Hegemonic Masculinity Sociology Essay Sample

Men perform and reinforce masculinity informed by outside influences across diverse discourses. Hegemonic masculinity represents the culturally idealized forms of manhood that are socially and hierarchically exclusive. Masculinity represents the patterns of social practice linked to the position of men within a society. The cultural configuration of gender practice within the hegemonic masculinity is central to the production and reproduction of gendered violence. Masculinity literature traces the performance of masculinity; however, the literature largely neglects the interactions between the various spheres, especially the manner in which masculine performance differs across space and time. The paper seeks to examine how men reinvent and make sense of their masculinity, as they transit between competing paradigms.

Ways in which Masculinity is Constructed or Performed

The paper addresses the following research question (s):

  • How do social institutions, including family, peers, religion, media and school, shape social constructs of hegemonic masculinity?
  • How do social constructs of masculinity influence how men establish sense of self and identity, and how does masculinity relate to gendered violence?

Hegemonic masculinity represents the ideal masculinity (culturally idealized masculine character) that most young men acknowledge, but do not necessarily inhabit. The concept of hegemonic masculinity differs across place and time and features multiple overlapping dimensions. Indeed, hegemonic masculinity can be qualified as a cultural representation, institutional structure and everyday practice. The expressions of hegemonic masculinity are normative, but not necessarily customary. As such, there exists a collection of potential masculinities in operation at any moment in time. Connell infers masculinity as a performance that fluctuates over the life course and that details the arrangement and reorganization of psychic and bodily resources in complex rituals of identification and positioning (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 829). Various studies examine the means in which diverse configurations of masculinity are fostered, challenged or reinforced in given social situations. In their study, Robinson and Hockey document the varied masculinities that a single man can manifest or undertake in different spheres of his life and at diverse times over the life course (Robinson and Hockey 2011, 17). Indeed, men navigate masculine identities in transitional periods both temporally and spatially between domestic life and employment.

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Hegemonic Masculinity: An Overview

Hegemony represents a term employed by Antonio Gramsci to delineate the prevalent ideas that have become naturalized, embraced and utilized to validate the status quo of a cultural practice or institution (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 829). The concept of hegemonic masculinity emerged partially in reaction to sex role theory, which received criticism for being rigid, negligent of the power differences that exist between genders and failure to explain social change. The formulation of masculinity, in contrast to the concept of male “sex role,” is not a static function, identity or set of personality traits. Hegemony, complicity and subordination outline relations central to the gender order. According to Connell, men who are naturally guaranteed authority, power and sexual access to women enjoy a “patriarchal dividend” (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 830). Men who exploit the patriarchy dividend devoid of being on the frontlines of patriarchy are perceived to embody “complicity masculinity.” For instance, men who carry out some chores at home, avoid violence and respect women but reproduce and derive benefit from the wider system of gender inequality, exhibit complicit masculinity. Hegemony, complicity and subordination elucidate relations internal to the gender order via the interplay of gender with other structures of inequality, including class and race.

Robinson and Hockey provide a rich empirical data that challenges understandings of hegemonic masculinity as delocalized and static (Robinson and Hockey 2011, 17). Robison and Hockey demonstrate that masculinity is an agential project, a phenomenon that is constituted and frequently altered, as men adapt to or reject traditional types of masculine identity. The manifestation of masculinity is relative to other masculinities, which implies that not all masculinities are similar owing to a hierarchy that privileges hegemonic masculinity as the most legitimate, safeguarded version. Conceptually, hegemonic masculinity seeks to elaborate on how and why men preserve dominant social roles, and other gender identities considered as either masculine or feminine (Robinson and Hockey 2011, 56). The concept of hegemonic masculinity results from the theory of cultural hegemony that examines the power relations between the social classes of a society. As such, hegemony represents the cultural dynamics by ways of which a social group claims and preserves a leading and dominant position within a social hierarchy. For the purposes of current paper, hegemonic masculine behavior is delineated as physical, violent, patriarchal and aggressive.

How Social Institutions Shape Hegemonic Masculinity

Masculinity influences and shapes the lives of both men and women. Masculinity represents the behavior, relations and social roles of men in a particular society, as well as the meanings attributed to them. The influence of masculinity is sometimes subtle, but in other times it can be evident. The beliefs, characteristics and attitudes stereotypically linked to masculinity permeate all social institutions, including work, government, education, religion, government, family, sports and the media. Scholars of inequality argue that inequality can take the form of a privilege or disadvantage. Masculinity scholars examine the diverse ways in which men (as a group) are privileged, although, not all men enjoy similar access to the privileges (Kimmel and Michael 2010, 5).

Masculinity, as a configuration of everyday practice, is essentially a social construction. In recent years, social institutions have emerged, through which masculine identities are molded and shaped. The traits associated with masculinity differ according to the context and location and may be impacted by socio-cultural factors. Social institutions celebrate practices linked to hegemonic masculinity detailing normative features of it (Kimmel and Michael 2010, 8). Social institutions, such as sports, construct and reinforce hegemonic masculine norms and provide a platform for men to exercise normative masculinity traits, such as aggression, dominance, assertiveness and courage. The overriding concepts of masculinity are tied to socio-cultural contexts and impacted by several factors, such as ethnicity, social class and sexuality. For instance, a group manifesting one version of masculinity in an ethnic group or social class may wield greater power over another in the same way that a heterosexual masculinity is occasionally dominant over bisexual and homosexual masculinity.
Gender stereotypes are widely utilized by the society in the construction of characteristics considered to be typical for both men and women. As such, people are encouraged to align with the stereotypical beliefs and behaviors and conform to and embrace dominant norms of either masculinity or femininity. The societal constructions entrench heteronormative notions of what idea male-type behaviors should be. The discourses relating to work, sport, family and popular culture offer a platform on which the typical model of manliness is presented and performed by males throughout the life-stage development (Josselson and Harway 2012, 66).

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School and home are the strongest social spaces shaping masculinity. In the social spaces, parents and siblings, at home, and friends and peer groups, at school, indoctrinate young on what to do or not to do. Home can be regarded as one of the strongest social spaces that shape the development of social constructs of masculinity. Schools are a concrete site of interaction between young men and teachers and girls. Schools can also perform a function of risky and vulnerable social spaces owing to the destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse and bullying. The salient cliché that ‘boys will be boys” demonstrates how socialization entrenches masculine behaviors, such as aggression and validates the rejection of activities perceived as feminine. From childhood, children learn what it pertains to be a man (based on hegemonic masculine behaviors and attitudes, such as violence, physicality and aggressiveness) and persistently try to meet such expectations (Josselson and Harway 2012, 66). Studies have shown that expressing masculine behaviors and characteristics, especially in the presence of other men or peers, serves to reinforce hegemonic masculinity.

Religion (and tradition) also plays a powerful role in constructing masculine identity. Traditionally, organized religion reinforced ideas of masculine and feminine ideology. Nevertheless, the levels to which individuals endorse or subscribe to the roles directed by religion are also reliant on the other factors (Josselson & Harway 2012: 65). Masculinity among diverse ethnic groups differs significantly in line with culture. However, the identities embraced by the various ethnic groups closely mirror some elements of conventional masculinity. For instance, Latinos embrace machismo and African American men adopt “cool pose” to mirror traditional masculinity. In addition, Asian-American men embrace hegemonic masculinity in order to avert being labeled as effeminate.

Mass media pervades all spheres of people’s lives. The media plays a central role in perpetuating the core narrative in the construction of masculinity via interpretation/indoctrination. Young men construct and reinforce gendered performances in vibrant and intricate cultures of media, including social media. The messages carried by the mass media perpetuate and reinforce the ideals of hegemonic masculinity. The media role centers on making, shaping and recycling certain attitudes connected with hegemonic masculinity, which deal with distinctions of ethnicity, race and socioeconomic class. The media, including global culture and fashion, provides means by which men can demonstrate their individuality, which in turn, links to the notion of being a “real man.” The pervasive media images of masculinity direct many young male lives, as young men internalize the unconscious notion on how to be a man (Grindstaff and West 2011, 859). As such, it is unsurprising that a majority of villains and heroes in the movies are men who wield significant power and exhibit hegemonic masculine identities.

Sports also play a central role in shaping masculinity, especially in terms of social, intellectual and physical development. Sports give young men an opportunity to develop valuable skills, especially how to be team players. Although, sports foster cooperative values, the dominant message within sports aligns with conventional perceptions of hegemonic masculinity (Grindstaff and West 2011, 859). Sports act as an example of how to learn archetypal masculine norms. Sports function as an acceptable space for the expression of masculinity in literal ways. The meanings awarded to hegemonic masculinity carry a cultural variable; hence, it is probable that men’s elite sport teams have privilege notions of hegemonic masculinity. Grindstaff and West observe that sport players become more socialized into the norms of the team through interactions with other team players (2011, 860).

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The socialization helps players learn how to appropriately perform the function of elite team player given that those who internalize the notion of masculinity (physical aggression and hard-hitting) are highly likely to be rewarded by having more play time (Ford 2011, 38). For instance, in sports, such as hockey, players are expected to portray their courage via physical confrontations. Similarly, the NFL football has preserved a hegemonic model of masculinity that stresses competitiveness, success, violence, aggression, obedience to and compliance with male identity and dominance over women. Sport exposes the strengths and flaws of the human body and, consequently, reinforces the distorted view that men are the strongest sex and should never exhibit “feminine traits.”

Sport is both physical and competitive and is powerful in propagating the patriarchal ideology, which renders men’s power over women appear natural. Sport provides a platform where a spectator or a player can affirm the identity and status of a heterosexual male (Ford 2011, 38). In addition, sporting activities, such as cheerleading, offers a public stage for “doing gender”. As a result, cheerleading can be utilized as a means for examining the circumstances and the level to which sport remains essential to the enactment of hegemonic masculinity.

The Influence of Social Constructs of Masculinity on How Men Establish Sense of Self and Identity

Social constructs delineate meanings, notions or connotations assigned to events and objects within the environment and people’s perceptions of their relationships and interactions with the objects. A social construct seems natural and apparent to people who embrace it, but may or may not be representative of the reality, which renders a social construct as an artifice or invention of a society. Masculinity ideology constitutes a social construct detailing the processes by which men internalize socio-cultural definitions of how to be a man. According to Robinson and Hockey, identity should be treated in process, as an end product of internal-external dialectic (2011: 5). Identification qualifies as something that a person either attains or “does” independently, which has immense implications for men’s performances of masculinity as they move across and between gendered spaces and time.

The construction of gender identities remains distinct to every individual, since not all boys and young men subscribe to hegemonic masculinity or related male norms. People become “women” and “men” via the social construction of gender identities. Biological sex represents the physical characteristics that make people male or female, while gender represents the social characteristics awarded to every sex. The differences in male and female identities do not derive naturally from biological differences. As a result, gender identities are learned and relative and vary cross-culturally and historically. The cultural contexts of gender are plural, rather than merely binary (Ford 2011, 38). The persistent negotiation of gender differences occurs throughout the life course, within a process that can be both active and passive.

Gender is a complicated construct in the sense that it captures identity, power structure and delineates a set of social pressures that inform how people act. Gender is created and recreated via interaction; the manner in which people categorize themselves, work or parentage form a part of social construction of gender. The notion of multiple identities has rendered the idea of patriarchy suspect, since the society is structured by an intricate set of differences (racial, ethnic, class, gendered) (Robinson and Hockey 2011, 17). Consequently, both men and women occupy and negotiate a wide range of diverse positions in the complex matrix. From childhood, the self-meanings to one’s gender are shaped in social situations drawing from ongoing interaction with significant others, including peers, parents and educators. Although, people learn from the shared cultural conceptions of what it means to be male or female as transmitted by society, people may diverge from the proposed masculine cultural model. People are not merely passive subjects of socialization; indeed, socialization constitutes an invitation to the person to engage in society on certain terms that the subject can actively negotiate.

According to Ford, masculinity is physically, behaviorally and materially constructed from idealized images emanating from a contextually adaptive sense of self (2011, 38). Ford’s study showed that African American masculinity, especially the thug image, is symbolically confirmed or denied via a distinct form of raced, classed, gendered and sexualized discourse in black public social spaces. According to Ford, the sustenance of construction of African American masculinity fosters bodily self-doubt or insecurity. The idealized idea of being men enables African Americans to project a future development of self, which resolves the feelings of inauthenticity or insecurity.

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Hegemonic Masculinity and Gendered Violence

There are numerous theories to elucidate on the existence and the degree of the problem of men’s violence against women. Some of the theories on gendered violence emphasize personal explanations, including substance abuse, mental illness, frustration and violent family background. The sociological explanation of gendered violence highlights that violence against women is systemic to the social condition of women and men across culture and time (Grindstaff and West 2011, 860). Consequently, in order to understand gendered violence, it may be necessary to examine the pattern of the gender order. The view of women as potential sexual objects for men is a deeply entrenched element of hegemonic masculinity. Indeed, hegemonic masculinity manifests the notion that women’s main role is to avail heterosexual men with sexual validation implying that women are the “objects” for the men’s sexual pleasure. Consequently, men presume, as an archetypal masculine matter, the responsibility of controlling women so that not to appear cowards. For instance, in the Middle East, female sexuality is widely denied and excluded as a potential origin of chaos. Hence, control over female sexuality remains necessary, leading to public sex-segregation.

Men and boys internalize the demands to live according to the ideas that dictate how they should behave and feel like men. The masculine expectations may encompass notions that men should be independent, risk-taking and have multiple sexual partners in order to assert their manhood. The expectations to publically define themselves as masculine may make boys and young men exaggerate their masculinity so that to stress that they are “real men.” The exaggerated expressions of masculinity may encompass aspects, such as the use of violence and increased substance abuse. Violence is largely a gendered phenomenon, which implies that any attempt to understand violence should take into account the relationship between violence and masculinity and manhood (Ford 2011, 38). Violence can be a tool employed to claim power over others. Gendered violence results from the cultural ideals of hegemonic masculinity responsible for the prevalence of honor killing in South Asia and the Middle East. In cases of honor killing, an ideal man is one who heroically preserves his honor by murdering his wife or sister whom he judges to have dishonored his name by engaging in an illicit relationship.

It can be hypothesized that men who perceive themselves as being more “masculine” manifest a higher preponderance to the acceptance of violence. The concept of violence, in this case, encompasses emotional and mental abuse, as well as physical violence. The outlined types of violence are meant to dominate and express power and authority. Although, the majority of violent crimes are committed by men, the great number of them, though, does not engage in violent crimes. The variation of men with regard to violence is rooted in the social construction of men and the cultural meanings attached to masculinity. Studies have demonstrated that violence plays a pervasive role in forming identity and offers a possibility for men to prove their masculinity amongst peer groups. In most sites, men perceive physical fighting as inevitable and formative. Indeed, the defining masculinity rests in not being perceived as weak, a woman or gay (Robinson and Hockey 2011, 17). Physical characteristics, including big muscles and broad shoulders, reflect physical strength that is cited as a defining characteristic of masculinity. Physical and mental characteristics also represent other masculine characteristics of authority, self-confidence, power and respect.

The role of men as a protector acts as a defining masculine feature linked to men’s violent utilization of power. Masculinity and violence are essentially conceptualized as symptomatic of gender socialization. Hypersensitivity can be an outcome of men being taught to be aggressive and dominant. Violence and aggression can be a mode of acting or performing masculinity. In the event that violence constitutes part of acting masculine, albeit only in certain circumstances, such as sport, violence behavior can readily be translated into a mode of enacting masculinity in everyday life. Gendered violence has varied over place and time and do not represent a natural expression of masculinity. Consequently, as the definitions of what constitutes manhood change, masculinity’s linkage to violence changes, as well.

The societal model of masculinity that blends identity and action should be understood as both conflictual and fluid. The social construction framework of masculinity elucidates that there does not exist a universally unique character that is feminine or masculine, given that behaviors are impacted by a collection of factors, including culture, class, religion, age and sexual preference. The construction of gender subjectivities or identities is perceived as a dynamic, ongoing, shifting and changeable, rather than a fixed or static process (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 830). Indeed, people are not passively molded by the larger societal forces, such as media or school, but rather remain active in choosing, adjusting and rejecting the dimensions that they choose to incorporate into their version of gender. Hence, the contradictions and complexities within the social relationships that inform the understandings on what it means to be male or female (individually or collectively) departs from the model of social construction of gender based on the sex role or socialization theory.

Conclusion

Masculinity represents configurations of practice that are achieved through social action, which means that masculinity can vary based on the gender relations within a certain social setting. The construction of masculinity and femininity is produced with varying success and exemplifies a collection of components that increase and decline in significance. Indeed, the creation of gender identities constitutes a dynamic process that may shift over time and be influenced by diverse factors. Social institutions provide a platform on which young men learn from the enactments of masculinity on selection of acceptable attributes conceived as manly. Men are expected to show no fear, manifest no vulnerability or tenderness and solve all problems with action (occasionally violence).

Gendered violence is constantly performed within a broader cultural space wherein what it constitutes to be a man is inextricably linked to the perceived capability and opportunity to act or react violently to others. The depictions of what is considered manly reinforce hegemonic masculinity, which perpetuates the intergenerational oppression of men and women and frustrate their capacity to be themselves. The socialization of men to be violent can present major challenges to the masculine culture that supports and authenticates the violence among men. Indeed, the pervasive forms and codes of masculinity serve to legitimize, to some extent, acceptance of violence in the society.