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Hegemonic Masculinitys Role In Maintaining Patriarchal Power Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4152 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Sport is an area in which patriarchal power is simultaneously contested and reproduced (Messner, 1988; Sabo & Messner, 1993). According to Messner (1988), in an effort to reaffirm white, middle-class, male supremacy in early 19th century America, organized sport was constructed. The realm of sport was considered to be a man’s domain in which hegemonic masculinity could be performed, helping to keep women and certain men (i.e., lower class, men of color) marginalized (Messner, 1988). When women began to enter into the male-dominated world of sport, patriarchal power and privilege were threatened as the binary gender system, which is essential for the maintenance of patriarchy, was being challenged (Duncan, 1992; Messner, 1988; Sabo & Messner, 1993). In order to secure male power, a backlash against women athletes was deployed (see Faludi, 1991, for a more detailed analysis of efforts to maintain male power). Aided by the media, the use of hegemonic masculinity, which can be seen as an organizing agent that naturalizes (apparent) differences between men and women as well as heterosexuality, can be seen as a way in which female athletes were subordinated both on and off of the sports field (Bryson, 1994; Connell, 1987; Messner, 1988, 2002).

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Although many believe America has entered into a post-feminist era in which men and women are treated equally, sport is an area in which the differential treatment of women is apparent. Indeed, aside from material inequalities (e.g., Thomas, 2009), women, as a result of hegemonic masculinity, continue to be oppressed in various ways. Utilizing a feminist perspective, this article will explicate the ways in which hegemonic masculinity within sport works to uphold male power while subjugating female athletes. The recent media attention that Elizabeth Lambert received after acting aggressively in a 2009 college soccer match will be analyzed as an exemplification of the way(s) in which female athletes continue to be policed.

Hegemonic masculinity-based on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony-is that which is the dominant form of masculinity in a particular culture at a given time (Connell, 1987). According to Connell (1987), hegemonic masculinity works to maintain the power of the dominant members of society. As such, in America, hegemonic masculinity is based on White, middle-class, heterosexual notions of what constitutes “manliness”: aggression, individuality, power, strength, and violence. Even though most men do not, and will never, embody hegemonic masculinity, society’s largely unquestioned acceptance of hegemonic masculinity, and rejection and denigration of other forms of masculinity (e.g., masculinities constructed and performed by gay men) and femininity, help to reproduce White male power and privilege (Connell, 1987). Hegemonic masculinity, with the help of the media, can be seen to organize the realm of sport, ensuring that women continue to be subordinated, in two ways: Through the reification of both the binary gender system (e.g., Messner & Bozada-Deas, 2009; Lorber, 1993) and compulsory heterosexuality (e.g., Kolnes, 1996).

Maintaining the Gender Binary

Clarke and Clarke (1982) noted that sport is an area in which differences between the sexes are made to appear as innate and natural (Clarke & Clarke, 1982). As male power is contingent upon the binary gender system, which constructs difference between men and women (Jackson, 2005), such naturalization of (seeming) difference between the sexes is necessary to uphold patriarchy. Indeed, if gender were truly performed on a continuum, making it difficult to distinguish between men and women, it would be much more difficult (though not impossible) for men to maintain power. Female athletes who challenge the innateness of such prescribed gender roles and performance, therefore, work to destabilize male power and privilege (Sabe & Messner, 1993). Hegemonic masculinity within sport ensures that gender differences (which can be considered a social construct) continue to appear as though they are natural, helping to perpetuate patriarchy.

As explicated by Messner (1988), since hegemonic masculinity essentially constructs sport, it is no coincidence that the most popular American sports are those that require the most strength, height, and physical aggression. Through this lens, activities such as ice hockey, football, and basketball are deemed as “real” sports, while sports such as figure skating and synchronized swimming, which require more traditionally feminine qualities such as coordination and grace, are devalued and marginalized. By valorizing the sports that cater to the extreme possibilities of the male body (as men on average have more muscle mass and are taller than women), differences between men and women are made to appear as innate. Additionally, men’s (supposed) dominance within the field of sport is reified. If, on the other hand, sports that cater to the female body (such as long distance, cold water swimming) received more recognition, the notion(s) that men are 1) different than women; and 2) dominant over women, may be dismantled-something that hegemonic masculinity helps to prevent (Messner, 1988).

Another way in which hegemonic masculinity reproduces the binary gender system is through the employment of gender-modified sports. Indeed, if women were seen to be as aggressive, strong, and fearless as men (masculine traits)-and play sports as well as men-the binary gender system, and subsequently male power, would be threatened. As such, many sports (e.g., lacrosse, basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics) have been modified, making them more “appropriate” for women (Cahn, 1994; Lorber, 1993; Theberge, 2002). The main purpose of such modification of sport is to help construct and reproduce differences between the sexes, and minimizing masculinity in women. Lorber (1993), for example, argued that women’s gymnastics, which required feats best carried out by lean and physically small bodies, was designed for prepubescent girls; conversely, men’s gymnastics, which demands a great deal of physical strength, was designed for men. Additionally, women’s gymnastics requires more traditionally feminine traits, while men’s gymnastics allows for a higher degree of masculine characteristics. In this instance, in addition to, once again, conveying the message that men and women are inherently different, the threatening nature of a strong, athletic woman is minimized by erasing her from sport altogether.

A third way in which the gender binary is maintained in sport through hegemonic masculinity is through sports organizations. Sports organizations, whether they are a child’s sports league (Messner & Bozada-Deas, 2009), or a prominent nation organization (Hovden, 2006), can be seen to be fraught with the same inequalities that affect other areas of life. More specifically, men are found to hold positions of power, while women are cast in the more supportive, peripheral roles (Hovden, 2006; Messner & Bozada-Deas, 2009). For example, when researchers Messner and Bozada-Deas (2009) analyzed the distribution of labor in a child’s sports league, men were found to hold the position of coach or assistant coach more frequently than women, while women (always) assumed the role of team parent. When asked to explain the apparent gender differences in the distribution of labor, participants offered both neoliberal and essentialist answers, attributing such a labor distribution to either individual choice or innate qualities that each sex apparently possessed (e.g., women are naturally more domestic and therefore make better team parents than men). Though not explicitly stated as such, the effects of hegemonic masculinity were indeed imbued in many of the participants’ answers-answers that justified inequality be pointing to supposedly innate differences.

Compulsory Heterosexuality

Another aspect of hegemonic masculinity that helps to sustain patriarchal power is its reliance on heterosexuality. Indeed, as explained by theorist Stevi Jackson (2005), male power is perpetuated through heterosexual relationships in which men can dominate women, exploiting both their sexuality and unpaid labor (Jackson, 2005). In order to shore up women’s attraction to, and reliance upon, men, society is structured in a heteronormative way, helping to create the illusion that heterosexuality is the most normal and natural form of sexuality (Ingraham, 1994). Adrienne Rich (1980) described this occurrence as compulsory heterosexuality, stating that in a patriarchal society, women are socialized in a way that makes their participation in heterosexuality compulsory, as opposed to but one of many options (Rich, 1980).

As men derive much power from heterosexual relations, one core part of hegemonic masculinity involves heterosexuality. With regard to sport, compulsory heterosexuality can be seen to be constructed in through 1) emphasis on females’ (athletes or partners of male athletes) relationship to men, either role as a wife, mother, or girlfriend; and 2) lesbian stigma. Female athletes, for instance, are frequently depicted in ways that minimize their athletic prowess, and emphasize their femininity and heterosexuality. Shugart (2003) and Christopherson, Janning and McConnel (2002), in their reviews of women’s 1999 World Cup Coverage, noted that an exorbitant amount of attention was paid to the women athletes’ relationships-such as their status as a wife or mother-, as well as their (hetero) sexual attractiveness (Christopherson et al., 2002; Shugart, 2003). Such sexualization of female athletes works to reposition them as objects of (heterosexual) male desire. In this way, women who are subverting gender roles by participating in masculine sports are realigned with traditionally feminine roles as in which they are subordinate to men (Messner, 2002).

Even within “newer” sports, such as snowboarding, which seek to distance themselves from the corporate, elitist nature of traditional sport, such compulsory heterosexuality is seen. In a study by Anderson (1999), when male snowboarders were asked to explain the presence of female snowboarders, many participants posited that most female snowboarders were on the slopes because their boyfriends snowboarded. The men being interviewed negated the agency and athletic ability of the women snowboarders, while reaffirming their dominance over women, through their insistence that women were not truly interested in snowboarding: their real interest was the men (Anderson, 1999).

The lesbian stigma is another way in which compulsory heterosexuality is maintained through sport. As noted by various sport sociologists Cahn (1993, 1994) and Messner (1988), in both the early 1900s, when first wave feminist efforts were underway, and again following World War II, when men returning from war felt as though their authority in the home was undermined by women’s participation in the workforce, masculinity was considered to be in “crisis.” Sport-a prime area in which women’s participation threatened male power-was one realm in which efforts were made to re-secure men’s dominance. Ascribing the label of “lesbian” to any woman who did not fit traditional standards of femininity, was one way in which male power was reaffirmed. The lesbian label, which many (heterosexual) women found to be an attack on their identity, ensured that female athletes went out of their way to present themselves in feminine, as opposed to masculine (i.e., threatening) ways. Additionally, the stigmatized lesbian label worked to deem women who did not fit traditional standards of feminine beauty as “deviant,” or “not real women.” This helped to perpetuate the notion that true women are feminine, different from, and attracted to, men (Cahn, 1993, 1994; Messner, 1988).

Female athletes’ insistence upon combating the lesbian stigma within sport by performing heterosexuality and hegemonic femininity can be seen as a way in which female athletes both support homophobia and collude with their own oppression (Eng, 2008; Felshin, 1974; Festle, 1996; Krane, 2001). Scholars have argued, however, that as sport is controlled, in large part, by men (Bryson, 1994), failure to conform to a traditionally feminine ideal can be detrimental to one’s career, resulting in a loss necessities, such as corporate sponsorship and publicity (Kolnes, 1995; Wright & Clarke, 1999). As a result of such heterosexual imperative within sport, lesbian existence is denied (Griffin, 1992). This erasure of lesbian sexuality is indeed pervasive throughout sport, evident even in supposedly empowering films that have the power to subvert archaic norms regarding female athletes (Caudwell, 2009). In the end, compulsory heterosexuality can be seen to thrive as a result of the denial and denigration of different forms of female sexuality.

Intersection of Oppressions

Thus far, an explication of the ways in which hegemonic masculinity within sport works to maintain male power has been provided. It should be noted, however, that just as hegemonic masculinity sustains certain men’s power and privilege (Connell, 2987; Davis, 1997), it also oppresses women in various ways as female athletes cannot be lumped into one homogenous category (Hargreaves, 1994). Indeed, women face an intersection of oppressions as they are not merely women: they are women of a certain race, class, ability, age, sexuality, geographic location, religion, and nation (Hurtado, 1989). As such, the way in which hegemonic masculinity works to oppress women within sport varies. Cahn (1994), for instance, noted that the lesbian stigma did not plague the African American female athlete in the mid 1900s in the same was that it did White athletes. The main reason for this was due to purely racist ideologies: African American women were considered to be “naturally” more masculine and animalistic. By employing racist ideas and dehumanizing Black women athletes, male power was able to be maintained as such women were not considered to be real women, and therefore their athletic prowess was not threatening to the binary gender system, heterosexuality, and, overall, (White) men’s power and privilege (Cahn, 1994).

The Maintenance of Male Power through Covert Means: The Elizabeth Lambert Incident

As previously stated, hegemonic masculinity helps to reproduce patriarchy within sport by ensuring that the binary gender system remains intact, and heterosexuality remains compulsory. A decade into the 21st century, however, it is difficult for those ends to be achieved in more egregious ways. As a result, the reproduction of patriarchy is contingent upon more subtle means of discrimination. For example, while completely failing to cover women’s sports in the media is no longer acceptable (a more overt form of discrimination), the way in which the events are framed and discussed help to denigrate women and downplay their athleticism. More subtle strategies that are used include referring to women as “girls” or “ladies” (McGinnis & Gentry, 2002; Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993), and sexualizing the footage shown of female athletes (Duncan & Hasbrook , 2002). The Elizabeth Lambert incident (which includes both the actual event as well as, if not more importantly, the ensuing commentary) will be analyzed as it is a primary example of how the binary gender system, as well as heterosexuality, is sustained through sport.

The Incident and the Framing of the Incident

In a 2009 NCAA women’s soccer match between New Mexico University (NMU) and Brigham Young University (BYU), one of the NMU players, Elizabeth Lambert, acted aggressively towards a BYU player, apparently pulling her to the ground by her ponytail and kicking and punching her in other instances during the match (Longman, 2009a). The media attention that this incident received, as well as the public outcry against Lambert, which ranged from death threats to date requests, can be seen as a prime example of an instance in which a woman steps outside of her designated gender role, and is subsequently punished. Two main areas that will be analyzed include the media framing of the event, as well as the types of (negative) responses that were directed towards Lambert following the event.

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As previously stated, Elizabeth Lambert evidently acted aggressively toward another player in a soccer match. What exactly she did, however, nobody truly knows. Indeed, unless one was watching an unedited video of the event or was c lose to the field and paid complete attention to Lambert’s every move, one’s knowledge of her actions are based upon how the media portrayed the event. Lambert, for instance, contends that while she did pull the BYU player to the ground by her ponytail, the media made it appear as though her actions throughout the game were much worse than they truly were (Longman, 2009b). As news stories and sporting events are framed in various ways in order to achieve an intended effect (e.g., Hardin, Lynn, Walsdorf, & Hardin, 2002), is it very likely that the media portrayals of this incident were made to appear more violent and aggressive than they really were.

Using the previous discussion on hegemonic masculinity as a framework, the portrayal of Lambert as more physically aggressive than she really was can be seen as a way in which the threat that her aggressive, violent behavior posed to patriarchy was mitigated. Indeed, sensationalizing the coverage of the event helped to create reactions from the public that may have not been elicited had the event not been exaggerated in such a way. For instance, had the event been framed as her simply pulling another girl’s ponytail, such public outrage would not have occurred-a woman would have acted aggressively, challenging the binary gender system, without any (public) punishment. However, in an attempt to ensure that incidences of women acting aggressively are publicly chastised, the media chose to sensationalize the event by (apparently) exaggerating Lambert’s actions.

The Public’s Response

The Elizabeth Lambert incident can indeed be seen as an example of the double standard still present in our society. Former coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team, Bruce Arena, for instance, agreed that had a man acted in a way similar to Lambert, the event would not have received nearly as much press coverage or response from the public (Longman, 2009). In addition to the way in which the incident was framed, it is telling to deconstruct some of the specific responses to the event as they work to make Lambert’s actions less threatening to male power by both sexualizing and infantilizing her, as well as highlighting supposedly innate differences between men and women-common strategies used to “re-center” men’s position as the dominant sex (Messner, 2002).

The sexualization of Elizabeth Lambert was one type of response that followed the now infamous soccer match. As reported by Longman (2009a), Lambert received many inquiries from men asking her out on dates as they found her actions to be “sexy.” Sport sociologist Pat Griffin described these actions as attempts to “trivialize” women’s sports (Lambert, 2009a). In addition to the way in which such sexualization devalues women’s sports, it also works to maintain compulsory heterosexuality. In this case, for example, when such men proposition Lambert, her status as an athlete is being overshadowed by her status as a sexual object who, supposedly, is (naturally) attracted to men. Overall, men’s sexual comments help to divert attention away from the subversive effects of Elizabeth’s actions by repositioning her as not an athlete, but a man’s potential sexual partner.

In addition to sexualization, other respondents used the tactic of infantilization to help men remain power within sport. In a recent article about Lambert’s actions, as well as other young women who had acted similarly, published in The Star (a North Carolina Newspaper), the young women being discussed were frequently referred to as “girls,” by coaches, referees, and other individuals being interviewed. Moreover, the title even includes the term (Poole, 2010). Far from innocuous, usage of the term girls to describe women or young women is considered to be a way to infantilize and disempower women-a tactic that is pervasive in the world of sport (Messner, et al., 1993). In this instance, especially, the repeated usage of “girl” to describe women in their 20s can be seen as a deliberate attempt to lessen the threat that powerful, aggressive women have on men’s sports and patriarchy as a whole.

The third theme present in some of the responses to Elizabeth Lambert’s actions included threats of violence directed towards Lambert. In an interview with Longman (2009a), for instance, Lambert noted that she received many messages that advocated for violence to be enacted upon her. She mentioned that one particularly horrific message stated that she should be sent to prison, raped, and killed (Lambert, 2009a). Such violent messages can be seen to re-stabilize men’s dominance, through hegemonic masculinity, by attempting to naturalize the gender binary. Indeed, by referencing rape, the author of that particular message is highlighting Lambert’s “femaleness” as women, biologically, are more vulnerable to rape than men, and more rape victims are women. Rape is also commonly thought of as a way in which men exert power over, and control, women. Therefore, by mentioning that Lambert should be raped, the author can be seen as 1) highlighting the fact that she is a woman and women are different from men; and 2) asserting dominance over women.


As explicated by this essay, it is clear that women continue to be oppressed within the field of sport, in part, as a result of men’s need to maintain patriarchy. What is not as well established is how women are resisting such patriarchal practices within sport, helping to not only empower female athletes, but all women. While scholars have cited incidences in which female athletes have contested the homophobia and misogyny present within sport (Muller,2007; Wheatley, 1994), overall, it appears as though most subversive efforts are limited to individual-as opposed to transformative-gains (Dworkin & Messner, 2002). In fact, it can be argued that female athletes are more apt to collude with, as opposed to challenge, patriarchal power and norms. Felshin (1974), for example, described many female athletes as employing “apologetics.” By this she meant that female athletes tried to compensate for their gender role subversion, and appear as more favorable, by devaluing their status as an athlete and emphasizing their femininity, among other things (Felshin, 1974). Festle (1996) argues that such behavior is still present today: She noted, for example, that attempts to challenge stereotypes, such as notions that all female athletes are lesbians, do not help to advance women’s sports; conversely, they end up perpetuating male power and further subjugating women (Festle, 1996).

Sport sociologist Michael Messner’s (2002) anecdote to the current patriarchal, oppressive state of American sport is the social justice model of sport. He proposes that social justice within sport, and society as a whole, will not be achieved until hegemonic masculinity, from which most of sport is organized and structure around, is destabilized (2002). In a patriarchal, capitalist society, however, challenging hegemonic masculinity, from which so much White male power is derived, appears to be a daunting task. After all, that which, and he or she who, conforms to ideals prescribed by hegemonic masculinity makes money. Perhaps Mohanty’s (2003) argument that capitalism is what needs to be challenged in order to create a truly socially just world is more accurate. One thing, as exemplified by the Elizabeth Lambert incident, is for sure: Something must be done as the policing and oppression of women is not ending, it is just (at times) becoming more subtle.


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