The way we characterize masculinity can and will change depending on who we are with, where we are, and what we are doing.
Before we talk about something as complex as masculinity, I think we can all agree it is helpful to know exactly what it is we are talking about when we discuss Masculinity. Hopefully, this article will help you understand masculinity a bit better.
Masculinity – according to the Oxford Dictionary – is: (the) possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.
That’s all well and good but who decides on these qualities? I would argue society decides. In this case it would be friends, television, family, work colleagues, etc. Therefore, masculinity is a social construct – society decides what a man should sound, act and be like. Hopefully, this article will persuade you.
A society can be as large as a country; it can be as small as a group of friends down the pub or around the water-cooler at work. We all live in different societies, therefore the way we characterize masculinity can and will change depending on who we are with, where we are and what we are doing.
This is the central idea of ‘field theory’; an idea explored by the fascinating theorist Pierre Bourdieu. According to his theory, every group of people lives in a ‘field’ or a community. Inside each ‘field’ the way people act, talk and behave will be different to the people in the ‘field’ next door. If someone glances into another person’s field, they might find their ways to be strange or peculiar.
For example, one set of guys in a pub will act differently, order different foods or drinks, will talk differently, and wear different clothes to another set. They might look over to a pair of guys on another table and see them as ‘plonkers’ or their choice of drink as weird – they inhabit different ‘fields’ as they are in different social circles.
Another example of ‘fields’ would be the crowds at a sporting event. If you go to a golf tournament or football match, the way the crowds behave is completely different. If you went to a golf tournament you’d be expected to be quiet and stay behind the thin barriers. A football fan might look at that and be perplexed. The crowds inhabit different fields, each with their different norms and values – unwritten conventions in a society.
As another example, consider the difference in how teenagers act in front of their friends and in front of their parents. How many times have we heard a Mum say:
“I’ve never seen him like this. It’s like he is a different person!” (extreme examples, but you get the idea)
The way you are with your family might be totally different to how you are with your mates or how you behave at work. That’s because these two communities have different rules and norms.
These complexities are a central reason why people like Raewyn Connell study masculinity, with many others building on her work to hopefully expand knowledge and understanding more and more.
Connell’s main theory is that masculinity is a tiered ‘thing’ with many identities and sub-identities. How a camp male acts is very different to how a group of ‘lads’ act. Likewise, your average computer technician at work will act differently to a jock at a house party.
At the top of this ladder is the most sought after and least achieved identity. It’s called ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’. However, just as masculinity can be seen as different from person to person, perceptions of hegemony can vary, too. Nevertheless the stereotypical traits of hegemonic masculinity are ones you’ll know: loud, brash, always wears the right clothes – the really annoying guys. Connell found that, whilst a lot of guys try and emulate these traits, only a small handful actually fully succeed since most guys are just not able to keep the behavior up 24/7.
Another reason for a lot of men not scaling the summit of hegemonic masculinity leads us back to Bourdieu. Those fields or communities? They can be inhabited by just one person, too. Your idea of masculinity will be completely different to mine because I am probably from a different city, social background or group and have different family members, friends and celebrities influencing the way I act. Hegemonic masculinity also requires certain traits or characteristics (ripped muscles, ‘big balls’, drinking heavily, wearing the right clothes), that many guys simply do not have or have not been ‘exposed’ to socially, making it impossible for them to fit this model. Although we may think of these ways of behaving as natural and unrestrained, each of these fields has (consciously and un-consciously) taught rules and not everyone can live by them.
In this way, our ideas of masculinity are fundamentally shaped by our experiences and our social backgrounds. Whilst a lot of guys will try to set masculinity up as biological; it is societies of old who set our ‘modern’ ideas of masculinity. Nothing in our biology states that liking football is a masculine trait; it is our cultured expectations.
Hopefully this has given you an insight into how masculinity is created. For my next article I’ll be looking around lad culture – a sub-identity of Hegemonic Masculinity – specifically around young men at high school.
Thank you for reading and if you have any thoughts or other article ideas, comment below or find me on twitter.
Michael Hope is currently doing his PhD, concentrating on Lad Culture in British Universities. He is bringing his knowledge on this subject to help the readers at the good men project understand this subject better and to show the wider international context.