Writing by Emily Tennant. Illustration by Paola Lindo Valentina.
What is masculinity? Who is allowed to express it, and why are some forms deemed better than others? What are the motivations behind the subordination of alternative masculinities? It is clear that global power imbalances rely on the concepts of hegemonic masculinity and the hierarchy of masculinities. All masculinities are not created equal; it is not chaos that drives this structure, but a deliberate move to maintain global inequalities of power.
Hegemonic masculinity refers to the dominant ideal of masculinity as white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, and cisgender. It is often argued that hegemonic masculinity provides the standard for masculinity, and that all other men must position themselves in relation to this ideal. This suggests that hegemonic masculinity purports to justify global power inequalities. Any subversion of the hegemonic masculine ideal or norm leads to discrimination and oppression from the hegemonic masculine group.
However, the problem is more complex than this. The institutionalisation and internalisation of this ideal have led to the systemic oppression of alternative masculinities (and femininities). Subordinated groups face political, legal, and social consequences for an expression of masculinity which does not conform to the hegemonic ideal.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the subordination of Black men. The subculture of violence theory suggests that Black men mimic white masculinities as a way of expressing power, due to their structural lack of power. However, this conclusion is damaging because it leads to the creation and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes surrounding Black men. For example, the depiction of Black men as aggressive and sexually deviant. This idea is problematic because it draws attention away from the fact that Black men face extremely high rates of sexual assault and systemic violence.
Further, the incessant alienation of queerness by hegemonic masculinity further reinforces global power imbalances. There is an inherent connection between hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality. This can be seen in common Western norms such as the nuclear family, or the breadwinner/housewife trope, in which the man is seen as the labourer and provider. The woman must fill the ‘subordinate’ role of private family upkeep. Heteronormativity is so ingrained in our society that anything seen to challenge this social order is seen as a threat. Therefore, homosexuality and queerness are not just seen as a benign ‘other’, but as actively threatening to the existing gender order, which relies on the continuation of hegemonic masculinity. By definition, queerness challenges the binaries upon which our society is built.
Queerness also challenges hegemonic masculinity by promoting the expression of masculinities that do not conform to the norm. Hegemonic masculinity has certain ideals that it expects men to portray – the expression of femininity in masculine bodies is demonised. This justifies discrimination against women and alternative genders. Some argue that female masculinity is constructed as a corruption of hegemonic masculinity, in order to preserve the hegemon’s dominant status and justify the subordination of women and alternative masculinity. The intersection of ‘female’ and ‘masculinity’ places women who express masculinity very low in the hierarchy. Attacks against female masculinity have the same motivation as attacks against queerness; a fearful reaction to the destabilisation of traditional gender binaries. This can also be applied to transgender bodies. Transgender bodies are socially rejected on the basis that they subvert social expectations about the correlation between sex and gender.
The inequality of masculinities exists to perpetuate global structural power imbalances. I would argue that hegemonic masculinity is an ideal against which all other masculinities are placed; this leads to discrimination against those who do not comply. For change to occur in all arenas, a complete derailment of expectations of masculinity is needed. Both masculinities and femininities are concepts to be freely expressed and celebrated by all – however, modern society has harnessed both for the maintenance of global power imbalances. As far away as the necessary systemic change appears, I would encourage everyone to explore their own masculinities/femininities. What do these words mean to you? How do they relate to your identity? Are there any femininities/masculinities you aspire to?