The real thing

What is “masculinity”?1 In the five years I’ve been researching female masculinity, this is the question I’ve been asked most often. If masculinity is not a social or cultural or even political manifestation of the male body, what is it instead? I won’t pretend to know the answer, but I do have a few thoughts on why masculinity shouldn’t be reduced to the male body and its manifestations. I would also venture to say that, although masculinity is difficult to define, we as a society easily recognize it and spend a lot of time and money to support and reinforce the familiar, convincing versions of masculinity for us; many such “heroic masculinities” are formed precisely through the subordination of alternative masculinities. In this book, I argue that female masculinity is not only not an imitation of masculinity, but on the contrary, it allows us to see the way in which masculinity is constructed as masculinity. In other words, female masculinity is portrayed as an unseemly shriek of dominant masculinity precisely so that male masculinity can appear as if it were real. But what we understand by heroic masculinity is produced with the help and mediation of both male and female bodies.

This chapter is not just a conventional theoretical introduction to the basics of masculinity research without men; here I also review the myths and fables about masculinity that assert masculinity is inseparable from the male body. As a preliminary attempt to rethink masculinity, I will offer an overview of images of alternative masculinities in fiction and film, as well as examples from personal experiences. It will be mostly about women and queer people: these examples illustrate how crucial it is to be able to see alternative masculinities, and where and when they appear. In this introduction, I will show how academic masculinity studies and the culture at large blatantly ignore female masculinity in different ways. In my opinion, this widespread neglect of female masculinity is due to ideological factors: it supports a system of social structures designed to glue masculinity with men, power and dominance. I believe that a consistent analysis of female masculinity will be a crucial intervention in gender studies, cultural studies, and queer studies, as well as in mainstream discussions around gender in general.

Masculinity in this society is invariably associated with power, ownership and privilege; it is often symbolically associated with state power and unequal distribution of wealth. Outwardly it extends into the patriarchy, inwardly into the family; masculinity represents the inheritance of power, the result of the trade in women, and the promise of social privilege. To be sure, many other demarcations network the terrain of masculinity, narrowing its power, depending on the interweaving of the markers of class, race, sexuality, and gender. But when the so-called “dominant masculinity” appears in the naturalized combination of the male body and power, it is useless to examine men for the sake of studying the constructions of masculinity. In this book, I will show that masculinity becomes palpable as masculinity precisely when it goes beyond the body of a middle-class white male. Hypermasculinity is typically illustrated by Black bodies (male and female), Latino and Latina3 bodies, and working-class bodies, while lack of masculinity is most commonly seen in Asian or upper-class bodies. These stereotypical constructions of variant masculinity point to the process by which masculinity becomes dominant precisely when it is represented in the body of a white, middle-class male. And at the same time, the authors of many modern works, who seek to study the construction of the power of white masculinity, focus all their research attention not on white male bodies, but on the study of what forms and manifestations white male dominance takes. Numerous studies of the work of Elvis, white male youth, white male feminism, men and marriage, domesticated4 masculinity accumulate information about a subject that is extremely obvious and already well-worn. In my research, male whiteness, and white male masculinity, as well as the study of his power, will not be the main focus; instead, male masculinity will appear here as hermeneutic, as a counterexample to the form of masculinity that I find more interesting in light of gender interactions and more productive in terms of promoting social change. In this book, I do study Elvis, but only in the performance of the impersonator Elvis Herselvis (Elvis Herselvis)5; I look for the political contours of male privileges not in men, but in the lives of European aristocratic cross-dressers of the 1920s; I track male-female differences by comparing not men and women, but butch-lesbians and FtM-transsexuals6; I consider male iconic images on the example of not cinematographic idols, but representations of butches in movies; ultimately, I show that the forms and images of modern masculinity are best exemplified by models of female masculinity.

A good start for a book about female masculinity might be an attempt to debunk the recognized male cinematic icon – Bond, James Bond. To illustrate the idea that modern masculinity is best represented by female masculinity, consider the James Bond action film, where male masculinity often appears as a faint reflection of a much more authentic and compelling alternative masculinity. For example, in the movie “Goldeneye” (“Goldeneye” 1995), Bond, as usual, fights with bad guys: with all kinds of communists, natsiks, traders and with one super-aggressive warrior character. Bond acts in his usual gallant and risky action hero manner, with his typical set of devices: a belt with a retractable cable, a ball-point bomb, a laser war watch, and more. Still, the film lacks something essential, namely convincing masculine power. The main character’s boss, the talkative butch M. in summer, calls Bond a dinosaur and sharply criticizes him for misogyny and sexism. Miss Moneypenny’s secretary accuses him of sexual harassment, a friend betrays him and calls him a fool, and the women don’t seem to fall under his spell: the bad suit and numerous sexual innuendos are as outdated and ineffective as the Bond devices themselves.

In this rather non-action film, masculinity is mostly artificial: as in many other action films, it has little to do with the biology of the male body and is more often marked by technical special effects. The most convincing masculinity in the film is demonstrated by M., and she achieves this by partially exposing the falsity of the Bond performance. It is M. who convinces us that sexism and misogyny are not inextricable components of masculinity, although from a historical perspective it is difficult and barely possible to separate masculinity from the oppression of women. The hero of an action-adventure should seem to exhibit the perfect form of normative masculinity, but instead we see exaggerated masculinity becoming more like a parody or debunking of the norm. Since masculinity as such is usually considered a natural gender, this action film, with its emphasis on artificial devices, actually undermines the hero’s heterosexuality, even as it enhances his masculinity. In the film “Golden Eye”, for example, Bond’s masculinity is attached not only to a completely unnatural form of male embodiment, but also to gay masculinity. In the scene where Bond comes to get his supernova devices, they are handed to him and enthusiastically demonstrated by an eloquently mannered nerd scientist with the not-so-coincidental name of Agent Q7. Agent Q is a great example of the interpenetration of queer and dominant modes: it is Q who is the agent, he is the queer subject who articulates how dominant heterosexual masculinity appears. Agent Q’s gay masculinity and M.’s female masculinity highlight the complete dependence of dominant masculinity on minority masculinities.

If Bond’s toys are taken away, he will have nothing to support his performance of masculinity. Without a shiny suit, a half-smile, a lighter that transforms into a laser gun, our James remains a hero without adventures and adventures. In the Bond films, white male masculinity – let’s call it “epic masculinity” – is entirely dependent on an underground network of secret government groups, well-funded scientists, the military, and countless good-looking baddies and good beauties; and, of course, it depends on an instantly recognizable “bad boy”. The image of the “bad boy” is a typical genre component of narratives about epic masculinity: let’s recall at least “Paradise Lost” with its eschatological distinction between God and the devil; Catana, one might say, was the epitome of a bad boy. A bad boy’s masculinity does not at all prevent him from having access to male privilege, on the contrary, bad boys may very well come off as winners, they usually just die faster. Now there’s even a Bad Boy clothing line that uses bad boy styling, and it shows how quickly challenge turns into mainstream consumption when it comes to white men. Another brand that indulges the consumer potential of male rebellion is No Fear sportswear. The brand’s ads feature men skydiving, surfing, and racing, where they demonstrate masculinity by performing deadly stunts for leisure fun in clothing with the “Fearless” logo. To make sure how domesticated this brand really is, it is enough to imagine what “without fear” can mean for women? That means being able to shoot a firearm, training or learning martial arts, but it would hardly mean sky diving. So it is clear that Fearless is a luxury, and in no way should it be equated with any form of social rebellion.

There is also a long literary and cinematic history of the glorification of male defiance. Here, James Stewart, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire are examples of good guys, and James Dean, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro represent images of bad boys, but in practice it is quite difficult to distinguish between these two groups. In the 1950s, for example, the image of a bad boy contained the traits of a white working-class man rebelling against middle-class society and certain forms of domestication; yet today’s rebel without an ideal8 is tomorrow’s investment banker, and male rebellion often ends in a choice for respectability, as the rewards for conformity quickly outweigh the rewards for social defiance. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, what’s the point of being a rebellious boy if you’re going to grow up to be a grown man anyway? Of course, once the rebel ceases to be a middle-class white male (an individualized individual or even a generalized member of a boy gang) and becomes a class or racial rebel, an entirely different threat arises.


And what if the boy’s rebellion turns out to be not the testosterone-filled libation of a hooligan, but the mockery of a boy? Tomboyishness is usually called an extended childhood period of female masculinity. If we trust the general understanding of children’s behavior, tomboyishness is quite typical for girls and does not cause parental concern. Since similar cases of cross-gender behavior by boys always cause a hysterical reaction, it may seem that society tolerates female gender deviance more than male gender deviance (Halberstam 1999). Not sure if this can be considered a sign of tolerance and if the reaction to children’s gender behavior at least says something about the limits of what is allowed in adult male and female gender behavior. Tomboyishness is usually associated with a “natural” desire to have more freedom and be mobile like boys. Very often it is perceived as a manifestation of independence and purposefulness, so tomboyishness can even be encouraged to the extent that it is harmoniously combined with a constant awareness of oneself as a girl. However, tomboyishness is punished as soon as it becomes a sign of excessive identification with a man (using a boy’s name or a complete rejection of girls’ clothes) and threatens not to end, but to continue into adolescence9. Adolescent tomboyishness is a problem and undergoes the harshest forms of correction. Let’s put it this way, tomboyishness is tolerated until the child reaches puberty; and as soon as puberty arrives, girls immediately fall under the pressure of gender conformity. The demand for gender conformity applies to all girls, not just boys, and from this point it is harder to argue that male femininity poses a greater threat to social or family stability than female masculinity. Female adolescence is a turning point in growing up as a girl in a male-centric society. If for boys coming of age is marked by a rite of passage (which Western literature glorified in the form of an educational novel) and the acquisition of a certain, albeit ineffective, social power, then for girls coming of age is a lesson in obedience, punishment and oppression. It is during adolescence that the tomboyish inclinations of millions of girls are transformed into socially acceptable forms of femininity.

It is surprising that at least some of the teenagers grow up to be masculine women. The formation of masculinity in young women is partly facilitated by increasingly visible and recognized lesbian communities. But, as even a cursory review of popular films shows, the image of a tomboy is tolerated only in the context of a narrative about the flowering of femininity; in these narratives, boyishness is opposed to adulthood per se, but not to adult femininity. In Carson McCullers novel The Bride, as well as in the film based on this classic tomboyish narrative, tomboy Frankie Adams engages in a losing battle with femininity, and the text portrays womanhood, or femininity, as a crisis of representation that offers no the heroine of a satisfactory choice for her.

On the eve of her brother’s wedding, Frankie declares that she feels like an outsider, not included in the symbolic wedding party, not included in any of the categories by which she could be described. McCullers writes: “This story took place one crazy green summer when Frankie was twelve. At that time, she had not participated in anything for a long time. She did not belong to any society, was not involved in anything at all. Restless, Frankie wandered around other people’s doors, and she was afraid” (McCullers 1946, 1). McCullers shows Frankie at the dawn of adolescence (“when Frankie was twelve”), in a period of prolonged “non-involvement”: “Didn’t belong to any society, wasn’t involved in anything at all.” Although childhood can generally be considered a period of “non-belonging”, the tomboyish girl who stands on the threshold of womanhood, the status of “non-involvement” makes a target for various types of social violence and condemnation. With the end of a carefree childhood, Frankie Adams became a kid who “wandered around other people’s doors, and she was scared.”