By Sally Raskoff
Have you ever wondered why men make a higher average wage than women? Why men take out the garbage and women do the laundry? Why most people who experience the battered end of domestic violence are women and those doing the battering are primarily men? Why men who are battered by their wives don’t call for help? Why men fix the car and women arrange the social events? Why we’ve had mostly male politicians in the highest offices? Why women suffer more depression than men while men have more cardiovascular issues?
Men and women with the same character traits often receive different treatment even if they are doing the same work. Witness the “Barbara Streisand Effect” in which film directors who run a tight set, get the filming done on time, and make an award winning movie are lauded and awarded if they are men while they are often disparaged and second-guessed if they are women.
In the 2008 Presidential race, Hillary Clinton deals with gender stereotypes while Barack Obama deals with racial and ethnic stereotypes—the press acknowledges that these are similar issues and problems. However, some are talking about how it will be tougher for Hillary to overcome these stereotypes and assumptions.
It’s important to recognize that gender and the very definition of gender is built into the structure of our society. And this societal embedding of gender gives it its strength.
Our society is structured by patriarchy, the rule or dominance of men. Men, as the dominant group, are assigned the characteristics of dominance, e.g., power, leadership, “protector” and “provider” functions, competitiveness, assertiveness, and aggression, while women, the subordinate group, are assigned the characteristics of the powerless whose purpose is to support and/or entertain the powerful, e.g., nurturance, emotionality, fragility, and objectification. We call these masculine traits and feminine traits, respectively, and raise boys and girls to expect and practice them even though they are human traits, regardless of one’s sex.
Sex and gender are two different constructs. Sex indicates the bodily differences of which we are taught there are only two categories: male and female. Gender indicates the social differences, in both personal identity and social role, based on sex and into which we expect people to conform. (The surprisingly frequent occurrence of intersex infants, the existence of transgender issues, and the existence of more than two gender groups in other cultures all call into question our two firm categories of both sex and gender, yet that will be a blog for another day.)
All societies assign different traits to different gender groups , but every culture does it differently. What we call masculine and “manly” may not be assigned to people with male bodies in another society. In our culture, however, masculine means power and men are expected to be strong, in-charge, and protective.
In our culture, we have specific definitions of masculinity and femininity yet many people feel that we’ve moved beyond them at this point in our society’s existence. Gender definitions can and do change, but they don’t change very quickly, and the definitions not only affect our individual lives, they affect everything in society.
The U.S. has experienced at least two women’s movements that, along with economic demands, have expanded the social roles for women to include “provider expectations” (among other things) yet we’ve not experienced a parallel men’s movement for expanding the social roles of men. Research is highlighting more “involved fathers” who are more than just babysitters to their children, yet we do not have anything near gender equality in families. That we have to call men “involved” fathers is similar to saying “woman” doctor to highlight that the person doing something is not the typical, expected, or normative person to do so.
Media can be a mirror for our society since what shows up in our various forms of entertainment can help us see our culture more clearly. Let’s see what we will see when we look at the top male actors in our society, those who get the leading roles in major motion pictures, make the most money, and who have had some longevity and/or consistency in this most difficult and exclusive occupation. As you look at their photos in the movie, consider how their physical characteristics (and the roles that they have played) resonate (or not) with those masculine traits.
The resemblance between the actors from the 1920s to present day is quite amazing. A young Richard Burton resembles Ben Affleck, for example. If you cycle through the movie quick enough, it seems that there are many pictures of just a few men, all of whom could be related. Their physical traits include strong facial features (the jawline in particular), muscles (as particularly noticeable in the open or “missing shirt” photos), and few options for their facial expressions.
They gaze straight into the camera and to the side, yet both poses can have different meanings. Those stares at the camera are part of a pose that is intense and typically intended for a lover while the side gazes are more menacing or threatening to others off screen. If you recognize the films with which some of these photos resonate, these actors play lovers and fighters, military men and cowboys. Some have played the bad guy but that still rare for most of them.
All of them have had roles in which they romance women. Only a few have played non-heterosexual men; those roles either signaled the end of their leading man career, jumped them into acting from a musical career, downplayed the role as an attempt to show “real” acting ability, or focused on societal issues without delving much about the character’s relationship(s).
Even more telling, these actors seem to live very public heterosexual lives. While rumors may occur in some cases, the non-heterosexual sexual orientation of Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, and James Dean were only publicized after their deaths. You might wonder whether such information should be in the public eye at all, but notice that if one is perceived as straight, the career continues.
Homophobia, of the fear of homosexuality or “homosexuals” is still with us as a primary tool of patriarchy. It helps to keep the dominant group as dominant. And our top male actors demonstrate that heterosexuality is our preferred form of masculinity.
Masculine traits are used to reinforce the norms for men to be powerful, and this includes a norm of heterosexuality. With men as the dominant group, they dominate the less powerful group of women. If a man steps outside the norms of masculinity, this would equate him with women. This can explain why the words used to harass boys or men are words equating them with women. Before they were aimed at people who prefer same-sex partners, the words "faggot" and "fag" referred disparagingly to women; while the term to insult women emerges in 1521, it was reassigned to “male homosexual” in 1914.
In the book Gender and Power, Connell refers to societal gender regimes in which hegemonic forms of masculinity constrain the ways in which men can be men. There are few variations of masculinity that men can experience without losing their place in the powerful group. If too many people in the powerful group deny their power and act differently, the entire group loses its power. Thus masculinity norms, including the heterosexual component, work to keep men at least acting heterosexual.
My fun example of looking at the faces and projections of our top male actors is but one small example of where we can see this dynamic taking place. Keep your eyes open and see where else you can identify the dynamics of gender.