Images of masculinity

In a poignant episode of Zits, the teenage Jeremy tries out a series of images of grown-up masculinity — what kind of man will I, can I, be? — only to be deflated by seeing himself through his mother’s eyes:

Yes, there’s going to be damn little about language in my brief discussion, so if that’s what you’re after, maybe you should just appreciate the cartoon and go on to something else.

Jeremy is searching for positive images of masculinity to aspire to, to compose an adult persona from, and he’s looking to idealized media representations of men — their self-presentations and moral universes — for clues, and selecting those that seem to be valued in the culture around him, especially those who project high masculinity by being tough or sexy or both. The models come from the borderline territory between real life and fiction (from jocks, pop stars, especially in rock and hiphop, men presented approvingly in ads, and so on) and from the forms of imaginative fiction that dominate popular culture, namely movies, tv shows, and computer games. So he looks to Westerns and war stories and to cops, gangsters, spies, adventure heroes (from Robin Hood and Zorro on to James Bond and Indiana Jones and beyond), and cartoon(ish) (super)heroes, from Superman and Batman through Wolverine. (I’ve been slowly collecting a lot of this material.)

A few summers ago, in preparation for a sophomore seminar on gay men and masculinity (course prospectus here), I had an undergraduate research assistant (thanks, again, to the office of the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford) go through some of this material, as well as a selection of writing on male homosexuality, feminism, and masculinity, from scholars, cultural critics, journalists, and others.

Of course, in real life, cultural masculinity is defined not only positively, but negatively as well: what to aspire to and what to avoid. The course proposal focused particularly on the negative aspects of the definition; it began:

What is the opposite of masculine? You can get at least four answers to this question: unmanly, feminine, effeminate, and gay. These are different answers, but they’re related, through a web of conceptualizations and beliefs about gender and sexuality.

I’ll take up some of these issues in a posting on “gay colors” (lavender and all that). For the moment, here’s a draft of part of a course syllabus that Bea Sanford designed that summer and fall:

“The Opposite of Masculine”
Course Syllabus

Week One — Introduction
Questions: What is masculinity?  What are some of the terms that are in opposition to it?

Week Two – Masculine stereotypes & performance

Readings: Susan Bordo, The Male Body, “Private Parts” pp. 15-83; Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness, “The Stereotype” pp. 22-49

Questions: How are men culturally represented?  Is the stereotype shifting, as Bordo says?  What are essential masculine qualities and what are peripheral ones?

Readings: Deborah Cameron, “Performing Gender Identity: Young Men’s Talk and the Construction of Heterosexual Masculinity” pp. 47-64; Rob Podesva, “Phonetic Style” [ch. 7 of dissertation, 1st 22 pp.]

Questions: How do masculine stereotypes play out in areas of language, gender performance, sexuality, desire, etc.?  What is the relationship between stereotype and performance?  What is the difference between identity and persona?

Week Three – Masculinity, women, & homophobia

Readings:  Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness, “Conclusion: Unemployed Manliness” pp. 225-249; Susan Bordo, The Male Body, “Gentleman or Beast? The Double Bind of Masculinity” pp. 229-264; Sally Johnson, “Theorizing Language & Masculinity” pp. 8-26

Questions: What is the usefulness or truth (if any) of stereotypes?  How do masculine stereotypes affect both men and women?

Readings: Michael S. Kimmel, The Gender of Desire, “Masculinity as Homophobia” pp. 25-42; James D. Armstrong, Queerly Phrased, “Homophobic Slang as Coercive Discourse among College Students,” pp. 326-333; William Leap, Word’s Out, “The Risk Outside: Gay English, “Suspect Gays,” and Heterosexuals” pp. 49-73

Questions: How does homophobia fit into masculinity?  How do “masculine” men relate to one another?  What are the implications of male homophobia for masculinity and for gays?

Week Four – Gay men & masculinity

Readings: Frank Browning, The Culture of Desire, pp. 68-70; “Paradox & Perversity” pp. 204-229; [perhaps more]

Questions: What is the relationship between style and masculinity?  How do gay theorists set gay sexuality both against and alongside of masculinity?  What is the place of perversity in society?

Readings: Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal, “What are homosexuals for?” pp. 188-205; Michael Warner, The Problem with Normal, “What’s Wrong with Normal?” pp. 41-61; Paul Robinson, Queer Wars, “Andrew Sullivan and his enemies,” pp. 79-101

Questions: How do queers interact with the concept of “normalcy” or “normal” society?  Is “normal” a useful standard at all?

Week Five – Queer terminology

Readings: Sally McConnell-Ginet, “Queering Semantics: Definitional Struggles” pp. 137-160; Arnold Zwicky, “Two Lavender Issues for Linguists” pp. 21-32

Questions: How does “queer” stand opposite to ideas of masculinity?  How does the term define itself against masculinity?  How does queer language reflect or reject stereotypes?

Wed tbd

Week tbd — Gender, sexuality, and desire – theoretical frameworks

Readings: Penelope Eckert, Language and Sexuality, “Demystifying Sexuality and Desire” pp. 90-110; Michael S. Kimmel, The Gender of Desire, “Pornography & Male Sexuality” pp. 65-95

Questions: What are masculine sexual scripts?  How do social concerns interact with masculine sexuality or desire?

Readings: Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick, Language and Sexuality, “Sexuality as identity: gay and lesbian language” pp. 75-105; Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall, “Theorizing identity in language and sexuality research” excrpt. from pp. 469-493

Questions: How are desire and sexuality interrelated?  How do the issues “The Opposite of Masculine” looks at benefit from the idea of identity?  How does the idea of identity detract from these issues?  How is the performance of gayness sexual? social? gendered?  How does it relate to desire?

Week tbd — Public & private sexualities

Readings: William Leap, Word’s Out, “Language, Risk & Space in a Health Club Locker Room” pp. 109-124; Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal, “What’s Public About Sex?” pp. 171-193

Questions: How do public/private divides complicate and diffuse issues of queer sexuality?


Readings: Gordon Brent Ingram, Queer Space, “Marginality and the Landscapes of Erotic Alien(n)ations” pp. 27-52


Some things Sanford reported on that didn’t go into the syllabus (with the dates of the reports in parens):

(6/7) (movie) Superman Returns; (7/18) Wayne Brekhus, Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs (a typology of gay men); (7/28) (tv) Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman; (8/1) Superman, the Movie; (8/7) David M. Friedman, A Mind of Its Own (on the penis); (8/11) Michael S. Kimmel, The Gendered Society, “Gendered sexualities”; (8/15) Richard Goldstein, Attack Queers; (10/2) Lawrence M. Solan, “Private language, public laws”; (10/8) Bruce Bawer,A Place at the Table; (10/8) Susan Gal, “Language ideologies compared: Metaphors of public/private”; (11/12) Christopher N. Kendall, Gay Male Pornography; (11/26) Rich Cante & Angelo Restivo, “The cultural aesthetic specifities of all-male moving-image pornography”, in Linda Williams, Porn Studies; (12/4) Don Kulick, “Gay and lesbian language”

5 Responses to “Images of masculinity”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    Now that sounds like a fun course.


  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To irrationalpoint: The syllabus Bea put together was for a somewhat different course than the one I was proposing (the point of these internships is to benefit the student at least as much as the professor); my longer proposal had a lot more stuff on Gayland, on the construction of a fantasy sexual world for gay men, as much in images (including porn of all kinds) as in words.

    In any case, the course was canceled for lack of interest, though the one student who *really* wanted to take it was seriously disappointed. As of course was I: not only didn’t I get to do the course, I didn’t get paid for that quarter. (I’m just a hired hand.)

  3. irrationalpoint Says:

    That’s a shame.

  4. Flash Gordon over the years « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] it continues a thread on gay men and masculinity, begun in "Images of masculinity" (on this blog, here) and doesn't have material that would require it to go in my X blog, I'm posting it here. But it […]

  5. At the sign of the Z « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] searching for positive images of masculinity to aspire to, to compose an adult persona from … he looks to Westerns and war stories and to cops, gangsters, spies, adventure heroes (from Robin Hood and Zorro on to James Bond and Indiana Jones and beyond), and cartoon(ish) (super)heroes, from Superman and Batman through Wolverine. (link) […]

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