Since I was first interested in masculinity, I’ve been interested in the situatedness of it. The thing about masculinity is, it’s a moving target. What “counts” as masculine is not something we can measure in any straightforward way. Masculinity’s flexible, it’s adaptable. When we say that people “have” it—that is, when we say that people are masculine—this is really best qualified by a follow-up question: Where? Where are they masculine? Gender is contextually contingent; it’s fluid. What “counts” as masculine shifts—sometimes subtly, sometimes substantially—from culture to culture, generation to generation, as we age, and from context to context. Studying the “saying and doing” of gender (as Martin puts it) sometimes disguises the fact that we often say and do gender a bit differently around different groups, in different settings, and depending on what kinds of cultural tools are around on which we can rely.
The example I most often discuss in classes is men’s locker rooms. We often think of the locker as a space in which men perform masculinity a bit differently than they do outside of this space. It’s often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal. And though I’ve never formally studied men’s locker room experiences, I’d imagine that it’s experienced as a safe space for some boys and young men more than others. Men’s locker rooms are also often cast as hallowed spaces—what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. What’s interesting about the “locker room phenomenon” to me is not only what goes on in there (though that’s interesting too), but that masculinity is understood to change shape behind those doors.
There are really two key questions when considering this issue: (1) What’s salient?—What kinds of performances, objects, knowledge, etc. “count” when considering masculinity?; and (2) Where?—Where do all of these different components of gender count? Sometimes we construct contexts within which the masculinities we might fancy ourselves as “having” will be highly valued (like club houses, man caves, bachelor pads, and more). But, possibly more often, we seek out social contexts within which our “gender capital” is afforded cultural status and esteem.
How people make decisions about how to “do” masculinity is best understood in context. We do masculinities a bit differently depending on where we are, who and what is around, and possibly just as important, who and what is not around.
James Messerschmidt‘s research on masculinity and violence deals centrally with this issue. He’s interested in why boys and men are violent, when and where they become violent, how violence works to produce masculinity. He coins the term “masculine resources” to get at some of this contextual dynamic. He defines masculine resources in this way:
Masculine resources are contextually available practices (e.g., bullying, fighting, engaging in sexuality, and acting like a “gentleman”) that can be drawn upon so that men and boys can demonstrate to others they are “manly.” Resources appropriate for masculine construction change situationally. Thus men use the resources at their disposal to communicate masculinity to others (here: 12)
The same set of practices, objects, ideals, politics, etc. don’t “work” in quite the same way in every context. Indeed, it’s an issue Messerschmidt has considered in the workplace as well. Figuring out how masculinities are communicated by critically analyzing the resources on which individuals rely for status and recognition can tell us a lot about gender and inequality in any context.
Lately I’ve been interested in this issue because man caves are chock full of “masculine resources.” But they’re not always resources I (the researcher) recognize as “masculine.” Part of what’s been so interesting about this research so far is collecting justifications of what qualifies as “masculine” and why. But, these justifications often only make sense within the context of the cave.