One of the significant contributions of feminist theory is the critical examination of masculinity and heterosexual oppression. For example, lesbian and radical feminists examine women's subordination to men in a heterosexual hierarchy and highlight the problem of male domination over women in challenging the institution of heterosexuality.1 From this perspective, male domination over women is the fundamental problem and the fundamental injustice within the system of heterosexuality, and a particular focus is placed on men as being core arbiters of this structure. Recent work in masculinity studies has criticized this essentialist thinking, arguing that masculinity takes on a multiplicity of forms and arises out of social interaction, not biology, and focuses on the role of marginalized groups in perpetuating oppression.2 This focus moves the discussion of masculinity and heterosexuality from unspoken and accepted assumptions to the social arena, where the gender order is fluid, and where masculinity is, according to R. W. Connell, “simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture.”3 Connell clarifies how masculinities are configurations of practice within gender relations, and that this structure includes large-scale institutions, economic relationships, and sexuality. This complexity must extend beyond men's bodies and biology, and must also incorporate a focus on objects, symbols, gestures, places, and spaces. For example, masculinity may evoke images of maleness, but masculinity can also be attributed to women. Feminist contributions examine this binary thinking to better capture the diversity and complexity of masculinity.
Feminists indicate that masculinity is a politically, socially, physically, and emotionally charged identity experience. Feminist scholarship conceptualizes masculine identity as being both constructed and subjective, a place where tension, negotiation, resistance, and reform can occur. Masculinity studies, being informed by feminist contributions, has reframed narratives of power, control, and hierarchies, and rightfully critiques images of marginalized populations, limiting stories, and gendered dynamics that continuously bind us within rigid structures.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel rightfully claims that masculinity studies is a significant outgrowth of feminist studies.4 Media scholar Steve Craig adds that men's studies is clearly the offspring of not only feminist theory, but also the social awareness brought on by the women's movement.5 As a result, men's studies is largely pro-feminist in its approach. The successes and subsequent backlashes of the women's movement ushered in a critical examination of masculinity and men's identities, and a reexamination of women's roles within families, workplaces, and society.6 This cultural shift in gendered expectations garnered the necessary attention from men who are in particular solidarity with feminist critiques of patriarchy and sexism. This radical revisioning represents the core of what guides men's studies.
Television programs provide useful context for imagining the intellectual contributions of men's studies. Take for example the dramatic transformation of white masculinity in the television series Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–13). The show's complex portrayal suggests that men are not merely experiencing a crisis of their masculinity in contemporary society, but that there is a problem with uniformly white, heteronormative representations of masculinity on TV, and that these representational complexities have always been present. Walter White, Breaking Bad's antihero, behaves in a “masculine” manner because the culture in which he lives constructs his identity through certain expectations of manly behavior (breadwinner, limited emotional connection, dominating a subordinate wife). He is a dispossessed character who engages in criminal behavior (drug dealing) to help with his family's struggling finances. His battle into darkness and struggle with cancer become what Edward Simon refers to as a “grotesque magnification of the American ethos of self-actualization.”7 White's initial portrayal of a disgruntled, working-class patriarch soon transforms, as his character does not perpetually uphold hegemonic masculinity. It serves as a necessary reminder that not every white man in the United States has equal access to the most prized forms of masculinity (political power, wealth, social esteem).
The kinds of gendered performances in Breaking Bad are central to the development of masculinity studies and highlight the contributions of feminist media studies to men's studies—specifically, analytical tools to better understand these narratives. For example, Judith Butler examines how the concept of a true or stable gender is illusory because gender identity is a social construction attained through repeated performances of specific, expected behaviors.8 She explores how acts, gestures, and desires are all produced and performed through gendered lenses and are often used to express fabricated and manufactured realities. In simpler terms, the actions that men take in relation to others, including aggressive gestures, controlling conversations, problematic interactions with women, et cetera, are not based on a static, unchanging masculine essence, but upon a role that is continually constructed by the individual's desires and the influences of a dominant culture.
Media has been a significant site where masculinity is performed in exaggerated ways; Walter White highlights this trend but he is only one example. The work by historian Joan W. Scott is useful to understand the mediated trend to make men's lives complicated. Gender, she notes, “provides a way to decode meaning and to understand the complex connections among various forms of human interactions.”9 The coding of masculinity establishes a gendered hierarchy of power, especially in the myriad ways that masculinity is depicted. But all men are not created equal within the masculine order. This becomes pronounced at the intersection of masculinity, class, and race and ethnicity. Take for example the delimiting imagery of Asian masculinity. In the United States, the image of the sexually deviant Asian man underwent a transformation soon after World War II, shifting from the cunning, devious enemy to the defeated and weak. The emasculating effects of the immigration laws in the 1800s that banned married Asians from entering the United States and prohibited Asian men from marrying white women were soon replicated in the media, with the image of the Asian man shifting from sexual predator to someone devoid of any sexuality whatsoever.10 The evil Fu Manchu character who exemplified the Yellow Peril evolved into images of Bruce Lee and Charlie Chan.11 Yen Le Espiritu describes the images of Asian American men “as alternatively inferior, threatening, or praiseworthy.”12 Racist images collapsed gender and sexuality so that Asian American men appeared to be both hypermasculine and effeminate. But both images continue to symbolize the advent of the “domesticated” Asian man whose lack of sexual prowess and threat aided the ease of assimilation in the United States (in addition to other concerns surrounding labor exploitation).13 And this imagery continues to shift based on global economics and political situations between the United States and Asian countries.
The media has played a pivotal role in othering Black masculinity as well. From slave narratives, to minstrel performances during Jim Crow, to Black Power iterations during the civil rights movement, Black masculinity continues to evolve even as mediated representations continue to be regressive. The culturally bounded framing of Black masculinity within mainstream media can be categorized, according to Joshua K. Wright, into four major paradigms of (mis)representation: the resistant masculinity paradigm; the self-made masculinity paradigm; the Black rage paradigm; and the plantation patriarchy paradigm.14 Resistant masculinity is the first theme that has been popularized in the media. Scholars define it as an attempt by Black men to resist oppression and assert their masculinity in a society that sought to strip away any sense of manhood. Self-made masculinity discusses the standard of manhood situated in the new standard of individual achievement. Although Black men were excluded from being considered self-made men, a concept mostly associated with the privileges of white masculinity, many historical and contemporary Black men achieve despite impossible odds. However, the media has popularized greed, extreme materialism, and capitalism as core tenets of self-made men within Black media. Black rage is “a response to black suffering and failure, which is exacerbated by irresistible temptation to attribute African-American problems to a history of white racist oppression.”15 Historically and in contemporary media, Black men have been portrayed as innately violent beasts. Lastly, plantation patriarchy refers to the model of manhood demonstrated by white men on Southern plantations during slavery. As bell hooks reveals, plantation patriarchy is situated in white supremacy and white men's need to dominate anyone that they consider inferior.16 hooks also dubs this paradigm patriarchal masculinity.17 These paradigms continue the demarcation of Black masculinity as inferior, violent, and aggressive. Black masculinity studies rightfully suggests that these mediated representations are damaging and intended to sustain white masculine supremacy.18
Why has it taken so long to begin to critically examine masculinity? In their landmark study on female masculinities, Jack Halberstam argues that “masculinity … becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male middle-class body,” such that the study of male masculinity is not the best means to uncover the ideological constructions of masculinity.19 Moreover, Halberstam argues, the normalization of maleness has been an important technique by which normative—straight white male—masculinity has evaded analysis and allowed a narrow range of men to define masculinity. Halberstam also points to the racial and sexual work accomplished by the fiction of hetero-masculinity's assumed norm. Racialized and sexualized “others” are delegitimated and denaturalized through performative work: women “talk with their hands”; Black men exhibit “exaggerated” or “hyper” masculinity; gay men are “drama queens,” and so on.20 A means to challenge this ideology is analyzing nonnormative masculine performances enacted by those performing and residing at marginalized masculinity. Research on genderqueer identities presents particular strengths, along with intellectual and practical power, as it is a category encompassing gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. This resistance to normative identities does not necessary signify homosexual, transsexual, or even heterosexual identities, but rather identities that resist normative constructions. Feminist media studies provides the innovative ability to situate contemporary moments within historical discourse to account for and make retrospective comparisons with current developments. We have a plethora of mediated examples portraying men within hegemonic masculinity and femininity in compliance with hegemonic masculinity. Feminist media studies encourages a broadened understanding of these portrayals to complicate men's lives.