Developed in the 1980s (Carrigan et al. 1985) to provide a relational and socially constructed conception of men and masculinities, the term hegemonic masculinity describes the hierarchical interaction between multiple masculinities and explains how some men make it appear normal and necessary that they dominate most women and other men (Connell 1987).
Hegemonic masculinity describes a position in the system of gender relations, the system itself, and the current ideology that serves to reproduce masculine domination. In presenting the term, Connell demonstrates the essentialistic, a historical, and normative liabilities in previous men’s studies scholarship. In the concept of hegemonic masculinity Connell joins the constructivist view of ”doing gender” (West & Zimmerman 1987) with insights drawn from feminist scholars who described the ways in which gender relations shape social structures (Hartsock 1983).
Connell seeks to explain how some men succeed in making it appear normal, natural, and necessary for them to enjoy power over other men and most women; why it is that so many men and women participate willingly in their own oppression; and how resistance to hegemonic masculinity can promote gender justice. Connell posits four types of masculinities, more as positions in relation to one another than as personality types: hegemonic, complicit, subordinated, and marginalized. The hegemonic position is the currently accepted male ideal within a particular culture at a particular time. As such, the hegemonic male is an ideal type (Weber 1946). Connell notes that this image changes over time and place, as well as being subject to contestation within a particular culture.
Most men fall within the second, category, complicit. These men accept and participate in the system of hegemonic masculinity so as to enjoy the material, physical, and symbolic benefits of the subordination of women and, through fantasy, experience the sense of hegemony and learn to take pleasure in it, and avoid subordination.
The relations among the four positions are hierarchical. A man in the subordinated position suffers that fate despite appearing to possess the physical attributes necessary to aspire to hegemony. Men run the risk of subordination when they do not practice gender consistent with the hegemonic system and ideology. The clearest examples are men who are openly gay. Gay men are defined in this system as not real men. They lack the legitimacy to aspire to hegemony. The many seemingly innocuous taunts of ”Be a man” or ”What are you, a fag?” are in reality active gender policing in which the fear of subordination, the loss of legitimacy, and the fall from complicity are actively enacted. Marginalized men are those who cannot even aspire to hegemony – most often, men of color and men with disabilities. Groups can contest marginalization when they seek authorization by making the claim: ”I’m a man, too.”
The second manner in which Connell uses hegemonic masculinity is to describe the current system of gender relations: current ”con figurations of practice” organize social relations and structures to the overall benefit of men in relation to women and of some men in relation to other men. Connell stresses that these con figurations of practice take place across four dimensions: power, the division of labor, cathexis or emotional relations, and the symbolic. Connell’s argument is that hegemonic masculinity as a system becomes built into social institutions so as to make it appear normal and natural for men’s superordinate position to be maintained. For example, major societal institutions including government, the economy, and the family are structured so as to reinforce and reproduce male hegemony in ways ranging from structure, credentialing, and even cultural symbolic expressions. Additionally, the hierarchical relations of men with other men are expressed in both social structures as well as cultural expectations in examples such as resistance to gays in the military or the gendering of occupations, including typically female jobs like librarian, elementary teacher, or nurse.
The third usage of hegemonic masculinity, as an ideology, provides the justification through which patriarchy is legitimated and maintained. As an ideology, hegemonic masculinity structures the manner in which all people experience and thereby know their world, although those experiences vary as both men and women are differentially situated by race, class, and sexuality. This ideology, referred to as hegemonic complicity, can be measured across four dimensions: ideal type masculinity, hierarchical ranking of self and others, subordination of women, and the subordination of woman like behavior (Levy 2005). The first dimension, ideal type masculinity, is the belief that there is a single type of masculinity that is appropriate. Different men or groups of men and women can posit a different ideal type, contesting the definition of that type, but the underlying belief in a single ideal type typifies this dimension.
Hierarchical ranking of oneself and others is perhaps the least studied component of hegemonic masculinity as an ideology. Previous scholars (Lewis 1978) spoke of competition as a restrictive component of masculinity or as a barrier to meaningful interaction. This conceptualization fails to capture the ever present intrapsychic dimension of active hierarchic assessment. Hierarchical ranking is a process in which men compare themselves and others actively and incessantly to their general or con textual ideal type.
Subordination of women and anyone or any trait perceived to be woman like includes overt and covert sexism and homophobia. Although some would argue that both overt sexism and homophobia have been in decline, the lingering or residual effects, often in the form of beliefs about men, women, and sexuality, are quite active.
The three dimensions of hegemonic masculinity as a position, a system, and an ideology can be theoretically separated while their interaction and interconnections are still recognized. Those who criticize the concept of hegemonic masculinity for confusion, reification, or elitism (Lorber 1998; Martin 1998; Whitehead 1999; Demetriou 2001) need to recognize its multiple usages and see that those allegations have merit only if the critic refuses to consider simultaneously the three understandings of hegemonic masculinity – position, system, and ideology -or to appreciate Connell’s continuing dedication to gender justice, a commitment he shares with some feminists often accused of essentialism. Connell calls for forming coalitions among those resisting the subtle but pervasive effects of hegemonic masculinity and feminists opposed to patriarchal and/or class and racial oppressions. Given the ubiquity of hegemonic masculinity as both a system of gender relations and as a justificatory ideology, resistance can be expressed politically or interactionally; that is, rather than contesting the hegemonic position, resistance seeks to alter the configuration of gender practice that reproduces the system of hegemonic masculinity.
- Carrigan, T., Connell, R. W., & Lee, J. (1985) Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity. Theory and Society 14: 551-604.
- Connell, R. W. (1987) Gender and Power. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
- Demetriou, D. Z. (2001) Connell’s Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity: A Critique. Theory and Society 30: 337-61.
- Hartsock, N. (1983) Sex and Power. Longman, New York.
- Levy, D. P. (2005) Hegemonic Complicity, Friendship and Comradeship: Validation and Causal Processes Among White, Middle-Class, Middle-Aged Men. Journal of Men’s Studies 13(2): 199-224.
- Lewis, R. A. (1978) Emotional Intimacy Among Men. Journal of Social Issues 34: 108-21.
- Lorber, J. (1998) Symposium on R. W. Connell’s Masculinities. Gender and Society 12: 469-72.
- Martin, P. Y. (1998) Symposium on R. W. Connell’s Masculinities. Gender and Society 12: 472-4.
- Weber, M. (1946) Essays in Sociology. Ed. H. H. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- West, C. & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987) Doing Gender. Gender and Society 1: 125-51.
- Whitehead, S. (1999) Hegemonic Masculinity Revisited. Gender, Work and Organization 6: 58-62.
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