Connell’s theory of “hegemonic masculinity” and its contribution to the “history of masculinities” (by Stephen Basdeo)

Connell’s theory of “hegemonic masculinity” and its contribution to the “history of masculinities” (by Stephen Basdeo)

The historian E. A. Rotundo, in his study American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (1993), remarked that, like all cultural inventions, manhood has a history (Rotundo, 1993, p.1). Indeed, while much of the research within the field of gender history is often perceived to be woman-centred, recently the subject of masculinity has begun to be addressed as a topic in its own right (Green and Troup, 1999, p.253). The word ‘masculinity’ is defined as ‘the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2013). With a particular reference to sexuality, and a review of some of the themes in the relevant literature, this essay discusses the reasons why historians should now be speaking in terms of the concept of masculinities.

The shift in gender history research from the history of masculinity to that of the history of masculinities is due largely to what Tosh has called ‘the fruitful enquiries of historians’ (Tosh, 2005, pp.14-15). Recent works regarding manliness have illustrated how the concept of masculinity has changed over time. Philip Carter, for instance, in Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800 (2001), has illustrated the way in which, for the majority of the eighteenth century, the concept of manliness was intertwined with exterior politeness and refinement (Carter, 2001, p.1). Manliness was in this early period a code of behavior to be practiced within the public sphere. Additionally, Matthew McCormack in The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (2005) explored the way in which, as the eighteenth century progressed into the nineteenth century, ‘exterior’ politeness was cast aside in favour of ‘inner’ manly simplicity (McCormack, 2005, p.207). Thus even a brief overview of some of the recent historiography in the history of manliness and gender has demonstrated that one form of masculinity can often give way to another form. It is, therefore, justified to speak of the history of masculinities.

It was the work of an Australian sociologist named R. W. Connell, however, that first provided the impetus for the new direction that research into the concept of masculinity and its history would take. In 1987 she published Gender and Power. In that work, she argued that there is no single, unchanging form of masculinity. There is in modern Western societies, rather, what is known as ‘hegemonic masculinity’. This, she said, was a culturally dominant form, or idealization of masculinity, which prevails over other forms. As Connell explained:

Hegemonic masculinity is constructed in relation to women and subordinated masculinities. These other masculinities need not be clearly defined – indeed, achieving hegemony may consist precisely in preventing alternatives gaining cultural recognition…confining them to ghettoes, to unconsciousness. The most important feature of contemporary hegemonic masculinity is that it is heterosexual, being closely connected with the institution of marriage; and a key form of subordinated masculinity is homosexual (Connell, 1987, p.61).

As Connell’s work implies, in a modern society, a man does not need to possess the qualities of the culturally dominant form of masculinity to be considered ‘manly’ or masculine. Homosexuality, as she shows, is simply a ‘subordinated’ form of masculinity, but a form of it nonetheless. This is despite the fact that, even in many modern Western societies, many people still regard homosexuality as the negation of masculinity (Connell, 1992, p.736). The only limitation to Connell’s theory is the emphasis which she places upon the role of mass media in sustaining hegemonic masculinity. This, Tosh says, limits the application of the theory prior to the 1880s. This is because it was only at that time, he says, that ‘the stage and the printed word began shaping gender identification (Tosh, 2005, p.44). Nevertheless, Connell’s thesis made it possible for historians to start studying the history of masculinities.

The period from around c.1790 until c.1850 was one in which, politically and economically, the middle classes gained power and influence in nineteenth-century society (James, 2006, p.232). As a result of the middle classes thinking of themselves as increasingly ‘respectable’, in their minds the notion of a familial and godly home life was elevated (Gatrell, 2006, pp.425-426). Tosh’s work entitled A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (1999) studied the changing dominant masculine ideal between 1830, the heyday of domesticity, until c.1880, at which time the “flight from domesticity” occurred. It was in the latter period that manliness became associated with service to the empire (Thompson, 2005, p.97). Just as Connell stated that hegemonic masculinity in modern Western societies was closely connected to heterosexuality and the institution of marriage, it was no different in the Victorian era. ‘The home’ states Tosh, ‘was central to masculinity’ and it was through marriage and independence that ‘the man attained full adult status as householder’ (Tosh, 1999, p.2). In fact, it was said by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), the author of the popular nineteenth-century book Self Help (1859) that, ‘a man’s real character…his manliness, is most surely displayed in the home’ (Tosh, 1991, p.44). Indeed, marriage and procreation during the Victorian period was the two defining pillars of Christian sexual morality (Oosterhuis, 2000, p.21).

Consequently, it was perceived by nineteenth-century contemporaries that ‘the complete transition to manhood depended on marriage’ (Tosh, 1999, p.108). Despite Tosh’s admission that the concept of hegemonic masculinity has a limited historical application prior to the emergence of mass media in the 1880s, the theory does have some currency here. After all, Victorian men found the idealization of domesticity, of ‘home, sweet home’, embedded within mid-Victorian visual and material culture. It was found in ‘silver-framed photographs, genre paintings of family scenes, mugs and pots exuding cheerful domesticity’ (Hoppen, 1998, p.316). In effect, Victorian males saw the domesticated, hegemonic masculine ideal perpetuated around them. Tosh further illustrates that, during the mid-Victorian period when domesticity was at its height, heterosexual sex was important to masculinity, being viewed as ‘a rite de passage to manhood’ (Tosh, 1999, p.108). In fact, ‘manliness always presumed a liberal endowment of sexual energy…There was a strong tradition at all levels of society that, in young men especially, the libido should be released in full relations with the other sex’ (Tosh, 1999, p.112). This presents a contrasting view to how sex during the Victorian period is normally viewed. The word ‘Victorian’ for instance, often signifies to modern readers and scholars alike, a ‘repressive sexual puritanism’ (Weeks, 1981, p.19). For the majority of the nineteenth century, therefore, the hegemonic masculine ideal was an image of the heterosexual, respectable and domesticated middle-class male. This, as Mosse (1996, p.79) says, stood for the image that Victorian society liked to have of itself – godly, moral, and respectable.

Mosse further states that the ideology attached to manliness at any one time becomes the standard by which all other forms of masculinity are measured (Mosse, 1996, p.56). It follows, then, that men who were perceived as not measuring up to this ideal were regarded as unmanly. This was especially true with regard to sexuality – just as Connell intimated that many people in today’s society regard homosexuality as a negation of masculinity. The history of Victorian sexuality in general has often been thought of as the preserve of popular, sensationalist histories. However, in recent years, argued Halperin, it has evolved to become ‘a respectable academic discipline’ (cited in Cocks, 2006, p.1212). Much of the academic scholarship concerning sexuality has been the result of the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). In his work The History of Sexuality (1978) he presented sexuality as a ‘conceptual, experiential, and institutional apparatus that modernity has built around the body and its erotic pleasures’ (Cocks, 2006, p.1211). In addition, Weeks states further that sexuality is ‘a peculiarly sensitive conductor of cultural influences, and hence of social, political and cultural divisions’ (Weeks, 1986, p.2). In particular, it was during the nineteenth century that sexuality became an ethical and moral debate (Ibid). Thus sexuality, and society’s attitudes towards it, has a history.

There has since Foucault emerged a fascinating body of literature dealing with gay history. It grew out of the public interest in the new gay “scene” of the 1970s (Weeks, 1991, p.5). Recently, Rictor Norton has written a lively and entertaining account of the eighteenth-century mollies in Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830 (1992). Research into the history of homosexuality has been further stimulated by the emergence of Queer Theory in the 1990s. This approach involves reading texts ‘against the grain’ in order to draw out their homosexual undercurrents, and past evidences of ‘difference’ and ‘deviance’ (Morgan, 2006, p.22). This is because, for much of history, there was not even a term by which to identify the homosexual. In fact the word ‘homosexual’ was only coined in 1869 (Searle, 2004, p.74). Foucault pointed out how, as the public discourse of ‘manliness’ was being emphasised in the nineteenth century, so the figure of the homosexual was also created (Foucault, 1978, p.43). Thus the influence of Foucault’s thinking has made scholars aware that, just as sexuality has a history, so too does homosexuality.

The cases which are usually focused upon for evidence of contemporary views toward the figure of the homosexual are usually the Vere Street scandals and the Oscar Wilde trial in the late-nineteenth century. Wilde was arrested in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’ under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (Edwards, 2004). What is interesting about Wilde’s case is that he was prosecuted as a homosexual. Previously, as in the eighteenth-century molly trials, it was the act, or ‘sin’ of sodomy that was tried and punished, not a person’s sexual orientation itself (Norton, 1992, p.107). As Foucault pointed out, the late nineteenth century saw the homosexual ‘become a personage, a past, a case study, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life’ (Foucault, 1978, p.43). As Searle states:

The turning point came with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which by criminalizing ‘gross indecency’ between males even in private, went a long way towards creating (or ‘constructing’) homosexuality as a clearly defined condition…previously sexual relationships between men had generally been explained as a consequence of a superfluity of male sexual energy, not as a distinctive pathological condition (Searle, 2004, p.74).

It should be noted, however, that not all scholars agree fully with Foucault and Searle. For instance, Trumbach has argued that by the eighteenth century there was indeed a definitive homosexual type, in the person of the molly (Carter, 2001, p.7). Whatever the case, in Victorian society, which thought of itself as respectable, the countertype of the hegemonic masculine ideal – the homosexual, which was becoming certainly more visible – must have been unsettling. As Brady illustrates, ‘the existence of sex and sexuality between men created a dilemma in a society that placed so much emphasis on the family and the responsibilities and the expectations of individual male heads of households’ (Brady, 2009, p.25). Yet as Connell says, homosexuality is simply a form of subordinated masculinity (Connell, 1987, p.61). If the definition of masculinity employed in the introduction is correct, that it is ‘the possession of qualities’ associated with being male, then one can be both homosexual and masculine simultaneously. The homosexual man during the Victorian period was still a man in the biological sense of the word. In fact, in terms of sexuality and sexual practices, many homosexuals in the nineteenth century often assumed older, socially acceptable forms of manliness. Oscar Wilde, for example, promoted himself as a type of Regency dandy (Searle, 2004, p.579). The dandy in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, had been a perfectly acceptable form of polite gentlemanliness until it gave way to ‘manliness’ in the Victorian period (Tosh, 2005, pp.85-86). The figure of the homosexual represented merely the countertype to the hegemonic masculine type, and it is clear that two masculinities – the (dominant) heterosexual and the (subordinated) homosexual – could exist simultaneously. Thus in the nineteenth century there did exist masculinities instead of one single form of masculinity.

In conclusion, from the evidence above, it is clear that there is no single, stable and unchanging form of masculinity. Thanks to Connell’s work on the concept of hegemonic masculinity and the recent works of gender historians who have built upon her work, it has been illustrated that masculinity is a changing concept. Ideologies of manliness only achieve cultural hegemony through the subordination of other forms of masculinity. The cases studied in the essay have shown how the culturally dominant form of heterosexual and ‘manly’ ideals in the nineteenth century had in subordination to them the countertype of homosexual masculinity. Perhaps realising that dominant forms of masculinity are subject to change, and exist in relation to subordinated forms of masculinity can help to account for the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ discussed by sociologists. For, as Beynon said, if masculinity is subject to change, and it exists alongside other forms of masculinity, then surely masculinity to a certain extent is always in crisis (Beynon, 2002, pp.89-93). Thus historians should now be speaking, as many of them do, in terms of the history of masculinities.


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