The fourth part of Chapter Two in Noah Brand’s and Ozy Frantz’s book about masculinity.
Our earlier outline of the hypothetical five “unblushing” men in the country refers specifically to guys at the absolute top of hegemonic masculinity’s imaginary hierarchy. Fortunately, if you’re not one of those guys, you’re still trapped in the system, with all its pressures and anxieties! Wait, that’s not what fortunately means.
The current hierarchy of masculinity is an aspirational system, in which almost no one achieves the Platonic ideal, but every man strives for it. Even men who don’t achieve idealized masculinity in an important way can take comfort in the subordinated masculinities below them: “I may not make a lot of money, but I’m a real man, not one of those queers.” Indeed, battling for position within hegemonic masculinity’s intrinsic hierarchy is mandatory.
Idealized masculinity is an achievement. Men in our culture are supposed to be active; they are those who act, they are defined by their actions. Masculinity supposed to be something one does, one performs; it’s not simply granted to someone for identifying as a man, but it is earned through unceasing hard work. Too weak to appear manly? Toughen up! Too vacillating to appear manly? Man up! Too fat to appear manly? Tone up! Too short to appear manly? Um. Tall… up? There may still be a few flaws in the system.
Even more importantly, hegemonic masculinity is relative. A successful electrician may feel like a masculine breadwinner in his home, but not if he gets dropped into a room full of Wall Street bankers. A suburban teenager might feel very masculine because he plays basketball, but not if he makes a bunch of new friends who judge manliness based how willing one is to get into fights. Even if you’re The Man in one context, there’s still someone scoring higher in the hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity than you, unless you’re James Bond. And even then, we’re talking Connery Bond, not Roger Moore.
The fact is, for most men in our culture, hegemonic masculinity is intrinsically tied up with the notion of competition. Guys: how many conversations have you had with other men that were basically about trying to prove who had the bigger metaphorical dick? You know, the conversations that end up being about who’s stronger, who’s smarter, who can drink more, who knows more Star Trek trivia… even who’s got more laptop battery life. (Your authors must clarify that they wish they were making that last example up.) Because masculinity is a relative status, a man can only really know how masculine he is if he compares himself to all the people around him. That’s part of the reason feminine men are so reviled: if you mock a man for being feminine, it proves you don’t have any of those traits within yourself, and hence are even more masculine. And the form this competition takes—this masculine status game—is searching for power.
The core of both hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in mainstream Western culture is power. Emphasized femininity (i.e. the privileged cultural definition of femininity that most women strive to live up to) is all about weakness and lacking power. Certain traits in emphasized femininity are actually about weakness: for instance, not being able to lift heavy objects (physical weakness) or earning less money than your romantic partner (financial weakness). Women should be small and skinny and dainty, because their physical form should reflect their inner weakness. Women shouldn’t appear too smart, because intelligence is a form of power and men don’t like it.
The rest of the traits of emphasized femininity are all about coping mechanisms so that, even though you’re weak, other people (read: men) will still want to keep you around. A woman with emphasized femininity is beautiful, in order to be sexually pleasing to men. She’s not slutty, so that her male romantic partner doesn’t have to feel jealous of her previous partners; however, she’s up for anything in bed, so that she can sexually satisfy him. She has nurturing and caretaking skills, so that she can provide a valuable service (emotional labor) without seeming strong. She’s not domineering or angry, because those are displeasing. She has empathy, partially because of those nurturing and caretaking skills, and partially because being able to read the emotions of people who have power over you is a survival tactic.
There are, admittedly, some comforts to emphasized femininity. If you’re a woman who performs femininity properly, you get to experience chivalry, in which men open doors and carry packages for you, and stand up on buses when you need a seat, and pay for your meals when you go out on dates. If you’ve got particularly good nurturing and caretaking skills, you might even get to have some power through that. (As the quote goes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”) And just because femininity is about weakness does not mean that all feminine traits are bad: some are bad (stupidity), many are neutral (being thin), and some are actively good (nurturing and caretaking).
But these small advantages don’t change the fact that emphasized femininity is all about weakness. As feminism has challenged for decades, women don’t have to be weak. Women shouldn’t have to pretend to be stupid to get a man; they should be able to bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan, if they want. Although a lot of the harmful cultural detritus around femininity still remains, feminism has done an amazing job of freeing women to be strong when they’re strong and weak when they’re weak, instead of being forced into weakness regardless of their actual abilities. (Or occasionally of freeing women to be hegemonically masculine too, as long as they also manage to remain pretty and nice.)
Hegemonic masculinity, on the other hand, is all about having power and status. Consider everything we’ve discussed in this chapter. Femmephobia exists because emphasized femininity is all about not having power, and hegemonic masculinity has to avoid even the whiff of not having power. Men have to repress their emotions because not controlling your emotions is a sign you don’t have power over them, and thus an admission of weakness.
The theme of power and status continues throughout literally every trait included in hegemonic masculinity. Whiteness is, despite the beliefs of certain people, still a source of status and privilege in our society. Sexual success is the power to get women to have sex with you; sexual skill is the power to make women have lots of orgasms. Height is literally being above other people. Violence is the crudest and bluntest form of power. Wealth gives one power over one’s life, and many people use it as a blunt scorecard for determining status. A professional career gives one power over other people (whether by position, like a manager, or by special knowledge, like a doctor) and status in society. And on and on ad nauseam.
This can even be seen in the national political discourse. Which male politician is more likely to be viewed as a Real Man: the one that suggests that America try to have power over the entire world, or the one that suggests that there are valuable ends other than power for its own sake?
Even when you are weak, hegemonic masculinity involves the refusal to admit that you’re weak. Hegemonic masculinity is “toughing out” the pain instead of going to the doctor; it’s being careless about your health because no disease would dare to strike down someone as masculine as you; it’s taking stupid risks because you’re so masculine you laugh at death, a sure sign of power; it’s not getting mental health care because only pussies need to have mental health care; it’s repressing your fear and stress because fear and stress can’t happen to you.
The problem with this setup is that no one can be weak all the time or strong all the time. The most feminine woman has areas of strength—as feminism has quite rightly pointed out when it condemned, for instance, the advice that women pretend to be stupid in order to catch a man. Likewise, the most masculine man has areas of weakness. Everyone needs to ask for help sometimes, or to be vulnerable.
It’s not even about the choice to be vulnerable—although people may sometimes choose to be vulnerable, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can choose to do everything right: to work hard at a professional job that will make you a lot of money, to repress your emotions, to never do feminine things, to always be the smartest and strongest person in the room, or at least claim to be.
But what happens if you get cancer? What happens if you get run over by a car and become paraplegic? What happens if your brain chemistry betrays you and you contract bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? What happens if your company downsizes and you lose your job through no fault of your own? What happens if your mother dies and for god’s sake you don’t want to be manly, you just want to be held?
Then hegemonic masculinity offers nothing for you.
The tricky bit about hegemonic masculinity is that it seems like a really good deal. You get to have power, status, strength, everything we’ve been taught to value. Certainly it’s pretty hard to see how the guy who’s the boss of everyone is oppressed, and I doubt even he would say that he is (although the antics of certain CEOs claiming to be oppressed job creators may make one wonder). But when all the power comes at the price that you can never, ever admit to not wanting power…
Well, that is one hell of a Faustian bargain.
It’s time to break down the masculine mystique. The idea that if you’re just good enough, strong enough, awesome enough, you’ll always be able to have power and control over everything and you’ll never experience vulnerability, weakness, or hurt. The status games and competition and quest to reach the ideal of hegemonic masculinity that for the majority of men is impossible to reach. The idea that having all the power is a healthy and worthwhile goal for men to have, when they could be pursuing goodness or love or joy. The idea that strength and power are ends in themselves.
The masculine mystique is, just like the feminine mystique, rotten at the core. Betty Friedan challenged, in The Feminine Mystique, the notion that women ought to get their fulfillment from waxing the kitchen floor and being pleasing to their husbands and children. We challenge the idea that men ought to get their fulfillment from seeking power and status games with other men.
Photo—Tony Fischer Photography/Flickr