Chapter Two, Part 1 (of 4) in Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz’s book about masculinity.
Nobody ever has to specify what they mean when they say “man up” or “be a man” or even just “grow a pair”. Everyone knows what those phrases mean. Or do we? Could you actually define specifically what it means to “be a man”? We all think we know what constitutes manliness, but somehow when we look at it that sure knowledge becomes nebulous. If we’re going to address masculinity, first we’re going to have to pin the damn thing to the mat. (Quick: why do you think that’s a manly metaphor?)
The modern feminist movement began with “the feminine mystique”, the name given by Betty Friedan to the outrageously restrictive social roles and expectations placed on women in postwar America. The identification of this problem helped set off a massively successful wave of social change that did nothing less than reshape our society for the better. But as we observed in the last chapter, you can’t have a set of horrible assumptions about women without creating a parallel set about men, a fact that Ms. Friedan noted when she described men as “fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill”. Forty years on, we still need to ask: what is the masculine mystique?
One of the biggest misunderstandings people have about gender in our society is that they confuse the fact that some men are privileged with the idea that men, in general, are privileged. If you look at people at the top of society, overwhelmingly, they are going to identify as male. However, that doesn’t mean all men are privileged; instead, it means that certain kinds of men are privileged. Sociologists refer to this privileged form of masculinity as “hegemonic masculinity.”
Hegemonic masculinity is “a particular variety of masculinity to which others—among them young and effeminate as well as homosexual men—are subordinated.” Short version: hegemonic masculinity is the form of masculinity that men are told to aspire to, and fall constantly short of.
This ideal, this perfect hegemonic masculinity, is, it’s safe to say, oddly specific. The sociologist Erving Goffman described the traits commonly associated with hegemonic masculinity: “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.” That definition has shifted a bit since Goffman made his list in 1986, but that gives the general outline.
I’m sure everyone reading this could add a couple of items to the list: cisgender; obsessed with vanilla sex with young thin large-breasted women; able-bodied and neurotypical; tall; employed in a professional career; not a nerd or a punk or a member of any other weird subculture; not a fan of romantic movies or anything theater-related; intelligent but not too intelligent; doesn’t cry. You could also debate the necessity of being married or a father, but the authors 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. After all, the entirety of the kyriarchy is set up in his favor. Obviously, he doesn’t have 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; several genres of movies are devoted to his pining after the quirky, artistic girl who will teach him how to love, or to the travails of the mid-life crisis where he learns to be content with his existing level of comfort, privilege, and societal endorsement. Not to say those are invalid stories; needs are no less needs for being higher on the Maslow hierarchy.
And, of course, it’s silly to blame those five guys for all the kyriarchal nonsense. They didn’t choose to be born white, heterosexual, athletic and the rest of it, any more than someone else chose to be born black, gay, and lousy at sports. They’re just lucky. There is no point in hating someone because of privileges they can’t change.
However, hegemonic masculinity is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s inaccessible to the vast majority of men. If you’re born gay, or trans, or disabled, or poor, or a person of color… well, sucks to be you, because you are officially Not A Real Man for a bunch of things you can’t change. Hell, Real Manhood can be lost for something like being born short or with a small penis. How stupid is that? Your worth as a person is not based on your physical attributes; yet we have a social system in which millions of men feel bad about themselves because their genes decided they ought to be 5’6″ instead of 5’11”.
Even if you managed to win the genetic lottery for the inborn traits, you’re not safe. Hegemonic masculinity is a status that can be lost at any time. Like fruity drinks? Poof, you lost some. Broke down sobbing when your girlfriend broke up with you? Boom, you’re lower on the Real Man totem pole. Failed to properly defend your manliness in intragender competition (or, worse, got shown up by a girl)? Expect several people to inform you that your manhood no longer exists.
As of this writing, one of the expressions of enforcement is the concept of a “man card.” All over the internet and in homosocial male conversations everywhere (circa 2013), one hears “you just lost your man card” or “turn in your man card” or similar phrases. This expression literally conceptualizes masculinity as a fragile privilege that can be revoked at any time, on anyone’s authority. The usual reasons are what you’d expect: ordering the wrong drink, wearing the wrong shirt, expressing a recognizable human emotion. The very vagueness of the unwritten rules of manhood means that anyone can be accused of violating them at any time for almost any reason.
Once you’ve lost your hegemonic masculinity through such horrific sins as getting sick of Robocop after the tenth time, listening to the wrong song, or saying something honest, you can earn it back through a disciplined program of being as manly as possible and pretending that whatever it was you did wrong never happened. You’ll have to repress the hell out of your emotions, perform masculinity according to whatever standards the people nearest you are enforcing today, and if possible overdo it. The fact is, many of the ugliest stereotypically-male behaviors are acceptable forms of overcompensation. Men who worry that their heterosexuality is questioned will be socially rewarded more for adopting a pose of contemptuous objectification toward women than for openly loving women. The latter contains emotions, after all. Men whose masculinity is being questioned will win back more points by being aggressive and violent than by being temperate and reasonable. Men trying to prove they’re manlier or tougher than other men will not win by claiming to be dedicated and untiring fathers to their children. Hegemonic masculinity prizes an ideal that vaguely resembles a troglodytic caveman with lots of money and a taste for rape.
That is, perhaps, an oversimplification. In day-to-day practice, there are multiple double binds in hegemonic masculinity. In “emphasized femininity” (the female equivalent of hegemonic masculinity), women are characterized as either a virgin or a slut—both of which are equally unacceptable to conventional wisdom. Similarly, men are trapped within double binds. A real man sleeps around—and he commits to one woman. A real man isn’t “pussywhipped”—and a real man buys diamonds and other tools of the romance-industrial complex. A real man is capable of violence—and a real man doesn’t hit. Managing the contradictions of hegemonic masculinity can be difficult for even the most masculine of men.
Feminism has made great strides toward pointing out the stupidity of the feminine mystique: there is no reason that women can’t play sports or work outside the home; if they don’t want to, then that’s wonderful, but there’s no sense in leaving half the human population to knitting and baking cookies just because they identify as female. When Katie Goldman, a little girl who loved Star Wars, was bullied for liking science fiction more than the color pink, fans around the globe sent messages of support and gave her gifts; she even got to meet the actor who voiced Yoda. This is not to condemn what happened to Katie: support for kids who are bullied is important. But try to imagine an equal outcry about a first-grade boy who was bullied for his love of Disney princesses. Take a minute to actually picture it. That cognitive dissonance you’re experiencing right now? That’s what we’re talking about.
The masculine mystique remains largely unchallenged. Just like there is no logical reason to assume women must be stay-at-home moms, there is no logical reason to assume men must work outside the home. Just like women should watch action movies if they want to, men should watch romantic comedies and historical dramas if they want to. Although still limited by gender roles, women have greater social sanction to choose from a wide variety of possible behaviors; men are still circumscribed.
 Levine, Jo Ann. “Betty Friedan.” The Christian Science Monitor. April 1 1974.
 Carrigan, Tim, et al. “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity.” Theory and Society 14:5 (1985): 551-604.
 Goffman, Erving. Stigma. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. 128.