Trump and the Politics of Fluid Masculinities

by James W. Messerschmidt and Tristan Bridges
Originally posted at Democratic Socialists of America

In the 1950s, a collection of sociologists and psychologists (which included, among others, Theodor Adorno) wrote The Authoritarian Personality. They were attempting to theorize the type of personality — a particular psychology — that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Among other things, they suggested that the “authoritarian personality” was characterized by a normative belief in absolute obedience to their authority in addition to the practical enactment of that belief through direct and indirect marginalization and suppression of “subordinates.” While Adorno and his colleagues did not consider the gender of this personality, today gender scholars recognize authoritarianism as a particular form of masculinity, and current U.S. president Donald Trump might appear to be a prime illustration of a rigid and inflexible “authoritarian personality.”

Yet Trump’s masculinity avoids a direct comparison to this label precisely because of the fluidity he projects. Indeed, the “authoritarian personality” is overly fixed, immutable, and one dimensional as a psychoanalytical personality type. Sociologists understand identities as more flexible than this. Certain practices of Trump exemplify the fluctuations of masculinity that illustrate this distinction, and the transformations in his masculinity are highly contingent upon context. While this is a common political strategy, Trump’s shifts are important as they enable him to construct a “dominating masculinity” that perpetuates diverse forms of social inequality. Dominating masculinities are those that involve commanding and controlling interactions to exercise power and control over people and events.  These masculinities are most problematic when they also are hegemonic and work to legitimize unequal relations between women and men. Here are a few examples:

First, in his speeches and public statements prior to being elected, Trump bullied and subordinated “other” men by referring to them as “weak,” “low energy,” or as “losers,” or implying they are “inept” or a “wimp.” (“Othering” is a social process whereby certain people are viewed and/or treated as somehow fundamentally different and unequal.) For example, during several Republican presidential debates, Trump consistently labeled Marco Rubio as “little Marco,” described Jeb Bush as “low energy Jeb,” implied that John McCain was a “wimp” because he was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and suggested that contemporary military veterans battling PTSD are “inept” because they “can’t handle” the “horror” they observed in combat. In contrast, Trump consistently referred to himself as, for example, strong, a fighter, and as the embodiment of success. In each case, Trump ascribes culturally-defined “inferior” subordinate gender qualities to his opponents while imbuing himself with culturally defined “superior” masculine qualities. This pairing signifies an unequal relationship between masculinities—one both dominating and hegemonic (Trump) and one subordinate (the “other” men).

A second example of Trump’s fluid masculinity applies to the way he has depicted himself as the heroic masculine protector of all Americans. This compassion may appear, at first blush, at odds with the hegemonic masculinity just discussed. For example, in his Republican Convention speech Trump argued that he alone can lead the country back to safety by protecting the American people through the deportation of “dangerous” and “illegal” Mexican and Muslim immigrants and by “sealing the border.” In so doing, Trump implied that Americans are unable to defend themselves — a fact he used to justify his need to “join the political arena.” Trump stated: “I will liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism and lawlessness” by “restoring law and order” throughout the country — “I will fight for you, I will win for you.” Here Trump adopts a position as white masculine protector of Americans against men of color, instructing all US citizens to entrust their lives to him; in return, he offers safety. Trump depicts himself as aggressive, invulnerable, and able to protect while all remaining US citizens are depicted as dependent and uniquely vulnerable. Trump situates himself as analogous to the patriarchal masculine protector toward his wife and other members of the patriarchal household. But simultaneously, Trump presents himself as a compassionate, caring, and kind-hearted benevolent protector, and thereby constructs a hybrid hegemonic masculinity consisting of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Third, in the 2005 interaction between Trump and Billy Bush on the now infamous Access Hollywood tour bus, Trump presumes he is entitled to the bodies of women and (not surprisingly) admits committing sexual assault against women because, according to him, he has the right. He depicts women as collections of body parts and disregards their desires, needs, expressed preferences, and their consent. After the video was aired more women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Missed in discussions of this interaction is how that dialogue actually contradicts, and thus reveals, the myth of Trump’s protector hegemonic masculinity. The interaction on the bus demonstrates that Trump is not a “protector” at all; he is a “predator.”

Trump’s many masculinities represent a collection of contradictions. Trump’s heroic protector hegemonic masculinity should have been effectively unmasked, revealing a toxic predatory heteromasculinity. Discussions of this controversy, however, failed to articulate any sign of injury to his campaign because Trump was able to connect with a dominant discourse of masculinity often relied upon to explain all manner of men’s (mis)behavior — it was “locker room talk,” we were told. And the sad fact is, the news cycle moved on.

We argue that Trump has managed such contradictions by mobilizing, in certain contexts, what has elsewhere (and above) been identified as a “dominating masculinity(see here, here and here) — involving commanding and controlling specific interactions and exercising power and control over people and events. This dominating masculinity has thus far centered on six critical features:

  1. Trump operates in ways that cultivate domination over others he works with, in particular rewarding people based on their loyalty to him.
  2. Trump’s dominating masculinity serves the interests of corporations by cutting regulations, lowering corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and engaging in other neoliberal practices, such as attempting to strip away healthcare from 24 million people, defunding public schools, and making massive cuts to social programs that serve poor and working-class people, people of color, and the elderly.
  3. Trump has relied on his dominating masculinity to serve his particular needs as president, such as refusing to release his tax returns and ruling through a functioning kleptocracy (using the office to serve his family’s economic interests).
  4. This masculinity is exemplified through the formulation of a dominating militaristic foreign policy (for example, U.S. airstrikes of civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically under Trump; the MOAB bombing of Afghanistan; threats to North Korea) rather than engaging in serious forms of diplomacy. Trump has formed a global ultraconservative “axis of evil”— whose defining characteristics are kleptocracy and dominating masculinity — with the likes of Putin (Russia), el-Sisi (Egypt), Erdogan (Turkey), Salman (Saudi Arabia), Duterte (Philippines) among others.
  5. So too has this dominating masculinity had additional effects “at home” as Trump prioritizes domestically the repressive arm of the state through white supremacist policies such as rounding-up and deporting immigrants and refugees as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric and attempted Muslim ban.
  6. Trump’s dominating masculinity attempts to control public discourse through his constant tweets that are aimed at discrediting and subordinating those who disagree with his policies.

Trump’s masculinity is fluid, contradictory, situational, and it demonstrates the diverse and crisscrossing pillars of support that uphold inequalities worldwide. From different types of hegemonic masculinities, to a toxic predatory heteromasculinity, to his dominating masculinity, Trump’s chameleonic display is part of the contemporary landscape of gender, class, race, age and sexuality relations and inequalities. Trump does not construct a consistent form of masculinity. Rather, he oscillates — at least from the evidence we have available to us. And in each case, his oscillations attempt to overcome the specter of femininity — the fear of being the unmasculine man — through the construction of particularized masculinities.

It is through these varying practices that Trump’s masculinity is effective in bolstering specific forms and systems of inequality that have been targeted and publicly challenged in recent history. Durable forms of social inequality achieve resilience by becoming flexible. By virtue of their fluidity of expression and structure, they work to establish new pillars of ideological support, upholding social inequalities as “others” are challenged. As C. J. Pascoe has argued, a dominating masculinity is not unique to Trump or only his supporters; Trump’s opponents rely on it as well (see also sociologist Kristen Barber’s analysis of anti-Trump masculinity tactics).  And it is for these reasons that recognizing Trump’s fluidity of masculinity is more than mere academic observation; it is among the chief mechanisms through which contemporary forms of inequality — from the local to the global — are justified and persist today.

2016 GSS Update on the U.S. LGB Population 2.0

I’ve been following a couple different data sets that track the size of the LGB(T) population in the United States for a few years. There’s a good amount of evidence that all points in the same direction: those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and possibly transgender too are all on the rise. Just how large of an increase is subject to a bit of disagreement, but the larger trend is undeniable. Much of the reporting on this shift treats this as a fact that equally blankets the entirety of the U.S. population (or only deals superficially with the really interesting demographic questions concerning the specific groups within the population that account for this change).

In a previous post, I separated the L’s, G’s and B’s because I suspected that more of this shift was accounted for by bisexuals than is often discussed in any critical way (*the GSS does not presently have a question that allows us to separate anyone identifying as transgender or outside the gender binary). Between 2008 and 2016, the proportion of the population identifying as lesbian or gay went from 1.6% to 2.4%. During the same period, those identifying as bisexual jumped from 1.1% to 3.3%. It’s a big shift and it’s even bigger when you look at how pronounced it is among the groups who primarily account for this change: women, people of color, and young people.

The thing about sexual identities though, is that they’re just like other kinds of meaningful identities in that they intersect with other identities in ways that produce different sorts of meanings depending upon what kinds of configurations of identities they happen to be combined with (like age, race, and gender). For instance, as a sexual identity, bisexual is more common than both lesbian and gay combined. But, bisexuality is gendered. Among women, “bisexual” is a more common sexual identity than is “lesbian”; but among men, “gay” is a more common sexual identity than “bisexual”–though this has shifted a bit over the 8 years GSS has been asking questions about sexual orientation. And so too is bisexuality a racialized identity in that the above gendered trend is more true of white and black men than men of other races.

Consider this: between 2008 and 2016, among young people (18-34 years old), those identifying as lesbian or gay went from 2.7% to 3.0%, while those identifying as “bisexual” increased twofold, from 2.6% to 5.3%.  But, look at how this more general change among young people looks when we break it down by gender.
Picture1Looked at this way, bisexuality as a sexual identity has more than doubled in recent years. Among 18-34 year old women in 2016, the GSS found 8% identifying as bisexual.  You have to be careful with GSS data once you start parsing the data too much as the sample sizes decrease substantially once we start breaking things down by more than gender and age. But, just for fun, I wanted to look into how this trend looked when we examined it among different racial groups (GSS only has codes for white, black, and other).Picture1Here, you can see a couple things.  But one of the big stories I see is that “bisexual” identity appears to be particularly absent among Black men in the U.S. And, among young men identifying as a race other than Black or white, bisexuality is a much more common identity than is gay. It’s also true that the proportions of gay and bisexual men in each group appear to jump around year to year.  The general trend follows the larger pattern – toward more sexual minority identities.  But, it’s less straightforward than that when we actually look at the shift among a few specific racial groups within one gender.  Now, look at this trend among women.Picture1
Here, we clearly see the larger trend that “bisexual” appears to be a more common sexual identity than “lesbian.” But, look at Black women in 2016.  In 2016, just shy of one in five Black women between the ages of 18 and 34 identified as lesbian or bisexual (19%) in the GSS sample! And about two thirds of those women are identifying as bisexual (12.4%) rather than as lesbian (6.6%). Similarly, and mirroring the larger trend that “bisexual” is more common among women while “gay” is more popular among men, “lesbian” is a noticeably absent identity among women identifying as a race other than Black or white just as “gay” is less present among men identifying as a race other than Black or white.

Below is all that information in a single chart.  I felt it was a little less intuitive to read in this form. But this is the combined information from the two graphs preceding this if it’s helpful to see it in one chart.Picture1What these shifts mean is a larger question. But it’s one that will require an intersectional lens to interpret. And this matters because bisexuality is a less-discussed sexual identification–so much so that “bi erasure” is used to address the problem of challenging the legitimacy or even existence of this sexual identity. As a sexual identification in the U.S., however, “bisexual” is actually more common than “gay” and “lesbian” identifications combined.

And yet, whether bisexual identifying people will or do see themselves as part of a distinct sexual minority is more of an open question. All of this makes me feel that we need to consider more carefully whether we should be grouping bisexuals with lesbian women and gay men when reporting shifts in the LGB population. Whatever is done, we should care about bisexuality (particularly among women), because this is a sexual identification that is becoming much more common than is sometimes recognized.

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If you’re interested in these shifts, I recommend examining more than one single survey.  I also have a series of posts on Gallup’s survey tracking shifts in the U.S. LGBT population since 2012 (see here and here for my most recent posts).

Gender Gap in Name Popularity – 2016 Update

I initially posted on shifts in the gender gap in name popularity a little over a year ago.  In that post, I was interested in charting the proportion of babies born in the U.S. with a top 10 name since 1880.  Popular boys names have, throughout American history, always been more popular than popular girls names – almost twice as popular in 1880.  That popular names are less popular than they used to be is something accounted for by what Stanley Lieberson refers to as the “moderization theory” of name trends.  The idea is that as institutional pressures associated with names decline (like religion or naming practices associated with extended family for instance), we see a proliferation of more diverse names.  Simply put, popular names become a whole lot less popular.

But, it’s not just that popular names used to be more popular than they are today.  In 1880, boys and girls born were both very likely to be given a top 10 name.  But, boys were much more likely than girls to receive one. Indeed, in 1880 there was an 18% point gap between the proportions of girls given a top 10 name (22.98%) and the proportion of boys given a top 10 name (41.26%).

Name Popularity Gender Gap

I’ve been watching the gap since I first graphed it when 2014 were the most recent data available.  The 2016 name data were just recently released and the gap has continued to shrink.  Never since we’ve been measuring it have the top 10 most popular girl names accounted for a larger share of all girls born than the share accounted for among boys by the top 10 boy names.  But the gap is smaller today than it has ever been.  7.63% of boys born in the U.S. in 2016 were given a top 10 boy name and 7.62% of girls born in the U.S. in 2016 were given a top 10 girl name.  The gap has shrunk to 0.01%.  The lines have never crossed yet.  But 2017 might just be the year.

2016 GSS Update on the U.S. LGB Population

The 2016 General Social Survey was just recently publicly released. Lots of stories have already hit the news about Americans’ opinions about all manner of issues related to social inequality as the data were being collecting as the presidential race was getting organized.  As of 2008, the GSS started including a demographic question on sexual identity.  You can answer: “gay, lesbian, homosexual,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual or straight,” or “don’t know.”  Different surveys include this question in different ways, making comparisons across instruments difficult.  But, it is interesting to consider these trends alongside the recently released estimates from Gallup on the LGBT population (see HERE and HERE for summaries of Gallup’s population estimates).

The results that Gallup shared combined lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into a single figure, making it difficult to assess how much of any changes we saw between the two years of data collection (2012-2013 and 2015-2016) were due to shifts in the L’s, G’s, B’s, and/or T’s.  But, my suspicion was that bisexual identifying people accounted for a lot of this shift.  The GSS does not have a question currently that enables people to identify as transgender on the survey.  But, here, I’m examining shifts between those identifying as bisexual compared with those identifying as lesbian or gay by a number of different factors.

The data that Gallup shared showed that the LGBT population increased dramatically between 2012 and 2016, from 3.5% to 4.1% of the U.S. population (or an estimated 8.3 to 10.052 million people).  That’s a big change for a short period of time.  And the majority of that change could be accounted for by large increases among young people, women, the college-educated, people of color, and those who are not religious (you can see Gallup’s data graphed HERE if you’re interested).

Data from the General Social Survey, too, found an increase in the LGB population (again, transgender persons are not included here).  The GSS is a much smaller survey than Gallup.  So, it might not be surprising that they produced a smaller number.  Here, however, I’ve charted shifts in those identifying as lesbian and gay alongside those identifying as bisexual.  Bisexual identification increased at a much steeper rate.

GSS Total LGB

Some of the GSS results suggest that many of the trends suggested by the Gallup results are primarily explained by those identifying as “bisexual.”  For instance, Gallup showed a growing gender divide in LGBT identification between 2012 and 2016.  LGBT identification among women grew at a faster rate than among men.  But, looking at GSS data, that seems like it might be explained by bisexual identifying women.  In fact, in 2016, equal proportions of men identified as “gay” as women identifying as “lesbian” on the GSS survey–2.4%.

GSS LGB Gender

Similarly, Gallup showed a growing age gap in LGBT identification with Millennials dramatically above other age cohorts.  GSS data too show that age and LGB identification are related with young people more likely to self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  But, it is young bisexual people who account for the gap between the young and the old.

GSS LGB Age

The findings from GSS on the proportion of the LGB population of different racial and ethnic groups does not conform to Gallup’s finding.  White people are marginally less likely to identify as LGB than are Black people, the real finding from GSS is the small proportion of Other racial and ethnic groups identifying as lesbian or gay.  And while Whites and Other racial and ethnic groups are more likely to identify as bisexual than as lesbian or gay, that relationship between bisexual vs. lesbian or gay identity appear much less relevant among Black Americans in the GSS sample.

GSS LGB Race

Gallup also discovered that education became much less predictive of LGBT identification between 2012 and 2016.  The college+ educated had the smallest proportion of LGBT identifying people in Gallup’s 2012-2013 sample, but education levels converged in their 2015-2016 sample.  The GSS sample shows similar conversion by level of education, but, lesbian and gay identifying individuals with less than a high school education do not appear to follow the larger trend toward increasing numbers.

GSS LGB Education

While Gallup reported income levels and found that LGBT persons are largely concentrated among those earning less than $36,000 annually.  I charted LGB people in the GSS sample against their subjective class identification and discovered roughly similar findings (though, bisexuality among those identifying as upper-class took a nose dive in the 2016 sample).

GSS LGB Class

The Gallup report also reported data on where LGBT people in the U.S. are living, both at the state and region level.  And Gallup discovered, not particularly surprisingly, that smaller proportions of LGBT identifying people are found in regions known for being more politically conservative.  GSS region data cover larger areas, but also discovered a similar trend with larger proportions of LGB persons in the west and northeast U.S.  Though, the smaller proportions of LGB people in the south appears to be largely due to a lack of lesbian and gay identifying persons, as bisexual identifying people in the south are in much greater supply.

GSS LGB Region

Finally, I charted LGB identified persons in the GSS sample by political party.  The findings are not all that surprising. Democrats and independents are much more likely to identify as LGB than are Republicans.  And bisexual identifying people outnumber lesbian and gay identifying individuals in each political identification.  But, that trend appears exaggerated among Republicans.

GSS LGB Political ID

Why should we care?  Bisexuality is a less-discussed sexual identification. But, as a sexual identification, it remains more prevalent than gay and lesbian identifications combined in the U.S.  Whether bisexual identifying people see themselves as part of a distinct sexual minority or grouping is an interesting question.  Thus, we may not know what precisely the political utility of this growing population is in terms of organizing on behalf of the rights of sexual minorities.  For instance, whether it makes sense to group bisexuals with lesbian women and gay men when we report on demographic shifts in the LGB population is something that deserves more discussion and justification.

We should care about bisexuality, though, because that is a sexual identity that is seriously on the move.

#ThanksForTyping – Notes of Gratitude and the History of Women’s Anonymity in Knowledge Production

Originally posted at Sociological Images.

Knowledge production is a collective endeavor. Individuals get named as authors of studies and on the covers of books and journal articles. But little knowledge is produced in such a vacuum that it can actually be attributed to only those whose names are associated with the final product. Bruce Holsinger, a literary scholar at the University of Virginia, came up with an interesting way of calling attention to some of women’s invisible labor in this process–typing their husbands’ manuscripts.

Holsinger noted a collection of notes written by husbands to their wives thanking them for typing the entirety of their manuscripts (dissertations, books, articles, etc.), but not actually explicitly naming them in the acknowledgement. It started with five tweets and a hashtag: #ThanksForTyping.

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Typing a manuscript is a tremendous task – particularly when revisions require re-typing everything (typewriters, not computers). And, though they are thanked here, it’s a paltry bit of gratitude when you compare it with the task for which they are being acknowledged. They’re anonymous, their labor is invisible, but they are responsible for the transmitting men’s scholarship into words. Needless to say, the hashtag prompted a search that uncovered some of the worst offenders. The acknowledgements all share a few things in common: they are directed at wives, do not name them (though often name and thank others alongside), and they are thanked for this enormous task (and sometimes a collection of others along with it). Here are a few of the worst offenders:

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Indeed, typing was one of those tasks for which women were granted access to and in which women were offered formal training. Though, some of these are notes of gratitude to wives who have received education far beyond typing. And many of the acknowledgements above hint that more than mere transcription was often offered – these unnamed women were also offering ideas, playing critical roles in one of the most challenging elements of scientific inquiry and discovery – presenting just what has been discovered and why it matters.

One user on twitter suggested examining it in Google’s ngram tool to see how often “thanks to my wife who,” “thanks to my wife for” and the equivalents adding “husband” have appeared in books. The use of each phrase doesn’t mean the women were not named, but it follows what appears to be a standard practice in many of the examples above – the norm of thanking your wife for typing your work, but not naming her in the process.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 1.20.03 PM.png

Of course, these are only examples of anonymous women contributing to knowledge production through typing. Women’s contributions toward all manner of social, cultural, political, and economic life have been systemically erased, under-credited, or made anonymous. Each year Mother Jones shares a list of things invented by women for which men received credit (here’s last year’s list).

Knowledge requires work to be produced. Books don’t fall out of people’s heads ready-formed. And the organization of new ideas into written form is treated as a perfunctory task in many of the acknowledgements above–menial labor that people with “more important” things to do ought to avoid if they can. The anonymous notes of gratitude perform a kind of “work” for these authors beyond expressing thanks for an arduous task–these notes also help frame that work as less important than it often is.

Racial and Educational Segregation in the U.S.

Originally posted at Sociological Images.

Where you grow up is consequential. It plays a critical role in shaping who you are likely to become. Where you live affects your future earnings, how much education you’re likely to receive, how long you live, and much more.

Sociologists who study this are interested in the concentrated accumulations of specific types and qualities of capital (economic, cultural, social) found in abundance in certain locations, less in more, and virtually absent in some. And, as inequalities intersect with one another, marginalization tends to pile up. For instance, those areas of the U.S. that are disproportionately Black and Latino are also areas struggling economically (see Dustin A. Cable’s racial dot map of the U.S.). Similarly, those areas of the country with the least upward mobility are also areas with some of the highest proportions of households of people of color. And, perhaps not shockingly (although it should be), schools in these areas receive fewer resources and have lower outcomes for students.

How much education you receive is, in part, a result of where you grow up. Think about it: you’re be more likely to end up with at least a bachelor’s degree if you grow up in an area where almost everyone is at least college educated. It’s not a requirement, but it’s more likely. And, if you do and go on to live in a similar community and have children, your kids will benefit from you carrying on that cycle as well. Of course, this system of advantages works in reverse for communities with lower levels of educational attainment.

Recently, a geography professor, Kyle Walker, mapped educational attainment in the U.S. Inspired by Cable’s map of racial segregation, Walker visualizes educational inequality in the U.S. from a bird’s eye view. And when we compare Walker’s map of educational attainment to Cable’s map of racial segregation, you can see how inequalities tend to accumulate.

Below, I’ve displayed paired images of a selection of U.S. cities using both maps. In each image, the top map illustrates educational attainment and the bottom visualizes race.

  • On Walker’s map of educational attainment (top images in each pair), the colors indicate: less than high schoolhigh schoolsome collegebachelor’s degree, and graduate degree.
  • On Cable’s map of racial segregation (bottom images in each pair), the colors indicate: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Other Race/Native American/Multi-Racial

So, one way of comparing the images below is to look at how the blue areas compare on each map of the same region.  

Below, you can see San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose, California in the same frame using Walker’s map of educational attainment (top) over Cable’s racial dot map (bottom).See how people are segregated by educational attainment (top image) and race (bottom image) in Chicago, Illinois:
Los Angeles, California:
New York City:
Detroit, Michigan:
Houston, Texas:
Compare regions of the U.S. examining Walker’s map with Cable’s racial dot map, you can see how racial and educational inequality intersect. While I only visualized cities above for comparison on both maps, if you examine Walker’s map of educational attainment, two broad trends with respect to segregation by educational attainment are easily visible:

  • Urban/rural divide–people with bachelors and graduate degrees tend to be clustered in cities and metropolitan areas.
  • Racial and economic inequalities–within metropolitan areas, you can see educational achievement segregation that both reflects and reinforces racial and economic segregation within the area (this is what you see above).

And, as research has shown, the levels of parents’ educational attainment within an area impacts the educational performances of the children living in that area as well. That’s how social reproduction happens. Sociologists are interested in how inequalities are passed on to subsequent generations. And it is sometimes hard to notice in your daily life because, as you can see above, we’re segregated from one another (by race, education, class, and more). And this segregation is one way interlocking inequalities persist.

Masculinity and Fidelity in Pop Music

Originally posted at the Gender & Society blog.

Two songs that seemed like they were on the radio every time I tuned into a pop station last summer were Omi’s single, “Cheerleader” (originally released in 2015) and Andy Grammar’s song, “Honey, I’m good” (originally released in 2014). They’re both songs written for mass consumption. Between 2014 and 2015, “Cheerleader” topped the charts in over 20 countries around the world. And, while “Honey, I’m Good” had less mass appeal, it similarly found its way onto top hit lists around the world.

They’re different genres of music. But they both fall under the increasingly meaningless category of “pop.”  And, because they both gained popularity around the same time, it was possible to hear them back to back on radio stations across the U.S.  Both songs are about the same issue: each are ballads sung by men celebrating themselves for being faithful in their heterosexual relationships.  Below is Omi’s “Cheerleader.” Here is the chorus:

“All these other girls are tempting / But I’m empty when you’re gone / And they say / Do you need me? / Do you think I’m pretty? / Do I make you feel like cheating? / And I’m like no, not really cause / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her”

In Omi’s song, he situates himself as uninterested in cheating because he’s found a woman who believes in him more than he does. And this, he suggests, is worth his fidelity. Though, he does admit to being tempted, which also works to situate him as laudable because he “has options.”

Andy Grammar’s song is a different genre. And like Omi’s song, it’s catchy (though, apparently less catchy if pop charts are a good measure). Grammar’s video is dramatically different as well. It’s full of couples lip syncing his song while claiming amounts of time they’ve been faithful to one another. Again, and for comparison, below is the chorus:

“Nah nah, honey I’m good / I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone / No, honey I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve gotta bid you adieu and to another I will stay true”

Unlike Omi’s song, Grammar’s single is a song about a man at a bar without his significant other. He’s turning down drinks from a woman (or women), claiming that he doesn’t trust himself to be faithful if he gives into the drink. Instead, he opts to leave the bar to ensure he doesn’t give in to this temptation.

Both songs are written in the same spirit. They’re songs that appear to be about women, but are actually anthems about what amazing men these guys are because… well, because they don’t cheat, but could.

I was struck by the common message, a message at least partially to blame for why we all heard them so much. And the message is that, for men in heterosexual relationships, resisting the temptation to be unfaithful is hard work. And this message helps to highlight key ingredients of contemporary hegemonic masculinities: heterosexuality and promiscuity. Both men are identifying as heterosexual throughout each song. But, you might think, they’re not identifying as promiscuous. So, how are they supporting this cultural ideal if they appear to be challenging it? The answer to that is all in the delivery.

Amy C. Wilkins studied the ways that a group of college Christian men navigated what she terms the “masculinity dilemma” of demonstrating themselves to be heterosexual and heterosexually active when they were in a group committed to abstinence. Wilkins discovered that they navigated this dilemma by enacting what she refers to as “collective processes of temptation” whereby they crafted a discourse about just how masculine they were by resisting the temptation to be heterosexually active. They ritualistically discussed the problem of heterosexual temptation. And, in so doing, Wilkins argues that the men she studied, “perform their heterosexuality collectively, aligning themselves with conventional assumptions about masculinity through the ritual invocation of temptation” (here: 353). It’s hard to craft an identity based on not doing something. But if you’re going to, Wilkins argues that temptation is key.

Similarly, Sarah Diefendorf found that young evangelical Christian men navigate their gender identities alongside pledges of sexual abstinence until marriage. Men in Diefendorf’s study used one another as “accountability partners” to make sure they didn’t cheat on their pledges if they were in relationships, but even with things like pornography or masturbation. As Diefendorf writes, “These confessions… enable these men to demonstrate a connection with hegemonic masculinity through claims of desire for future heterosexual practices” (here: 658-659). In C.J. Pascoe’s study of high school boys navigating tenuous gender and sexual identities, she refers to this process more generally as “compulsive heterosexuality.”

Both songs are meant to situate the two singers as great men, men to be admired. But, being able to listen to this message and “get it” means that you can take for granted the premise on which the songs are based—in this case, that men are hard-wired to be sexual scoundrels and that heterosexual women should count themselves lucky if they are fortunate enough to have landed a man committed to not living up to his wiring. Without understanding men as having a natural and apparently insatiable sexual wanderlust, these songs don’t make sense.

Both Omi and Grammar need the discourse of temptation to frame themselves as noble. If we want to challenge men to not cheat, we should be challenge the idea that they’re working against biologically deterministic inclinations to do so. I’m not sure it would make a top 20 hit, but neither would it recuperate forms of gendered inequality through the guise of dismantling them.

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*Thanks to Sarah Diefendorf for her edits and smart feedback on this post.