Trump and the Politics of Fluid Masculinities

By James W. Messerschmidt and Tristan Bridges

In the 1950s, a collection of sociologists and psychologists (which included, among others, Theodor Adorno) wrote The Authoritarian Personality. They were attempting to theorize the type of personality — a particular psychology — that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Among other things, they suggested that the “authoritarian personality” was characterized by a normative belief in absolute obedience to their authority in addition to the practical enactment of that belief through direct and indirect marginalization and suppression of “subordinates.” While Adorno and his colleagues did not consider the gender of this personality, today gender scholars recognize authoritarianism as a particular form of masculinity, and current U.S. president Donald Trump might appear to be a prime illustration of a rigid and inflexible “authoritarian personality.”

Yet Trump’s masculinity avoids a direct comparison to this label precisely because of the fluidity he projects. Indeed, the “authoritarian personality” is overly fixed, immutable, and one dimensional as a psychoanalytical personality type. Sociologists understand identities as more flexible than this. Certain practices of Trump exemplify the fluctuations of masculinity that illustrate this distinction, and the transformations in his masculinity are highly contingent upon context. While this is a common political strategy, Trump’s shifts are important as they enable him to construct a “dominating masculinity” that perpetuates diverse forms of social inequality. Dominating masculinities are those that involve commanding and controlling interactions to exercise power and control over people and events.  These masculinities are most problematic when they also are hegemonic and work to legitimize unequal relations between women and men. Here are a few examples:

First, in his speeches and public statements prior to being elected, Trump bullied and subordinated “other” men by referring to them as “weak,” “low energy,” or as “losers,” or implying they are “inept” or a “wimp.” (“Othering” is a social process whereby certain people are viewed and/or treated as somehow fundamentally different and unequal.) For example, during several Republican presidential debates, Trump consistently labeled Marco Rubio as “little Marco,” described Jeb Bush as “low energy Jeb,” implied that John McCain was a “wimp” because he was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and suggested that contemporary military veterans battling PTSD are “inept” because they “can’t handle” the “horror” they observed in combat. In contrast, Trump consistently referred to himself as, for example, strong, a fighter, and as the embodiment of success. In each case, Trump ascribes culturally-defined “inferior” subordinate gender qualities to his opponents while imbuing himself with culturally defined “superior” masculine qualities. This pairing signifies an unequal relationship between masculinities—one both dominating and hegemonic (Trump) and one subordinate (the “other” men).

A second example of Trump’s fluid masculinity applies to the way he has depicted himself as the heroic masculine protectorof all Americans. This compassion may appear, at first blush, at odds with the hegemonic masculinity just discussed. For example, in his Republican Convention speech Trump argued that he alone can lead the country back to safety by protecting the American people through the deportation of “dangerous” and “illegal” Mexican and Muslim immigrants and by “sealing the border.” In so doing, Trump implied that Americans are unable to defend themselves — a fact he used to justify his need to “join the political arena.” Trump stated: “I will liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism and lawlessness” by “restoring law and order” throughout the country — “I will fight for you, I will win for you.” Here Trump adopts a position as white masculine protector of Americans against men of color, instructing all US citizens to entrust their lives to him; in return, he offers safety. Trump depicts himself as aggressive, invulnerable, and able to protect while all remaining US citizens are depicted as dependent and uniquely vulnerable. Trump situates himself as analogous to the patriarchal masculine protector toward his wife and other members of the patriarchal household. But simultaneously, Trump presents himself as a compassionate, caring, and kind-hearted benevolent protector, and thereby constructs a hybrid hegemonic masculinity consisting of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Third, in the 2005 interaction between Trump and Billy Bush on the now infamous Access Hollywood tour bus, Trump presumes he is entitled to the bodies of women and (not surprisingly) admits committing sexual assault against women because, according to him, he has the right. He depicts women as collections of body parts and disregards their desires, needs, expressed preferences, and their consent. After the video was aired more women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Missed in discussions of this interaction is how that dialogue actually contradicts, and thus reveals, the myth of Trump’s protectorhegemonic masculinity. The interaction on the bus demonstrates that Trump is not a “protector” at all; he is a “predator.”

Trump’s many masculinities represent a collection of contradictions. Trump’s heroic protector hegemonic masculinity should have been effectively unmasked, revealing a toxic predatory heteromasculinity. Discussions of this controversy, however, failed to articulate any sign of injury to his campaign because Trump was able to connect with a dominant discourse of masculinity often relied upon to explain all manner of men’s (mis)behavior — it was “locker room talk,” we were told. And the sad fact is, the news cycle moved on.

We argue that Trump has managed such contradictions by mobilizing, in certain contexts, what has elsewhere (and above) been identified as a “dominating masculinity” (seeherehere and here— involving commanding and controlling specific interactions and exercising power and control over people and events. This dominating masculinity has thus far centered on six critical features:

1) Trump operates in ways that cultivate domination over others he works with, in particular rewarding people based on their loyalty to him.

2) Trump’s dominating masculinity serves the interests of corporations by cutting regulations, lowering corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and engaging in other neoliberal practices, such as attempting to strip away healthcare from 24 million people, defunding public schools, and making massive cuts to social programs that serve poor and working-class people, people of color, and the elderly.

3) Trump has relied on his dominating masculinity to serve his particular needs as president, such as refusing to release his tax returns and ruling through a functioning kleptocracy (using the office to serve his family’s economic interests).

4) This masculinity is exemplified through the formulation of a dominating militaristic foreign policy (for example, U.S. airstrikes of civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically under Trump; the MOAB bombing of Afghanistan; threats to North Korea) rather than engaging in serious forms of diplomacy. Trump has formed a global ultraconservative “axis of evil”— whose defining characteristics are kleptocracy and dominating masculinity — with the likes of Putin (Russia), el-Sisi (Egypt), Erdogan (Turkey), Salman (Saudi Arabia), Duterte (Philippines) among others.

5) So too has this dominating masculinity had additional effects “at home” as Trump prioritizes domestically the repressive arm of the state through white supremacist policies such as rounding-up and deporting immigrants and refugees as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric and attempted Muslim ban.

6) Trump’s dominating masculinity attempts to control public discourse through his constant tweets that are aimed at discrediting and subordinating those who disagree with his policies.

Trump’s masculinity is fluid, contradictory, situational, and it demonstrates the diverse and crisscrossing pillars of support that uphold inequalities worldwide. From different types of hegemonic masculinities, to a toxic predatory heteromasculinity, to his dominating masculinity, Trump’s chameleonic display is part of the contemporary landscape of gender, class, race, age and sexuality relations and inequalities. Trump does not construct a consistent form of masculinity. Rather, he oscillates — at least from the evidence we have available to us. And in each case, his oscillations attempt to overcome the specter of femininity — the fear of being the unmasculine man — through the construction of particularized masculinities.

It is through these varying practices that Trump’s masculinity is effective in bolstering specific forms and systems of inequality that have been targeted and publicly challenged in recent history. Durable forms of social inequality achieve resilience by becoming flexible. By virtue of their fluidity of expression and structure, they work to establish new pillars of ideological support, upholding social inequalities as “others” are challenged. As C. J. Pascoe has argued, a dominating masculinity is not unique to Trump or only his supporters; Trump’s opponents rely on it as well (see also sociologist Kristen Barber’s analysis of anti-Trump masculinity tactics). And it is for these reasons that recognizing Trump’s fluidity of masculinity is more than mere academic observation; it is among the chief mechanisms through which contemporary forms of inequality — from the local to the global — are justified and persist today.

*Originally posted on Democratic Socialists of America.

James W. Messerschmidt is professor of sociology and chair of the Criminology Department at the University of Southern Maine. He has written widely on masculinities, and his most recent book is Masculinities in the Making.

Tristan Bridges is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With C. J. Pascoe, he recently co-edited the anthology, Exploring Masculinities.

Critiquing and Creating Social Spaces

By Christopher Matthews

I was happy to be asked to write a blog post shortly after publishing this paper in Gender and Society. I remember sitting down at my laptop to start the process of translating my academic arguments into less opaque language. Part way through this process I realized that what I was writing didn’t have the impact that I was hoping for; the post was turning into a simplified summary of my paper. “Surely,” I remember thinking to myself, “a blog post should be more than this?” With some time I realized that my frustration was connected to broader issues related to the translation of research, public engagement and active scholarship.

There have been useful attempts within academia to begin developing impact of scholarship, that is, actually doing something based on research findings. One crucial element of this in the UK has been the significance that is placed on evidencing the impact of research in order to obtain funding in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Unfortunately, my research in boxing has had almost zero measurable impact when considered in this manner. This is why I struggled to develop what I considered to be an interesting blog post at the time, I wasn’t ready to start telling people beyond academia about my research, as I’d not done anything really significant with it yet!

My paper was based on ethnographic research I undertook in a boxing, martial arts and weight lifting gym in England (see Matthews, 2014, 2015 for more detail). The central critique I made in the paper was that while there’s lots of evidence of broad societal shifting in various ways towards equality there are social-cultural spaces that remain, and perhaps become increasing, resistant to such change. When my analysis is broken down to this level it becomes a simple idea, and it is, so while the paper makes a relatively significant contribution to academic knowledge, the obvious question follow; so what? Or what’s next? And this is why I feel the need to create not only critique.

boxing
Luke Jones at Bexhill Film Company

Boxing, as a cultural phenomenon, has a long history of being a site for difference, inclusion, diversity and challenging social norms. Yet, it is still dominated symbolically and quantitatively by certain men and narratives about manhood. The legacy of boxing’s historical roots in a powerful, aggressive and often violent masculine body culture still shape and frame contemporary experiences inside and around the gym. However, the rise of women’s boxing, perhaps highlighted most significantly at the London 2012 Olympic games, has made stories of female boxing fair easier to tell and live (See Woodward (2012) for a discussion).

 This Girl Can Box

England boxing and many boxing clubs around the country have made significant contributions to continuing this process. And while there is still much work to be done, many boxing clubs have become spaces where powerful, skillful and strong female bodies are presented, expected and respected.

Where boxing clubs in a general sense appear to be more resistant to change is in their ability to attract and cater for LGBTQI+ communities. In many cases this is not through any sort of open or even covert homophobia, but rather a lack of knowledge about how, and in what ways, it might be possible to break the symbolic association between boxing and certain images, ideas and stories of heterosexual men. For example, I spoke recently with a gay man who really wanted to try boxing, but when attending his local gym simply couldn’t walk through the door, as if there was a force field keeping him out.

 The clearest way of tackling this issue, is to create spaces where these ‘social force fields’ can be eroded. Indeed, there are some great examples of how this is already happening (London Gay Boxing Club, Velvet Gloves Boxing NYE). So I began working with my local gym, the Eastbourne Boxing Club (EBC), to explore the potential for starting an LGBTQI+ boxing class.

The first stumbling block is funding. One of the main reasons boxing clubs do not have such sessions already is that they believe, in most cases quite rightly I would suggest, that they simply won’t be popular enough to cover expenses. Most clubs simply don’t have the finances to enable them to take risks on sessions for groups that have not traditionally been associated with boxing. I was able to secure some funding from the University of Brighton’s Community and University Partnership Programme to help in this regard.

The next issue is to find coaches who can deliver boxing in a manner which is inclusive and considered. Fortunately the coaching team EBC is not only well qualified in the sport but they also hold progressive personal political ideals. They have been really interested in the idea of promoting boxing to the local community. I have also taken the England Boxing level one boxing qualification so that I can assist where possible.

As such, we found some free time at the gym organised free boxing classes for the local LGBTQI+ community. We are currently promoting these sessions with flyers and posters both on the internet and in hardcopy. Indeed, England Boxing has helps us with this post about the sessions.

I will conduct some research based on these sessions which will help develop my existing academic explorations of boxing, produce monitoring and evaluation information for the specific sessions while, also highlight best practice and areas for improvement. The goal is to combine this information with research from other similar projects to produce guidelines and suggestions for the national governing body and other clubs who are interested in doing something similar.

This is how I have attempted to create something based on my academic critique, and this is also why I now feel like I can produce this blog post now. Simply put, I have more of a story to tell about how my research is doing something in the world rather than sitting on a shelf in the library.

Christopher R. Matthews is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK. He is a competing amateur boxer who has used his active participation as central aspects of his research. He has published on a variety of topics including men’s power, sports violence, health, gender and sexuality. Alongside Alex Channon he is the co-editor of Global Perspective on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors Around the World and the co-founder of the Love Fight Hate Violence campaign.

Re-Thinking Who Does What: The Case of Interracial Partnerships and Housework

By Catherine Bolzendahl and Zoya Gubernskaya

For many Americans, women’s housework is synonymous with love. Imagine the Thanksgiving dinner, where the moms, aunts, sisters, and grandmas gather in the kitchen, working all day to make the dishes so proudly displayed on the table. Stereotypically the dads, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers congregate in family room, watching football and telling jokes. Times are certainly changing and no one would be too surprised if Uncle Leo had a great dish of scalloped potatoes he wanted to make, or Cousin Linda preferred to play a pick-up game of football in the back yard. Still, the core chores of the home fall on women, who spend more than twice the time men do on cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry. Why are women still doing so much more housework? A variety of explanations help account for some of this: women’s lower or less intensive employment, men’s greater earnings, intra-family status, social policy, and gender ideology. The last of these – gender ideology – is particularly interesting because it tells us how people feel about who should do what. Both men and women (but more men) think women are better at these tasks and take to them more “naturally.” As many gender scholars have noted we become stuck in these notions, and to make matters more complex these roles and chores become interconnected with culture, love, support, and family ties. After all, no one wants Grandma to go on strike when it’s time for some homemade apple pie.

How then can we understand how gender expectations frame our understanding of women’s and men’s housework time? If we create these differences, does that also mean they can be undone? To help get at these questions, we looked at people who partnered with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Part of the construction of family and gender roles is linked to the fact that most Americans partner homogamously (i.e., with someone very similar to them). Homogamous partnerships protect economic, occupational, educational, and yes, racial, differences in society by reproducing what already exists. By disrupting one aspect of this, partnering with someone of a different racial or ethnic group may allow individuals to rethink many things taken for granted – gender roles among them. Continue reading “Re-Thinking Who Does What: The Case of Interracial Partnerships and Housework”

Genderless? Not quite

Three colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mississippi sat down and had a “sociological jam session” after reading the recent NYT article on “genderless danshi” (genderless Japanese men)sport-1685854_1920

Who can “play” with gender?

Judith Butler’s concept of “masquerade” has always thrown me for a loop. When I first read her work, I was excited by the possibility of “gender play” and wanted to believe in the idea that it could bring down the gender structure, one bodily subversion at a time. But I was always asking, “Where do these people go to work every day? Can they really do masquerade and still get paid?” I was stuck on how the organizational structure keeps us all in line and I still find myself focused on the conditions under which people are “at risk of gender assessment.” Toman, a model and pop band member in Japan, and other young musicians and talent agents wear make up and play with fashion that is seen as traditionally feminine, but continue to define themselves as men. Their work in an artistic field may allow for the embrace of a more fluid gender presentation. And it actually may be required because that “look” makes money! The article mentions that “genderless danshi” was a term “coined by a talent agent” interested in “capitalizing on their social media followings to market fans.”  What about fast food workers? Construction workers? Teachers? Bankers? Can they engage in gender play and still get paid? What “aesthetic labor” is required in their workplaces? Even if Toman and other danshi turn out to be cultural trendsetters who open up the rigid binary bodily performance of gender across more societal work contexts in Japan and beyond, it’s going to take more than men wearing foundation and eye shadow to take down a system of masculine power.

– Kirsten Dellinger, Professor of Sociology Continue reading “Genderless? Not quite”