As some of you may be aware, I’m a sociology major. Sociology majors have a bad habit of using words that make sense to other sociology majors, but make the entire rest of the fucking world tilt their heads and say “buh?” or, in extreme cases coughpatriarchycough, think the sociology majors are saying the exact opposite of what they are actually saying. Some of these words are actually cool and useful for analysis of gender, though, so I’ve decided to do a bit of a series explaining them.
So what is hegemonic masculinity? These dudes right here define it as:
A particular variety of masculinity to which others—among them young and effeminate as well as homosexual men—are subordinated.
Which is nice enough as far as it goes, I guess, but it’s not exactly what one would call specific.
The sociologist Erving Goffman actually tells us what the damn thing is:
In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports… Any male who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself—during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete and inferior.
I’m sure everyone reading this could add a couple of items to the list: cis; having a conventional sexuality (not kinky, asexual, aromantic, interested in fat women, etc.); not physically or mentally disabled; tall; employed in a professional career; not a nerd or a member of any other subculture; not a fan of The Notebook or anything Broadway-related; intelligent but not too intelligent; doesn’t cry. (You could also debate the necessity of being married or a father, but I think that depends on age– twentysomething men are supposed to be more promiscuous, and then around thirty settle down and get married and start reproducing.)
That guy– and there’s about five of him in the entire United States– generally has it pretty good, to be honest. The entirety of the kyriarchy was set up in favor of him, so he’d better. Which is not to say that he has a perfect life– entire issues of the New York Times Book Review have been devoted to ways in which this man, usually in his disguise as an English professor, can be unhappy. (His kids hate him! His wife is getting fat and talking about a divorce! Office politics suck! His career is stalling!)
It’s also not to say that any of this is that guy’s fault. He didn’t choose to be born white, heterosexual, athletic and the rest of it, any more than I chose to be born a white bisexual who couldn’t hit a ball if her life depended on it. He’s just lucky. There is no point in hating someone because of privileges they can’t change.
Besides, it’s not exactly great for him either.
Because the thing about hegemonic masculinity is that it’s a state that can be lost at any time. The second you watch a Twilight movie and say “hey, that wasn’t half-bad, actually,” poof, you are no longer hegemonically masculine. You have to continually be looking over your shoulder. That works out okay for the guy who naturally dislikes Twilight and doesn’t want to cry, in addition to all the rest of it, but how many of that guy are there out there? One?
Having an entire social system set up in favor of one dude in Ohio somewhere seems like a pretty bad plan to me.
And for everyone else, hegemonic masculinity is a cage. It might be a little nicer cage, with some gilding on the bars and better food, but it’s still a cage. Being forced to be strong when you’re actually weak might be slightly better than being forced to be weak when you’re actually strong, but ideally no one would be forced to be anything at all and could be strong or weak as it pleased them.