Can pressure to conform to a certain masculine ideal be one of the factors leading to a high suicide rate among men? How harmful is hegemonic masculinity?
Hegemonic masculinity is defined as the practice under which women are subordinated in society and certain groups of men are marginalised due to their behaviour or characteristics. It is primarily used to explain and justify men’s dominant position in societal hierarchy and it characterises men as possessing certain attributes, which they are expected to satisfy in this hierarchical structure. These characteristics include courage, toughness, thrill-seeking, risk-taking, unwillingness to admit weakness or dependency, and an aversion to expressing emotions.
In case a male fails to satisfy one of these characteristics then he is ostracised from his masculine group by other males. This only serves to demonstrate how men harm and are harmed under hegemonic masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity, then, applies to men not merely because they are men but because they are expected to act ‘like men’. In view of this, further divisions within the male group are created with the exclusion and subordination of homosexual men whom society regards as possessing more ‘feminine’ characteristics.
Homosexual men, therefore, are marginalised from male groups for the same reason heterosexual men claim that they have the right to declare their ‘superiority’ over homosexual men, that is, by being men. In the case of heterosexual men,however, this turns into behavioural aspects. Men who behave in a ‘feminine’ way are not regarded as belonging under the male group anymore, but are discarded from it, and being like a man now becomes a subordinate issue, while behaving like a man is the dominant criterion for belonging to the male group. The consequence of that is that the term ‘heterosexual masculinity’ is rarely a term heterosexual men, or other groups in society, will use as they regard it as something non-existent and even a contradiction in terms. Therefore, by labelling some aspects of the behaviour of homosexual men as ‘feminine’, they are excluded altogether from the umbrella of masculinity, despite their biological sex or their identified gender.
It’s no doubt that hegemonic masculinity, along with the way in which media portray ‘real’ men, raises unrealistic expectations for them, making them constantly regard themselves as ‘not manly enough’. As R.W. Connell mentions in her book Gender & Power, the idealised characters of hegemonic masculinity may not even be real, but imaginary creations which, however, have a great impact in society, both internally, to individual members, but also externally, to the general societal structure.
Media plays a major role in paving the way for hegemonic masculinity structures in society. This is done simply by portraying how ‘real men’ are supposed to look and act like; either by imitating an imaginary character, like Rocky Balboa or John Rambo, or by exaggerating the lives of real people, like Mohammed Ali or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Media plays a major role in paving the way for hegemonic masculinity structures in society”
Alan Petersen (2003) argued that the concept of hegemonic masculinity presupposes a male-female distinction before one even beings discussing the issue, ignoring certain subtypes of masculinity that may appear within the male gender. The issue, however, is not a conflict between the masculine and the feminine, nor does it apply to all men. The term hegemonic masculinity refers to society’s notions of masculinity, regardless of gender, as sometimes even women – or marginalised groups from both genders – by tradition, subordinate themselves subconsciously allowing hegemonic masculinity to rise upon them. The term hegemonic masculinity also refers to a very specific group within the male population that follows, both internally and externally, what hegemonic masculinity requires them to do.
This raises the issue of conventional masculinity, or ‘hegemonic masculinity in bad faith’, as Connell names it. Conventional masculinity refers to the survival of hegemonic masculinity, not by active forces that have to be enforced on subordinated women and marginalised groups, but simply by tradition. Men enjoy the power given to them but, as this was inherited by previous generations and has become a ‘convention’ in society, as the name suggests, they do nothing to change it, or they may not even be aware of the privileges that they enjoy in being protected by hegemonic masculinity. In other words, they enjoy it as it is something that was given to them naturally.
Men don’t have to rise up to the top of the hierarchy in every generation, but it’s something they enjoy from birth, simply by having been born with masculine genitalia and male genetic characteristics. Hence, hegemony, in this sense, does not refer to total cultural dominance. Hegemony refers to dominance through subordination, not elimination, and this is how traditional roles are created in society, sometimes enforced by the hegemonic male group, or sometimes even maintained and preserved by the subordinated groups. Under hegemonic masculinity, it can be argued that it’s the groups on top of the hierarchy that work to preserve and maintain the hierarchical structure.
Connell perfectly puts it in these words:
“The subordination of women and the marginalisation of homosexual and effeminate men are sustained neither by chance nor by the mechanical reproduction of a social system”.
Under conventional masculinity, however, all groups work to preserve this structure, as it’s preserved simply in the way its name suggests: by convention.
Hegemonic masculinity and subordination of certain groups takes place by convention, but the stage at which this is input into each generation seems to be very early, in fact from early childhood. Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, developed a critique against hegemonic masculinity, by mentioning the way in which children, very early in their lives, learn about masculine and feminine behaviours, those which they are expected to adopt to a certain pre-set extent. When faced with confusion regarding their identities, children, irrespective of gender, tend to resort to traits they consider masculine, such as violence and aggressiveness. This allows masculinity to become hegemonic, while femininity is not expressed and is therefore subordinated.
“When faced with confusion regarding their identities, children, irrespective of gender, tend to resort to traits they consider masculine, such as violence and aggressiveness”
One could raise the objection that men in power do not necessarily always correspond to the ideals of hegemonic masculinity and that therefore this structure does not describe or reflect a realness of power. It does not have to be the case, however, that powerful men themselves correspond to idealised forms of masculinity but, rather, what keeps them in power and what men are more inclined to support. To quote Cornell once more: “Few men are Bogarts or Stallones, many collaborate in sustaining those images”.
Therefore, hegemonic masculinity survives through a large measure of consent, primarily by those who benefit from it, that is, a large group of men, larger than the group that claims to fully correspond to the ideas of hegemonic masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity, therefore, greatly affects men who belong to that large group, but who don’t identify with the feminine gender or men who are not marginalised or subordinated from their behaviour. The idealised notions of hegemonic masculinity put great stress and pressure on men to behave like men. They don’t feel that they have the right to claim belonging to the male group, if they don’t, at the same time, behave like they are ‘supposed to’. There is distinction, then, between the internal and external notion of masculinity. Simply being a man, and that is the internal aspect, is not enough to claim masculinity. One needs to express to society, and that is the external aspect, that they are valuable members of the masculine population.
On the other hand, there is no femininity that’s hegemonic in the sense that the dominant form of masculinity is hegemonic amongst men, at least in the Western world. There is, in fact, significantly greater pressure for a woman to be like a woman; achieve a certain body size, conform to particular standards with regards to their outward appearances, e.g. make-up, specific clothing, piercing, but not following this path does not subordinate them from being regarded as female. The failure of women to reach the idealised feminine self is not generally regarded as a reason to disregard women as members of the feminine population.
In the case of men, however, failing to meet expectations regarding the ‘ideal man’, means that they are not only subordinated as members of a sub-group of masculinity, but are wholly discarded from even claiming that they belong to the masculine population. Women have higher expectations put onto them from society in order to be like women, but in not meeting those expectations they are not ostracised by other women, as happens in the case of men ostracising other men for not behaving ‘manly enough’.
Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that women do tend to face severe consequences if they fail to meet the expectations of a ‘woman’, especially in theocratic or deeply religious countries. Punishments, however, are carried out by men, indicating how hegemonic masculinity not only governs how men are supposed to behave, but also has a major say in how women are supposed to act in society. Even in such cases, it’s not often the case that women are expected to over-perform, but that they fail to under-perform. They are expected to do less while men are expected to do more. For both cases, however, the expectations remain unrealistic.
The extreme pressure of behaving in a ‘manly’ way, is not something that must go unnoticed. Hegemonic masculinity kills men. Not only figuratively, by not allowing them to express themselves freely, but also literally, as global suicide rates can tell us. Globally, men are four times more likely to die from suicide than are females . In fact, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Women are more likely to harm themselves, but it’s also more likely that they will seek medical or psychological assistance. These are the characteristics that men, under the rule of hegemonic masculinity, are not allowed to express without the fear of being ostracised by other men. One of these is perceived ‘weakness’.
From an early age, men are expected to be ‘strong’ and ‘tough’, and they are required to ‘man up’ when psychophysical challenges and weaknesses appear. These characteristics do not, and should not, correspond to reality as it creates unrealistic expectations which, when not met, lead to men being looked down upon.
As Sarah Payne et al. (2008) mention, “gender [is]something that takes place in the context of assessment by others, so that certain aspects of gendered identity are normalised or legitimated”. In this sense, gender, under hegemonic masculinity, is not something that individuals within society are allowed to identify themselves with, but something that is left upon the judgement of others. Men’s position within this framework of hegemonic masculinity, therefore, and the tensions that are created through non-realistic expectations that are imposed upon whomever wishes to claim masculinity, can be one reason why men are more likely to see themselves as failures and commit suicide. Men are unable to express their emotions or consult a therapist without facing social criticism.
Möller-Leimkühler (2003), provides support for the theory of conventional masculinity, indicating that hegemonic masculinity has survived through tradition, and not necessarily through an active social mechanism. “Traditional masculinity is sharply outlined against attributes being socially defined as feminine”, she argues. There seems to be, then, a clear distinction between masculinity and femininity in society, while the two are not allowed to intermix in any way. Hegemonic masculinity also encompasses the view that, as Möller-Leimkühler mentions, that “the traditional female role is more diffuse and lacking in standards for success and failure”. Men have clearer determinants of success, making behaving like a man a more chauvinistic procedure, which easily excludes men who happen to have attributes commonly perceived as feminine.
The unrealistic expectations of hegemonic masculinity, then, continuously raise the bar for men who wish to be identified as men or as members of a group that identifies as masculine. As Mike Donaldson (1993) puts it, “the crucial difference between hegemonic masculinity and other masculinities is not the control of women, but the control of men”.
There is certainly no doubt that through the strict hierarchy that hegemonic masculinity enforces, women do not hold a significant position and are often regarded merely as means for men to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, as suicide rates tell us, men, despite them enjoying the benefits of masculinity, they are, at the same time, greatly controlled by the notion of hegemonic masculinity. This leads to a dead-end, where men are forced to face their emotions without having the means to do so, and where only one option remains: suicide.
Connell R.W. 1998. Gender and Power. Blackwell Publishers, UK
Möller-Leimkühler A.M. 2002. “The gender gap in suicide and premature death or: why are men so vulnerable?”. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 253 (1): 1-8
Petersen, A. 2003. “Research on men and masculinities: Some implications of recent theory for future work”. Men and Masculinities 6 (1): 54-69.
Payne S, Swami V. and Stanistreet D. 2008 “The social construction of gender and its influence on suicide: a review of the literature”Journal of Men’s Health 5 (1): 23-35
Angelos is a Philosophy (MA) student at the University of Durham, UK. He writes on philosophy, religion, politics, and science.