For the past year I have been promising some posts on masculinity. Masculinity is in its most basic sense the “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men” (OED) or “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society” (Gilmore, 1990). While these definitions may seem simple at first, there is a lot to unpack.
As you may guess, the first issue arises with the two phrases: “traditionally associated” and “approved way.” Note that both phrases are preceded by the definite article: “The.” This implies that there is only 1 way to be a man. But is that true? I talk more about this below, but in reality, there are several different masculinities in any given society. We also need to ask who does the approving and who makes the associations referred to in these definitions?
The second issue arises with the phrase “in any given society.” This means that not only are there various masculinities within any given society, but also that the number of masculinities increases when one crosses cultures. For example, when I was a child in Canada I often heard it said that the husband was responsible for taking care of the finances of the family. I remember one new widow who had absolutely no idea about the family’s finances when her husband died — it was quite a learning curve for her to figure it all out. On the other hand, I would challenge you to find a family in the Philippines where this is the case! Rather, the husband brings his salary home to his wife who is responsible for budgeting and spending. I will talk a little about some cross-cultural features of masculinity in a subsequent post on Philippine masculinities.
Finally, we need to realise that when making definitions is that there are often 2 levels of rules, one Formal and the other non-formal. In her 1985 study of air traffic controllers in Los Angeles, Normita G. Recto noted that even a field as precise as air traffic control exhibited this two-level formal vs non-formal system. The same can be said of subjects such as masculinity.
How do these questions help shape our understanding of what it means to be a man? What follows is an attempt to introduce us to the complexities surrounding masculinities.
According to Mackie (2019), the field of gender studies is more complex than simply talking about men and women. There are layers of meanings encompassed in different pairs of words. On the simplest level, society has both men and women. Sometimes these people are categorized based upon their sex, which is either male or female, although those in the medical field also recognize that there are other types of biological sex identity such as hermaphroditism (F. D. M. Caube, personal communication, 15 November 2016). Sometimes these people are categorized by their gender, which moves into the realm of social and cultural construction and is characterized by words like masculinity and femininity. Gender can be expressed culturally, such as through “desirable models of dress, deportment, language, behavior, occupations” (Mackie, 2019). It can be expressed structurally, such as through gender relations order. It can also be expressed metaphorically, such as “a primary means of signifying relationships of power” (Mackie, 2019).
The fields of men’s studies and masculinity studies are subsets of gender studies (Mackie, 2019). In line with the constructed nature of gender, masculinity and femininity are also cultural constructs. This means that they are not natural but are acquired (Tylor, 1871). It also means that there are completing models of masculinity and femininity. Connell (2005) is a major contributor to the idea of plural masculinities as opposed to the traditional singular masculinity as a field of study (see also Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). The model was developed in opposition to the concepts of gender traits and gender roles. She uses the term hegemonic to indicate the form of masculinity that is the norm in the cultural psyche, even if this norm is not actually the normal masculinity when it comes to practice (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005).
Several have written about the intersection of religion and masculinities. The gender debate is not restricted to the world outside of the church. Gallagher & Wood (2005) talk about the variety of understandings of masculinity that came out in the 1990s among protestant evangelical Christians in the USA. Even a group that is known for seeing the Bible as the central authority has a variety of different ways of understanding gender in general and masculinity in particular. Gallagher and Wood discuss different approaches to masculinity in two movements in the Protestant Evangelical church in the United States, namely Promise Keepers, and John Eldredge’s bestselling Wild at Heart.
Promise Keepers was a men’s movement in the 1990s that focused on getting men to make and keep seven promises that would help them to be better men. The promises exhibit a “breadth of gender perspectives,” that include helping men have better communication and connection with their families, more vulnerability, participate in racial reconciliation, and be responsible in providing, loving, teaching, and protecting their families. Eldredge’s 2001 book emphasized a different approach that emphasizes the themes of “desire, passion, and following one’s heart” (Gallagher & Wood, 2005).
The authors draw several conclusions, including that there is a much broader range of both beliefs and ideas regarding gender – and understandings about those beliefs – in evangelical churches than one would assume. Additionally, it seems that evangelicals have two basic components to their epistemological system, “personal experience and the bible” (Gallagher & Wood, 2005). I was involved in the Promise Keepers movement when it first came out. I have also read and enjoyed several of John Eldredge’s books, including Wild at Heart. My experience supports Gallagher and Wood’s conclusions that there are a variety of perspectives on gender and masculinity within the evangelical church and that authority is practically measured both through the Bible and through one’s own evaluative efforts. I think it’s also important to point out that, while Promise Keepers and Wild at Heart might represent opposing perspectives, neither of these perspectives is monolithic. Areas of belief and practice like this are often eclectic in the evangelical church.
Gerber (2015) also talks about masculinity in the Evangelical Christian church, particularly among groups that belong to the so-called ex-gay movement. This movement seeks to change “sexual orientation through a mixture of therapeutic and devotional techniques.”
Gerber discusses godly masculinity rather than hegemonic masculinity as the key ideological factor among Evangelical Christians. Godly masculinity is defined as “idealized forms of masculinity that evangelicals use to articulate subculturally specific gender ideals, criticize hegemonic forms of masculinity, and vie for their own hegemonic positioning in the culture at large” (Gerber, 2015). It is similar to hegemonic masculinity in that it is both binary in orientation and sees masculinity as dominant. It differs in that “it operates by a different set of cultural rules and expectations, generating traits that can differ from those of hegemonic masculinity” including traits that fall into what Gerber calls “gender queerness.” Gerber identifies the specific differences between this new godly masculinity and hegemonic masculinity as “de-emphasizing heterosexual conquest, inclusive masculinity, and homo-intimacy.”
The result is a more fluid understanding of what it means to be a man. Rather than emphasizing the characteristics that make up hegemonic masculinity as the definitive maleness, this godly masculinity that is created from ex-gay ministries allows for men to express their maleness using both masculine and feminine traits.
Lomas et al (2016) talk about the “positive hegemonic norms” associated with hegemonic masculinity, rather than simply focusing on possible negative aspects. Their study describes the impact of a different form of religious activity, namely meditation as practiced in Communities of Practice, on hegemonic masculinity in Southern England. While meditation is a part of many religions, meditation in this case refers primarily to Buddhist-style meditation. The study showed that involvement in these Communities of Practice impacted the masculinity options that men felt they had, including “interpersonal intimacy, abstinence, and a sense of connectedness through spirituality.” The men in the study also felt, however, that hegemonic masculinity influenced both practices inside and outside of the Communities of Practice they were involved in. there seemed to be something to the fact that the meditation was conducted in community and not just alone in helping the men embrace some of these new definitions of masculinity. The reality that the men faced about conflicts between their old and new Communities is illustrative of the fact that theory and practice don’t exist in discrete realms but that these realms are constantly interacting with each other.
The discussion of hegemonic masculinities seems centred on masculinity as defined in the West. Certainly, on the surface, some of the issues that these religious takes on masculinity seek to redefine don’t need redefinition in the Philippine context. For example, the subject of men and touch is much different in the Philippines than Canada where I grew up. While men touching each other may be strange in Canada, certainly in the Philippines touch between men is an accepted form of interaction. I wonder, too, if the term “hegemonic” in and of itself creates difficulties in communicating the theory because it automatically leads one toward the negative? Lomas et al do present a good overview of the potential positives of hegemonic masculinity, but of greater use for our study will be what kinds of hegemonic structures men in Pingkian construct when looking at masculinity and what aspects, if any, of other hegemonies they redefine?
I am curious about your thoughts on the topic of masculinities. Is it true that there is more than one way to be a man? What impact does this have on how we work at shaping a better world? Please leave your thoughts in the comment box below.
Remember, sharing is what friends do.
Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities. 2nd Ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & society, 19(6), 829-859. doi: 10.1177/0891243205278639
Gallagher, S. K., & Wood, S. L. (2005). Godly manhood going wild?: Transformations in conservative Protestant masculinity. Sociology of religion, 66(2), 135-159. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4153083
Gerber, L. (2015). Grit, guts, and vanilla beans: Godly masculinity in the ex-gay movement. Gender & Society, 29(1), 26-50. doi:10.1177/0891243214545682
Gilmore, 1990, Manhood in the making: cultural concepts of masculinity, Yale University Press.
Lomas, T., Cartwright, T., Edginton, T., & Ridge, D. (2016). New Ways of Being a Man: “Positive” Hegemonic Masculinity in Meditation-based Communities of Practice. Men and Masculinities, 19(3), 289-310. doi:10.1177/1097184X15578531
Mackie, V. (2019, February 13). Gender and sexuality studies: Asia-Pacific perspectives. Lecture presented at University of the Philippines Asian Center, Quezon City, Philippines.
Recto, N.G. (1985). Cultural analysis from a native-view perspective: An ethnographic study of air traffic controllers. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Southern California.
Image by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash.