Wednesday, April 3, 2019
American Masculinity in a New Era
By Miriam J. Abelson
What does it mean to be a man in America?
This question was at the forefront of the minds of many of the 66 trans men I interviewed while doing research for my book, Men in Place. These men lived in a wide variety of cities and rural areas across the United States West, South, and Midwest. Perhaps this question has not been easy to answer in any era, but American masculinity and manhood seem particularly fraught at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.
The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have shone new light on rampant sexual harassment, assault, and gender inequality across industries and locales. Indeed, there is a growing recognition of the harmful effects of masculinity on the larger society and on men and boys themselves. Even the recent headline-making advertisement by Gillette asks for men and boys to rethink how they behave with one another and with women, by posing their long running tag line – The Best a Man Can Get – as a question: Is this the best a man can get? The ad is a prime example of calls to reform masculinity, but we also see rising resentment and backlash from those loathe to give up their personal and social positions of power.
Trans men who I interviewed described navigating the pressures of being a man and being masculine in ways that are similar to other men. Their stories illustrated that they did not have one specific way to be masculine, but that their expressions of masculinity depended on the spaces and places they lived in and moved through in their everyday lives, shifting and balancing as they entered different contexts. In most places, but certainly not all, the ideal for masculinity was an in-between masculinity that is not hypermasculine but also not too feminine or effeminate. From this study, I conclude that masculinity is dynamic: not just toxic or healthy, but variable depending on the space. Those that perform it most successfully are individuals that can maintain the in-between as they encounter the social expectations that shape particular situations.
Although these changes sound promising, this new ideal of in-between masculinity mostly leaves existing social hierarchies in place.
In my work I find that maintaining these social hierarchies happens through an emphasis on who can control themselves and who cannot. Control is a hallmark of dominating masculinities in the sense of men being rigid or controlling of others. Yet, in this newer ideal, control does not mean inflexibility; rather it is men’s ability to maintain the in-between in responding to the demands of a particular space, such as region or even in public bathrooms. Men who can adjust to the demands of masculinity across these spaces become proper men in comparison to those who cannot maintain control. On one end, women or feminine men are too weak and emotional. They are not capable of being strong in the right spaces. On the other end, hypermasculine men, usually coded as poor black urban men or poor white rural men, are too much like a stereotypical macho man. They are too violent or unable to express the correct emotions in the right spaces.
In this way men can both strive to maintain a certain manliness while also displacing the blame for sexism, racism, and other social ills onto hypermasculine men. This dynamic appears where white working class rural men in the South and Midwest are solely blamed for the election of Donald Trump, even if his support actually had a wider base among affluent suburban Republicans. It also appears in the more widely publicized but not new killings of black men, like Stephon Clark or Michael Brown, because they are viewed by police as hypermasculine violent threats. The black men killed on the street and the poor rural Trump voter are linked not only in their relation to space but also as symbolic representations of masculinities that are not under control. In one instance, lives that must be eliminated because of their threat; in the other, the assertion that hypermasculinity and attendant racism and sexism are located only in rural spaces and particular regions. Some men may never be able to achieve the in-between of “acceptable” masculinity by virtue of their race, class, sexuality, or some combination of them.
In regard to violence, this in-between masculinity means that either being a violent perpetrator or a victim of violence can make a man illegitimate. This means men must carefully navigate fears, which are often tied to particular spaces, in order to avoid being a victim. Trans men’s fears in rural spaces provide a particularly telling example of how these dynamics are gendered, raced, and classed.
Rural spaces are commonly thought to be especially dangerous for LGBT people due to the idea that small towns are dominated by backward, white, lower class men who are exceptionally hateful toward queer or transgender people. At the center of LGBT fears is the specter of rural masculinities that are too violent. The men I interviewed reported trying to protect themselves from potential violence by watching how they acted in order to not seem too much like a gay man in rural spaces. Shifting their behavior allowed them to avoid violence and also maintain an in-between masculinity. They could distinguish themselves both from the violence of potential perpetrators and from the weakness of a victim.
Indeed, the finding from my work that often surprises people the most is that the majority of trans men I interviewed who lived rurally had few interpersonal problems beyond finding reliable access to medical care. This is because they were white in predominately white areas and their masculinity fit in with the local ideals for how men are supposed to be. At the same time, fear drove them to be complicit in the sexism and racism occurring around them. Race, in this case as a particular classed and masculine whiteness, shaped both who is feared and how one can find belonging in rural spaces.
What could it mean to be a man in America?
Debates about the behavior of men exemplified by #MeToo and the Gillette ad signal that perhaps U.S. masculinity is in crisis. Mass shootings and increased white supremacist organizing suggest that white masculinity is a crisis in itself. My work illustrates that a contextual understanding of masculinity as always intertwined with race and sexuality is necessary to chart a different course forward. Further, it will take efforts not just for men to do masculinity differently, but to move beyond surface changes and actually undermine existing hierarchies that disadvantage women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and poor people.
"In Men in Place, Miriam J. Abelson foregrounds the lives of an intentionally diverse sample of trans men in the U.S. to address shifts in the look and feel of powerful intersecting systems of inequality. In this brilliantly written, theoretically sophisticated, interdisciplinary, and compassionate study, Abelson poses new challenges to research on masculinities and gender and sexual inequality that illuminate dynamics of power and inequality that reach far beyond the lives of the trans men she studied."—Tristan Bridges, University of California, Santa Barbara
"What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? Through moving interviews with trans men from across the United States, Miriam J. Abelson documents that there is no easy answer to this question. Men in Place shows us that we cannot begin to understand what it means to be a man without understanding race and space. Abelson weaves a story of manhood that is almost always just out of reach for all men, a Goldilocks masculinity that must be managed, tailored, and altered depending on the environment. Men in Place is a must read for scholars interested in masculinity and its meanings across space."—C.J. Pascoe, University of Oregon
"Men in Place boldly investigates the intersections of white supremacy, economic strain, and rurality as they shape disparities in the experiences of rural trans men of color and their white counterparts. With powerful detail, Miriam J. Abelson demonstrates how the willingness of cis people to embrace trans men as men is shaped by their perception of local and external threats to their community—threats that are not just related to gender and sexuality, but also demographic and economic transformations. This book's substantial and diverse sample of trans men and its critical race and feminist theoretical orientation make Men in Place a unique and necessary contribution to trans studies."—Jane Ward, author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men