Home Privilege How Hegemonic Masculinity Gets Gender History Wrong

How Hegemonic Masculinity Gets Gender History Wrong

by Ryan
man tipping hat

Australian feminist R.W. Connell of the University of Melbourne initially defined “hegemonic masculinity” as various forms of masculinity that normalizes men as the dominant group in society. It goes further to claim that not only women are normalized in a subordinate position, but so are “less masculine” men.

The entire concept is built around the idea that the masculine “ideal” is dominant, heterosexual, aggressive, and violent. It also allegedly seeks to restrain emotion.

While there have, indeed, always been aspects of traditional masculinity that required men to act in aggressive or violent ways – where this gender order theory gets things grossly wrong is how society has always and continues to frame the “ideal” form of masculinity.

Hegemonic Masculinity Theory Versus Reality

The theory is easy for students to believe, whenever they read about it in a gender studies textbook. All one needs to do is turn to popular action films over the years to see how male violence appears to be glorified.

Students of gender studies can therefore be forgiven for following the lazy path of logic provided by hegemonic masculinity theory.

That is that the normalizing of male aggression and violence is a direct symptom of how society seeks to make the “ideal” form of masculine behavior one that involves aggression and violence.

Why is this logic lazy? Because it is a superficial observation. It ignores deeper fictional storylines and the reasons behind why positively-portrayed male characters appear to be “justified” in their violence. In fact, when you look at most mainstream movie plots – both past and present – being male isn’t the justification for this behavior. The reason is more commonly to provide for, to protect, or to save a woman or a child.

The following list of the most popular movies over the last decade follow this exact glorification of using aggression or violence for this purpose.

  • Bravehart: The account of William Wallace’s violent battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. The inspiration for his turn to violence was the murder of Marion Braidfute, the woman he’d fallen in love with. His core motivation was to kill Sir William Heselrig, in retaliation.
  • Mad Max: Max’s rein of violence begins as a vendetta against a biker gang for murdering his wife and son.
  • Gladiator: Maximus Decimus seeks out revenge against Commodus for murdering his wife and child.
  • Lethal Weapon: The violence begins after a friend’s (Michael Hunsaker) daughter is murdered and made to look like a suicide. Later in the plot, the pair of cops lay out a flurry of violence in order to save Sergeant Roger Murtaugh’s abducted daughter Rianne.
  • Dirty Harry: A psychopathic killer murders a kidnapped girl. Harry takes out retribution against this girl-murdering killer.
  • Die Hard: John McClane delivers a stream of violence against bad male criminals. McClane seems more than willing to sacrifice himself if he has to in order to protect innocent hostages, one of whom is his own wife.

True “Ideolized” Masculinity

You will be hard-pressed to find mainstream propaganda that ever idealizes the subjugation, oppression, or violence toward women. In fact, as far back as you go in mainstream media, “idealized” masculinity revolves around sacrificing ones own life or health to protect the life or health of women.

Any male character portrayed as subjugating, oppression, or assaulting women is a character that’s set up as a villain. It’s a character that represents the opposite of the masculine ideal.

For Hegemonic Masculinity Theory to be true – this wouldn’t be the case. In fact, the very opposite of hegemonic masculinity theory is true.

Take the 1860 Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette by Cecil Hartley as an example of what was always traditionally taught as the ideal form of masculinity.

Traditionally masculinity – in other words, to be considered a truly honorable and highly respected man in society – involved all of the following elements:

  • Table manners: Escort a lady to the table, and let her sit first before you’re seated. Wait until all women are seated before sitting down yourself. Cecil even advises men to consider the lady’s needs before his own while eating: “Watch that the lady whom you escorted to the table is well helped. Lift and change her plate for her, pass her bread, salt, and butter, give her orders to the waiter, and pay her every attention in your power”.
  • Street etiquette: Always be polite and “especially include courtesy toward ladies, no matter what may be their age or position.” When walking with a lady or elderly, always allow them to walk on the house side (the safer side) of the sidewalk. Avoid touching anyone with your elbows while walking. Offer an umbrella to women before using it for yourself. Always ask permission to “join a lady whom you may meet” before walking with her. When simply going for a walk with a lady “let her select your destination”.
  • General masculine etiquette: When a lady enters the room, “rise, and remain standing until she is seated.” If a lady leaves the room, you must also rise, “and remain standing until she has passed out.”
  • Violence and aggression: Violence against women was especially condemned. “Civility is particularly due to all women; and, remember, that no provocation whatsoever can justify any man in not being civil to every woman; and the greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman.”

Coming from an era when women were supposedly particularly “oppressed”, all of these rules around what it means to be a truly masculine gentleman would not have existed.

Traditional Masculinity Is Still Taught to Children

This is the hypocrisy of our modern era. While feminists like R.W. Connell betray the true picture of both traditional and modern society with “hegemonic masculinity” theory – society continues holding men to the same rules of “gentlemanly conduct” it always has.

These rules are taught to boys in children’s books, in children’s TV shows, and in movies. Boys continue to be expected to sacrifice their own lives and health in order to protect or defend the lives and health of women. Boys continue to be told “ladies first”.

Feminists would like the world to believe that all of the “brutish” behaviors Cecil Hartley advised men against, was actually the rule of the day for men traditionally. Obviously this isn’t true. Feminists would also like the world to believe that modern masculinity also seeks to “dominate” and “subjugate” others. Again — you can see in modern media how men like that are actually painted as villains, not heroes. The “heroes” are the men who sacrifice their health or their lives to protect others.

Modern Gender Studies and Feminism Only Cares About Women

Meanwhile, traditional expectations for girls and women continue to be removed from modern media for the sake of providing women with greater freedom in their everyday actions and choices.

Yet, instead of dismantling very real elements of traditional masculinity that constrain boys and men from experiencing the same freedom in their everyday actions and choices – feminists instead continue painting an inaccurate picture of both the historic and modern values of masculinity. They seek to convince the world that “brutish” behavior was what defined masculinity – when in reality society has always condemned that behavior. It was never part of what defined masculinity at all.

True freedom and equality would mean no human would enjoy privileges or protections over another, simply due to their gender. To accomplish this would require dismantling the elements of traditional masculinity that have always, and continues, to provide women with privileges. And feminists will never do that.

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