How Hegemonic Masculinity Informs Misogynoir: A Historical and Cultural Analysis of Gender Norms

Faith Mashevedze | Zimbabwe


Hegemony is fundamentally a position of domination obtained via relative consensus rather than regular force, even if it is supported by force. It has its roots in Gramsci's literature. The biggest mistake we often make as a society is to accept these ideas as natural and true without question.


I frequently hear women say, "I want a manly man," yet we seldom pause to consider what manliness, manhood, andmasculinity really mean. However, it is abundantly clear that a person is not inherently a man just simply because theywere born with male genitalia. "Masculinity must be proved, and no sooner is it proved than it is again questioned and must be proved again-constant, relentless, unachievable, and ultimately the quest for proof becomes so meaningless that ittakes on the characteristics of a sport," wrote American sociologist Michael Kimmel in his book "The Gender of Desire."


At the dawn of the 1980s, the notion of hegemonic masculinity emerged in the field of gender studies, attempting to explain the subjugation of women. ‘Hegemonic masculinity is described as a practice that rationalises men's dominating position in society and justifies the subjection of the general male population, women, and other marginalised forms of being a man (Jewkes et al., 2022).’


The concept of hegemonic masculinity, as articulated by Raewyn Connell, "serves as an analytical tool to identify those attitudes and actions among males that perpetuate gender inequality, involving both men's dominance over women and the supremacy of certain men over other men, particularly minority groups of men." The multiplicity of masculinities nevertheless reinforces the ideal performance of masculinity which "is both a personal and a community endeavour," masquerading as socio-cultural norms.

You see, we can never fully understand gender norms and the impact they have on our daily lives without understanding how the origins of hegemonic ideals of masculinity inform femininity. This is particularly important in shaping the feminine identities of generations of women of colour. This symbol of the masculine man [capitalism] is based on three male stereotypes from the 18th and 19th centuries: the Genteel Patriarch, the Heroic Artisan, and the Self-made Man.


'Masculinity' as Told by 18th and 19th Century Stereotypes


According to Kimmel's book Manhood in America: A Cultural History, there are three things that set apart the three manifestations of manliness:

  1. The Genteel Patriarch stood for the masculinity of nepotism, aristocracy, and wide spread slave and land ownership.

  2. The Heroic Artisan was the manhood of pride in one’s labour, democracy and solidarity with other working men. His value was primarily to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution.

  3. The Self-made Man stood for masculinity rooted in personal achievement, status, and wealth.

All of which pertain to methods of acquiring power and access to wealth. In some way or another, success in the competitive "Marketplace of Manhood" solidified one’s perceptions of their masculinity, as it was depicted in Kimmel's works as identity. As a result, hierarchical structures of power like patriarchy are solidified within society, which, in the words of Raewyn Connell, is indicative of "gender construction in practise," justifying the inequality of gender relations between men and women, between masculinity and femininity, and among masculinities. In Gender and Power, Connell identifies two important effects of imposed hegemony, which depend on the "relational" and "legitimation" of subordination, given the historical and social context.


“Hegemonic masculinity is always constructed about various subordinated masculinities as well as concerning women.”- she writes in Gender and Power.

Going back to the Genteel Patriarch, three archetypes emerged from his slave ownership at this time. These stereotypes stand in stark contrast to the subordinate forms of hegemonic femininity which will be explored later in this article. While the focus on hegemony in gender relations highlighted the attainment of hegemonic masculinity mostly via cultural ascendancy, non-hegemonic masculinities, such as a) complicit masculinities, b) deviant/subordinate masculinities, c) marginalised masculinities of diverse races or ethnicities, d) and ultimately, the sociopolitically disenfranchised protest/compensatory hypermasculinity,— The Mammy, Jezebel, & Sapphire dichotomy of stereotypes and hegemonic masculinity's role in defining gender norms serves as the pinnacle of misogynistic tactics and techniques. Thus influencing the distinctive cultural ascendancy weaponry more often recognised as misogynoir today.


The Emergence of Misogynoir


Simply said, in my perspective, the tropes associated with black women represent hegemony. The word "misogynoir,"which was first used by Moya Bailey in 2018, describes strong anti-black racism and sexism directed specifically at black women and, paradoxically, frequently used as a means to erase black women's femininity. Two gender conventions emerged during the time of slavery, the first of which is the Genteel Patriarch and the second is the Jezebel. The Jezebel isa representation of a black woman's excessively sexual, nearly animalistic portrayal of her sexual urges. She embodiedevery stereotype of promiscuity to the hilt, including that of the prostitute and harlot.


While the myth, and I emphasise the word myth here, of Africans being lewd predates slavery, theoversexualized, even predatory "bad black girl" is used to legitimise the exploitation of black women assexual property, robbing them of the innoncence of girlhood and their childhoods all together.

Subordinate masculinities, such as male slaves, seemed to have no right to be identified as masculine, always being called"boy!" signifying the dominance of whiteness as the measure of manhood, but I digress. In Jezebel and Mammy: Mythology of Female Slavery, she is the polar opposite of her white counterpart, the white woman, whose feminine traits fulfilled the Genteel Patriarch desire for control.


The Mammy, on the other hand, may be traced back to enslavement and the Jim Crow era. This archetype is the polar opposite of the predatory hypersexual Jezebel; she was an exceedingly devoted, loving, and caring lady who was equally superstitious/religious and hence only appropriate for domestic work. Her caricature was symbolised throughout time by an ageing, frequently obese dark-skinned woman whose physique bore little resemblance to the dominant eurocentricstandard of beauty and feminity- The hegemonic feminine.


Thus offering no sexual threat to the wealthy women she served as competition for the gaze of her male counterpart. She was deliberately portrayed as grotesque to desexualize or de-eroticise and denigrate the role of the child rearer and domestic help. This in turn serves as justification for economic inequality and informs continued systematic racial discrimination today. From 1877 through 1966, race-based socioeconomic weapons of structural violence constrained all people of colour. The reinforcement of this image compelled many women of colour to endure menial domestic labour.


Therefore, this implies that the ideas surrounding gender norms can only be described as either ascribing to whiteness or to whomever holds the economic systems of power. Additionally, this also explains pop-culture’s hyper-surveillance of masculinity and femininity alike failure to recognize these subordinate manifestation or non-hegemonic approaches to gender norms. That being said, it is important to note that Africans were feminine and masculine before these social constructions were imposed upon us. I suppose that is why Orwel said,


“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

Connecting Historical Male Stereotypes to Misogynoir and Current Gender Norms


That being said, whereas the Heroic Artisan lived alongside the mammy, the Self-made Man encountered the Sapphire. The Sapphire, who debuted on television in 1951, represents the angry, emasculating, domineering Black woman who is stripped of her innate femininity. She is depicted as considerably more masculine, competitive, and aggressive than the hegemonic man. Her adversary, however, is the marginalised masculine, as symbolised by the black male, whose flaws she demeans and belittles. While the concept of gender norms is typically understood in terms of feminine vs masculine, the notion of homogeneity ascribing to such standards needed the recognition of many masculinities, just as the Sapphire Demanded of the marginalised masculine.


The marginalised (black) male’s masculinity had never come into question before nor had it ever been required of him to show up as the protector and provider that the hegemonic man of the time ought to be. "It is the African American malethat represents the point of contention, in an ongoing verbal duel between Sapphire and the African American male ...(His) lack of integrity and use of cunning and trickery provides her with an opportunity to emasculate him through her use of verbal put-downs." Can you imagine having the world against you and your male counterparts further exploit your inherent vulnerability? The pain and emotional labor of the black woman remains unparalleled today and though there is a victim stereotype that supersedes the Sapphire, the root of her plight lies in absurd social constructs that often dowarrant rage, and a means to address the delusions we are often fed. Need I mention the delusions of homosocial enactment?


I am not calling for revolutions, not waging a war against these social norms. I am only asking that we all stop and rethink a few things. Firstly, the notion of what is deemed hegemonic or normative refers to systems of operation designed to uphold structures of power and reinforce the cultural ascendency of whoever holds the most capital. The aforementioned stereotypes mentioned are all misleading social constructs that reinforce structural racism. The sexual exploitation ofblack women during slavery the hegemonic masculine took on the guise of the victim-blaming strategy by scapegoatinghis victim and shaming the supposed uncontrolled sexual impulses as the flaw of Jezebel. Similarly, the desexualisation ofthe Mammy did not make her exempt from the white male gaze nor immune to exploitation. The rage of Sapphire equally serves to strip black women of their femininity while also emasculating black males thus crippling them and amplifying the lack of socio-economic freedom.


All the above are social constructs that legitimise unequal gender relations and the contrast offered by societal treatment of black women. I have no interest in blaming and lamenting this reality.


I only ask that we critically question what is defined as a gender norm? All social constructs require participation in one way or another and based on history…perhaps what we believe is feminine or masculine is indeed ascribed as proximity to whiteness.

When Moya Bailey invented the word misogynoir to describe the digital depiction of black women she was observing a silent revolution of sorts and a renaissance like no other, which was the black woman’s resistance to these disenfranchising concepts. The social sanctioning and surveillance we engage in often does not serve us. I have no interest in denying reality; I have no interest in walking around as though my skin is a burden unto myself; I have no interest in playing the blame game nor raging against the unfairness of it all. Didn’t Sojourner Truth say, “Aint I a woman?” Didn't Maya Angelo also say, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.” To be a woman housed in a body that is black is a radical existence in and of itself so the answer is in radical acts of self-reclamation and transformation, remembering,


“The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”- Audre Lorde

Faith is a passionate creative and an avid reader. She considers herself a mental health advocate and a transformational truth seeker. She is even more passionate about human capital development, psychology and personal development. Connect with her at faithmashevedze@gmail.com

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