What Threatens, Defines: Tracing the Symbolic Boundaries of Contemporary Masculinity
A robust literature ties emasculation to a range of compensatory behaviors. The present study shifts focus away from the effects of masculinity threat toward an understanding of young adult men’s experiences of emasculation in their own words. Drawing on 42 in-depth interviews with undergraduate men attending a selective U.S. university, we examine the behaviors, situations, and narratives—both experienced and hypothetical—that privileged young men perceive as threatening. We use these data not only to contribute to the empirical literature on masculinity threat, but also as a novel approach for theorizing about the meaning and structure of masculinity more broadly. This is an important task given recent social and economic changes that may have altered contemporary definitions of masculinity. Emasculation accounts provide unique analytical leverage for revealing men’s often unspoken understandings of acceptable masculine behavior. We find that, while many interviewees superficially espoused egalitarian and anti-homophobic beliefs, their emasculation narratives implicitly call for the subordination of women and other men. These performances consequently obscure and maintain traditional, hegemonic power relations. We discuss the implications of our finding for scholars, practitioners, and individual men who desire a more equitable gender structure.
KeywordsMen Masculinity threat Hegemonic masculinity Hybrid masculinities Boundary violations Gender inequality
We are grateful for research assistance from Thomas Carman, Jessica Kendra, Stephanie Menke, and Claire Sears-Tam. For helpful feedback, we thank Mary Bernstein, Shelley Correll, Susan Fisk, Beth Hirsh, Sharon Jank, Ed Lawler, Nancy Naples, Karen Powroznik, Daisy Reyes, Jessica Su, Catherine Taylor, and Lindsey Trimble O’Connor.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals
This research involves human participants. The protocol was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board for Human Participants at Cornell University (Protocol ID#: 0911001024).
Participants received two copies of the informed consent form which contained information about the study procedures, expected benefits, and risks to participation. Participants were asked to read the form carefully and were given the opportunity to ask questions. Participants granted consent by signing both copies and giving one copy to the investigator.
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