Masculinity is the set of social practices and cultural representations associated with being a man. The plural ‘masculinities’ is also used in recognition that ways of being a man and cultural representations of/about men vary, both historically and culturally, between societies and between different groupings of men within any one society.
The feminist critique of masculinity as that against which women are defined as ‘the Other’ has a long history, but writing on masculinities grew enormously from the 1980s onwards. In the words of one contributor, ‘it seems as if every man and his dog is writing a book on masculinities’ (MacInnes 1998: 1). In the literature on masculinities, evaluations of masculinity and explanations of the links between masculinity/ masculinities and those people defined as ‘men’ vary according to theoretical perspective. For example, in accounts drawing on the natural sciences, masculinity/ masculinities are the result of physiological factors, such as hormones or chromosomes. Goldberg (1979), for example, identifies the ‘neuro-endocrine system’ (the interaction of the nervous system with the hormone system) as the biological basis of masculinity/masculinities. Such essentialism is also characteristic of populist ‘celebratory’ writing about masculinity, in which men are urged to reinvigorate their ‘natural’ masculinity. Robert Bly (1991), for example, sees masculinity as being damaged by the conditions of modern society, and prescribes a remedy in the form of men-only retreats and bonding rituals. In contrast, from the more critical, academic perspective of thesocial sciences, masculinities are understood as a form of power relation, both among men themselves and between men and women. In place of essentialism, masculinities are argued to arise from the social contexts in which men live, for example, from their positions in the various institutions and organisations of their society and/or in the context of the socially available discourses about gender.
Connell (1995; 2000) has developed a social scientific analysis of masculinities as part of his broader, relational theory of gender. For Connell, gender is the end-product of ongoing interpretations of and definitions placed upon the reproductive and sexual capacities of the human body. Masculinities (and femininities) can be understood, therefore, as the effects of these interpretations and definitions: on bodies, on personalities and on a society’s culture and institutions. In Connell’s account, masculinities occupy a higher ranking than femininity in the ‘gender hierarchy’ characteristic of modern Western societies. At the top of the gender hierarchy is ‘hegemonic masculinity’, the culturally dominant ideal of masculinity centred around authority, physical toughness and strength, heterosexuality and paid work. This is an ideal of masculinity that few actual men live up to, but from which most gain advantage and so Connell calls the next level ‘complicit masculinity’. Below this in the hierarchy are ‘subordinated masculinities’, the most important of which is homosexual masculinity. More generally, this form of masculinity includes a range of masculine behaviour which does not fully match up to the macho ideals of hegemonic masculinity. At the bottom of the gender hierarchy are femininities. (Although these may take a variety of forms, for example emphasised or compliant femininity and ‘resistant’ femininity, femininity is always subordinated to masculinity.) In Connell’s analysis, the social changes of the twentieth century (in the industrialised West) have undermined the gender hierarchy, and the position of hegemonic masculinity within it. In this context, masculinity politics have developed: ‘those mobilizations and struggles where the meaning of masculine gender is at issue, and with it, men’s position in gender relations’ (1995: 205). Connell goes on to identify the main forms taken by masculinity politics in Western industrialised societies, including masculinity therapy, such as called for by Bly (1991), gay liberation, and ‘exit politics’, in which heterosexual men actively oppose hegemonic masculinity.
The theorising of multiple masculinities by writers like Connell (1990) has led others to raise questions about the meaning of masculinity as a concept. MacInnes (1998) for example, points to the vague, confused and contradictory definitions of the concept present within much of the masculinities literature. If masculinities are so varied and fluid, then what is it that makes them recognisibly masculine? MacInnes suggests that, in fact, many writers on masculinities ‘smuggle in’ to their otherwise social constructionist accounts an assumption that it is only biological men who possess masculinity. MacInnes himself argues that masculinity does not exist as the property, character trait or aspect of individuals but should instead be understood as an ideology about what men should be like, and this is developed by men and women in order to make sense of their lives (1998: 2). Indeed, discursive approaches to masculinities, influenced by postmodernist/ poststructuralist perspectives, have become increasingly prominent within gender studies. One example is the work of SA Speer (2001) which shows how, in talking about sport and leisure, young men draw on a range of particular cultural models of masculinities and in the process give shifting, gendered, accounts of themselves.
In his work, Connell (2000) emphasises that masculinities are not simply equivalent to biological men. In other words, ‘masculine’ bodies, behaviour or attitudes can be the social practices of people who are otherwise defined as ‘women’. For Connell, then, masculinities is a concept that ‘names patterns of gender practice, not just groups of people’ (2000: 17). Elsewhere, he insists that masculinities cannot be understood only as discourses, since ‘gender relations are also constituted in, and shape, non-discursive practices such as labour, violence, sexuality, childcare and so on’ (2001: 7).
Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004
Edley and Wetherall (1995) provide overviews of the various theories of masculinities, and identify key questions to assess the adequacy of each. Whitehead’s (2002) Men and Masculinities is one of the more recent contributions to the topic. A special issue of Feminism and Psychology (volume 11, no. 1) is devoted to research on discursive constructions of masculinities and includes an introduction, overview and critique by Connell.