The concept of hegemonic masculinity has considerably influenced contemporary thinking about men, gender, and social hierarchies. This concept made it possible to link recent developments in the field of men’s studies, concerns about men and boys, the feminist vision of the patriarchal model, and sociological models of gender. It has been used in various fields of applied research, in education and prevention of violence as well as in health and psychological assistance.
The concept has also been the subject of significant criticism from all walks of life: sociological, psychological, post-structuralist, etc. It has been attacked outside the academic world as “an invention of New Age psychologists to prove that men are too macho.It is therefore a contested concept. It does, however, allow us to identify a certain number of issues that are fully at the heart of current debates around political power and leadership, violence, public and private, and transformations in the family and sexuality. A comprehensive re-examination of the concept of hegemonic masculinity therefore seems warranted since it could, in some way, justify gender-based violence. If the concept is still useful, perhaps it still needs to be reformulated in more contemporary terms. Our article attempts to meet this dual objective.
The concept of hegemonic masculinity was first used in the work from a field study of inequalities in Australian high schools (Kessler et al ., 1982). We find it in the conceptual debate linked to this work concerning the fabrication of masculinities and the experience of the male body (Connell, 1983) and in a debate on the role of men in Australian workers’ movements (Connell, 1982). The high school study provides much empirical evidence for the existence of multiple hierarchies, both gender and class, intertwined with active gender-building projects (Connell et al. , 1982). These first elements were systematized in an article, “ Towards a New Sociology of Masculinity (Carrigan, Connell and Lee, 1985), who adopted a strongly critical posture of work on male roles and proposed a model based on the multiplicity of masculinities and power relations. In turn, this model has been incorporated into a systematic theory of gender.
The Gramscian term “hegemony” was also commonly used at the time in attempts to explain the stabilization of class relations (Connell, 1977). The idea was easily transferred to the question of gender, in the context of the dual system theory (Eisenstein, 1979), which posed a great risk of misunderstanding. Gramsci’s work primarily analyzes the dynamics of structural change involving the mobilization and demobilization of entire social classes. Leaving the precise context of the analysis of such a historical change, the idea of hegemony would be reduced to a simple model of cultural control. However, many debates around gender do not focus on such a large-scale historical change. Part of this originated in the difficulties encountered later with the concept of hegemonic masculinity. Even before the women’s liberation movement, some literature on male gender roles from social psychology and sociology identified the social nature of masculinity and the possibilities for changing male behavior (Hacker, 1957) . During the 1970s, critics flocked to the notion of the “male role”, attacking role norms as the source of oppressive male behavior (Brannon, 1976). Critical role theory was the main conceptual basis of the first anti-sexist men’s movement. However, the weaknesses of gender role theory have been criticized with increasing frequency (Kimmel, 1987; Pleck, 1981).
Hegemonic masculinity is distinguished from other masculinities, and particularly from subordinate masculinities. Hegemonic masculinity is not considered normal in a statistical sense, as it is only observable in a minority of men. But it is undoubtedly normative. It corresponds to the currently most recognized way of being a man, implies that other men position themselves in relation to it, and makes it possible to legitimize from an ideological point of view the subordination of women to men.
Men enjoying the benefits of patriarchy without practicing an assertive version of male dominance can be seen as exhibiting complicit masculinity. It is in relation to this group of men, and their acceptance by heterosexual women, that the concept of hegemony is most effective. Hegemony is sometimes synonymous with violence, though it is often acquired through culture, institutions and persuasion.
These concepts were more abstract than descriptive, defined against the logic of a patriarchal gender system. They assumed that gender relations are historically located, and thus gender hierarchies are susceptible to change. Hegemonic masculinities would thus have emerged in specific circumstances and would be affected by historical change. Specifically, there could be a struggle for hegemony, and old forms of masculinity could be replaced with new ones. This represented the hint of optimism in a theory that, apart from that, was rather pessimistic. Perhaps there was still room for a more human and less oppressive way of being a man to become hegemonic, in a process that would lead to the abolition of gender hierarchies.
The concept of hegemonic masculinity has had an influence in criminology. All the data show that men and young men in particular commit more conventional crimes, especially the most serious, than women and girls. In addition, men have a virtual monopoly on organized gang crime and white-collar crime. The concept of hegemonic masculinity has contributed to the theorization of the relationship between forms of masculinities and types of crimes (Messerschmidt, 1993) and has also been employed in specific case studies around crimes perpetrated by boys and men, such as question of rape in Switzerland, murder in Australia, hooliganism in the world of football as well as white-collar delinquency in England or violent assaults in the United States (Newburn and Stanko, 1994).
Growing research effort ultimately led to an enrichment of the concept itself. Its definition has been fleshed out in four main ways: by illustrating the costs and consequences of hegemony, by revealing its mechanisms, by highlighting a greater diversity of masculinities, and by tracing the evolutions of hegemonic masculinities. Regarding the question of its costs and consequences, research in criminology has shed light on how particular forms of aggression like domestic abuse are linked to hegemonic masculinity, not as a mechanical effect of which it is said to be the cause, but because of the search for hegemony (Bufkin, 1999; Messerschmidt, 1997).
The revelation of the mechanisms of hegemony has been the subject of fruitful research. Some are particularly visible, such as the “spectacularization” of masculinity deployed in television sports programs (Sabo and Jansen, 1992), or the social mechanisms that Roberts (1993) calls “censorship” towards subordinate groups. Conversely, other mechanisms of hegemony operate invisibly, subtracting a dominant form of masculinity from the possibility of censorship (Brown, 1999).
Finally, a lot of research shows that forms of masculinity are not only diverse, but also subject to change. Challenges to hegemony are commonplace and in return give rise to adjustments that are just as common.Ferguson (2001) traces the decline of historical figures of masculinity in Ireland, the celibate priest and the hard-working father of a family, and their replacement by more current and market-oriented models. Dasgupta (2000) underlines the presence of tensions in the Japanese model of masculinity of the “salaried man”, and this particularly after the “economic bubble” of the 1980s when the cultural figure of the “employee fleeing the wage” appears. Taga (2003) describes the various responses to change observed among young men from the Japanese middle class, who, for example, experience new forms of domestic relations with women. Meuser (2003) is interested in generational change in Germany, which results in part from men’s reactions to transformations in women’s practices. Many (but not all) young men these days expect women to reject patriarchal social relations and develop their own “egalitarian pragmatism”. Morris and Evans (2001), who are interested in images of rural femininity and masculinity in Britain, note a slower evolution,
It is undeniable that in the vast literature dealing with masculinity there is a great deal of conceptual confusion as well as a great deal of essentialism. This is undoubtedly seen in the references to masculinity by popular psychology, as in the movements of mythopoetic men and journalistic readings of research on the biological difference between the sexes. The idea that the concept of masculinity is essentializing or homogenizing does not fit well with the incredible diversity of social constructions that ethnographers and historians have brought to light with this concept. The fact that some researchers have explored masculinities practiced by female-bodied persons further distances the concept of essentialism (Halberstam, 1998; Messerschmidt, 2004). Masculinity does not take the form of a fixed entity that is anchored in the body or character traits of individuals.
These criticisms have clearly highlighted the ambiguities in the use of the concept. It is in fact desirable to eliminate all use of hegemonic masculinity as a fixed and transhistoric model, because these uses break with the idea of gender historicity and ignore the very numerous proofs of changes in social definitions of masculinity. But, in other respects, it may be important to recognize ambiguity in gender processes as a mechanism of hegemony. Consider how an idealized definition of masculinity is formed in the course of social action. At the level of a society as a whole (which we will qualify below as the “regional” level of analysis) there circulate valued models of male behavior, which can be exposed to the nude by religious authorities, narrated by the media or celebrated by the state. Such models refer to the everyday realities of social practices, but also distort them in various ways.
Hegemonic masculinity can become a pseudo-scientific synonym to refer to a rigid, dominant, sexist and “macho” type of man. Because the concept of hegemonic masculinity is based on practices that extend the collective domination of men over women, it is not surprising that in some contexts hegemonic masculinity does refer to adoption by men of harmful practices, such as physical violence, that stabilize gender domination in a given context. However, violence and other harmful practices are not always its primary characteristics, since hegemony takes many configurations. Indeed, as Wetherell and Edley (1999) ironically observe, one of the most effective ways of “being a man” in certain local contexts may be to show that one is keeping one’s distance from a local hegemonic masculinity.Most descriptions of hegemonic masculinity do include “positive” actions like bringing home a salary, and being a father.
It is difficult to see how the concept of hegemonic masculinity could be relevant if the only characteristics of the dominant group were violence, aggression and navel gazing. Such characteristics might qualify a situation of domination, but would hardly define a situation of hegemony – an idea which includes a certain degree of consent and participation on the part of subordinate groups.
In conclusion, while we see in most of the uses and modifications made to the concept of hegemonic masculinity a welcome contribution to the understanding of gender dynamics, it is important to reject the uses that make it a fixed type of character, or an assemblage of toxic characteristics. Not that these uses are futile – they do attempt to put a name to important gender issues, such as the persistence of domestic abuse or the consequences of domination.
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