by Tristan Bridges
Originally posted at Feminist Reflections here
The advertisement depicted here comes out of a Lands’ End catalog I received in the mail last week. The text reads: “New blue collar shirts white collar guys will love.” It’s a subtle message and surely, some will think I am making too much of it. But, it is one small piece of a larger cultural process taking place–in this case, how class inequality gets commodified and sold back to young, straight, white men as evidence of their masculine credibility and cosmopolitan taste in gender performance and display. This is one configuration of hybrid masculinity in practice. It allows for a form of what I call “practiced indifference” whereby young, straight, white men are able to appear relaxed, content, and at ease with an increasingly varied range of gender performances.
What we think of as “masculine” is something that shifts over time and from place to place. Historical and cross-cultural research shows that just about anything you might think of as essentially “masculine” has been—at one time or another, in one place or another—thought of as anything but. This is part of what makes studying masculinity so exciting to me: it’s an unstable object of inquiry and there are lots of moving parts. Michael Kimmel sums up a really important finding from his historical research on masculinity with a simple statement: “[D]efinitions of masculinity are historically reactive to changing definitions of femininity” (here: 123). We don’t often think of those in power as capable of being “pushed around.” But the historical relationship between masculinity and femininity suggests precisely this pattern.
My own research suggests that one way gender inequality is perpetuated is by being flexible, capable of adapting to new circumstances, challenges, and contingencies. And one of the ways masculinities exhibit these qualities is through practices of appropriation—what C.J. Pascoe and I refer to as “strategic borrowing” in our theorization of hybrid masculinities. At historical moments when gender inequality is publicly challenged and threatened, configurations of masculinity shift—and they do so in pattered directions. When gender inequality is publicly threatened, a range of strategies emerge. We may collectively exalt configurations of masculinity that exaggerate gender difference and implicitly promote the continued necessity of gender segregation. But the discourse of what Michael Messner referred to as the “new man” can emerge as well, involving the “softening” of some features of masculinity. And one way this happens is through a process by which (some) men strategically borrow configurations of gendered practice and presentation from various groups of Others. This whole process has the effect of obscuring relations of power and inequality between men and women and among men as well.
As I argued earlier in my post on hipster masculinity and my post with D’Lane Compton on the rise of the “lumbersexual,” men who occupy positions of incredible privilege (young, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied, heterosexual) are increasingly borrowing elements of masculinities that do not “belong” to them. Cultural aesthetics associated with marginalized and subordinated groups (though often this relies on stereotypes and, occasionally, myths) are commodified, consumed, and work to situate certain privileged groups as more cosmopolitan as a result. These processes sometimes appear to situate young, straight, white guys as increasingly interested in equality and as more “multicultural” than Other men (who get cast as the “real problem” in this discourse). A consequence of this process is that it works to obscure some men’s positions within contemporary relations of power and inequality.
Inequalities are much easier to accept when we believe them to be just. This cosmopolitan taste in gender increasingly displayed by groups of young, straight, white men makes it appear that masculinities are opening up, becoming less dictatorial, and more democratic. Yet, the new forms that this omnivorousness in gender performance and politics is taking also works to reproduce privilege in historically novel ways. While young, straight, white men may not be the only ones flirting with these new styles of gender performance and display, they may be receiving a qualitatively different set of benefits from their engagement.
Indeed, research suggests that while it might look different today, this is a historical process. Young, middle and upper class, straight, white men became interested in exercise and building muscles around the time that this muscle was no longer necessary to earn a living (for these men). The Boy Scouts of America emerged at the turn of the century to ensure boys learned survival skills no longer required for the lives these boys would lead or the work they would eventually pursue. Young groups got interested in Black musicians and jazz at a point in our history when privilege started to feel “dull” when compared with the seemingly more “authentic” identities of Others—identities formed, in part, by the very same systems of inequality that these practices of appropriation protect. Matthew Hughey has addressed similar practices of racialized appropriation by whites and Shamus Khan finds a parallel mode of classed and racialized cultural appropriation among elites. But, it’s not just classed and racialized. Hybrid masculinities demonstrate that this is a gendered and sexualized practice as well.
Through “strategically borrowing” elements from marginalized and subordinated groups, hybrid masculinities “discursively distance” the men who mobilize these configurations of gender from masculinities that have been successfully challenged by feminist activism and reform. Yet, this discursive distance is more symbolic than “real” in the sense that it does not actually challenge the systems of power and inequality that are largely still in place—rather, it obscures them, fortifying the same inequalities in new ways.
*This is a small piece of the argument I’m pursuing in a book prospectus and manuscript I’m currently working on that traces transformations in gender politics and performances among three separate groups of men. I didn’t use any of my data here as I’m saving that for the book. But I’m loving the finding some of my ideas apparent in advertisements too.
Tristan Bridges is an assistant professor in sociology at the College of Brockport, State University of New York.