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.