Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Zero-Sum Construction of Masculinity

All the recent discussion of masculinity and anal sex, combined with a recent interaction I had with a couple of male friends, has gotten me thinking about the way masculinity so often seems to be constructed as a zero-sum competition in our culture.

In the ever-fascinating world of game theory, a zero-sum game is one in which the victory of one player is counterbalanced by the loss of another player or players. So if you add up the gains and losses of all the players, the sum is always zero. Some real-world examples of zero-sum competitions are territorial gains, which always result in a reciprocal loss of territory for someone else, marketshare competition, and coercive economic situations where the party that is profiting does so at the expense of others, as in the case of cutting wages to increase profits and appropriating resources without proper compensation to the rightful owners. In each of these cases, one party is enriched at the expense of the other.

So what does this have to do with the way our culture constructs masculinity, you ask? Everything. OK, maybe not everything, but a lot. In the case of anal penetration, the conventional construction of it was that the man who finds himself being penetrated loses social standing while the one who penetrates him gains social standing. Similarly, the man who gives oral sex to another man loses standing while the receiver gains. The gains and losses are reciprocal. Thus you have derogatory terms like "cocksucker" and "fucked in the ass." And thus gay men are generally imagined in hetero culture to be either the debased "woman" or the slightly more acceptable "man" in the relationship.

This explains the jokes and insults among straight men that center around a man being penetrated or being reduced to sucking another man's cock. To insinuate that a man became another man's "bitch" in a situation is to feminize and devalue him while valorizing and honoring the dominant one. So one wins at the expense of the other. And pointing out any weakness or vulnerability in another man elevates the one who points it out, so that most social gains that are made among men are made at a reciprocal cost to another man.

It's important to note here that I'm not trying to demonize any individual men, or suggest that men as a group are somehow morally deficient. This is simply the mode of interaction that men are socialized into from the time they're young boys playing together, and they replicate it throughout their adult lives. For example, this weekend we had a number of our friends over, and several of the interactions I observed really struck me as conforming to this model. In one conversation, almost everything negative that was jokingly said about a particular man (we'll call him T) boiled down to calling him a woman, or using feminine adjectives to describe him, or suggesting that he was gay. And all of these pejoratives served to highlight the respect-bordering-on-awe that is collectively felt in this group of friends for the man who was issuing these insults (we'll call him J). It's as if J's elevated position in the group is inextricably coupled with the belittlement of his peers. And in this particular dynamic, he's often not even the one who's instigating the zero-sum game, but instead it's become this recurring theme that everyone accepts and replicates even in his absence. And the jokes and insults that seem to be the funniest to men (and not just this group of men, but also other men I've been friends with) are the ones that insult and denigrate one man while building up another the most. The female friends in our group seem to sort of tolerate this dynamic for awhile, but eventually become bored with it and drift off in different directions until the conversation shifts and becomes interesting again. I think we've always thought of it as this kind of immature "boy talk" that our otherwise intelligent and interesting male friends seem to fall into at times.

But I think it's significant that this throwback to little boy culture is so prevalent in adult male interactions. And I think it's indicative of underlying attitudes toward women and homosexuals. In this regard, I think adult hetero males inhabit a world that's deeply conflicted and full of subtle tensions. Consciously, I suspect most adult males think of women and gays as equals. There's certainly a lot of explicit societal pressure on them to at least act as if they do. But at the same time they're navigating this context which implicitly devalues anything that's not-masculine and awards reciprocal honor to the masculine, or not-feminine and not-gay. Even the fact that everything is defined in terms of what it's not (masculine=not-feminine) reveals the zero-sum nature of this social construction. So I think this is one aspect of patriarchy that hurts men too. Inhabiting a world that's so tension laden, and constantly being stuck on the hamster-wheel of one-upping and denigrating your peers in order to maintain your status can't really be good for you. And it's certainly very bad for those who serve as the negative and devalued analogue (i.e. women, homosexuals, etc) that these kinds of comparisons depend on. So given the fact that it doesn't appear to benefit anyone in the long run, there doesn't seem to be any reason to maintain this construct. I vote for change.


  1. I'm impressed, as usual with your analytical skills, Rachel.

    Let me contribute by saying that I agree about the constructed reality that we people whistle our tunes to, us men and women. We seem incapable almost of constructing anything -- including gender -- that isn't based on some sort of hierarchy. I've read recently that constructing other forms of management in companies or large organizations is hard to achieve and difficult to maintain. It works with co-ops, but not much larger than that.

    But should we believe that? Have we just not been imaginative enough to build it yet, and so we crown our failure with the dignity of permanence and struggle on under the yoke of an ill-fitting constructed gender identity? Maybe the insight we need is right around the corner. Maybe the thinker who thinks it is alive right now. I like to think so.

    I'm pretty sure he isn't me, but maybe just by being cautious about not using terms like "cocksucker" and then asking my girlfriend to suck my cock is a good place to start.


  2. I second your vote for change!

  3. I love it when you get on a kick and write several posts on one topic. It's like reading several chapters in the same book. And I'm glad your current kick is deconstructing masculinity, because you're cranking out some interesting stuff.

    I'm curious what your take is on the whole "mean girls" dynamic. It's undeniable that boys learn to demean each other in order to elevate themselves on the playground, but the whole "mean girls" thing suggests that girls do too. What do you think?

  4. Anonymous4/15/2009

    Excellent post. Well thought out. I would only say that I disagree with your conclusion. I would guess that even if you educated the men about what you've written in this post and asked them if they would stop doing it, I don't think they would. I don't think men see this as "hurting" themselves. I would even go as far to say that they enjoy it and would protest anyone trying to stop them from doing it. The one-upping, locker-room, cajoling jockular beahvior is actaully enjoyable. To play the stereotype the other way, it would be like telling women that they should not gossip.

  5. @ Ben

    I don't enjoy gossiping, and actually kind of suck at it. I think it would be good for women if the expectations that they gossip and act frivolous and silly were changed in our culture. I guess I'm not advocating that we try to prevent anyone from playing out these gendered scripts, but that we loosen up the scripts and let people act in whatever way they would naturally tend to act. If there is such a thing.

    @ Riley

    Yeah, I think maybe the mean girls dynamic is zero-sum, but I haven't thought about it enough. And I've also read critiques of all the "mean girls" hype which argue that this is a way for the MSM and certain authors to objectify and sensationalize tween and teen girl culture and that the reports are vastly overstated. I'm not sure what I think. Many of the "popular girls" in my high school were incredibly brutal, and seemed to gain status from this brutality. I had an interesting perspective on it as a bystander, and it was truly sobering and depressing. So based on that I would tend to agree that this is a similar dynamic. But on the other hand you have the ideal of the "nice girl" who's all nurturing and empathetic to her friends, and I'm not sure there's a positive male correlation to this. Still thinking about this one...

  6. LetThemEatCake4/15/2009

    @ Ben

    I would bet that you're right about men not changing their basic interactions. However, I don't think it's as simple as that. I think that when you're socialized to interact with your peers a certain way, it becomes internalized and sort of becomes "second nature" to you. So I agree that adult males probably wouldn't change that much, but if we paid attention to how boys are taught to interract and tried to loosen up the script for them, I bet you'd see changes in how men communicate.

  7. In this regard, I think adult hetero males inhabit a world that's deeply conflicted and full of subtle tensions.I like the below video as I feel it does an exelent job of explaining masculinity.


    There will always be order (hierarchy), and positions will always be gained through conflict of some sort. It does not matter if it is competition over fashion, wealth, power, social position, shit talk or back-biting.

    We can only progress so far.

  8. @ Steven

    That's true in a culture that's committed to hierarchy. But in cultures where they don't assume there will always be some kind of hierarchy, there isn't. As I noted above, we're already socialized to establish and maintain hierarchies. But who knows how things would turn out if we weren't.

  9. Rachel,

    Please explain a culture without hierarchy. One without parents over children, so forth and so on.

    My first thought is just because a culture don't assume there will be some hierarchy mean it is not there, they just don't have the tools to see it.

    Just like many American's believe we live in a classless society. Its a load of bull, but you can convince yourself of something that is not true.

    In regard to the idea that we are socialized to establish and create hierarchies... that predisposes a social determinism that I have not adopted. I believe humans are naturally disposed to many things, languages, math, music, and the creation of hierarchy fits in with the natural drive to socialize.

  10. Steven,

    If you study anthropology you'll find that some cultures tend to be very egalitarian while others are deeply hierarchical. In egalitarian cultures people are socialized to work cooperatively, to have flexibility in their roles and identities, etc. In hierarchical cultures much is dictated from the top down, roles and identities are strictly policed and thought to be "natural," rules are highly respected and closely followed, etc. So while it isn't the case that parents in an egalitarian culture won't give their kids guidance, it's also less likely that they'll "rule with an iron hand" and make unilateral decisions.

    I'm not claiming that there are no hierarchical structures in more egalitarian cultures; just that people are not socialized to constantly be jostling for position and trying to determine their position in the hierarchy. This is often illustrated by the fact that in the languages of cultures that tend to be very egalitarian, there are no words for some of our terminology that's used to describe hierarchy. And the dynamic I'm pointing to here is the fact that, in our culture, masculinity is defined by a constant jockeying for position which is acheived by kicking others down. This is hierarchical in the extreme, and the fact that it's a learned behavior seems pretty obvious given the fact that masculinity is not defined and established this way in other cultures.

  11. I'm not claiming that there are no hierarchical structures in more egalitarian cultures; just that people are not socialized to constantly be jostling for position and trying to determine their position in the hierarchy.So they have been socialized to completely accept their lot in life?

    What a complete subjugation.

    If I could only learn their techniques....

  12. I think it's more that their success isn't tied to somebody else's failure. There are many ways to alter your lot in life that don't involve standing on someone else's neck. We just don't value this type of success in our culture.

  13. There are many ways to alter your lot in life that don't involve standing on someone else's neck.Heehee.