Monday, April 1, 2013

Talking Points 8--Kimmel & Mahler: Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence (Argument)

In "Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence: Random School Shootings, 1982-2001" Michael Kimmel and Matthew Mahler argue that masculinity, and feelings of inferiority as it pertains to masculinity, may be the major contributing factor to acts of mass violence, particularly in schools. They argue that masculinity, more specifically White masculinity, may be intrinsically* linked with acts of violence. Throughout the article Kimmel and Mahler note how homophobia is often fueling the ways in which boys tease other boys as a way to call their masculinity in to question. The authors also address ways in which young men can resist certain factors that might crack others and cause them to turn to violent means as payback.

Above I note that the authors argue that White masculinity may be intrinsically linked to violence. That is my perception of their argument and the article, not necessarily something that they explicitly stated. In fact, one could argue that they believe the opposite to be true, that violence in not inherent in White masculinity. On page 1440 they conclude their introduction stating that "in [their] view, these boys are not psychopatholoical deviants but rather overconformists to a particular normative construction of masculinity, a construction that defines violence as a legitimate response to a perceived humiliation". This particular line can be read in a variety of ways, but I choose to read it as I've expressed above. The issue I have with this statement of theirs is the same issue that I have with a few other points found in this article: they don't go far enough. I don't think they level a harsh enough critique. These boys, these shooters, aren't overconformists. They are simply conformists who needed to prove that they were in fact still "men" and chose the grandest ways of doing so according to the doctrine of masculinity that they abide by. It is because of this fact that I feel comfortable stating that White masculinity is intrinsically violent, for it is not the same as me saying that men  are intrinsically violent but rather that the idea of what it is to be a man in our society has its foundation on violence and domination, particularly as it pertains to the White patriarch.

The other aspect of this article where I feel they do not go far enough or explore deep enough is their usage of homophobia. I don't disagree with their argument that homophobia plays a large role in the ways in which men have their masculinity put into question. I would argue, however, that as it pertains to the situations in this article it would have been better if they acknowledged that this particular form of homophobia has its roots in patriarchy and have very little to do with actual hatred and fear of the gay community. They come so very close but they drop the ball several times. For example, when they snarkily quoted Eminem and his idea of the word "faggot", they should have followed that quotation with a deeper exploration of the fact that this homophobic slur has little to do with being "Gay" and everything to do with being an inferior man. For the homophobia that many of these bullied boys face has very little to do with a hatred and fear of gay men, as stated above, and a lot to do with a hatred and intense fear of being an imperfect/failed man. And, if we go back to the 13th century church, women are imperfect men (Albert Magnus: Woman is an imperfect man and possesses, compared to him, a defective and deficient nature). There exists, possibly particularly amongst adolescent men but I doubt it is confined to that age group, a deep fear in many men of being "woman-like". The concept of masculinity that men in our society have been socialized to believe is one that has its foundation in hating women at the core. It is thought, mostly subconsciously, that to be a woman (when we're talking simply of patriarchy and not involving other factors such as race. If we were to explore race here then this concept would become far more complex) is the worst thing to be. In C.J. Pascoes' "'Dude, Youre a Fag': Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse" Pascoe states that "the relationship between adolescent masculinity and sexuality is embedded in the specter of the faggot. Faggots represent a penetrated masculinity in which 'to be penetrated is to abdicate power'...Penetrated men symbolize a masculinity devoid of power, which, in its contradiction, threatens both psychic and social chaos. It is precisely this specter of penetrated masculinity that functions as a regulatory mechanism of gender for contemporary American adolescent boys". She goes on to argue that "'Homophobia' is too facile a term with which to describe the deployment of "fag" as an epithet. By calling the use of the word "fag" homopobia--and letting the argument stop with that point--...obscures the gendered nature of the sexualized insults" (124).

This is not to say that "fag" or other forms of homophobic taunts and behavior are never just that, homophobic. But, in these instances, so often these slurs have very little to do with the sexual identity of the boys that are at the receiving end and everything to do with throwing that boy's masculinity into question. As Pascoe found in her research, and the quote that Kimmel and Mahler used of Eminem's supports, to be gay does not necessarily throw an individual's manhood into crisis (or, rather, does not necessarily throw an individual's manhood into crisis in the eyes of others. For that's what this is all about in the end, the perception of one's masculinity. These boys have to constantly prove their manhood to others, very little is actually about the way one feels about themselves). Pascoe states that "according to this group of boys, gay is a legitimate, if marginalized  social identity. If a man is gay, there may be a chance he could be considered masculine by other men". But, to be gay or "a fag" in the pejorative way used by these young men, does not mean to sleep with other men but rather to be a failed man.

I think that Kimmel and Mahler's article could only have benefited form a deeper exploration of the complexities of the "homophobia" that they cite as a factor in violent White masculinity. Although I think that this exploration would only have strengthened their argument, I also appreciate the strength and content of this piece as well as their section regarding resistance and acts of resilience. And I do acknowledge that I am  doing a disservice to anyone reading this by not fully exploring my own usage of "White masculinity" instead of simply "Masculinity". Part of my reasoning in doing this is because Kimmel and Mahler themselves are concerned with White masculinity, not masculinity across racial axes and so to simply use "masculinity" without the qualifier would be to skew and misrepresent their argument.

Questions for the class:
Did you find yourself disagreeing with points brought up in this article? Was it difficult for you to read this analysis of masculinity and keep your mind on the macro level or did you find that there were moments where you said to yourself "Well, my guy friends are nothing like this, so maybe there's not that much validity here?". I'm always interested to see the ways in which conversations/readings that are about structural issues end up getting derailed by a focus on the individual, and it's interesting to see the ways in which people struggle to maintain a macro-lens. It's a constant struggle, particularly when studying structural inequalities, but it is something that we would all do best to remember, that individuals may seem to be exceptional but they do not invalidate arguments about systematic/structural problems.


  1. My response to your question is we need more students to understand how real subjects react to questions about masculinity. Only with scientific or empirical studies we can understand it.

  2. I found myself disagreeing in my mind and comparing the article to the guys in my life. I agree with Elif that we need to educate more students and raise them to understand the ideas of masculinity and how to combat it.