transsexual or an HIV positive pop star, but in fact the whole point is that he defies categorisation. Blanco identifies as genderqueer, if he was to label himself at all. Blanco toyed with the idea of undergoing gender reassignment surgery, but decided against it because his identity was built upon rocking back and forth between performances of masculinity and femininity.
The actor’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation given his penchant for playing gay characters in movies. ‘Are you gay?’ is a question James Franco is often asked during interviews. His ambiguous sexual identity has inevitably fed into his gender identity, as often the two are perceived to be closely entwined. ‘I guess I like my queer public persona. I like that it’s so hard to define me and that people always have to guess about me,’ Franco said in an interview between his ‘gay self’ and ‘straight self’ in FourTwoNine magazine. Homosexuality has long been associated with feminisation, and homophobia in many ways with a fear of feminisation. Homophobia is a way of legitimising dominant, straight masculinity; a means to confirm the machismo of heterosexuality. In essence, by adopting an ambivalent sexual identity, Franco is giving up some of the comforts and privileges of ‘seeming’ heterosexual, and in turn, ‘seeming’ masculine.
Tilda Swinton, as an actress and a woman, offers compelling insight into female masculinity and queering the mainstream. Playing with gender and gender performance has been foundational to Swinton’s career and identity as a performer. Her androgyny and self-styled soft masculinity has made her into a queer icon. Theorist Judith Halberstam has spoken about the transformative powers of female masculinity, writing that it ‘actually affords us a glimpse of how masculinity is constructed as masculinity’. In relation to Swinton, she embodies a low-key femininity and masculinity at the same time. Both categories can be combined in various ways, putting away arguments that individuals can only live through a binarised conception of gender.