Misogyny and masculinity, less edited

One point of all this work that I do speaking about sociology to people who aren’t academic sociologists — teaching, blogging, writing a textbook, speaking to the news media — is to help our research have a greater social impact. When a public tragedy occurs, such the Santa Barbara mass murder, there is a chance to widen the conversation and include a sociological perspective.

Photo by Robert Vitulano from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Robert Vitulano from Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes I have the chance to do this even when my own research is not what’s most applicable. That’s great, but I try to be careful (and recommend that journalists speak to others as well). I hope I was right in this case. When Jessica Bennett – a journalist who writes incisively about gender and popular culture – asked me (among others) for a reaction, for what became this column, my first thought was about misogyny. I offered here these comments in an email:

There are two ways that misogyny could play into this case. The first possibility is that he simply hated women, a perspective that is highly accessible in US society. This is illustrated in a lot of pornography — rape or humiliation — and advertising, and articulated by a lot of men who objectify women and seek their conquest or abuse in order to express power or impress other men.

The other possibility is he was schizophrenic or otherwise disassociated from social reality. In that case, misogyny is just the vehicle his disordered brain latched onto. Paranoid people choose from the available entities when building up the fantasy of their persecution. The source of their persecution may not be real, but it is also not random. (The CIA may not be after you, but if it didn’t spy on and assassinated some people, schizophrenics wouldn’t be afraid of them.)

If a paranoid delusional young man believes women are persecuting him, he may be crazy but he is also picking up on the hatred and fear directed toward women that he sees around him.

No matter how you slice it, it is a tragedy that reflects the societal influence of hatred toward women. That is not the whole story of gender relations in our society, but it is definitely present and dangerous.

Then, when Bennett let me know she was interested in focusing the piece on masculinity, I added this (the excerpt she chose is underlined):

One issue is the narrow range of acceptable expressions of masculinity. This is one place where women have more flexibility than men (pants or dress). Especially in adolescence, the question is: If you can’t be good at sports or have sex, what makes you [a] man? Maybe it’s violence.

The alternative many men/boys learn to deal with, of course, is just not being an ideal man. [as mentioned,] most men don’t kill people. Partly that means learning to be ok with not achieving the ideal. So that’s a coping thing many men need to develop, and failure to develop that could be evidence of a problem.

I’m not an expert on masculinity studies. In the quote on masculinity that Bennett used, I was thinking specifically of the chapter by Barbara Risman and Elizabeth Seale, in which they interviewed middle schoolers about gender, concluding:

We find that both boys and girls are still punished for going beyond gender expectations, but boys much more so than girls. For girls, participation in traditionally masculine activities, such as sports and academic competition, is now quite acceptable and even encouraged by both parents and peers. We fi nd, indeed, that girls are more likely to tease each other for being too girly than for being a sports star. Girls still feel pressure, however, to be thin and to dress in feminine ways, to “do gender” in their self-presentation. Boys are quickly teased for doing any behavior that is traditionally considered feminine. Boys who deviate in any way from traditional masculinity are stigmatized as “gay.” Whereas girls can and do participate in a wide range of activities without being teased, boys consistently avoid activities defined as female to avoid peer harassment.


The chapter appears in the reader that Risman edited, titled Families as They Really Are (keep an eye out for a new edition!). Someone posted a bootleg copy of the chapter here.

As I read my comments now, I realize there are a lot of other ways to be “a man,” but what I was trying to get at is the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the dominant (in the sense of power) way of being “a man” in a particular cultural context. Of course there other ways to be happy and a man without hanging it on sports, sex, or violence. In reaction to the #YesAllWomen Twitter movement, some people have responded with “real men don’t rape” (which is ironically similar to the old feminist perspective that “rape is violence, not sex”). It attempts to preserve the basic status (men, sex) as good while making the oppressive or violent part deviant, not of the essence. Here is one tweet to that effect, from Michelle Ray:

Feminists seem to have no idea what a man is. Men don’t rape. Sick people who never learned to be men commit violence to solve their issues.

If you say “men don’t rape,” that’s a nice way to try to make it cool to be a man against rape, to resist that image of masculinity. So I like it as an imperative. But as a description of society it’s not true, so there’s that. (A similar move happens in family discourse, sometimes, as when someone says about abuse within families, “real fathers don’t treat their children that way.” Of course, real fathers do good as well as evil — the questions are how and why, and what to do about it.)

Anyway, I would also recommend C. J. Pascoe’s ethnography, Dude, You’re a Fag, in which she discussed sex and masculinity with high school students. Here’s one excerpt:

If a guy wasn’t having sex, “he’s no one. He’s nobody.” Chad explained that some guys tried to look cool by lying about sex, but they “look like a clown, [they get] made fun of.” He assured me, however, that he was not one of those “clowns” force to lie about sex, bragging, “When I was growin’ up I started having sex in the eighth grade.”

And Pascoe concluding:

These practices of compulsive heterosexuality indicate that control over women’s bodies and their sexuality is, sadly, still central to definitions of masculinity, or at least adolescent masculinity. By dominating girls’ bodies boys defended against the fag position, increased their social status, and forged bonds of solidarity with other boys. However, none of this is to say that these boys were unrepentant sexists. Rather, for the most post, these behaviors were social behaviors. Individually boys were much more likely to talk empathetically and respectfully of girls. … Maintaining masculinity, though, demands the interactional repudiation of this sort of empathy in order to stave off the abject fag position.

That insight about interaction is crucial. To go above my pay grade a little (more), I might add that this division between the way one acts in “public” versus “private” is notoriously tricky and frustrating for people with some kinds of mental illness.

That’s just the tip of the masculinity-studies iceberg. Feel free to post other recommended readings in the comments.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

9 responses to “Misogyny and masculinity, less edited

  1. I have reservations about using culture as an explanation for extremely unusual behavior. If American culture had less of the misogyny you mention, would the UCSB killings not have happened? There’s no way to know, but I’m not optimistic. I’m not even sure sociology can really offer much to explain these extreme incidents. But culture is a very useful concept for looking at the evidence provided in #YesAllWomen (and more systematically elsewhere).


  2. Not sure any discipline (e.g., sociology; psychology etc) can explain or even predict any of the many tragedies of mass shootings, rape, pillage etc. We just don’t know when or who is going to do it next. Pretending that we can predict (talking heads on CNN etc) just makes it worse. A lot of time, energy and stress can be avoided by noting WE JUST DON’T KNOW.


  3. I’m always skeptical of the “real men” / “real fathers” moves to connect with men. CJ and I briefly address this in our recent article in Sociology Compass on “Hybrid Masculinities.” It’s an issue of what Spivak called “strategic essentialism.” Spivak’s idea is that essentialist claims surrounding gender can (sometimes) be strategic in the sense that the promote community and gender-political goals at the cost of misrepresenting social identities as inherent. The “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign relies on this technique and it’s received some critique that probably bears on this issue. Campaigns like this discursively work in ways that individualize these problems, attempting to separate “good” from “bad” men. They often continue to present strength as a natural resource for men–just asking men to use this natural resource for “good” rather than “evil.” In some ways, the White House-sponsored “1 is 2 Many” campaign might be read this was as well (http://www.whitehouse.gov/1is2many).

    And, while these campaigns never use the word, they can also be read as symbolically participating in a form of what Pascoe refers to as “fag discourse” by separating the “real men” from what we are to assume are the “sissies.” These kinds of discursive moves often end up symbolically relying on the very gendered discourses they are mobilized to opposed. Just some thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. Thanks for the post, Philip.


  4. Chris Wienke

    #YesAllWomen also = strategic essentialism

    As for other readings, I often assign Peggy Sunday’s classic “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-Cultural Study”


  5. Pingback: Syllabus supplements for spring family sociology | Family Inequality

  6. Pingback: Thought leader for a day: Families in uncertain times | Family Inequality

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