Masculinity So Fragile
Recently Will Smith's son, Jaden Smith, 17, became the face of the upcoming Louis Vuitton women's wear campaign. In the ads Jaden wears a black skirt and a fringed mesh top (you can see the photo here). This has sparked a mixture of cheers, jeers, and vitriol. Is it surprising that a gender-fluid image for a Spring 2016 fashion catalogue causes controversy? Why? Why would men—and it's mostly men—be so upset?
Here's something a little counter intuitive: masculinity, rather than being cast as the epitome of strength and power, is actually quite fragile. An undergraduate sociology student at UC Berkeley, Anthony J. Williams, added to the #masculinitysofragile hashtag to document the delicate yet heavily policed border between masculinity and femininity, and his contributions sparked an international trend. (Kudos!) This idea has been percolating in social media recently, and there are some solid sociological ideas to back all this up.
So, why the backlash?
Pierre Bourdieu writes of symbolic violence in his book Masculine Domination, describing a kind of invisible and pervasive form of power that is masked in the "everyday" things that we do. Gender and sexuality are informed by our everyday institutions (e.g., the family, education, the media), and naturalize male domination. This pervasive power not only affects women, it also paints all men into a tight corner. Men are, for Bourdieu, "dominated by their own dominance" (p. 174).
Our pervasive hegemonic gender norms are constricted and constricting. Men are encouraged to be goal oriented, inexpressive, dominant, competitive, analytical, and aggressive. Mirroring these attributes, women should be expressive, verbal, emotional, interpersonal, and affectionate. Such rigidity means that our varied channels of socialization—media, religion, education, family structure—all work to discourage behaviors that are in-between, save for the occasional famous person like Jaden Smith. There is little androgyny in the public sphere, save for those cushioned by fame: from David Bowie to Jered Leto and James Franco.
Think of Channing Tatum's performance on the show Lip Sync Battle. He can dress as a Queen Elsa from Frozen and as Beyoncé, partially due to the context of a gender-bending competition with his conventionally attractive wife, Jenna Dewan-Tatum (who dances to Ginuwine's hyper-masculine "Pony"), and certainly due to the fact that he performs hyper-masculinity in movies like Magic Mike XXL, so the "joke" is momentarily acceptable. It is an exception that proves the rule in more ways than one.
Now, think about all of the linguistic gymnastics that non-famous cis-gender men have to do to maintain a symbolic barrier around particularly gender-y activities. Elaborate neologisms are crafted to slightly shift the boundaries around our strict masculine activities. In the 1990s there was "metrosexual," a response to the increased interest in male grooming and fashion. And then, in the 2000s, there was the phrase "no homo," a term designed to allow men to say something nice to another man without fear of being perceived as gay.
Today "bro" or "guy" or "man" have become pervasive and necessary prefixes for anything that might threaten masculinity. Examples?
- When Mac introduced a new series of iPhones, some men had a difficult time deciding what to do with a pink phone causing what the website The Verge teasingly and dramatically called, "A Global Crisis in Masculinity." Men had to redefine the color spectrum itself, calling it "Brose Gold."
- Men complained about how "liking" on Twitter was changed from a "star" to a "heart," and it made them feel uncomfortable "hearting" another man's tweet.
- Men who like each other? It's a "bromance."
- Eyeliner for men? "Guyliner."
- A satchel cannot be called a satchel because it's an outdated word; when a bag looks too much like a purse, it's called a "manbag" or "murse."
- Can a man use psychoanalysis to talk about sensitive and emotional topics? Maybe, but it has to be called "mantherapy."
- Can a man hold a purse for more than three seconds? Nope! According to this commercial for manly-man Canadian whiskey, a purse should be handled with a poop bag.
- Men were upset that the protagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road was not the titular character played with loner cowboy swagger but rather Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. Despite the marketing, and the not-so-subtle subtitle ("Fury" Road? Learn your Greek and Roman mythology fellas!), some men were surprised and offended by the feminist and anti-misogynistic story. (Here's one response, from Christianity Today.)
Then there was a second wave of male discomfort returned when the new Star Wars movie turned out to have a badass female protagonist, Rey.
The sheer magnitude of examples becomes a mountain of evidence for masculine fragility. The "bro-" and "guy-" prefixes not only patrol the gender borderlands, but they clearly denigrate femininity (i.e., misogyny) and cast homosexuality as abhorrent, abnormal, and wrong (i.e., homophobia).
There is great research on this. There's C.J. Pascoe's brilliant book on high school gender policing, Dude, You're a Fag. There is Michael Kimmel's Angry White Men, which touches on the rise of Men's Rights Movement. And there's Erynn Masi de Casanova's new book, Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity, which shows how the new, more casual nature of what she calls "local dress cultures," still upholds gender boundaries, rather than breaking them down even though some "gay aesthetics" are incorporated into corporate dress culture. (Also, see Hamermesh's first chapter of Beauty Pays, "The Economics of Beauty.")
I suppose that we could applaud men for expanding masculinity. It's good that men are finding ways to feel comfortable to say that another guy looks good in a shirt, right? And, hey, it's good business, since the men's personal care market is ballooning: by some estimates, reaching $4.2 billion in 2015. (In 2015 Mad Max, Star Wars and Katniss Everdeen's Hunger Games grossed almost $1.4 billion between them. Can women lead big blockbuster action movies? Yes!) With such economic investment, there's a corporatized incentive to both reinforce rigid gender norms on the one hand, while also expanding the boundaries of masculinity on the other hand.
But, really we have to ask: At what cost?
It would all be so humorous, of course, if it did not have such tragic and even deadly consequences. Gender policing can be violent at its extreme. Trans*people are abused, discriminated against, and even murdered at alarming rates—transwomen of color even more so. (If you are someone who needs a vivid story to believe in violence against transpeople, here's a deeply unnerving story of a trans student being lit on fire on a school bus in the New York Times Magazine.) Trans and gender non-conforming people are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty. What's worse: We are only starting to really understand the levels of violence and precariousness of these populations.