Man in a Box – The Traditional Definition of Masculinity

I’ve often used the Man in the Box activity, which I believe was created by Paul Kivel, to help participants in workshops illustrate the social expectations on men. Below is a video of this activity using the responses from my research participants and highlighting the role of misogyny and homophobia in policing the expectations of men and the intersections of other forms of oppression.

Traditional Hegemonic Definition of Masculinity (THDM) is a wordy way of describing the external expectations of men that society places on us. This definition is “traditional” in that it is rooted in long held cultural ways of defining what it means to be a man. It is “hegemonic” in that is places men above people of other genders AND some men above other men. It defines some men above other men in the ways it intersects with classism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of oppression. One of the ways racism works is trying to emasculate men of color for their skin color and culture. One of the ways classism works is by emasculating working class men for the status of their job, the cars they drive, and the clothes they wear. And so on.

Man in a Box

Homophobia, misogyny, racism, classism, ableism, antisemitism
Traditional Hegemonic Definition of Masculinity

This definition of masculinity is reinforced in many ways, but two primary was are through misogyny and homophobia. Misogyny is the hatred of women and homophobia is the hatred and gays and lesbians or those who label in that way. Now that sounds academic and complicated but two five year old boys can illustrate this for you on the playground. One five year old boy throws the ball and it doesn’t go very far. The other five year old boy yells, “Man you throw like a girl!” That is misogynistic because if being a girl weren’t bad it wouldn’t be an effective insult. The boy who was called a girl responds by yelling something homophobic at his friend. Now, it is likely that this five year old boy has no idea what that word means, let alone the history of hatred, violence, and aggression associated with that word. However, he knows that when he feels emasculated by misogyny, that responding with homophobia is a way that he can try and prop up his masculinity according to the traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity.

If that is what we know about masculinity at five years old, imagine how well we are trained to call each other “girl” and “gay” by the time we are 18 years old and in college. Imagine how we have to constantly escalate the violence and aggression in calling each other “girl” and “gay” in order for that to have an effect if we’ve been calling and been called that all of our conscious lives. This definition of masculinity is part of creating a patriarchal system that perpetuates, contributes to, and reinforces patriarchy. This is how the traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity oppresses people of other genders, marginalizes some men, and limits all men.

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