Representing Masculinity

This research article was linked from the old site with only the section on Miami Vice excerpted, but sometime in 2001-2002, the original link, http://www.newcastle.edu.au/department/so/represen.htm , vanished from that website, and is not online anywhere in its entirety anymore, save for at archive.org. Thus, recreating the entire article here to provide context for the section mentioning Miami Vice seemed like the best thing to do.

Representing Masculinity
by Marjorie Kibby | March 19, 1997

Introduction

How individuals see themselves, and how they are viewed, and treated, by others is shored up by representation. Representation determines how a group is presented in cultural forms, and whether an
individual is identified as a member of that group. Representations are presentations. Representation always, and necessarily, entails the use of codes and conventions of presentation within a specific
discourse, limiting the possibilities of depiction. Discursive regimes restrict and shape what can be said, or read, about any aspect of life as lived. Discourses, in Foucault’s terms, bring cultural objects into being by naming them, defining them, delimiting their field of operation. These objects of knowledge then become linked to specific practices. Practices realise and set the conditions for discourse, while discourse, reciprocally, feed back utterances which facilitate practices.

Dominant discourses surrounding gender encourage us to accept that the human race is ‘naturally’ divided into male and female, each gender realistically identifiable by a set of immutable characteristics. Film and other cultural forms don’t simply reflect a ‘natural’ gender difference, they help to constitute that difference. Discourse is grounded in relations of power, as contending groups struggle over sites of meaning ascribing ‘truth’ to a particular construct. One of the sites of contention in the 1980s was the
meaning of “difference”. Relations of difference are social constructs belonging to social orders that contain hierarchies of power, defined, named, and delimited by institutional discourses, to produce social practices. “Gender differences are symbolic categories” (Saco, 1992:25) used to ascribe certain characteristics to men and women. Biological naturalism and strategies of realism are used to validate the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity.

Representation and the Feminine

Feminist analysis has sought to uncover the constructed messages behind the images of women presented in the media, seeing the way that women are depicted as crucial in shaping the way that women (and men) live. The women’s movement was instrumental in opening up the image of the feminine for analysis, in creating the environment in which ‘the natural’ could be deconstructed. “Without the women’s movement a desire to question representation in this way could not be articulated, nor would the public or even the private space to do so exist” (Kuhn, 1985:3).

Understandably, feminism focused on uncovering the messages about women’s identity, and women’s role in society. The depiction of men and masculinity was of interest only in so far as it related to or
informed the portrayal of women and the feminine. The Female Eunuch’s underlying philosophy was that man is a human being, but woman is a cultural artefact (Greer, 1979). Research since, concentrating on deconstructing that artefact, has served to reinforce that notion that masculinity is unconstructed, “masculinity remains the untouched and untouchable ground against which femininity figures as the repressed and/or unspoken” (Holmlund, 1993:214). A focus on the depiction of the feminine, while seemingly exempting the masculine from visual representation, helps to preserve a cultural fiction that masculinity is not socially constructed.

The 1990s has seen the growth of feminist work on masculinity, but the increasing study of the meanings of masculinity within feminism has been accompanied by a vigorous debate on the place of this field of study in an era of renewed antagonisms towards feminism, and new reductions in women’s equality and freedom. There is a danger that a study of the construction of a non-monolithic and non-monomorphic masculinity would distract attention from unfinished feminist projects.

The research on the portrayal of women in popular culture is far from complete. Many of the studies to date are content analyses showing that women are presented differently from men, audience studies showing that women’s tastes differ from men’s, or analyses of ‘women’s fiction’ in the literary criticism tradition (Cantor, 1987). In order to understand the relationship between representation and sexuality we need to explore further the way that meanings are circulated between medium, spectator and socio-economic context. In doing so it is imperative that we examine the meanings of the masculine as well as the construction of the feminine, in order to establish the ways in which “masculinity is an effect of culture a construction, a performance, a masquerade rather than a universal and unchanging essence.” (Cohan & Hark 1993:7)

In the introduction to Male Trouble Penley and Willis (1993:viii) give a list of recent events which they feel demonstrate the urgency of examining male subjectivity:


  • the Thomas/Hill Learnings through which sexual politics gained national attention;
  • the Tyson and Kennedy-Smith rape trials which raised serious questions concerning the judicial systems ability to deal with the complexities of race/class/gender;
  • the steady erosion of reproductive rights;
  • a dramatically deteriorated economy with an accompanying increase in sexual and racial conflict;
  • a dismantling of affirmative action programs;
  • the Gulf War’s construction of national identity as a virile, aggressive masculinity;
  • the rise of ‘gay-bashing’ and systemic violence against black men;
  • and the media prominence of a men’s movement “whose appeal is a nostalgic return to a reactionary and retrograde patriarchal masculinity as a defence against a debilitating femininity”.

All of these point to an increasing division within society between those who insist on women’s equality and rights to self determination, and those who wish to shore up a dominating patriarchal masculinity out of a fear of feminism, gay politics and black rights movements. Analysing the construction and depiction of masculinity is one way of understanding, and perhaps resolving, those fears. The study of masculinity inevitably leads us back to issues of femininity and sexual orientations and the links between gender, and race, class and national identity, to the construction of individual subjectivities.

Imaging Men

Until fairly recently, media studies has not considered masculinity problematic, or at least not sufficiently so to warrant detailed investigation (Penley and Willis, 1988). The studies of media and gender that have been done are primarily oriented towards the presumed cultural norms and existents (Grossberg and Treichler, 1987). Most media research on men before this decade has been limited
to empirical research from a functionalist sociology viewpoint, looking at the nature and effects of stereotyped male and female representations from within a sex-role framework (Fejes, 1989).

Advertising

The gap in existing research concerns the analysis of the ways in which the media produce and re-produce masculinity as a cultural category. Wernick discusses how the women’s movement has helped
develop an increased awareness of the role that the media plays in maintaining an entrenched gender hierarchy, but in spite of this, advertising by constantly tapping into our dreams and notions of self, maintains its cultural power. For all the strength of the feminist critique, he maintains that “our understanding of how advertising shapes and transmits gender ideology will remain incomplete so long as the question is pursued solely from the side of and in terms of representations of women. To round out the picture it is also important to consider how modern advertising depicts and addresses men” (Wernick, 1987:278).

Research on advertising has been primarily concerned with the portayal of women. However, Fejes’ reading of research in this area attempted to uncover the masculinity subtext. He found that research
dealing with advertising revealed a “high degree of stereotyped presentation of gender roles” (Fejes, 1992:13), although by the end of the eighties the studies suggested some changes. Fejes reports that researchers found “significant declines in portrayal of men’s traditional roles, such as husband, father, athlete, and construction worker” (1992:14), though qualitative analyses of beer commercials revealed a stereotypical view of masculinity.

Strate’s analysis of beer commercials (1992) suggests that the brewing industry clearly relied on stereotypes of macho-masculinity to sell beer to men. The beer advertisements provided such a single,
consistent, image of masculinity that they could be seen to constitute “a guide for becoming a man, a rule book for appropriate male behaviour, in short, a manual on masculinity” (Strate, 1992:78). In the advertisements, drinking beer is associated with a variety of occupational and leisure activities, all of which involve meeting and overcoming a challenge of some type. According to the commercials “work is an integral part of a man’s identity” and men “fill their leisure time … in active pursuits usually conducted in outdoor settings … and in `hanging out’, usually in bars”, an unrelenting, one-dimensional representation of masculinity that “is clearly anachronistic, possibly laughable, but without a doubt sobering.” (Strate, 1992:80,81,92)

In his survey of the treatment of men in advertisements from the fifties to the eighties Wernick found that, although a patriarchal value system endured, in certain limited respects advertisers were beginning to treat male and female as “formally interchangeable terms”. The survey suggests that change has occurred in three arenas: “men’s depicted relation to their social milieu, to the world of things, and to sexuality” (Wernick, 1987:280). In the fifties men were invariably portrayed as husbands and fathers, whereas in the eighties the trend has been firmly away from depicting men in family roles. Contemporary display ads rarely mention the family status of individuals that they depict. Often people are shown alone, in close-ups that by removing context permits ambiguity, letting consumers from a range of social contexts place themselves in the position of the subject. In the fifties, masculinity, in the themes and images of advertising, was projected symbolically onto the material world through gender-coded goods and contexts. In the eighties the image of the corporate father-god has been scaled down, the phallic styling of consumer goods has gone out of vogue, and the links between technology and masculinity have been weakened.

In the eighties the displacement of men in advertisements from fixed family roles and the decreasing use of masculinity as an ideologically fixed term have been complemented by a parallel loosening of the links between masculinity and a particular type of aggressive sexuality. The kind of active, outwardly directed version of sexuality that was invariably associated with masculinity now exists side by side with a passively narcissistic version, as men in advertisements appear increasingly as the one to be admired, marked ‘to be looked at’. Increasingly the co-existence of both constructions of masculinity (and, by implication, femininity) create a type of heterogeneity. In many ads aimed at both sexes such male-female interchangeability is deliberately constructed, creating a position that can be occupied by male or female, gay as well as straight (Wernick, 1987:280-293). Wernick identifies an increasing trend in advertising to depict male and female not as binary opposites, but as fluid categories that occupy equivalent places in society. However he is reluctant to read this as significant progress towards human liberation, and instead suspects it as no more than the levelling effect of market forces. The equivalence values apparent in eighties advertising, Wernick concludes, reflect little more than that males are being targeted for economic development and are under going a process of intensive consumerisation some seventy years after women went through a similar process (Wernick 1987:293-295). In order to tap into the desires of all potential consumers, advertisers are attempting to address the full spectrum of gender interests and orientations that constitute society. The end result is advertisements in which men and women are beginning to look and behave in a similar manner, they do not mirror a society in which menand women are culturally, politically and economically equal.

 

Television

Studies of the ‘new’ male roles on television during the 1980s similarly show the levelling of some gender differences, through the construction of masculinities that have domestic concerns and interpersonal relationships as their focus, for example. But again, the softening of the image of masculinity does not reflect a questioning of real gender inequities.

Aronowitz noted the disappearance of direct representations of working-class males from television drama in the mid-seventies as “working class male identity [was] displaced to other upwardly mobile
occupations (e.g. police, football players, and other sites where conventional masculine roles are ubiquitous)” (Aronowitz, 1989:141).

In The A-Team masculinity was clearly defined as related to power, authority, aggression and technology. Schwichtenberg suggests that this encoding of masculinity allowed the right to align “what it means to be a man” with the notion of “the will of the people” and the “national interest” (Schwichtenberg, 1987:382). He saw this as less a re-affirmation of hegemonic masculinity than a mechanism for deploying working-class antagonisms to secure ruling-class hegemony.

Tankel and Banks responded to popular television critics who heralded the return of the macho hero in the mid-eighties. Their research showed that not only had the “unreconstructed” male never entirely disappeared from prime time, but also that the contemporary macho man was not as hard-boiled as the critics implied. Television columns in the popular press argued that “viewers were tired of liberated heroes such as Hawkeye and Furillo and longed for the return of the macho leading men” suggesting that “viewers desires for old time heroes constituted an antifeminist backlash” (Tankel and Banks, 1990:286). In response Tankel and Banks point out that the new macho here is presented as the target of humour (Sam Malone in Cheers), or as an anachronism, a relic of an older society (Mike Hammer), or exists in relation to a strong female character (Moonlighting, Remington Steele) in a situation of constant tension between ‘new’ and ‘old’ gender roles. They conclude that none of these new heroes seem likely candidates to lead the post feminist counter revolution (Tankel and Banks, 1990:287-289).

In an analysis of Magnum, p.i., Flitterman discusses the way that the program changed as the series developed, partly in response to an unexpectedly large female audience. Magnum began as a
generic private eye, but as the show progressed “the hermeneutics of the detective-show format gradually became a kind of alibi, a pretext for the spectacle of masculinity offered by the programme’s star” (Flitterman, 1985:450). Magnum is constructed as spectacle, as object of the (erotic) gaze in order to play off various representations of masculinity against one another. Episodes of Magnum, p.i. continually manipulate cultural constructions of masculinity through plot lines, formal elements such as framing and lighting, and through the secondary men (each of whom represents only one or two components of an idealised masculinity). Magnum, who is “the sum total and idealised whole” of this masculine image is “the figure around which various reflections on masculine encoding and identity circulate” (Flitterman, 1985:43)

After years of female display designed primarily for the male viewer, television is now showcasing the male body. In Miami Vice “the emphasis of the show lies mostly on Sonny’s image, and
this image’s implicit eroticism” (King, 1990:283-284). Sonny is ‘feminised’ by his construction as mannequin, he is defined by the way he looks; and by his position within and among consumer products,
he is clearly a consumer; and by his problematic relationship to his work, Sonny is often shown being unable to perform his job. King suggests that Sonny is problematised along the twin axes of capitalism: he is a beautiful consumer image, a position usually reserved for women; and he is in continual conflict with work, that which fundamentally defines him as a man. This questioning of traditionally defined masculinity however is at the level of the image, not the substance, of the male. King concludes “Miami Vice’s distinctive TV identity revolves around its redefinition of gender roles, but these reworkings are by no means `feminist’. Sonny may be feminised by his position, but his character is by no means feminine, a positive affirmation of traits associated with women. Like his stubble, his almost hyper-masculine characteristics (silence, emotionlessness, violence, etc.) “reassure us that [he] is male and
that the tenets of masculinity are not in too much danger” (King, 1990:293).

Another analyst who sees the new ‘soft’ male roles on television as something other than evidence of the `softening’ of hegemonic masculinity, uses Thirty-something to illustrate the process
of representation. In looking at the characters and plots in Thirty-something Hawke suggests that the ‘feminisation’ of the male roles is less a breaking down of traditional gender boundaries than a re-articulation of hegemonic masculinity in order to maintain its hegemony in the context of post-industrial capitalism. In the series both men and women work outside the home, but it is presumed that “women can be more indulgent in their choice of paid work because their identity remains less tied to such work” (Hawke, 1990:237). The men’s relationships to each other are fostered by traditionally feminine devices such as emotional self disclosure, but “male friendships are still structured by masculinist codes of capitalist work relations” (Hawke, 1990:23).

Fatherhood is represented as a focus of the lives of the male characters all of the major male characters are parents, whereas half of the major female characters are childless. The series constructs a ‘new’ caring fatherhood for its characters, primarily by contrasting each of them with his own father. But Hawke questions “whether the symbolic expression of a new fathering ethos should be interpreted as
a gain for feminists who demanded changes in the social organisation of parenting, or an attempt by men to reassert patriarchal authority over women and children” (Hawke, 1990:241).

Many of the studies of the new male roles on television come to similar conclusions; that some gender differences are levelled, through the construction of ‘feminised’ men who are more responsive to domestic concerns and interpersonal relationships, but that questions of patriarchal power and capitalist work relations are systematically avoided. The modifications of hegemonic masculinity that we see on our television screen are minor adaptations to contemporary social conditions. “Put simply, hegemonic masculinity changes in order to remain hegemonic; significant social change in the direction of gender equality will require more than the ‘new view of manhood’ offered by prime-time television” (Hawke 1990:245).

Popular Music

Much of the research into rock music and gender relations has focused on the positioning of female fans, (Lewis, 1987; Kaplan, 1987) taking as a starting point the ‘natural’ links between rock music and the masculine and analysing the space created by/for female performers and spectators. The analyses of rock music as a signifying practice through which particular discourses of masculinity are constituted, are yet to be completed. Frith looks back at the decade of ‘gender bending’ in rock, suggesting that Boy George, Marilyn, Annie Lennox and their ilk focused the problem of sexuality on males “Masculinity became a packaging problem” (Frith, 1988:166). At the end of the eighties, rock musicians seem to have belatedly answered the Reaganite call for a return to traditional gender values; even the sexually ambiguous Prince insists in 1991, ‘Let a Woman be a Woman and a Man be a Man’, Aerosmith complain that ‘The Dude Looks Like a Lady’ and Lloyd Cole asserts ‘She’s a Girl and I’m a Man’. However other performers such as Guns and Roses address questions of contemporary masculinity in their lyrics. Black rappers including Ice T and 2 Live Crew overtly discuss what it means to be black, working class and male in contemporary society. The Revolting Cocks through their name, and in the lyrics of songs such as “Beers, Steers and Queers”, challenge hegemonic notions of masculinity. Tom Waites parodies macho notions of masculinity in ‘Goin’ Out West’.

Frith notes that “popular culture has always meant putting together ‘a people’ rather than simply reflecting or expressing them” (Frith, 1988:168). An analysis of how rock music contributes to the
organisation of adolescent gender would need to take into account not just the semantic content of the lyrics, but also the rhythms and instrumentation of the music, the marketing of star personae, and the
construction of subcultural style.

Virtually the entire popular music business is, and has always been, controlled almost exclusively by men. The music business mirrors and re-enforces sex bias in society, expressing gender values in terms of stereotypes. In general, the “images, values and sentiments” (Frith and McRobbie, 1978:5) of popular music are male products. The music presents an image of masculinity constructed by males for consumption by “silly screaming girls” (Steward and Garratt, 1984:142). But the music either in performance or consumption, meets or responds to needs, or desires, providing a way of making some kind of sense of one’s own gender role (Pratt, 1990:32-33). This ‘making sense’ of one’s identity is informed by a musical concept of individuality. This ‘individual’ is distinctly masculine, but he appears (or is made to appear) non-gendered, universal.

 

As with music, there are a range of popular culture forms in which the representation of masculinity has not been given the same attention as the construction of the feminine, and yet anecdotal evidence suggests a return to a more aggressive, less sensitive masculine image in the eighties. Children’s toys are an example where the last decade saw an escalation in G.I. Joe/Transformer/Ninja Turtle toys that re-affirmed links between maleness and macho-violence.

 

Popular Fiction

Women’s popular fiction, the way it depicts the feminine, the processes through which it embodies social values, and how audiences interpret and incorporate those values, has been studied since the sixties. Although some analysts suggest that a ‘post-feminism’ woman has emerged in contemporary romance fiction (Hess and Ferree, 1987:210), today’s heroine still represents traditional gender values. Fictional women are increasingly depicted working outside the home, but usually in traditional women’s occupations, doing work that is less important than the men in their lives; they are invariably successful in their careers, but rarely as successful as the hero; and romance and marriage still remain the heroine’s ultimate goal. “With all the changes, the basic message still given is that men are powerful and women depend on romance for happiness” (Hess and Ferree, 1987:210). From this research, data on the representation of males in romance fiction can be extrapolated, for example masculinity is linked to a successful career, physical strength, silence and limited interest in interpersonal relationships. But a study of male oriented fiction might reveal more.

“Cultural products marketed through the mass media are designed to reflect changing ideologies in order to retain audiences. However, they also continue and maintain social order by reflecting and transmitting traditional beliefs deeply implanted in Western culture” (Cantor, 1987:211). The cultural myths of what constitutes masculinity, and any changes in the social perceptions of masculinity post-feminism, might be illuminated by an analysis of male oriented fiction genres such as thriller or crime stories.

Boyd looked at boys’ story papers published between 1918 and 1939. Noting that in society manliness was an invisible ideology, he discovered that in the boys’ story papers masculinity was constantly stressed. “Although the tales did not discourse directly about the nature of manliness, they presented a clear vision of how boys ought to act” (Boyd, 1991:162). Echoing and responding to the particular social climate between the wars, the boys’ stories emphasises “a type of masculinity which reinforced traditional sources of guidance (fathers, employers and teachers) and which stressed not the individual but the community” (Boyd, 1991:163). Boyd felt that the stories, in dramatising the responses that constituted masculinity, illustrated conventional ideas of manliness while at the same time offering fictional arenas in which to explore alternative (unrewarding) responses.

 

Most of the studies of the representations of masculinity in the media that have been carried out in recent years similarly suggest that the masculinity portrayed is a cultural construct informed by ‘lived’ masculinities. Popular culture is a consumer as well as a producer of images, consuming collective representations. As a discourse generated in a social field the media works “by transforming elements at large in the culture not through inventing or imposing arbitrary materials on a stunned and passive populace” (Kipnis, 1986:31). The representation of masculinity in the media both reflects and informs a common sense notion of what it means to be a man in contemporary society, but the representations seem to have a stronger connection with the ‘ideal’ than the ‘real’.

 

Masculinity and the Cinema

Dyer suggests that the cinema offers “the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realised” (Dyer, 1985:222).

Hollywood cinema of the eighties highlighted a physical, powerful masculinity in a post-Vietnam, post-civil rights, post-feminism era. Research points to distinct sources of change in lived masculinity.
The changes result from tensions which have emerged in relation to social power, in the realm of production, in the economy of labour, in sexuality, in the organisation of domestic routines. Hegemonic
masculinity is constructed around traditional authority, emphasising force and aggression, it is performance based, rational, concerned with the public not the domestic. But few men are able to live up to the cultural ideal, ‘their legs are too flabby, … their glance insufficiently flinty’ (Connell, Radican and Martin, 1987:11). In mainstream eighties cinema the broad range of socially constructed masculinities are collapsed into a narrow, competitive individualism centred on the body. As with other forms of popular culture the movies have re-asserted a dominance based, performance oriented masculinity. As part of the ‘right-turn’ in American culture that marked the Reaganite era, the anti-hero and the independent woman disappeared from our screens, replaced by muscle-bound, destructive, over achieving males and villainous women who destroyed the family.

Illusionistic narrative films embody within the diegesis the numerous fantasies summoned up by their audience. The power of the cinema lies in the position that it occupies between our fantasies and our lived experiences. Popular cinema asserts a comforting reproduction of ‘reality’, in a depersonalised, consumable form. But at the same time it mobilises and channels pleasures and desires, reading and writing collective and individual fantasies. Our relationship with the cinema is not a simple case of men in the audience identifying with the male heroes on the screen. The fantasies played out in the cinema involve many forms of desire, and consequently are both complex and fluid. Ellis explains that “cinematic identification involves two different tendencies. First there is that of dreaming and fantasy that involve the multiple and contradictory tendencies within the construction of the individual. Second, there is the experience of narcissistic identification with the image of a human figure perceived as other” (Ellis, 1982:43). Identification is both the recognition of self, and the projection of a desired self.

Identification is a process of internalising idealised images or relations through an investment in particular discourses. “What makes one take up a [subject] position in a certain discourse rather than
another is an ‘investment’ … something between an emotional commitment and a vested interest, in the relative power (satisfaction, reward, payoff) which that position promises (but does not necessarily fulfil)” (de Lauretis, 1987:16). An investment in the subject position offered by the eighties cinema holds the promise of the recuperation of a dominant, patriarchal masculinity. The masculinity depicted in the Hollywood cinema of the eighties reflects the fantasies of their audiences, not their everyday lives, but they are fantasies in which the audience can recognise an idealised self. Cinematic masculinity is ‘something better’ than lived masculinity, that can be identified with, fantasised about, and “maybe realised”.

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