Masculinity is a gender process typically associated with the male sex that impacts gender relations and personal identities for individuals. Masculinity can by exhibited by any sex or gender, but men are most often held to — and judged by — his culture’s current standards of masculinity. Numerous masculinities exist within every culture, and often vary according to class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. Gendered expectations are etched into social relationships and institutions, and impact the way individuals understand each other and operate in society. Conceptions of masculinity are often perpetuated through culture and social institutions, and can change due to challenges and pressures from a number of sources, ranging from competing definitions of masculinity to environmental and economic forces. Social scientists examine masculinities largely in the context of their role in regulating gendered norms and interactions through have a structured hierarchy.
Hegemonic masculinity sits atop the gendered social hierarchy by embodying the culturally idealized definition of masculinity, which is constructed as both oppositional and superior to femininity. R.W. Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity sprung from her work with gender and class differences in Australian schools in the 1980s, and her theory has become a central focus of Men’s Studies in the decades since. In a 2005 review and revision of the concept, Connell and James W. Messerschmidt described the hegemonic ideal as ”…embodying the currently most honored way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men.”[^] This ascendancy is achieved not by force, but through culture, institutional preference, and persuasion.[^] Individuals who best represent culturally idealized masculine traits are given more respect and power in society.[^]
Social ascendency through hegemony, drawn from Antonio Gramsci’s work on class relations, comes through social forces that determine outcomes in cultural, social, and economic statuses.[^] Although many of the primary traits of hegemonic masculinity facilitate physical domination, such as physical size and strength, assertiveness, aggressiveness, and skills in warfare, hegemonic masculinity does not include the use of force or violence, though those may be used to attain or maintain it. “Ascendancy of one group of men over another achieved at the point of a gun, or by the threat of unemployment, is not hegemony. Ascendancy which is embedded in religious doctrine and practice, mass media content, wage structures, the design of housing, welfare/taxation policies and so forth, is.”[^] The idealization of masculinity influences individuals to embody and act out masculinity discursively through comparison and competition with peers, as well as through idealistic cultural manifestations of masculinity. Those who perform this gender best are often rewarded through institutions shaped to reward these specific values.
The hierarchical structure of hegemonic masculinity does not only grant men ascendancy over women, but also over men whose identities and characteristics do not align as well with the ideal. Hegemonic masculinity is part of a multi-layered and multi-structured hierarchy created in heteronormative, gendered, racial, and classist terms. Connell argued that subordinate male supported this hierarchy through what he terms as “complicit masculinity”: “Men who received the benefits of patriarchy without enacting a strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as showing a complicit masculinity. It was in relation to this group, and to compliance among heterosexual women, that the concept of hegemony was most powerful.”[^] Connell uses the term to articulate the ways in which hegemonic masculinity retained power, but the term “complicit” does not properly convey the agency that women and subordinated masculinities had in challenging and altering hegemonic masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to subordinated masculinities as well as women, so its existence, traits, and place in society are dependent not only upon the complicity of the rest of the population, but also upon push-back and shifting values from the non-hegemonic.[^] Because hegemonic masculinity is dynamic discursive process, not just a static set of definitions, challenges — internal, external, and environmental — can shape the masculine ideal. Demetrakis Demetriou argued that hegemonic masculinity enacts dialectical pragmatism in relation to these subordinate masculinities, and thus changes through the occurrence of ”…a constant process of negotiation, translation, and reconfiguration.”[^] The interplay between different forms of masculinity is an important part of how a patriarchal social order functions.[^] Demetriou labeled this power as “internal hegemonic masculinity,” using terminology drawn directly from Gramsci’s postulation of economic hegemony.[^] Gramsci stated that a ”dominant class leads the classes which are its allies, and dominates those which are its enemies.”[^] Demetriou argued that the existence of both internal and external hegemony was implicit in Gramsci’s understanding of the dual nature of class domination, as it is with masculine domination.[^]
There is no singular definition of hegemonic masculinity within a culture, but there are a number of specific qualities that men can exhibit to meet the ideal. One of the most widely used methods by which the actions and characteristics of hegemonic masculinity can be understood is derived from Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon’s 1976 collection of essays, Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role.[^] David and Brannon organized the collection around four dimensions of ‘the male role,’ which are described and examined in the first portion of the book. Their four dimensions, No Sissy Stuff, The Big Wheel, The Sturdy Oak, and Give ‘Em Hell, are widely used in the field of Men’s Studies and continue to guide modern scholars. Although David and Brannon typically speak of the antiquated ‘male sex role,’ a theory which approaches masculinity from distinct and separate biological differences, their examination acknowledges multiple roles that men may embody, and is much more nuanced than much of the male sex role literature. Their work also recognized the central tenant of hegemonic masculinity that the male role was an ideal not typically fulfilled by most men. This project uses these four dimensions to categorize and analyze the government resources created during this time period.
Definitions of idealized masculinity can be produced and circulated via day-to-day interactions with others, through institutional requirements and guidelines, and through gendered cultural depictions. The focus of my research is on idealized masculine iconography within cultural media, which takes on a larger meaning as it is created and distributed by a powerful and influential institution such as the United States military. The materials in this project represent a vast corpus of idealized examples and descriptions of men put forth by the US military, both by creating exaggerated icons and by endowing the everyday man with idealized masculinity. The Department of Defense materials can be understood as representing and perpetuating many different dimensions and characteristics of hegemonic masculinity. The materials published, whether for recruiting purposes, information dissemination to the troops, or news releases for the general public, always depicted the soldiers along a specific archetype, which extolled the values of the middle class white hegemonic male. Though one may expect to see soldiers endowed with courage, strength, and aggression, they are also shown as being unemotional, socially desirable, strong wage-earners, physically attractive, sexually desirable, and strong civic leaders. The message they gave off was not only about the value of soldiers as defenders of borders and freedoms, but as supreme men. These materials create the impression that men who entered the service were ideal in all dimensions of manhood, both through their service and through self-selection.
Hegemonic masculinity is a highly idealistic creation; it is not simply determined by the most popular or common aspects of males within a culture. The exemplars of extraordinary masculinity are especially notable, as the traits and behaviors they exhibit are much more pronounced and obvious than those of the men depicted who follow lock-step in slightly more realistic ways. These extraordinary examples are essential not only to the production and clarity of the ideals, but also to the power structures that form from the examples. These fictionalized or exaggerated ideals garners support from men and sustain power for men closest to the ideal.[^] Connell wrote, “Indeed the winning of hegemony often involves the creation of models of masculinity which are quite specifically fantasy figures, such as the film characters played by Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and Sylvester Stallone. Or real models may be publicized who are so remote from everyday achievement that they have the effect of an unattainable ideal, like the Australian Rules footballer Ron Barassi or the Boxer Muhammad Ali.”[^] Connell and Messerschmidt added in their 2005 revision, ”Hegemony works in part through the production of exemplars of masculinity (e.g., professional sports stars), symbols that have authority despite the fact that most men and boys do not fully live up to them.”[^] The materials I examine in this project contribute to the exaggerated expectations of the hegemonic male.
The reinforcement of definitive masculinities and the placement of them within the discursively created ideal soldier — well-built, white, middle class men — provided a further boost to the already-dominant definitions of hegemonic masculinity. All of David and Brannon’s characteristics are displayed in these cultural depictions of military men, and are created as part of the aura of the military man in America. This further enhanced the identities of hegemonic males, and elevated a cohort of young men that would set the image of manhood, service, and familial relations for the coming generations.
In these materials, masculine qualities were not granted exclusively to men. Advertisements aimed at women during this period did give them an amount of strength and power. However, while these women were granted this power by being endowed with masculinity, most obviously through, the famous imagery surrounding Rosie the Riveter. While these materials granted women masculinity, they were only understood as having temporary masculinity, while underwriting the supposed inferiority of women. There was an understanding that women could serve the country in a number of ‘masculine’ ways, including enlistment and employment, but materials also came infused with the message that these roles and qualities were temporary, and that women were best off at home once the men returned.[^]
Brandon T. Locke | MA Student | University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of History
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