This is not really a review of Hegemonic Masculinity: Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification by James W. Messerschmidt (2018, Rowman & Littlefield) but a post inspired by a number of passages I have come across in this volume. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, hegemonic masculinity is the brainchild of Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell (formerly known as R.W. Connell), one of the founding parents of Masculinities Studies. Messerschmidt, Connell’s disciple and academic collaborator, offers here as the transparent title of his volume announces a sort of ultimate guide about how this concept should be understood and used. The problem is that since the concept itself was quite unstable in its origins—poorly formulated, if you want less elegant language—it has generated much controversy about its actual meaning and intended use. Messerschmidt and Connell already published an article back in 2005 intending to fix its use but since they obviously could not succeed, because of the porosity of the concept, Messerschmidt has tried again, sounding a little bit like a disgruntled acolyte offering the definite Bible to errant believers.
A matter which makes me feel disgruntled is Messerschmidt’s cavalier approach to feminism and the fact that he does not even mention Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), an omission that I simply fail to understand in a volume about how gender changes historically. Butler is a philosopher and I’m thinking that perhaps citing her in a treatise on sociology is not kosher, but this is the equivalent of writing about power and ignoring Foucault. Reading Messerschmidt’s account of how 1970s and 1980s radical and socialist feminism ‘failed’ to explain patriarchy, I am reminded of why Masculinities Studies always sounds suspiciously misogynistic. At least he does. Look at this: “Radical feminism made distinctive and original contributions to feminist theory, yet got entangled with biological arguments as the foundation of ‘patriarchy’” (2). Poor things, the silly women!
What seemed to cause the entanglement was that patriarchy, Messerschmidt says, was formulated as an ahistorical system of female oppression which was ultimately too broad-ranging to make any sense. This is why theorists in the social sciences gave up any attempt to further refine the definition of patriarchy in the 1980s. If you ask me, I think that the radical feminists got it right in many ways: patriarchy is not ahistorical but can certainly perdure despite profound historical changes because its main bases as regards gender (misogyny and homophobia) endure. Patriarchy is infinitely flexible and, as I have been arguing, currently it is beginning to invest more energy on organizing society hierarchically on the basis of individual power than of gender. But let me go on.
Now, according to Messerschmidt, Connell took the new feminist theorization of gender in the mid-1980s and started talking about gender relations instead of patriarchy; an important reason why this turn happened is that gay men started explaining their own masculinity in relation to heterosexual masculinity, revealing how they were empowered as men in relation to women but disempowered as homosexual men. In Gender and Power (1987) Connell formulated the concepts of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity in the way in which they were known throughout the last decades of the 20th century (please note that Butler’s Gender Trouble was published just three years later and has had really a much bigger impact). The main point, Messerschmidt clarifies, is that Connell “concentrated on how hegemonic masculinity in a given historical and society-wide setting legitimates unequal gender relations between men and women, masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities” (46, original italics). That is to say, hegemonic masculinity is not a set of actual men or a set of actual features that define masculinity but a set of values that are practiced by certain groups of men (that I would not hesitate to call patriarchal). The aim is to keep femininity and non-hegemonic masculinities in a position of inferiority. Connell also came up with the division of the non-hegemonic masculinities as complicit, subordinate, marginalized, and protest masculinities.
If you want another angle on the same matter, hegemonic masculinity combines a variety of techniques of domination into one. It is, plainly, masculinist sexism, as defined by feminism, and homophobia, but also racism, ethnic supremacism, nationalism, ableism, ageism, and all other prejudices combined into one. Messerschmidt describes a situation in which there is not one but a sort of local, regional, and global network of hegemonic masculinities in charge of policing the gender borders. All of them “must be culturally ascendant to advance a rationale for social action through consent and compliance” (76) for, and in this you see the Gramscian roots of the concept, hegemonic masculinities operate on the basis of consent, not coercion. In contrast, Messerschmidt explains, “Dominant masculinities are not always associated with and linked to gender hegemony but refer to (locally, regionally, and globally) the most celebrated, common, widespread, or current form of masculinity in a particular social setting” (76). If I understand this correctly, Donald Trump is an example of how hegemonic masculinity is practiced (after all he was democratically elected), whereas Barack Obama would be an example of dominant masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity need not be admired but it is obeyed, contributing to gender inequality, whereas dominant masculinity is respected and admired but might have little impact on gender divisions.
That all this is less than perfectly defined appears more than evident when Messerschmidt explains, in what reads like a gender tongue twister, that “Although hegemonic masculinities and emphasized femininities at times may also be dominant or dominating, dominant and dominating masculinities and femininities are never hegemonic or emphasized if they fail culturally to legitimate unequal gender relations; in this latter scenario, dominant and dominating masculinities/femininities are thereby constructed outside relations of gender hegemony” (125). I fail to understand this. There is clearly a great difference between Trump and Obama and how they connect with gender inequality, or how they connect in their different masculinities. But as Presidents of the United States they both belong to the same patriarchal system that has made it practically impossible for a woman to be elected President. Obama did not graciously withdraw when Hillary Clinton announced her intention to be the Democratic Party’s candidate in 2008 and Trump cheated her of a Presidency she had actually won in 2016. Hillary possibly lost much support because many women saw her as either too patriarchal herself or too radical as a feminist, but the point is that the 2020 female Democratic candidates have been also swept aside. As things are now, there is, then very little difference between hegemonic and dominant masculinity because the only way towards gender equality is that these categories are abandoned. Or, alternatively, that the dominant masculine model becomes what Connell and Messerschmidt have called ‘positive’ masculinities and femininities, a label so vague that it could mean anything. I myself prefer using anti-patriarchal, so that the enemy is clearly defined both for men and for women outside patriarchal circles.
When Messerschmidt says that “The hegemonic masculine social structure consists of different types of power relations” (133) it seems evident to me that he means patriarchy. Hegemonic masculinity is “continually and pervasively renewed, recreated, defended, and modified through social action” (133) because it is, plainly, the ideology of patriarchy by another name. Whereas the patriarchy defined by radical feminists was (allegedly) a monolithic, ahistorical institution designed to oppress women, Connell’s hegemonic masculinity is the same dog but with a historical collar, devoted not only to oppress all women but also all the types of men that resist its rule or lack sufficient power to join the ranks. Hegemonic masculinity can be found at the local, regional and global levels where patriarchy exists because it’s the same thing. Or, the other way round: I have altered the definition of patriarchy to make it a more useful concept than hegemonic masculinity. Sorry to sound so smug, but Messerschmidt also sounds smug… In plain words: all types of discrimination consist of “different types of power relations”. He and Connell call that hegemonic masculinity, I call it patriarchy, following my feminist predecessors.
Both they and I, however, are trapped by the same problem: the persistence of gender binarism. Messerschmidt continually alludes to attitudes that are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, having besides accepted Jack Halberstam’s notion that there is something called ‘female masculinity’. For me, matters look different: if, to give an example, being a nurturing person has been traditionally associated with women, this does not mean that nurturing men are expressing a ‘masculine femininity’. It just means that as society progresses and prejudice diminishes certain attitudes will be seen to be gender neutral. Being, for instance, self-assertive will cease being connected with masculinity to be gender-neutral, just as being blond is gender-neutral. I read recently, besides, that the generation born in the 2000s and later increasingly resists being defined by binary gender labels, which will affect how both masculinity and femininity are understood. Yet, here we are, speaking of men and women as if nothing is moving. The day will come when the moment a baby is born the parents will be told ‘congratulations, it’s a person’ and not ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’.
What am I ranting and raving about, then? It seems to me that when the use of an academic label fails to please those who created it, as Messerschmidt’s censorious volume evidences, then the problem lies with the label, not with its users (or abusers). I would say that further discussions are a waste of time (here I am wasting my time) while what really matters, how patriarchy follows its rampant path of destruction, goes on. Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performance may also have its flaws but it is useful to explain why patriarchy persists and how it can be changed: patriarchal masculinity is very good at adapting to the changing times without losing much power, whereas anti-patriarchal masculinities are very good but less successful at opening up masculinity to other styles of performance, including its very dissolution into gender-neutral variants. I grant that before the emergence of hegemonic masculinity there was not a single concept to explain the simultaneous oppression of women and of marginalized men, and that Connell and company have made a reasonably good job of explaining how men who feel entitled to power find the perfect niche in their circle to express their sense of entitlement, from Trump down to the unemployed man who lashes out against wife and children. I also grant that patriarchy is not an ideal label to explain how gender and power intersect but perhaps this is because we’re struck with binary labels that cannot help. To be blunt, the behaviour of the lesbian woman who batters her wife cannot be explained by invoking hegemonic masculinity, or masculine femininity, because it has to do with power in ways for which we still lack a name. I have been struggling to find an alternative to patriarchy, but this is what I have for now.
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