Hegemonic masculinity refers to traits that society ascribes to “real men.” Hegemonic masculinity comes in various forms and is constantly evolving as it is a representation of the way society feels male behavior should be. Traditionally, masculine traits include being powerful, sexual, dominant, and strong. Most of these traits are typically linked to the male body.
But what happens when the male body is out of the picture? Can you study masculinity without men? Some would argue that masculinity is, in fact, more transgressive when it is not exclusively tied to the male body. When exploring masculinity through females, it is clear that masculinity is not validated by maleness alone. The idea that female masculinity is merely an imitation of male masculinity or that masculinity is only valid when linked to maleness restricts social power and enforces male privilege in our society. When discussing the topic of female masculinity, it is necessary to discuss the relationship between masculinity and the human body. In today’s society, a person’s body often plays a significant role in determining how masculine they are. We have been conditioned to link masculinity almost exclusively with male bodies. Most times in popular culture, masculinity is portrayed through white, muscular, male bodies, making this type of body the cultural ideal for masculine figures. Our ideas about what makes a masculine body are heavily influenced by society’s expectations.
For instance, having a penis is often linked with notions of masculinity. Penises are often associated with being a “real man” by society’s standards and penis size is seen as indicative of how masculine someone is. The penis is commonly seen as a symbol of physical power and sexual dominance. This social construct and phallocentric view of masculinity make it difficult for female bodies, which are usually considered to be soft compared to the dominance linked with the male body, to be seen as masculine. It is also important to note that while male bodies can sometimes choose between masculine and feminine traits, female bodies are often unable to overcome their femininity. Besides just having a male body, there are other traits people may embody that may make society consider them to be more masculine. One trait that is linked to masculinity is an attraction to women. Although female bodies may lack what are considered to be traditionally masculine traits, many women assert their masculinity through social roles and their sexual identity.
The way we choose to label ourselves as well as our sexual identities many times affect the way we interact with each other. It is often times thought that lesbians are playing the role of a man through their sexuality and their appearance. In this case, masculinity then becomes nothing more than a social role.
Through their attraction to women, lesbians appropriate hegemonic masculinity while still remaining fully female. They fill the construct of the male role within a female body. This allows them to challenge the limited constructions of womanhood and access power traditionally only held by men. The notions of heterosexuality create an unequal distribution of power.
Heterosexuality exists to perpetuate male dominance. However, lesbians disrupt phallocentrism and challenge heterosexuality rather than replicate it. Lesbian identity, especially the lesbian butch identity, is commonly understood to be constructed following the lines of the male role in a relationship. This means that in order to signal their desire for other women, butch lesbians are expected to adopt a more masculine appearance and behavior. This can be demonstrated through butch lesbians changing things about their appearance, such as their style of dress of their hair style, in order to appear more masculine. They are also expected to pick up similar behaviors as men, such as maintaining a dominant position during sexual encounters with other women. This construction is created on the assumption that maleness inherently contains these traits. The role of the butch lesbian cannot be deemed an imitation of the role of the heterosexual male because they are challenging it, not replicating it.
Not only do butch women challenge the social constructs brought upon society by heterosexual roles, they also prove there are many different ways of being masculine, no matter what someone’s gender identity is. Gayle Rubin, in “Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries,” offers her viewpoint on the social role of the butch lesbian, writing, “There are many different ways to be masculine. Men get to express masculinity with numerous and diverse cultural codes, and there is no reason to assume that women are limited to a narrower choice of idioms. There are at least as many ways to be butch as there are ways for men to be masculine; actually, there are more ways to be butch, because when women appropriate masculine styles the element of travesty produces new significance and meaning. Butches adopt and transmute the many available codes of masculinity” (Rubin, 245).
Rubin argues that butch women are changing the meaning of masculinity and are challenging the boundaries of masculinity. Butch lesbians are creating new ways to be masculine without being connected to a male body. Often times when addressing issues of lesbian identity, there is a much larger focus on butch women than femme women. This is because butch lesbians visibly disrupt the dominant principles of gender with their supposed appropriation of masculinity. However, femme women are an important part in the construction of lesbian identity as well. The role of the femme lesbian is just as threatening to the social construction of heterosexuality as the role of the butch lesbian because it shows that a woman can still play the conventional female role while still signaling her desire for other women.
The femme lesbian shows that even with a traditionally feminine experience and a female body, a person can still embody traits typically seen as masculine.Butch and femme roles highlight the performative nature of masculinity. The identities of both butches and femmes are built on popular cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior. These roles tend to reinforce the inequality in power normative hetereosexuality creates, where one of the partners is strong and dominant and the other is weak and submissive.
However, butch and femme roles are not inherently sexist. Butch and femme role playing disrupt dominant conceptions of social roles proving that gender and masculinity itself are nothing but performative roles. Regardless of biological sex, anyone has the ability to be masculine through masculine codes and symbols. It has been argued that butch and femme roles are just replica of heteronormative relationships. Often times, heterosexual male masculinity is considered powerful and authentic in comparison to “fake” female masculinity. In “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Jack Halberstam argues that female masculinity is more than just a copy of male masculinity. Halberstam writes, “The term female masculinity stages several different kinds of interventions into contemporary gender theory and practice: first, it refuses the authentication of masculinity through maleness and femaleness alone, and it names a deliberately counterfeit masculinity that undermines the currency of maleness; second, it offers an alternative mode of masculinity that clearly detaches misogyny from maleness and social power from masculinity; third, female masculinity may be an embodied assault upon compulsory heterosexuality, and it offers one powerful model of desire, and what new social, sexual and political relations it can foster” (Halberstam, 345). Halberstam points out that when a female embodies any form of masculinity, it is considered fake or low quality.
This idea supports Halberstam’s theory that when masculinity is limited to maleness, it turn restricts social power. On this theory, Halberstam writes, “Female masculinity, I have argued in a book by the same name, disrupts contemporary cultural studies accounts of masculinity within which masculinity always boils down to the social, cultural and political effects of male embodiment and male privilege. Such accounts can only read masculinity as the powerful and active alternative to female passivity and as the expression therefore of white male subjectivities” (Halberstam, 130).
Halberstam suggests that normative masculinity is often linked with white, heterosexual, male qualities. When a woman embodies traditionally masculine traits, it is seen as inauthentic and threatening to male masculinity. Masculinity cannot be fully understood unless female masculinity is taken into account.
Assuming that male masculinity is the foundation for all masculinity perpetuates male privilege into society. All identities, including masculine identities, are constructed. Throughout history, dominant groups have had the power to construct their own identities and claim that they are “natural” rather than created. In this case, men have claimed that masculinity is only natural when it is linked to their own male bodies so they can have a position of power on society.