“Performing Masculinity, Hypermasculinity, Patriarchy, and Other Popular Academic Tropes” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

About a week or so ago, I was pissed about what I refer to as dispassionate “Ken doll,” “good progressive men” knock offs who speak in hush tones, end sentences in questions (because someone told them that declarative statements were patriarchal), and overly cater to feminists. I was inspired to write this because I attended the 2016 American Men’s Studies Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in April 2016 and was taken aback to find a Men’s Studies organization primarily run by feminists. To be clear, I don’t oppose women’s leadership. As part of a generation of men raised by single-mothers, taking direction from women does not bother me—although I would say a primarily male leadership of the National Women’s Studies Association would rightly confuse everyonebut I do question a feminist one for a Men’s Studies organization regardless of gender (that’d be like an-all Christian leadership cadre for an Islamic organization). The burgeoning field of Men’s Studies, and more so Black Masculinities Studies, should have the freedom from feminist ideology to theorize about what Men’s Studies should value, what its issues should be, and which concerns it should have outside of men’s historical obligation with protecting and providing for others.

In one session, the resident feminists were so concerned about the possible influx of Men’s Rights activists joining the organization; they sought protective measures against it. Hmm… This to me was problematic. For feminists in a Men’s Studies organization to keep out men who want to advocate for men because they don’t prioritize advocating for women—which somehow is reinterpreted to mean they seek to oppress women—is highly suspect (this assumption is one of my main problems with a feminist leadership of a Men’s Studies organization)… In other words, they seem to assess the organization’s value based on how well they can control men’s discourses and keep it in service to feminism. More to the point, feminism has been made synonymous with women in popular understanding, as if women do not have a range of approaches and ideologies each worthy of reflection such as womanism, Africana womanism, Black womanism, etc. Thus, when men challenge feminism it is considered a challenge to all women rather than an inquiry about one ideological school of thought about supporting women. This unilateralism leads to two inevitable critiques: you’re either a sexist patriarch or a misogynist who hates all women. It is inconceivable for neither to be true, where you advocate for men beyond women’s conceptualizations of them while questioning the universalist application of feminism to all things “gendered,” yet still support that women be treated as human beings and not be exploited or dehumanized socially, personally, or institutionally. 

Another interesting thing about the conference was how many of the men present seemed to embody a sort of “generic masculinity” that was considered safe and palatable to both whiteness and feminism. Here were some of my more immediate thoughts at the time,

“Smh. When did someone start photocopying the same dude? Now, every conference I’ve gone to in the last decade has the same guy: soft-spoken, non-committal (even about his own arguments), hyper-catering to the feminists in the room, timid, highly-manicured, uber tight suits, clean-shaven, anti-quantitative, intersectionalist, etc. Uughh. It’s like code for “scholar” or something. They’re like “Ken” dolls that’re mass-produced in every skin shade and racial group.

And why the fuck does everyone make statements in the form of fucking questions? When did this shit become code for “progressive” and “tolerant?” And when the fuck did unilateral consensus become the marker of  intelligence? Why we gotta agree on everything in order to be considered progressive? And when did “confrontational” and “hyper-masculine” become the same damned thing?

I started playing a game with myself about whether I could anticipate the concepts, arguments, and types of stories they would tell during presentations. Yeah. I’m winning. Shit. Where’re the real damn brothers at!?”

Later at the same event,

“Shit. A feminist just said the conference atmosphere was TOO “oppressive” and “misrepresentative” of the website’s description of AMSA. In other words, she said there was too much masculinity. But actually, there hasn’t been a reflection on masculinity beyond ‘hypermasculinity.’ There’s no other frickin’ subject…as if there’s nothing else about men to discuss but the threat men sometimes pose to women. This type of stereotypical approach to masculinity stymie’s discourse, theory, and imagination.

Look. These gender ideas are not empty concepts. Black males are dying over this shit and we can’t even get to the discussion of it because people are too concerned with performing “acceptability” (token) intellectualism in a manner too afraid to ask critical questions about masculinity that may sideline prioritizing women’s perspectives in a quest to find one’s own way.

I also noticed there’s a lack of personal agency among the men. In fact, I noticed that the only people that spoke with authority were women. Why is that? What is it about this progressivist academic culture that suggests that men should be hardly audible when they speak in order for them to be considered “acceptable?” This…culture sickens me. Every damned lecture is about contrasting hypermasculinity…and masculinity in and of itself seems to be an inherent “evil” that needs a feminist corrective. SMDH. This is tediously repetitive…

Fuck it. Had to walk out. Two dudes started debating about  who’s the most sensitive to women…”

I was a bit dismayed because I thought, if this is the state of Men’s Studies, than what exactly am I fighting for? However, about a week later I saw this,

This brother in the video demonstrates the opposite of what I’m critiquing. These are the brothers I’m looking for. My work is in helping Black men find their “inner-unchecked-Black-masculinity-in-service-to-community” is my work…and although I haven’t read his work to say whether I agree with his specific approach or not, I LOVE his energy. Bring that truth no-chaser with masculine energy and don’t apologize for shit.

Put differently, we’ve been told that to be progressive, sacrificial, and caring is to emulate the Sacred Feminine, and that to embrace masculinity is inherently patriarchal, but that’s only if you don’t know that Sacred Masculinity was never about patriarchal oppression. Rather, it is masculine energy’s expression of love in its own style, unapologetic about its own terms; its focus on the need to protect family and community, while speaking truth regardless of convention. Masculine energy grows by challenge, not by consensus, and unfettered masculine intensity is not always domineering, it is also the warrior ethos that men embody when they step into the full expression of themselves.

As such, the conference might’ve entertained what this issue means for men on college campuses, Student Suspended for Rape Because He Didn’t Stop Friends from Slapping Girl’s Butt.” Such scholars at AMSA might be able to raise questions about whether or not a male student should be suspended for such a thing, and discuss a more updated response. However, when wedded to feminism, such discussions are not allowed to stray beyond feminist’s interests, and limits critiques to male chauvinism while ignoring the fact that male victimization and male innocence exist—and that the woman herself said he was innocent! If left unquestioned, the conclusion is that AMSA is a political vehicle to further ensure ideological feminism’s reach—regardless of what males may be experiencing.

mean-black-woman

Or another issue overlooked by AMSA about female aggression in relationships entitled, “Women Can Be ‘Intimate Terrorists’ as Study Reveals They Can Be More Controlling and Aggressive.” The author proposes that despite convention, women can be emotionally, psychologically, and physically violent with intimate male partners, often more so than men. 

“Researchers questioned 1,104 young men and women about physical aggression and controlling behaviour involving partners and friends.

Study leader Dr Elizabeth Bates, from the University of Cumbria, said: “Previous studies have sought to explain male violence towards women as arising from patriarchal values, which motivate men to seek to control women’s behaviour, using violence if necessary.

“This study found that women demonstrated a desire to control their partners and were more likely to use physical aggression than men. This suggests that IPV may not be motivated by patriarchal values and needs to be studied within the context of other forms of aggression, which has potential implications for interventions.”

How can an organization that concedes to feminism engage in a conversation about female violence when the dominant paradigmatic response is to assume women’s behavior is only in response to patriarchal violence, be it physical or ideological? I am not suggesting AMSA engage in questions that solely demonized women, I am suggesting they question how and if patriarchy works the ways feminists have assumed, and articulate male experiences from a different epistemological standpoint. 

The terms used were developed

“In the 1990s a US sociologist from the University of Michigan, Professor Michael P. Johnson, coined the term “intimate terrorism” to define an extreme form of controlling relationship behaviour involving threats, intimidation and violence.

Prof. Johnson found that intimate terrorists were almost always men, a view that has generally become widely accepted.

But the new research, based on anonymous questionnaire answers, found that women were equally likely to display such behaviour.”

It is not to say that feminists cannot be objective by any means (such a thing depends on the person), but to argue that if we assume certain ideological positions apriori, then what do we tend to do with new information that contrasts our assumptions? If honorable scholars, we use it to question our assumptions. However, more often we ignore our uncomfortable findings. 

A clearer example of feminism’s influence would be my conversation with a young gay Black man who presented a poster at the AMSA on HIV/AIDS infection rates by race and gender. Trained as a Black feminist, he presented on the importance of centering Black female infection rates. After people walked away, I asked him if he was clear about the rates of Black gay men and HIV/AIDS and he said he was not. I opened my computer and presented him with the following pre-2010 estimates of new HIV infections for “MSM” (men having sex with men), heterosexuals, and “IDUs” (injection drug users).

2010 Estimates of HIV Infection by Race and Gender

2014 HIV Diagnoses by Race & Gender

The two graphs above are estimates of new infection rates, and they highlight the increase of rates on infection for Black males who sleep with other Black males, while recognizing a decrease in Black heterosexual  women’s rates (arguably due to their higher education rates). However, if we shift our gaze to prisons, we can see that the Black male rates-of-death continue to outweigh all other demographics (despite that the rates have dropped since 2009).

AIDS Related Deaths in State Prisons, 2008-2010

What is important to note is that the percentage of the public that identifies as gay or lesbian (below) is relatively low…1.8% for men and 1.5% for women (of course that overlooks those that have sex with the same gender and yet do not identify as gay or lesbian).

CDC Rates of Homosexuality by sex and age group 2013

Race Distribution w Sex & Gender for African AmericansThat being said, the rates of Black gay (and MSM) men who have contracted HIV/AIDS is EXTREMELY high, especially considering that they represent an almost infinitesimal percentage of society. For them to represent such a large-scale percentage of HIV/AIDS cases, you’d think the young Black gay man at AMSA would have known this…especially as a Gender Studies major and a senior in undergrad about to graduate. I should not have been the first to introduce this to him. This should be commonly taught information for those in Gender Studies, who should be taught a balanced program in gender.In other words, the goal of my work is at least three-fold: 1) to balance gender studies by advocating for the inclusion of Black males as gender subjects worthy of study (especially by Black men themselves), 2) to use both quantitative and qualitative data to reinforce the extent to which ignoring Black males as subjects of inquiry in Gender Studies has caused even greater harm to Black males, and 3) to dispel myths about Black males initiated by groups with ulterior motives, motives that require the use of Black male experiences, but not for the benefit of Black males themselves.

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7 thoughts on ““Performing Masculinity, Hypermasculinity, Patriarchy, and Other Popular Academic Tropes” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. I appreciate your perspective, and thank you for introducing me to Dr. Emdin’s work as well. Although I’m a psychologist, my first career was as an English teacher in Atlanta. I agree with the community engagement and active participation in the real/non-academic lives of students to increase their overall achievement and success. I also study Black sexuality, and heterosexual Black men have been a focus of mine. I approach it from a womanist perspective, which requires a love ethic to both understand and challenge masculinity. That is, because I love Black men, my love is caring, compassionate, and challenging simultaneously. There are some aspects to masculinity that are toxic to brothers, especially when they embrace this hegemonic White male ideal of masculinity and try to apply it in their personal lives. There are some aspects to masculinity that are strengths, valuable and even divine, that we have to continue to cultivate. I specifically look at the way masculinity, heterosexuality, and Blackness intersect to impact sexual health, but in education, economic advancement, and any other marker, there has historically been a centering of Black men’s issues and perspectives before that of Black women. Do you think there should be a shift to Black women now, temporarily, before we try to balance it? Or, do you think we should seek that balance now? Or, is there another option you’d propose?

    1. Hello Candice. I enjoyed your comments. I also appreciate what I believe to be a sincere love for Black community. However, to respond. First, I think we have a sort of bifurcated focus on our academic take on Black gender in our intellectual community. We hyper-focus on toxic masculinity while ignoring organically progressive masculinities all around us. This is the result of a focus on masculinity from a primarily feminist standpoint. A Black masculinist focus might raise other possibilities. (Isn’t this what feminists did when tired of a male gaze of women as normative in popular media?) From a Black Masculinist standpoint, even hip-hop is a white man’s imagination (gaze) of black maleness. True, early hip-hop was an escape for Black males to be masculine on their own terms, but it was far more community-driven than credited for. Soon, White-owned corporations took over and routinely chose teenage Black males with no education to represent Black maleness, and this is used as evidence that Black males are unilaterally hypermasculine.

      For immature males, hypermasculinity can be difficult to navigate, especially when even feminist activist/scholars crave hypermasculinity behind closed doors (I say this from both personal experience and repeated discussions with other males). With that in mind, where is the incentive to avoid it when it is rewarded in society? But why is hypermasculinity the only performed gender worthy of critique? Is performed femininity any better? Women, for example, perform a hyper-victimized femininity that stems from a White feminine ideal when convenient (the accompanying counterpart to Western hypermasculinity), yet our focus on hypermasculinity prevents us from looking at other performed identities that are problematic to Black life.

      Black women were never considered women by Western standards, so they’re not empathized for when victimized…yet Black Feminism still performs a feminine victimization model to articulate its narrative. Why is this acceptable, yet people forget that Black men, too, were not considered men by social standards? And although both were historically excluded from the social and civil benefits of being “men” and “women” in society, Black men are accused of emulating Western hypermasculine standards (despite there not being any empirical evidence produced to confirm this assumption), but Black women are absolved of accepting the benefits of a victimized feminism (welfare, government support, etc.) that often require the staunch absence of Black men from families.

      I appreciate your balanced approach to Black males. I also am careful to limit my critiques to problematic forms of feminism, but I see Black Masculinism as an accompaniment to Womanism(s).

      In regard to focusing on Black male issues, statistically, the focus had merit, as Black male issues (from education, to life expectancy, to suicide, to murder rates, to rape, to health, ad infinitum) generally far exceed other demographics—including Black women. However, you’d be surprised at how few people realize this (see my point on Black gay males and HIV/AIDS). Yet what’s interesting is that too often, Black feminists blame Black men for taking up too much attention, but Black men have never controlled the mechanisms that govern which issues are considered most pertinent (whether we talk about early slave narratives or current black discourses). White society does, and always has. They institutionally mediate our voices (i.e. Melissa Harris-Perry) from journals to TV. Yet after years of gender studies courses, all we’ve learned is to center Black women, even when the data does not bear out a need to. More to the point, I grew up during the rise of the Black Feminist era (at least the last 35 years). I grew up consuming narratives that centered women, while watching most Black women transition into the middle-class. The irony is as Black women wait to be “centered,” from the vantage point of those who find their lives in question just for leaving home (and remain mostly either working-class or underclass), I’m not sure you haven’t already been. Sisters are the most educated demographic in the country, with an unprecedented percentage of new businesses created, and are more represented in leadership positions than TV admits, much of which having to do with degrees of access to opportunity Black women insist they don’t have. (Sisters have even created protest movements around Black male deaths while centering themselves thematically and organizationally). Yet I haven’t found evidence of an era where Black men benefited materially without their sisters…

      To answer your final question, I propose Black Male Studies for balance because there isn’t one. Nor has there been one (early academic focuses on Black male historical figures aside, as they don’t deal with the inner mechanics of gender and masculinity). I think the balance can only happen when we’ve grasped both sets of experiences, accepted how similar yet different they are, and looked at the material realities that undergird our rhetoric to assess just what type of balance we need to achieve.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to respond. Your vantage point on hip hop is spot on. I’ve been thinking of this more since I was talking with my partner about aging out of hip hop soon. Not quite yet, but soon. But one point I hadn’t considered is Black women’s endorsement of White feminine ideals from any standpoint other than beauty. When you say we haven’t historically been considered women, I get that from a social standpoint. But, from a familial standpoint, especially among middle class Black families, there has been a requirement of Black femininity to look and act as close to White femininity as possible. And that social class status had some degree of protection through the Black men who had access to some degree of privilege and power. So, Black women of a certain class were women. But across class, Black women have been victimized. I don’t think it is a performance. I think it’s an authentic response to violence in the way Emdin describes violence. Black men have also been victims, but their response to said victimization looks different. The thing I hear Black feminists asking for, when there is a call to be centered, is simply accountability from Black men like…”Yes, we have hurt you. We take ownership of that, even though it was an outcome of our own victimization. We’re working to heal us and you.” My hope is that Black women would respond to that in kind, with an acknowledgement of the way we’ve hurt Black men and understand their hurts. Some collective healing is in order to achieve the balance, and it is interdependent. My work is to understand the psychology of that, through love, intimacy, relationships, and sex. Then I have to do something about it.

  3. OK…”aging out of Hip-Hop?” Hilarious. LMAO. I laughed too hard on that one… I feel you.

    On another note, let me be clear, when I say Black women weren’t women, I don’t mean from the vantage point of the Black community…I just mean from the standpoint of the larger society. Black men definitely saw Black women as women, and more to the point, OUR women–across class. But White society didn’t see middle-class Black women as women either, and in many ways they still don’t. Enlightenment era notions of African animality still under-gird perceptions of blackness.

    When you speak about Black men needing to apologize, please tell me what Black men are apologizing for? What time period? What geographical area were these crimes committed? What data are you using that suggests Black men have “hurt” their women beyond the media productions (films, books, TV shows, qualitative feminist academic research, etc.) mitigated by White corporatism? Please understand, I agree that collective healing has to happen and that it can only be achieved through interdependent efforts, but we also have to discern between what is fact and what is fiction, and Black men have been fictitiously demonized for generations. So much so that images of brutes, monsters, and “misters” (a la The Color Purple) have become normalized ideas of Black masculinity over everyday Black men who demonstrate love to their families daily. And when we look at empirical data, Black men have not done damage to anyone anywhere near what they are accused of (for example, studies show that Black men are more involved with their kids than any other racial group despite nigh-universal stereotypes that they’re deadbeat dads). Even in terms of intimate partner abuse (bi-directional intimate partner violence), Black men and women are almost at equal rates (despite that Black men under-report more so than women), but if you listen to media, we’ve been cast as rapists and abusers since slavery.

    In other words, Black men have not abused their women. Individual Black men may have, but confusing individual stories with macro-social accusations against all Black men are gestures that have mislead our community and engendered unnecessary intra-racial conflict. I agree about balance, but to me that includes getting at the truth of our experiences so we know what we’re actually talking about, and just who has been influencing our perceptions of each other.

    1. I do find it interesting (and well-done). I own a copy of The Rational Male but haven’t cracked it open yet. I agree with a lot on this page but noticed some historical, social, and symbolic differences between Black men and the White men whose history this author incorporates; we don’t share the same lineage. So, we could masculinized capitalism and feminize socialism because a Black folk haven’t been massively exploited by capitalism and thus need an alternative. In addition, part of our problem is that our women have been advancing into the middle class on the political coat-tails of White women based on a narrative of male elitism and patriarchy that Black males have never had. Most of society accepts this narrative as truth because it’s White women’s narrative and thus must be univeral, but isn’t, and even many Black men accept it as true.

      I also agree with the author’s desire to construct a vocabulary for men’s approaches to gender (that ‘Female Imperative’ concept is right on the money).

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. I understand your contention with the lack of analysis as far as racial differences. However, I think that the racial differences are the result of our population being the “canary in the coal mine” so to speak. The primary difference is that black americans (and others) were forced by a government acting on behalf of a larger euro-american population. Now, that euro-american population is under the gun of the larger corporation/governments and they are using similar tactics/strategies they used on “minorities.” In light of this, it makes sense that a place like the “manosphere” would arise as more white american men face a different version of what black men faced. They face general neglect from the “system”, while black men face direct/indirect attacks being that we were never apart of the system.

    We were never apart of it due to Euro-American racism essentially being a means of their (male) population to expand its mating opportunities at the expense of a larger (therefore more threatening) populations. The native population is expanded via resource stealing and mate poaching (war and occupation). The feminization of black men is analogous to other mammals (the most recent being some famous lions) that mount other males to show dominance/rank.

    With respect to black women, I see their “progress” as typical in mammalian mating patterns, whenever a male takes over a space, he has access to the females. It makes sense that the females would be allowed because they are FEMALES and irregardless if mating actually happens, the innate biological motives are the same (same as why people have sex, they don’t always get pregnant,but the hindbrain motives are the same). I have noticed in my work (as my colleagues have) that gay black men move up the ranks faster and are invited to “private events/mixers” as are the women. It also makes sense that these women (many black feminist in particular) would paint black men as a net negative since their association with us (black men) would be seen as a COST of association (mating down/ mating with a “beta”) rather than a net benefit via association (i.e. the Scandal storyline). The net negative painting may not be overt (see Candices comments) but implied or assumed. This dynamic also subtly reinforces the social hierarchy, implying availability to all nonnative males who are in earshot since the “native” males are no good….

    Fundamentally, the females that CAN be absorbed, oftentimes choose to based on measuring options. This happens even if their survival is not dependent on it. Males in competitive environments are OBLIGATED to fight, while females try to pick the winners. Losers get the short end of each stick. Loser males try to fight harder (read:expected to), loser females try to change the rules regarding which females get first choice of winners. Loser males get no sympathy, not even from loser females.

    Ok I am rambling lol. I have read “The Rational Male” and MUCH of what the author talks about I was schooled to by my uncles, folks and grand-folks. Its amazing seeing how this transcends peoples backgrounds. The more economically depressed and ostracized they were, the less room they had for illusions. Ive read similar sentiments from Robert Beck and Donald Goines, particularly about human nature and the “feminine imperative.” The irony is that these writings by white males are coming out in the same sense that they are losing social power as white women are making gains past them, just as black men were held back while female company/presence was preferred by early white employers,sharecroppers,homemakers,etc.

    In light of this, I think our (black mens) misrepresentation on behalf of black feminist is really an arm of larger Euro-societies attempt to limit mate options (for black males) and optimize those options for non-blacks and the black women that can get next to them.

    The only solution is to build things on our own terms and use the results to create a legacy of resources and privilege for our offspring. By “our terms” I mean Men. The women can helped and many have but ultimately it will fall on us.

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