men, masculinities and gender politics


The Politics of Masculinity: An overview of contemporary theory

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The political and theoretical challenges issued by contemporary feminism have provoked a range of cultural responses about men, and about masculinity. The dominant reaction is typified by the media-sponsored reassertion of tough male roles in popular drama (1), mirroring in style, if not extent, the narrow constrictions of the female beauty myth. By contrast, the last twenty years have witnessed a small but growing concern with the limitations and oppressive nature of conventional masculinity. This article seeks to describe the current ‘state of play’ in research which examines the politics of masculinity, arguing that the quality of theory is dependent upon its treatment of power relations.

The Politics of Masculinity

Like femininity, masculinity operates politically at different levels. At one level, it is a form of identity, a means of self-understanding that structures personal attitudes and behaviours. At another, distinct but related level. masculinity can be seen as a form of ideology, in that it presents a set of cultural ideals that define appropriate roles, values and expectations for and of men. (2)

Most importantly, masculinity is not ‘natural’. Unlike the biological state of maleness, masculinity is a gender identity constructed socially, historically and politically. It is the cultural interpretation of maleness, leamt through participation in society and its institutions. The social and cultural character of masculinity is evidenced by cross-cultural variations in masculine styles, and by historical changes in the dominant definitions of manhood. For instance, the notion of the male ‘breadwinner’ or ‘sole provider’ emerged in the late-nineteenth century with the rise of industrial capitalism, replacing pre-existing conceptions of family based income production. (3)

This example is an instructive demonstration of the ideological nature of masculinity. Conceptions of identity such as ‘breadwinner’ or’housewife’ operate to support and legitimate structures of social inequality, such as the sexual division of labour between men (public/productive) and women (private/domestic). The primary ideological function of these definitions is that of naturalising unequal power relations. (4) The ideological strength of gender identity is that masculinity is easily (and deliberately) confused with biological maleness. Ideologically loaded assumptions are thereby bestowed the uncontestable status of ‘the natural’.

Unmasking the politics of ideology involves an examination of the issues of power and interests. Using the example of the ‘breadwinner’, it is possible to identify at least two interests served by its definition. The first reflects industrial capitalism’s need to mobilise a responsible, compliant workforce The ‘breadwinner’ notion not only legitimates the sexual division of labour, but also operates to limit resistance to this organisation of work by transforming social expectations into issues of responsibility and self-esteem. (5) The second reflects men’s interests (and advantages) in sustaining the economic subordination and dependence of women.

A similar analysis reveals the ideological role of conventional masculinity in sustaining the sexual oppression of women. To the extent that masculinity is defined by sexism, the objectification of women, misogyny, homophobia, aggression and the suppression of emotion it maintains and renders acceptable patterns of sexual and domestic violence against women. The extent of these patterns of sexual violence in westem societies cannot be dismissed as deviance. They need to be understood as structures of power, as social practices that maintain forms of male dominance. (6) This is not to say that all men are rapists. Rather, it is to argue that dominant modes of masculinity are integral to the maintenance of sexist cultures which benefit most men in some way. The logic of sexism is ultimately one of objectification and dehumanisation. If rape culture is an exaggeration of sexist culture, then it is a slight one.

Understanding the political significance of masculinity, then, involves an examination of how masculinity is implicated in structures of power. An adequate theory of the politics of masculinity should be able to account for questions concerning power relations. For instance, how does masculinity operate to structure or maintain patterns of gender relations? How is masculinity implicated in, or structured by class relations under modern capitalism? Where do the dominant forms of masculinity come from, and whose interests do they reflect? How may we account for resistance against, and changes in, dominant forms? (7).

Most theories which have attempted to produce a political understanding of masculinity have had difficulty producing a coherent analysis of power relations within and between genders. Sociobiological accounts, for instance, attempt to account for masculine nature and power with reference to biology and physiology. This approach cannot account for cultural differences or historical redefinitions of masculinity. The relatively more sophisticated sex-role socialisation theories suffer from similar theoretical shortcomings. Sex-role theorists dominated theoretical work on masculinity in the twentieth century, focussing on the ways in which people are socialised into male or female ‘gender personalities’. This school of theory, exemplified by the work of Talcott Parsons, approached masculinity as a socially institutionalised role, learnt through the family, and as having certain functions within that context. This approach is superior to that of sociobiology because it treats masculinity as social rather than natural, and examines its functions within a structure (the family). However, the structure of the family itself remains unquestioned by sex-role theory, treating it as the given framework for analysis. Consequently, the power relations and interests that produce the structure remain untheorised (8).

Furthermore, sex-role theory provided little analysis of power relations within the family structure, as its framework focuses on gender differences, rather than gender relations. Consequently, it tends to assume a relationship of complementarity between masculinity and femininity, as opposed to one of power. (9)

Carrigan, Connell and Lee address the issues of power and gender relations in their conception of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’. Their broad sociological approach focuses on the historical production of social categories, particularly upon how the dominance of white, heterosexual masculinity is maintained and reproduced. (10) Utilising the concept, they argue, involves ‘a question of how particular groups of men inhabit positions of power and wealth, and how they legitimate and reproduce the social relationships that generate their dominance’. (11)

Using the insights of feminist and gay liberation theorists, they argue that the dominant mode of masculinity constructs a hierarchy in sexual politics with white, heterosexual men at the top. The subordination of other forms of masculinity, such as homosexuality, is related to the overall logic of the subordination of women to men. Homosexuality is defined as feminine, or ‘other than’ masculine, and thus as inferior. Homophobia is crucial to the definition of masculinity, as it rules out men as potential objects of emotional or sexual attachment. Consequently, homophobia operates to reinforce oppressive heterosexual themes, such as male competition for legitimate sex objects (women). Moreover, homophobia is essential to defining family structures which benefit men as a whole, but which benefit ruling class men the most in the construction of a sexual division of labour (in which women are unpaid private labourers who sustain male workers).
Connell argues that hegemonic masculinity can be seen as a masculine strategy for maintaining the economic, political and sexual subordination of women, and an ideological process of articulating that strategy. (12) Evidence of this strategy is visible in phenomena as diverse as the mass media, wage structures, welfare policies, the design of housing, and judicial attitudes to rape cases.

One further theoretical development is worth noting. Post-structuralist theorists, such as Foucault, argue that power relations are visible not only through the direct repressive actions of polihcal actors, such as the state, but also through the construction of particular forms of personal and collective identity. (13) Masculinity is a good example of this. Policed by the state through laws, moral codes, medicine, psychiatry and science, individuals may ultimately become self-policing, in that their actions significantly reflect the political interests implicit in dominant constructions of male identity.


The advantages of these approaches lie in their ability to adequately theorise the roleof power relations in the onstruction of masculinity. Masculinity is crucially defined by the structural facts of male dominance over women, and the hierarchies of the capitalist economy. These theories also permit an understanding of the ways in which dominant forms of masculinity change with other shifts in gender relations and economic organisation. Importantly, they allow for different styles of masculinity such as homosexuality, to be considered as resistance, rather than deviance.

[FOOTNOTES have been omitted from this reprint of the article.]