A Brief Primer on Hegemonic Masculinity
by Joshua Storrs
Masculinity is as broad and diverse a topic as men themselves. The athlete who spends his free hours at the gym may be practicing masculinity in equal measure to the father who goes camping with his family on the weekends to teach his children survival skills, or the scholar reading his way through the western canon. Most men practice more than one form of masculinity, but almost any form has the potential to be what’s called “Hegemonic.”
Hegemonic masculinity is a term used by sociologists and other behavioral scientists to describe any masculinity which considers itself fundamentally superior to femininity. It is, to put it simply, “Masculinity when sexist.”
The athlete at the gym may be one of the first images that springs to mind when we think of “manliness,” but there is nothing inherently hegemonic about becoming fit and physically capable. However, if one of our athlete’s motivations for taking care of his body is because he believes the women in his life are fundamentally defenseless and in need of protection, and that his physical abilities are required for that, then this athletic brand of masculinity can be said to be hegemonic.
What about our example of the husband and father? On those weekend camping trips, does he think of himself as the leader of a wilderness party, of which his wife and children are only members? Or does he work with his wife as an equal partner in teaching their children survival skills? Does he teach his children different skills depending on their gender, or does he teach them equally? The outdoorsman and the family man are common enough masculinities, but not necessarily hegemonic. That part is optional.
And the intellectual? We might not think of someone with their nose in a book as “manly,” but in the Victorian era the scholar was the ideal form of masculinity in most western cultures. It gave way to a more aggressive form of manhood as many men felt their position threatened by the rise of feminism (how’s that for hegemonic?), but the “Intellectual man” is on the rise again today. Like the athlete and the outdoorsman, the scholar is not necessarily hegemonic, but if we found him excluding women from his discussions on the canon, or assuming that that his female peers needed complicated literary topics explained to them, then we could easily apply the label to his masculinity as well.
The concept of hegemonic masculinity is not here to brand all expressions of manhood as sexist; quite the opposite. It is a tool for distinguishing which parts of the masculinities are prejudiced. Using it, we need not condemn entire masculinities as harmful, but only those specific parts which hold men back.