Understanding Masculinities: Culture, Politics and Social Change

Gender norms and categories are directly related to the distribution of power among genders, and hence to issues of social justice, equity and human rights. ‘Power’, in turn, relates to the control over both symbolic as well as material goods. That is, the ideas we hold about men and women – their ‘appropriate’ roles, capacities, and characteristics – along with the access they enjoy to material resources go towards determining their positions with respect to each other. Hence, both symbolic and material processes are of crucial importance when we plan upon affecting changes in oppressive social structures and conditions. All social contexts are gendered, and the gendered nature of social contexts ‘means that neither male nor female power can be examined entirely in isolation’ (Malhotra and Mather 1997:603). ‘Gender’ is, therefore, a relationship.
Hence, the study of feminine, masculine and trans-gender identities concerns the exploration of power relationships within the contemporary gender landscape, where certain dominant ideals of manhood impact on women, different ways of being men, as well those identities that may not fit either gender category. This way of engaging with ‘gender’ is an exploration into the taken-for-granted category of ‘man’.
Masculinity refers to the socially produced but embodied ways of being male. Its manifestations include manners of speech, behaviour, gestures, social interaction, a division of tasks ‘proper’ to men and women (‘men work in offices, women do housework’), and an overall narrative that positions it as superior to its perceived antithesis, femininity. The discourse of masculinity as a dominant and ‘superior’ gender position is produced at a number of sites and has specific consequences for women as well as those men who may not fit into the dominant and valorised models of masculinity. These sites include: customary laws and regulations, the state and its mechanisms, the family, religious norms and sanctions, popular culture, and, the media. The mass media is one of the most important means for the transmission, circulation and reception of local and global masculine identities. With the rise of new technologies of media and communication, representations of masculinities find both local and global anchoring. In this sense, the media becomes a transformative force field with a capacity to change structures of belief.
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