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.

Two legal sexes aren’t enough: Why governments should recognize non-binary bodies and identities

By Lal Zimman

Virtually every form we fill out that serves to identify us – whether administered by governmental, educational, medical, economic, or social institutions – asks for sex or gender. In most cases, the only recognized options are female and male. Thanks to the work of intersex and transgender activists, there is increasing recognition that individuals may possess bodies and/or identities that fall outside of the normative categories of female and male. However, governmental and legal institutions largely remain resistant to official recognition of non-binary sexes or genders, instead requiring all citizens to be categorized as female or male despite the well-documented diversity of gender and sex. This resistance can be seen in recent cases in which governments have rejected bids to create a third legal sex category, as France did last month and Germany did in 2016.

To many people, the concept of legal sex seems like an intuitively obvious system that reflects information about an individual’s identity. This sense of intuition, however, comes from the naturalization of biological sex as a simple binary, when in fact it is a complex web of characteristics that can be aligned in many different ways. The notion that there are only two sexes relies on the erasure of intersex bodies, i.e. those that show distinctive or ambiguous physiological characteristics that are neither normatively female nor normatively male. Such erasure happens culturally – by pretending intersex bodies don’t exist – and medically – by operating on or removing ambiguous organs so that a child’s body appears more normatively female or male. The insistence that there are only two sexes is simply not supported by the observation of biological diversity among humans.

Christopher Hutton a scholar of language and the law, has argued that legal sex presents itself as a descriptive category, but in practice serves normative functions.1 In other words, we are meant to think of legal sex as simply reflecting a natural, universal reality in which every individual is obviously and unproblematically female or male. Ultimately, however, one’s assignment to a legal sex category creates both restrictions and obligations in terms of access to spaces, activities, and even other forms of recognition – as when states restrict allowable names based on legal sex.2

Gender_neutral_bathroom_sign
By sarahmirk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Someone whose identity documents are seen as being “in conflict” with their sex, gender identity, or gender expression can face numerous, and often quite serious, consequences. They may be unable to travel freely; unable to access safe and appropriate housing, shelters, medical care, or public facilities like bathrooms; unable to access certain spaces where identification is required for entry, like venues where alcohol is served; unable to engage in certain kinds of commercial transactions, such as using a credit or bank card or purchasing goods that require proof of age; and at particular risk during interactions with the state such as being pulled over or detained by police, being jailed or imprisoned, or navigating immigration systems. Someone whose identification outs them as trans, gender non-conforming, or intersex may routinely have to choose between personal safety and taking part in everyday, life-sustaining activities. Some may be unable to publicly articulate that identity at all because of the risks involved.

These points are often used to support the argument that transgender people shifting from one binary gender role to another should be permitted to change their legal sex, ideally without medical requirements such as hormones or surgery. But this logic applies with at least as much force for those living outside of the sex/gender binary all together.

In most cases, legal sex is, indeed, formulated in terms of sex – that is, physiology rather than social identity. In places where legal sex can be changed at all, individuals are generally required to alter their bodies in dramatic ways, including sterilization, in order to gain access to a new legal sex.3 The key assumption here is that biological differentiation is more important than social differentiation, and that the state is in the business of categorizing people on the basis of sexual phenotype rather than social identity.

Given how important the body is for arguments about legal sex, it is particularly striking when states refuse to acknowledge intersex individuals, who are born with bodies that cannot be straight-forwardly categorized as either female or male. If legal sex is supposed to reflect biological difference, and we know that intersex bodies exist, why are the differences between intersex bodies and normatively female or male bodies not worth capturing? What danger is there in recognizing the full range of what nature provides? How can we justify burdening this population – or any population – by denying them identification documents that match their bodies, identities, or presentations?4

Surely the key to answering to this question is the fear that legal recognition might reveal other cultural gaps, creating a demand for greater social, as well as legal, awareness and affirmation. If a state accepts that intersex bodies exist, and that they are not simply malformed versions of female or male bodies, how can it justify the non-consensual modification of those bodies in order to fit the binary system? How can educational institutions insist that only two genders exist, both through the way students are treated and in the material they are taught? How can trans people be denied the right to change their documents or required to achieve a certain degree of physical conformity in order to do so if the law recognizes that gender is more complicated than we’ve been led to believe? And if those with indisputably non-binary bodies can be recognized as legally different from non-intersex people, how can the state refuse to acknowledge those with non-binary identities, who are as deeply affected by lack of proper documentation as any other trans or intersex individuals?

The primary issue here is what role states will take in the transformation the gender binary is undergoing. While purporting to remain neutral in the face of radical social change, governments who perpetuate binary systems for assigning legal sex actively erase intersex bodies and delegitimize trans identities. The creation of more categories is not an instance of governments creating or pushing for social change, but rather reflecting the reality already occupied by many of the people it purports to serve. Legal sex has real consequences for individuals, and reforming it is a matter of safety, of equal participation in public life, and of individuals’ access to legal recognition and dignity. As long as legal sex exists, we need more than two categories.

Lal Zimman is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Affiliated Faculty in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also General Editor of Oxford University Press’s Series in Language, Gender, and Sexuality. His research is broadly focused on the linguistic practices of transgender speakers, in which he employs
a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. He has published on the homonormativity of the coming out narrative genre (Gender & Language, 2009), the construction of biological sex in trans men’s use of gendered body part terminology (Queer Excursions, 2014, Oxford; Journal of Homosexuality, 2014), and the complex role of embodiment in the acoustic characteristics of the voice (Journal of Language & Sexuality, 2013; Language and Masculinities, 2015, Routledge). In 2014, he published a co-edited volume, Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality with Oxford University Press.

1 Hutton, Christopher (forthcoming). Transgender jurisprudence, legal sex, and ordinary language.  In Evan Hazenberg & Miriam Meyerhoff (eds.), Representing Trans. Wellington, New Zealand:  Victoria University Press.

2 Several countries limit names for infants so that they are “gender appropriate,” including Denmark [link: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/07/03/mf.baby.naming.laws/index.html%5D, Iceland [link: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/01/04/168642200/a-girl-fights-to-be-called-by-her-name-in-iceland-suing-government%5D, and Hungary [link: http://www.nytud.hu/oszt/nyelvmuvelo/utonevek/%5D.

3 See, for instance, Lee, R. (2015). Forced sterilization and mandatory divorce: How a majority of Council of Europe member states’ laws regarding gender identity violate the internationally and regionally established human rights of trans people. Berkeley Journal of International Law 33(1):114-152.

4 I am being intentionally broad here in speaking of bodies, identities, or presentations out of recognition that not all intersex people want their intersex status reflected in their legal sex. Individuals should be able to choose which legal sex category will make them safest, affirm their dignity, and allow them to participate fully and comfortably in social life. For some, that means using a non-binary sex category.

No Place for a Feminist: Intersectionality and the Problem South

By Wanda Rushing

Each generation of feminism produces new questions, responses, debates and critiques. Yet, old perceptions of the South as no place for a feminist continue to dominate popular culture and negatively affect academic researchers. From my standpoint as a white southerner, a feminist, and a sociologist, I want to challenge perceptions about feminism and the South. I suggest using a framework that considers the importance of place or locality.  A place framework may potentially change understandings of social actors in particular places, not only in the American South but also in other regions. It also may affect perceptions and studies of feminism. Paying attention to intersectionality, region, and place offers an additional level of complexity and explanatory power for understanding gender, sexualities, and social movements, as well as southern feminism. Continue reading “No Place for a Feminist: Intersectionality and the Problem South”

Hints of the Coming of the Women’s Marches

By Jo Reger

As someone who studies the contemporary U.S. feminist movement, I should not have been surprised by the global outpouring of protests on January 21, 2017. After all, you could feel the rumblings coming during the Clinton-Trump campaign. The outright misogyny of Donald Trump’s casual evaluation of women, in contrast to the empowered women rhetoric of Hillary Clinton. Emotions were running high, insults were being flung, and once agreeable neighbors began to argue with each other’s choice of yard signs.

Reger-Hints-of-the-Coming-of-Womens-Marches

But stepping back from the heat of those moments, there were seeds planted for the global spread of women’s marches long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton threw their hats in the electoral ring.  Drawing on the old adage “hindsight is twenty-twenty,” I offer a few examples that offered hints of the women’s marches to come: Continue reading “Hints of the Coming of the Women’s Marches”

Explaining Trump

By Claude S. Fischer

Explaining how such an unfit candidate and such a bizarre candidacy succeeded has become a critical concern for journalists and scholars. Through sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, and 538, as well as academic papers, we can watch political scientists in real time try to answer the question, “What the Hell Happened?” (There are already at least two catalogs of answers, here and here, and a couple of college-level Trump syllabi.) Although a substantial answer will not emerge for years, this post is my own morning-after answer to the “WTHH?” question.

I make three arguments: First, Trump’s electoral college victory was a fluke, a small accident with vast implications, but from a social science perspective not very interesting. Second, the deeper task is to understand who were the distinctive supporters for Trump, in particular to sort out whether their support was rooted mostly in economic or in cultural grievances; the evidence suggests cultural. Third, party polarization converted Trump’s small and unusual personal base of support into 46 percent of the popular vote. Continue reading “Explaining Trump”