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Masculinity refers to the social roles, behaviors, and meanings prescribed for men in any given society at any one time. As such, it emphasizes gender, not biological sex, and the diversity of identities among different groups of men. Although we experience gender to be an internal facet of identity, the concept of masculinity is produced within the institutions of society and through our daily interactions (Kimmel 2000).
Sex vs. Gender
Much popular discourse assumes that biological sex determines one’s gender identity, the experience and expression of masculinity and femininity. Instead of focusing on biological universals, social and behavioral scientists are concerned with the different ways in which biological sex comes to mean different things in different contexts. Sex refers to the biological apparatus, the male and the female—our chromosomal, chemical, anatomical, organization. Gender refers to the meanings that are attached to those differences within a culture. Sex is male and female; gender is masculinity and femininity—what it means to be a man or a woman. Whereas biological sex varies very little, gender varies enormously. Sex is biological; gender is socially constructed. Gender takes shape only within specific social and cultural contexts.
The use of the plural—masculinities—recognizes the dramatic variation in how different groups define masculinity, even in the same society at the same time, as well as individual differences. Although social forces operate to create systematic differences between men and women, on average, these differences between women and men are not as great as the differences among men or among women.
The meanings of masculinity vary over four different dimensions; thus four different disciplines are involved in understanding gender—anthropology, history, psychology, and sociology.
First, masculinities vary across cultures. Anthropologists have documented the ways that gender varies crossculturally. Some cultures encourage men to be stoic and to prove masculinity, especially by sexual conquest. Other cultures prescribe a more relaxed definition of masculinity based on civic participation, emotional responsiveness, and collective provision for the community’s needs. What it means to be a man in France or among Aboriginal peoples in the Australian outback are so far apart that it belies any notion that gender identity is determined mostly by biological sex differences. The differences between two cultures’ version of masculinity is often greater than the differences between the two genders.
Second, definitions of masculinity vary considerably in any one country over time. Historians have explored how these definitions have shifted in response to changes in levels of industrialization and urbanization, in a nation’s position in the larger world’s geopolitical and economic context, and with the development of new technologies. What it meant to be a man in seventeenthcentury France or in Hellenic Greece is certainly different from what it might mean to be a French or Greek man today.
Third, definitions of masculinity change over the course of a person’s life. Developmental psychologists have examined how a set of developmental milestones leads to differences in our experiences and our expressions of gender identity. Both chronological age and life stage require different enactments of gender. In the West, the issues confronting a man about proving himself and feeling successful change as he ages, as do the social institutions in which he attempts to enact those experiences. A young single man defines masculinity differently than do a middle-aged father and an elderly grandfather.
Finally, the meanings of masculinity vary considerably within any given society at any one time. At any given moment, several meanings of masculinity coexist. Simply put, not all American or Brazilian or Senegalese men are the same. Sociologists have explored the ways in which class, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, and region all shape gender identity. Each of these axes modifies the others. For example, an older, black, gay man in Chicago and a young, white, heterosexual farm boy in Iowa would likely have different definitions of masculinity and different ideas about what it means to be a woman. Yet each of these people is deeply affected by the gender norms and power arrangements of their society.
Because gender varies so significantly—across cultures, over historical time, among men and women within any one culture, and over the life course—we cannot speak of masculinity as though it is a constant, universal essence, common to all men. Gender must be seen as an ever-changing, fluid assemblage of meanings and behaviors; we must speak of masculinities. By pluralizing the term we acknowledge that masculinity means different things to different groups of people at different times.
Recognizing diversity ought not to obscure the ways in which gender definitions are constructed in a field of power. Simply put, all masculinities are not created equal. In every culture, men contend with a definition that is held up as the model against which all are expected to measure themselves. This “hegemonic” definition of masculinity is “constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women,” writes sociologist R. W. Connell (1987, p. 183). As Erving Goffman once described it,
In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports.… Any male who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself—during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior. (1967, p. 128)
Definitions of masculinity are not simply constructed in relation to the hegemonic ideals of that gender, but also in constant reference to each other. Gender is not only plural, it is also relational. Surveys in Western countries indicate that men construct their ideas of what it means to be men in constant reference to definitions of femininity. What it means to be a man is to be unlike a woman; indeed, social psychologists have emphasized that although different groups of men may disagree about other traits and their significance in gender definitions, the “antifemininity” component of masculinity is perhaps the single dominant and universal characteristic.
Gender difference and gender inequality are both produced through our relationships. Nancy Chodorow argued that the structural arrangements by which women are primarily responsible for raising children creates unconscious, internalized desires in both boys and girls that reproduce male dominance and female mothering (1978). For boys, gender identity requires emotional detachment from mother, a process of individuation through separation. The boy comes to define himself as a boy by rejecting whatever he sees as female, by devaluing the feminine in himself (separation) and in others (male superiority). This cycle of men defining themselves through their distance from and devaluation of femininity can end, Chodorow argues, only when parents participate equally in child rearing.
Gender as an Institution
Although we recognize gender diversity, we still may conceive masculinities as attributes of identity only. We think of gendered individuals who bring with them all the attributes and behavioral characteristics of their gendered identity into gender-neutral institutional arenas. But because gender is plural and relational, it is also situational: What it means to be a man varies in different institutional contexts, and those different institutional contexts demand and produce different forms of masculinity. “Boys may be boys,” writes feminist legal theorist Deborah Rhode, “but they express that identity differently in fraternity parties than in job interviews with a female manager” (Rhode 1997, p. 142). Gender is thus not only a property of individuals, some “thing” one has, but a specific set of behaviors that are produced in specific social situations. Thus gender changes as the situation changes.
Institutions are themselves gendered. Institutions create gendered normative standards and express a gendered institutional logic, and are major factors in the reproduction of gender inequality. The gendered identity of individuals shapes those gendered institutions, and the gendered institutions express and reproduce the inequalities that compose gender identity. Institutions themselves express a logic—a dynamic—that reproduces gender relations between women and men and the gender order of hierarchy and power.
Not only do gendered individuals negotiate their identities within gendered institutions, but also those institutions produce the very differences we assume are the properties of individuals. Thus, “the extent to which women and men do different tasks, play widely disparate concrete social roles, strongly influences the extent to which the two sexes develop and/or are expected to manifest widely disparate personal behaviors and characteristics” (Chafetz 1980, p. 112). Different structured experiences produce the gender differences that we often attribute to people (Chafetz 1980).
For example, take the workplace. In her now classic work Men and Women of the Corporation (1977), Rosebeth Moss Kanter argued that the differences in men’s and women’s behaviors in organizations had far less to do with their characteristics as individuals than with the structure of the organization itself and the different jobs men and women held. Organizational positions “carry characteristic images of the kinds of people that should occupy them,” she argued, and those who do occupy them, whether women or men, exhibited those necessary behaviors (Kanter 1977, p. 21). Though the criteria for evaluation of job performance, promotion, and effectiveness seem to be gender neutral, they are, in fact, deeply gendered. “While organizations were being defined as sexneutral machines,” she writes, “masculine principles were dominating their authority structures” (p. 241). Once again, masculinity—the norm—was invisible (Kanter 1975, 1977). For example, secretaries seemed to stress personal loyalty to their bosses more than did other workers, which led some observers to attribute this to women’s greater level of personalism. But Kanter pointed out that the best way for a secretary—of either gender—to get promoted was for the boss to decide to take the secretary with him to the higher job. Thus the structure of the women’s jobs, not the gender of the job holder, dictated their responses.
Sociologist Joan Acker has expanded on Kanter’s early insights and has specified the interplay of structure and gender. It is through our experiences in the workplace, Acker maintains, that the differences between women and men are reproduced, and in this way the inequality between women and men is legitimated. Institutions are like factories, and one of the things that they produce is gender difference. The overall effect of this is the reproduction of the gender order as a whole (see Acker 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990).
Institutions accomplish the creation of gender difference and the reproduction of the gender order through several gendered processes. Thus, “advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine” (Acker 1990, p. 146). We would err to assume that gendered individuals enter gender-neutral sites, thus maintaining the invisibility of gender-as-hierarchy, and specifically the invisible masculine organizational logic. At the same time, we would be just as incorrect to assume that genderless “people” occupy those gender-neutral sites. The problem is that such genderless people are assumed to be able to devote themselves single-mindedly to their jobs, to have no children or family responsibilities, and perhaps even to have familial supports for such single-minded workplace devotion. Thus, the “genderless” job holder turns out to be gendered as a man.
Take, for example, the field of medicine. Many doctors complete college by age twenty-one or twenty-two, and medical school by age twenty-five to twenty-seven, and then face three more years of internship and residency, during which time they are occasionally on call for long stretches of time, sometimes for even two or three days straight. They thus complete their residencies by their late twenties or early thirties. Such a program is designed for a male doctor—one who is not pressured by the ticking of a biological clock, for whom the birth of children will not disrupt these time demands, and who may even have someone at home taking care of his children while he sleeps at the hospital. No wonder women in medical school—who number nearly one half of all medical students today—began to complain that they were not able to balance pregnancy and motherhood with their medical training.
In another example, in a typical academic career a scholar completes a PhD about six to seven years after the BA, roughly by age thirty, and then begins a career as an assistant professor with six more years to earn tenure and promotion. This is usually the most intense academic work period of a scholar’s life and also the most likely childbearing years for professional women. The tenure clock is thus set to a man’s rhythms—not just any man, but one with a wife to relieve him of family obligations as he establishes his credentials. To academics struggling to make tenure, it often feels that publishing requires that family life perish.
Embedded in organizational structures that are gendered, subject to gendered organizational processes, and evaluated by gendered criteria, then, the differences between women and men appear to be the differences solely between gendered individuals. When gender boundaries seem permeable, other dynamics and processes can reproduce the gender order. When women do not meet these criteria (or, perhaps more accurately, when the criteria do not meet women’s specific needs), we see a gendersegregated workforce and wage, hiring, and promotional disparities as the “natural” outcomes of already present differences between women and men. It is in this way that those differences are generated and the inequalities between women and men are legitimated and reproduced.
There remains one more element in the sociological explanation of masculinities. Some psychologists and sociologists believe that early childhood gender socialization leads to gender identities that become fixed, permanent, and inherent in our personalities. However, many sociologists disagree with this notion today. As they see it, gender is less a component of identity—fixed, static—that we take with us into our interactions and more the product of those interactions. In an important article, “Doing Gender,” Candace West and Don Zimmerman argued that “a person’s gender is not simply an aspect of what one is, but, more fundamentally, it is something that one does, and does recurrently, in interaction with others” (1987, p. 140). We are constantly “doing” gender, performing the activities and exhibiting the traits that are prescribed for us.
Doing gender is a lifelong process of performances. As we interact with others we are held accountable to display behavior that is consistent with gender norms, at least for that situation. Thus consistent gender behavior is less a response to deeply internalized norms or personality characteristics and more a negotiated response to the consistency with which others demand that we act in a recognizable masculine or feminine way. Gender is not an emanation of identity that bubbles up from below in concrete expression; rather, it is an emergent property of interactions, coerced from us by others.
Understanding how we do masculinities, then, requires that we make visible the performative elements of identity, and also the audience for those performances. It also opens up unimaginable possibilities for social change, as Suzanne Kessler points out in her study of “intersexed” people (hermaphrodites, those born with anatomical characteristics of both sexes or with ambiguous genitalia):
If authenticity for gender rests not in a discoverable nature but in someone else’s proclamation, then the power to proclaim something else is available. If physicians recognized that implicit in their management of gender is the notion that finally, and always, people construct gender as well as the social systems that are grounded in gender-based concepts, the possibilities for real societal transformations would be unlimited. (Kessler 1990, p. 25)
Kessler’s gender utopianism raises an important issue. In saying that we “do” gender we are saying that gender is not only something that is done to us. We create and recreate our own gendered identities within the contexts of our interactions with others and within the institutions we inhabit.
- Acker, J 1987. Sex Bias in Job Evaluation: A Comparable Worth Issue. In Ingredients for Women’s Employment Policy, eds. Christine Bose and Glenna Spitze, 183–196. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Acker, J 1988. Class, Gender, and the Relations of Distribution. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13: 473–497.
- Acker, J 1989. Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class, and Pay Equity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Acker, J 1990. Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender and Society 4 (2): 149–158.
- Acker, Joan, and Donald Van Houten. 1974. Differential Recruitment and Control: The Sex Structuring of Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly 19 (2): 152–163.
- Chafetz, J 1980. Toward a Macro-Level Theory of Sexual Stratification. Current Perspectives in Social Theory 1: 103–126.
- Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Connell, W. 1987. Gender and Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Goffman, Er 1963. Stigma. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall.
- Kanter, Rosabeth M 1975. Women and the Structure of Organizations: Explorations in Theory and Behavior. In Another Voice: Feminist Perspectives on Social Life and Social Science, eds. Marcia Millman and Rosabeth Moss Kanter, 34–74. New York: Anchor Books.
- Kanter, Rosabeth M 1977. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books.
- Kessler, Suzanne 1990. The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants. Signs 16 (1): 3–26.
- Kimmel, M 2000. The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Rhode, D 1997. Speaking of Sex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Risman, B 1999. Gender Vertigo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- West, Candace, and Don Zimmerman. 1987. Doing Gender. Gender and Society 1 (2): 125–151.
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