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4.4 Gender Criticism: Masculinity Studies

Just as feminist literary criticism and gender and sexuality criticism consider how identity shapes us, so does masculinity studiesA fairly recent movement, influenced by feminism and gender criticism, that examines how men are defined by their maleness. grow out of these fields and consider how men are often forced into what theorist Jackson Katz calls a “man boxTerm used by Jackson Katz to demonstrate how men are controlled by society’s view of masculinity, thus forcing men to perform the stereotypes of what it means to be a man.,” or the very narrow box that defines what a “real man” is.Jackson Katz, Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, directed by Sut Jhally (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1999), DVD. If you are a sports fan, you will see many “man-box” commercials during a football game, for example, and often the humorous ads are those when a man doesn’t act like a “man.” Compare the following two commercials:

The first commercial while objectifying women, also suggests that the core audience for the commercial is men, who naturally objectify women. The second commercial focuses on the importance of men to “man-up”—to act like a man.

In his recent book, Dude, You’re a Fag (2012), C. J. Pascoe looks at masculinity and sexuality in high school and examines all the ways that gay baiting (using gayness as a way to taunt someone about nongender- and nonsexuality-conforming behavior) is used to shore up young men’s sense of self.C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). For example, consider the difference of a girl being called a tomboy or a boy being called a sissy. Which is worse? Typically for a young man to be called a sissy is a kind of social death. Why? When a man is compared to someone who is perceived to have less power, in this instance a woman, then he is considered less manly and, therefore, by implication he must be gay, which creates pressure for men to conform to one idea of maleness. Media representations constantly assert what is proper masculinity, and it typically involves being a violent, hypersexual thug who is never dominated but only dominates.

How does this construction of masculinity affect maleness in literature? Consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926).Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner, 2003). The book is narrated by Jake Barnes and concerns the exploits of the Lost Generation after World War I. Jake loves the femme fatale Brett Ashley, but he has been wounded in the war and is impotent. He’s not fully a man. While much of Hemingway’s work is challenged by feminists for being antiwoman, or misogynistThe hatred of men for women. Masculinity studies often points out how this supposed misogyny is created by accepted definitions of how men should act., particularly in the depiction of Brett Ashley, a masculinity studies reading of the text depicts the unbearable struggle Jake encounters because he can’t fulfill the societal expectations of being a man, which emphasize sexual potency. By reading Jake through a masculinity studies lens, we now have more compassion for Jake, and we may have a more complex view of Hemingway as a writer as we see him grappling with characters who can’t fit neatly into the man box.

We can see more clearly through the lens of masculinity studies how gender norms are not exclusive to women but also affect men, which in turn affects the scope of a text.

Your Process

  1. Read Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” ( Browning, “Porphyria’s Lover,”,
  2. List the attributes of the man and the woman in lines 1–30.
  3. Do those attributes for the male narrator change after line 30?
  4. How might a reader’s attitude evolve about the narrator using masculinity studies? Do you have more sympathy for the narrator, even though he is a murderer? Is he driven insane by his desire to fulfill his masculinity, whether as he sees himself, as Porphyria sees him, or as society might see him?