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Hegemony So Fragile

Men and Masculinities
October 8, 2015 Dr. Joe Boehman University of Richmond

I am proud to say that I am a man. I do a lot of things that are “manly.” I enjoy watching and participating in sports, I like to drink beer, I build things in my wood shop, and yes, I use Dove+Men’s Care soap. None of these things are the exclusive domain of men (except perhaps the soap), but the script of our society labels them “guy stuff.”

I have been intrigued by the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag. As I understand it, the intent of the hashtag was to highlight how toxic masculinity (otherwise known as Hegemonic Masculinity, traditional hierarchical masculinity, or the Man Box) inhibits men by promoting a culture that compels them to only use a product or do a thing if it meets certainly “manly” criterion. This compulsion is many times made through homophobic or misogynistic “policing” of the hegemony, for example the discussion of whether a rose-colored iPhone is considered “gay.”

The hashtag has sprouted a cottage industry of snarky. There have been many posts and listicles showing pictures of various products that are labeled for men, and using them as an example of fragile masculinity. This effort has unintentionally (or intentionally) ridiculed men for their insecurities about seeming unmanly. By making fun of the Man Box, these posts may have inadvertently reinforced it.

The backlash to the hashtag has been full of comments laced with violence and hatred, which has reinforced the point that men are not the only ones hurt by toxic masculinity. As Keith Edwards states, hegemonic masculinity “oppresses women, marginalizes some men, and limits all men.”

I am afraid that the energy of the hashtag has missed an important nuance. I believe that we as men are in fact fragile. But we are fragile not because of masculinity, but because of the hegemony. Hegemonic masculinity is reinforced when boys and young men are instructed by society (men and women) to reject that which is labeled “feminine.” We are taught that showing any vulnerability sets us up for harassment at best, and violence at worst. We are insecure in our choices because we have seen, and have been conditioned to participate in, policing those who make the wrong ones.

There are many ways to “do” masculinity. I believe that a person can “be a man” in any way that is authentic to him, as long as that portrayal does not inhibit the inherent dignity, worth, or humanity of any other person. If that type of portrayal involves “Man Soap,” so be it. You dig pine scent, or musk, or whatever...I’m cool with it.

I would rather we don’t ridicule men for buying “manly” products. The average guy cannot control that Unilever, P&G, and the others have created “men’s products.” If we are honest with ourselves, buying Dove Men’s+Care doesn’t define us any more or less than buying a pink iPhone.

Let’s talk about the marketing that promotes “manly” products. Let’s discuss the media that promotes the hegemony. Let’s talk about how we raise boys to reject vulnerability. Better yet, let’s do more than talk about these things.

I like to cook. I am pretty good at home decorating. I cry. I’m okay with all of that, because I am not defined by the hegemony. I do realize however, that many of my friends are defined by it. Until we direct our energy at the hegemony and not at masculinity, we’re missing the point.