Femininity and masculinity are acquired social identities: as individuals become socialized they develop a gender identity, an understanding of what it means to be a ‘‘man’’ or a ‘‘woman’’ (Laurie et al. 1999). How individuals develop an understanding of their gender identity, including whether or not they fit into these prescribed gender roles, depends upon the context within which they are socialized and how they view themselves in relation to societal gender norms. Class, racial, ethnic, and national factors play heavily into how individuals construct their gender identities and how they are perceived externally (hooks 2004). Gender identities are often naturalized; that is, they rely on a notion of biological difference, ‘‘so that ‘natural’ femininity [in a white, European, middle class context] encompasses, for example, motherhood, being nurturing, a desire for pretty clothes and the exhibition of emotions’’ (Laurie et al. 1999: 3). ‘‘Natural’’ masculinity, in contrast, may encompass fatherhood, acting ‘‘tough,’’ a desire for sports and competition, and hiding emotions (Connell 1997; Thompson 2000). In both cases, these constructions of gender identity are based on stereotypes that fall within the range of normative femininities and masculinities. Yet, as many sociologists have pointed out, not all individuals fit within these prescribed norms and as such, masculinities and femininities must be recognized as socially constituted, fluid, wide ranging, and historically and geographically differentiated (Connell 1997; Halberstam 1998; Laurie et al. 1999).
Feminist scholars have long addressed the social construction of femininities, particularly in the context of gender inequality and power (Lorber 1994). Early second wave feminist scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir (1980) argued that women’s subordinated status in western societies was due to socialization rather than to any essential biological gender difference, as evidenced in her often cited phrase, ‘‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’’ Many feminist scholars in Anglo Saxon and European countries have emphasized social construction over biological difference as an explanation for women’s ways of being, acting, and knowing in the world and for their related gender subordination (Gilligan 1993). Some feminist scholars have addressed the social construction of femininities as a way to explain wage inequality, the global ‘‘feminization of poverty,’’ and women’s relegation to ‘‘feminine’’ labor markets (e.g., secretarial labor, garment industry, caring labor) and to the so called private realm of the household and family (Folbre 2001). Because feminists were primarily concerned with the question of women’s subordination, masculinities themselves were rarely analyzed except in cases where scholars sought an explanation for male aggression or power. Likewise, hegemonic femininity was emphasized over alternative femininities such that the experiences of women who did not fit into socially prescribed gender roles were either left unexamined or viewed through the normative lens of gender dualisms (Halberstam 1998).
Particularly since the 1980s, at least three areas of research on gender identity have helped shift the debate on femininities and masculinities: (1) masculinity studies, which emerged primarily in the 1980s and 1990s; (2) queer studies and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies, including the pivotal research of Butler (1990); and (3) gender, race, ethnic, and postcolonial studies, a trajectory of scholarship in which researchers have long critiqued hegemonic forms of masculinity and femininity on the basis that these racialized constructions helped reinforce the criminalization and subordination of racial/ethnic minorities in industrialized societies and the colonization of both men and women in poor and/or nonwestern regions.
In contrast to feminist scholarship that focused primarily on women’s experiences with femininity, Connell’s (1987) research on ‘‘hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity’’ was among the first to systematically analyze both sets of constructions as they contribute to global gender inequality. Connell argues ‘‘hegemonic masculinity,’’ a type of masculinity oriented toward accommodating the interests and desires of men, forms the basis of patriarchal social orders. Similarly, ‘‘emphasized femininity,’’ a hegemonic form of femininity, is ‘‘defined around compliance with [female] sub ordination and is oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men’’ (p. 23). Borrowing from Gramsci’s analysis of class hegemony and struggle, Connell develops a framework for understanding multiple competing masculinities and femininities. He argues that hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women. Thus, for example, non-European, poor, non-white, and/or gay men tend to experience subordinated masculinities, whereas men of middle class European, white, and/or heterosexual backgrounds tend to benefit from the privileges of hegemonic masculinity.
Especially since the 1980s, scholars of masculinity studies have produced innovative research on various aspects of men’s lives and experiences. Messner (1992), for example, examines men’s identifications with sports as an example of how masculinities are constructed and maintained. Messner analyzes the ‘‘male viewer’’ of today’s most popular spectator sports in terms of the mythology and symbolism of masculine identification: common themes he encounters in his research include patriotism, militarism, violence, and meritocracy. Scholars of gay masculinities have addressed how gay men of various ethnic, racial, class, and national backgrounds have negotiated hegemonic masculinity, sometimes in contradictory ways, and constructed alternative masculinities through their everyday lives (Messner 1997).
Importantly, research on hegemonic masculinities sheds light on how and why masculinity has been largely ‘‘invisible’’ in the lives of men who benefit from hegemonic masculinity and in the field of women’s/gender studies, which tends to focus on the experiences of women. Although there are obvious reasons why the field of women’s/gender studies has focused primarily on women, since women experience gender inequalities more than men, scholars increasingly have pointed out that male socialization processes and identities, as well as masculinist institutions and theories, should be examined as a way to rethink gender inequality. As Kimmel (2002) notes: ‘‘The ‘invisibility’ of masculinity in discussions of [gender] has political dimensions. The processes that confer privilege on one group and not another group are often invisible to those upon whom that privilege is conferred. Thus, not having to think about race is one of the luxuries of being white, just as not having to think about gender is one of the ‘patriarchal dividends’ of gender inequality.’’
Judith Butler’s research on gender performativity has opened space for discussion about the naturalized linking of gender identity, the body, and sexual desire. Butler (1990) argues feminism has made a mistake by trying to assert that ‘‘women’’ are a group with common characteristics and interests. Like socio biologists, feminists who rely exclusively on a sociocultural explanation of gender identity construction also fall prey to essentialism. Many individuals, especially those who define as ‘‘queer’’ or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans gendered, do not experience gender identity, embodiment, and sexual desire through the dominant norms of gender and heterosexuality. Influenced by Foucault, Butler suggests, like Connell, that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold. She calls for subversive action in the present: ‘‘gender trouble,’’ the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders, and therefore identity. This idea of identity as free floating and not connected to an ‘‘essence’’ is one of the key ideas expressed in queer theory (EGS 2005).
Butler and other queer theorists have addressed how normative femininities and masculinities play a role in disciplining the lives of LGBT individuals. Halberstam’s (1998) research addresses constructions of ‘‘female masculinity’’ and argues that scholars must separate discussions of gender identity (e.g., masculinities, femininities) from discussions of the body. Women can ‘‘act masculine’’ just as men can ‘‘act feminine’’; how individuals identify in terms of their gender is not and should not be linked to their biological anatomies, however defined. Halberstam’s own research addresses how masculine identified women experience gender, the stratification of masculinities (e.g., ‘‘heroic’’ vs. alternative masculinities), and the public emergence of other genders. Other scholars have examined how medical and scientific institutions have managed normative gender (and sexual) identities through psychological protocols and surgical intervention (Fausto Sterling 2000). This type of research points toward a broader understanding of gender that places dualistic conceptions of ‘‘masculine’’ vs. ‘‘feminine’’ and ‘‘male’’ vs. ‘‘female’’ into question.
Scholars of race, ethnic, and postcolonial studies have addressed how normative femininities and masculinities, which tend to benefit those with racial/ethnic privilege, help rein force a racialized social order in which subordinated groups are demasculinized or feminized in ways that maintain their racial/ethnic sub ordination in society. One example involves the stereotyping of African American men as unruly and hypersexual. The ‘‘myth of the male rapist,’’ as Davis (2001) has discussed, has played a highly destructive role in black men’s lives and has influenced legal, political, and social actions toward them, including their disproportionate criminalization for rape, often based on fraudulent charges. Another example concerns immigrant men racialized as minorities in the US. Thai (2002) illustrates how working class Vietnamese American men have developed innovative strategies to achieve higher status in their communities by marrying middle to upper class Vietnamese women and bringing them to the US. Faced with few marriage options and low paying jobs in the US, working class Vietnamese American men who experience a form of subordinated masculinity seek upward mobility through these transnational marriage networks.
Women of color in the US and working class women in developing countries also face unequal access to hegemonic femininity, as defined in western terms. Hill Collins (2004) addresses how African American women have been hypersexualized in US popular culture, thereby placing them outside the realm of normative femininity according to hegemonic white, western standards. Postcolonial studies scholars have demonstrated how poor women in developing regions (particularly non-white women) have been sexualized by male tourists from industrialized countries and sometimes also by local men (Freeman 2001). More broadly, scholars of masculinities and/or femininities have pointed out how constructions of masculinities and femininities are embedded in social institutions (e.g., the state, economy, nation, educational system) and processes (e.g., social welfare policy, globalization, colonization, political campaigns, popular culture, everyday life) and shape individuals’ everyday experiences and gendered self-perceptions (Connell 1987, 1997; Laurie et al. 1999; Free man 2001; Hill Collins 2004).
Critics have defended normative femininity and masculinity on religious, moral, and/or biological grounds. Some, for example, have argued that these social norms (what Connell would call hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity) are ‘‘naturally’’ aligned with men’s and women’s assumed biological roles in reproduction and/or with their assumed heterosexual desire (see Lorber 1994; Messner 1997). On all sides of the ideological spectrum, individuals have participated in interesting political responses and social movements that either embrace or challenge dominant societal constructions of masculinity and femininity. Some women have joined feminist movements and challenged traditional notions of femininity; whereas other women have joined right wing women’s movements that embrace
traditional gender roles and identities (e.g., Concerned Women for America). Men have formed feminist men’s movements, based largely on the principles of women’s feminist movements, as well as movements to embrace traditional notions of fatherhood, as in the divergent examples of the Christian based (and largely white, middle class) Promise Keepers and the Million Man Marches, first organized in 1995 by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and attended by over 800,000 African American men as part of a movement to reclaim black masculinity (Messner 1997).
Future research on femininities and masculinities will likely be influenced by the recent scholarship in the fields of masculinity studies, queer theory and LGBT studies, and race, ethnic, and postcolonial studies. Although scholars vary in their disciplinary backgrounds and methodological approaches to the study of femininities and masculinities, most would agree that femininities and masculinities can be seen as sets of rules or norms that govern female and male behavior, appearance, and self-image
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