Working-Class White Men and “Masculinity as Homophobia”

Working-Class White Men and “Masculinity as Homophobia”

(Image from Scott Olsen/Getty)

(This post draws heavily from the Article Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and the Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity by Michael S. Kimmel.)

We have recently experienced a backlash from white, working-class men against the progressive advances spearheaded by the Obama Administrations and movements like third-wave feminism and the fight for LGBTQ rights. This is not the first time we have seen such a reaction from those so invested in the idea of masculinity; in the documentary “Tough Guise 2,” Jackson Katz addresses how the popularity of westerns correlated with women’s fight for the vote, and how the recent flood of shows about “tough guy” jobs like ice-road trucking and logging correlate with the declining manufacturing sector in the United States. Today, however, the stakes are much higher than just what type of of media is being bankrolled; this backlash has saddled our nation with a dangerous new presidential administration that exemplifies many of the properties of hegemonic masculinity:  wealth, power, disrespect for women, etc. In order to better fight against the four years we are already facing and prevent those from increasing into eight (or more), we would benefit by better understanding where this working-class white men’s backlash comes from.

In discussions online regarding this topic, the following unattributed quote is often thrown around as an explanation:

“When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression.”

Fundamentally, I think this statement is correct, but I think there are ideas in Masculinity as Homophobia that can help us gather a more nuanced understanding of our current political environment.

One important point Kimmel makes is that even though men, and white men in particular, hold immense power in society as a group, each individual man does not feel powerful. This is in part due to his ignorance regarding the strong privilege he carries, but Kimmel asserts that the bulk of this feeling comes from the fact that constructed expectations of masculinity are only attainable for a select few men. The vast majority of men do not think they hold the highest power and privilege of manhood because they do not measure up to all the expectations required of masculinity–the standards are so high that no one can. If a man does not embody Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Donald Trump, or whatever figure of hegemonic masculinity you choose, they do not feel like they have the power that comes with masculinity and manhood.

Working-class men in particular are still struggling in our economy. As more and more “manly” manufacturing jobs move overseas, this is one of the demographics struggling to get by. While their struggles may be different than other groups, they are still felt as acutely as those of less privileged individuals. When progressives present these working-class men with examples of their own societal powers and privileges, the response is often incredulity and disbelief; after all, if they were just laid off because their factory is moving to China, they will not feel very powerful or privileged at all. In fact, they may feel particularly emasculated because they can no longer provide for their families, the role they are “supposed to” embody according to hegemonic masculinity. In this case, the distinction Kimmel makes between individual power and group power is very important; while individuals may feel like they have little power, and perhaps do not have buckets of power due to their particular situation, the group that they belong to still has significant power. The backlash of working-class white men that has resulted in the Trump administration is a direct result of these men not acknowledging their own privilege, but, to some extent, also the fact that their individual needs and concerns were not being acknowledged or addressed by the left. Power exists at different levels, and in a society as individualistic as the United States, we need to address individual powers as well as group ones.

On the Steubenville Rape Case

On the Steubenville Rape Case

(This post is a reflection on the New York Times article Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City published on December 16, 2012.)

Steubenville reads like a playbook of how rape culture is perpetuated in our society. We see the roles of alcohol, hypermasculinity, and close-knit male groups coming together to lead to this crime. There was little deterrence in Steubenville, where alcohol was freely given to minors, and school administrators were party to the cover up of these crimes. We also see interesting intersections of class, age, race, and gender that complicate the situation. If we could only choose a handful of specific cases to analyze in depth, this one would make my short list.

In this case one of the big questions is why didn’t someone step in to stop the rape? Plenty of people witnessed the way these young men were treating this incapacitated young woman, and yet no one intervened. Here we see the reluctance of people to step in when they see a potential sexual assault or rape in development, a strong example of the bystander effect. Most people keep to themselves, perhaps thinking that it’s not their business or feeling too scared to help. I think combatting this “instinct of inaction” will be an important step in preventing future assaults, especially in settings that already have so many risk factors (e.g. alcohol, hypermasculinity). I know during my SARV experience freshman year at MSU we talked about ways to intervene if we suspect foul-play. This is one of the few parts of that training I still think about because it was something of a call to action. I do try to watch out for people, especially other young women, when I’m out at a bar or at a party where these risk factors are more obvious. I’ll watch interactions that seem out of place until I am convinced that both parties seem okay. I’ve never actually stepped in to actually ask if people were okay, however. It’s scary to do, and I do not feel like my advances would be appreciated; people could react very strongly at the (however tempered) accusation that they might be assaulters. If it were socially easier to “check-in,” however, we might be able to make it more difficult for rapists to get away with taking advantage of their targets.

Another interesting point in the Steubenville case in the relationship between technology, social media, and sexual assault. Much of this case was reliant upon pictures taken and distributed by members of the football team. Tweets were used to help piece together what happened and when. Blogs (like this one!) played a major role in complicating the case and how it was perceived by the larger community. The law has a lot of work to do to catch up with this technology in a number of ways that relate directly to sexuality. There are currently very few laws on the books that deal with revenge porn, for example, where one party (most commonly a man) posts risque photos of of his partner or ex-partner (usually a woman) as a form of revenge. We can all (hopefully) agree that is practice is appalling, but the law still needs to catch up and develop appropriate deterrence to this behavior. An additional example is child pornography laws, where minors are prosecuted for distributing naked photos of themselves or other minors. While minors who distribute photos of other minors should definitely be punished in some way (as we see in this case) child pornography laws don’t necessarily feel like the right way to do this, because the distributor is also a minor. I personally find these intersections of technology and sexuality very interesting, and am fascinated to see how the law (something that moves very slowly) is going to evolve to accommodate technology (something that moves very quickly).