Feminine other: masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony

Recovering the feminine other: masculinity, femininity,
and gender hegemony
Mimi Schippers
Received: 18 September 2006 / Accepted: 8 January 2007 / Published online: 15 February 2007
# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract R. W. Connell’s path-breaking notion of multiple masculinities (Connell, 1995) and
hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1987, 1995) have been taken up as central constructs in the
sociology of gender. Although there has been a great deal of empirical research and theory
published that has built upon and utilized Connell’s concepts, an adequate conceptualization
of hegemonic femininity and multiple femininities has not yet been developed. To redress
this, the author presents a theoretical framework that builds upon the insights of Connell and
others, offers a definition of hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity that allows for
multiple configurations within each, and that can be used empirically across settings and
groups. The author also outlines how hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity are
implicated in and intersect with other systems of inequality such as class, race, and ethnicity.
R. W. Connell’s path-breaking conceptualizations of multiple masculinities (Connell, 1995,
2000) and hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1987, 1995, 2000) have been taken up as central
to gender theory and scholarship. (For an extensive overview of theory and research on
masculinities, see Kimmel, Hearn, & Connell, 2005; for a summary of critiques of the
concept hegemonic masculinity, see Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Although researchers
have made widespread use of these concepts, femininity is still decidedly under-theorized
(Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Martin, 1998; Pyke & Johnson, 2003). While there have
been important attempts to theorize female masculinities (e.g., Halberstam, 1998;
Messerschmidt, 2003) and hegemonic and subordinate femininities (e.g., Pyke & Johnson,
2003), a compelling and empirically useful conceptualization of hegemonic femininity and
multiple, hierarchical femininities as central to male dominant gender relations has not yet
been developed. In their most recent reformulation of the concept hegemonic masculinity,
Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) call for more theory and research on femininities.
The concept of “emphasized femininity” focused on compliance to patriarchy, and this
is still highly relevant in contemporary mass culture. Yet gender hierarchies are also
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
DOI 10.1007/s11186-007-9022-4
M. Schippers (*)
Department of Sociology, Women’s Studies Program, Tulane University,
Newcomb Hall 220, New Orleans, LA 70118, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
impacted by new configurations of women’s identity and practice, especially among
younger women-which are increasingly acknowledged by younger men. We consider
that research on hegemonic masculinity now needs to give much closer attention to
the practices of women and to the historical interplay of femininities and
masculinities. (p. 848)
In this article, my goal is to recover the feminine other and place it in the center of a
theory of gender hegemony. My use of the term “other” refers to the ways in which the
feminine and femininity have been defined or displaced in work on masculinity. To recover
the feminine other conceptually, I first outline Connell’s main contributions to our
understanding of gender hegemony and multiple configurations of masculinity. I then
discuss conceptual and empirical difficulties with applying Connell’s framework to
femininity. Finally, building on the work of Connell and others, I offer an alternative
conceptual framework for how gender hegemony operates through masculinities and
femininities and that places men’s dominance over women at the center, allows for multiple
configurations of femininity, and can be used for empirical research across groups and
settings. In my discussion of the alternative model, I outline how it builds and improves
upon, not only the original conceptual framework offered by Connell and developed in
masculinity research, but also upon the recent reformulation by Connell and
Messerschmidt (2005).
A brief description of Connell’s model
According to Connell (1995), gender can be defined as the ways in which the “reproductive
arena”, which includes “bodily structures and processes of human reproduction”, organizes
practice at all levels of social organization from identities, to symbolic rituals, to large-scale
institutions (p. 71). As a central feature of gender relations, Connell defines masculinity as
“… simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women
engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices on bodily experience,
personality and culture” (p. 71). From this definition, we can summarize masculinity as
having three components. First, it is social location that individuals, regardless of gender,
can move into through practice. Second, it is a set of practices and characteristics
understood to be “masculine”. Third, when these practices are embodied especially by men,
but also by women, they have widespread cultural and social effects. There are individual
effects-occupying the masculine position and performing it affects the way individuals
experience their bodies, their sense of self, and how they project that self to others. While
these are individual effects, it is important to point out that, for Connell, masculinity is not
reducible to individual expression or experience. Masculinities and femininities can become
“gender projects” in the lives of individuals, but they do not refer to features of or specific
kinds of people. Instead of possessing or having masculinity, individuals move through and
produce masculinity by engaging in masculine practices. In this way, masculinity is an
identifiable set of practices that occur across space and over time and are taken up and
enacted collectively by groups, communities, and societies. Through their recurring
enactment over time and space, these practices structure the production and distribution
of resources, the distribution of power in the form of authority, cathexis, by which Connell
means the social arena of desire and sexuality, and symbolism or the production of meaning
and values (Connell, 2000). In summary and to reiterate, masculinity is a social position, a
set of practices, and the effects of the collective embodiment of those practices on
86 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
individuals, relationships, institutional structures, and global relations of domination
(Connell, 2000).
Importantly, and this is one of the major contributions offered by Connell, gender
hegemony operates not just through the subordination of femininity to hegemonic
masculinity, but also through the subordination and marginalization of other masculinities.
Connell (1995) defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice
which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of
patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and
the subordination of women” (p. 77). Hegemonic masculinity, when embodied by at least
some men over time and space, legitimates men’s domination over women as a group.
According to Connell, there are no femininities that are hegemonic (Connell, 1987). “All
forms of femininity in this society are constructed in the context of the overall
subordination of women to men. For this reason, there is no femininity that holds among
women the position held by hegemonic masculinity among men” (187). Instead, there is
what Connell refers to as emphasized femininity. Connell writes,
One form [of femininity] is defined around compliance with this subordination and is
oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men. I will call this
‘emphasized femininity’. Others are defined centrally by strategies of resistance or
forms of non-compliance. Others again are defined by complex strategic combinations
of compliance, resistance and co-operation. (pp. 184–185)
Here, Connell suggests that there are multiple femininities, but the focus is more on the
relationships among masculinities and therefore Connell does not elaborate further.
Although emphasized femininity is central to men’s dominance over women, it is not the
only mechanism for ensuring men’s domination over women. For Connell, the ascendancy
of hegemonic masculinity over other subordinate and marginalized masculinities is equally
important for gender hegemony. Complicit masculinities are “masculinities constructed in
ways that realize the patriarchal dividend, without the tensions or risks of being the
frontline troops of patriarchy…” (Connell, 1995: 79). To the extent that hegemonic
masculinity ensures male dominance, all men benefit on some level even though most men
don’t have to be “on the front lines” or embody hegemonic masculinity. This is an often
overlooked but important contribution that Connell offers; some masculine practices and
characteristics are hegemonic, but some are not. As Connell (1995) suggests, focusing on
what most men do will not necessarily reveal how hegemonic masculinity is implicated in
gender hegemony. We need theory that will allow us to distinguish masculine characteristics and men’s practices that perpetuate male dominance from those that do not, a point I
return to later.
Perhaps most important for Connell is the subordination of gay men by heterosexual
men. Gay men embody what Connell refers to as subordinate masculinities. When held up
against hegemonic masculinity as the ideal, subordinate masculinities serve as the inferior
“Other”. Connell writes,
Hegemony relates to cultural dominance in the society as a whole. Within that overall
framework there are specific gender relations of dominance and subordination
between groups of men. The most important case in contemporary European/
American society is the dominance of heterosexual men and the subordination of
homosexual men…. Oppression positions homosexual masculinities at the bottom of a
gender hierarchy among men. (p. 78)
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 87
Connell suggests that subordinate masculinities are often conflated with femininity.
However, as others have suggested, we are left with no conceptual apparatus with which to
distinguish femininity from subordinate masculinities unless we reduce femininity to the
practices of women and masculinity to those of men (Halberstam, 1998; Lorber, 1998;
Martin, 1998), another point I return to later.
In Connell’s theory, subordination is one mechanism for the ascendancy of hegemonic
masculinity, but it is not the only one; there are also marginalized masculinities. While
hegemony, subordination, and complicity are aspects of the gender order, Connell offers
marginalization to characterize the relationships among men that result as class and race
intersect with gender. Marginalized masculinities are those of subordinated classes or racial/
ethnic groups. This relationship is one of authorization and marginalization because
hegemonic masculinity is conflated with whiteness and middle-class status, and it is
conferred authority in a way marginalized masculinities are not. However, in Connell’s
original conceptualization, it is difficult to distinguish different masculinities from different
groups of men. We are once again left to the practices of particular groups of men rather
than a configuration of practice some, but not all men embody. Further, because gender
hegemony is so inextricably tied to heterosexual, middle-class, and white status, according
to Connell, male dominance falls through the conceptual cracks when considering groups
whose members are not white and middle class.
Applying the theoretical framework to femininity
Pyke and Johnson’s (2003) work on Korean and Vietnamese second-generation women is
one effort to apply Connell’s framework to femininities to develop a definition for
hegemonic femininity and subordinated femininities. Pyke and Johnson identify a relation
of subordination and domination between white femininity and Asian femininity in both
controlling images of Asian women and in the talk of Asian-American women. They
suggest that, given this relation, it is useful to consider the characteristics attributed to white
women as hegemonic femininity and those attributed to Asian women as a subordinated
… white women are constructed as monolithically self-confident, independent,
assertive, and successful-characteristics of white hegemonic femininity. That these
are the same ruling traits associated with hegemonic masculinity, albeit in a less
exaggerated, feminine form, underscores the imitative structure of hegemonic
femininity. That is, the supremacy of white femininity over Asian femininity mimics
hegemonic masculinity. We are not arguing that hegemonic femininity and masculinity
are equivalent structures. They are not. Whereas hegemonic masculinity is a
superstructure of domination, hegemonic femininity is confined to power relations
among women. However, the two structures are interrelated with hegemonic
femininity constructed to serve hegemonic masculinity, from which it is granted
legitimacy. (pp. 50–51)
While this study increases our understanding of how racialized gender performance is
implicated in inequalities among women and demonstrates that there are ascendant
femininities, I want to suggest that juxtaposing white and Asian femininities in terms of
gender hegemony and subordination poses two significant problems. First, there is no way
to identify the relationships between femininities operating within race and ethnicity. That
is, if white femininity is hegemonic femininity and non-white femininities are subordinate,
88 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
we have little conceptual room to identify multiple femininities within race and class
groups, and more importantly, which raced and classed femininities serve the interests of
male dominance and which do not.
Second, though Pyke and Johnson suggest that hegemonic femininity mimics hegemonic
masculinity, there is no conceptual apparatus with which to identify how men benefit from
the relationship between white femininity and Asian-American femininity. Although it is
not difficult to understand how the construction of white women as “self-confident,
independent, assertive, and successful” serve white men’s and women’s race and class
interests, it is difficult to understand how these constructions serve men’s interests as men. I
suggest that those valued characteristics (self-confident, independent, assertive, and
successful) are not culturally inscribed as gender traits, but instead racial/ethnic traits and
that the inequality between white women and Asian women is based on racial hegemony,
not gender hegemony. Surely the relationship between white women and Asian women is
an outcome of the intersection of gender and race as Pyke and Johnson demonstrate.
However, their work does not offer better understanding of how the relationship between
femininities is implicated in gender hegemony. We are still in need of a theoretical
framework for multiple femininities that can account for the cultural hierarchy established
between white women and Asian women as identified by Pyke and Johnson and can
explain the role of femininities and masculinities in ensuring relations of domination that
benefit men as a group.
Finally, I want to suggest that it is problematic to use Connell’s notion of subordination
to distinguish between different femininities. As Connell (1987) suggests, within the
context of a male dominant gender order, femininity is, by definition, a position of
subordination in relation to masculinity. If we claim that racial and ethnic minority
femininities are subordinate to white femininity, we obscure the subordination of white
women in the gender order and we deny that racialized femininities might actually
empower racial and ethnic minority women in a way that white femininities do not for
white women (Hill Collins, 1990). For this reason, configurations of femininity that are not
deemed normal, ideal, or desirable cannot be thought of as subordinate to an ideal
In summary, the goal here is to reclaim and re-work Connell’s theory of masculinities
and gender hegemony in a way that 1) offers a conceptualization that does not reduce
masculinities to the behavior of boys and men or femininity to the behavior of girls and
women, 2) provides a definition of femininity that situates it, along with masculinity, in
gender hegemony and allows for multiple configurations, and 3) is empirically useful for
identifying how masculinity and femininity ensure men’s dominance over women as a
group locally, regionally, and globally (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005), and how they
legitimate and perpetuate race, class, ethnic, and sexual inequality.
An alternative model
To use Connell’s insights to begin building an alternative theoretical model for masculinity,
femininity, and their role in gender hegemony, femininity must be placed back into the
theory without losing Connell’s invaluable conceptualization of hegemonic masculinity.
Judith Butler’s theoretical framework for the heterosexual matrix provides a good place to
start. According to Butler (1990), gender is the socially constructed binary that defines
“men” and “women” as two distinct classes of people. The discursive construction of
gender assumes that there are certain bodies, behaviors, personality traits, and desires that
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 89
neatly match up to one or the other category. Both Connell and Butler agree that the
categories “man” and “woman” include a whole repository of symbolic meanings. These
symbolic meanings for gender difference establish the origins (e.g., biology, divine will,
socialization), significance (e.g., defines subjectivity, is the foundation of society), and
quality characteristics of each category (e.g., men are physically strong and authoritative/
women are physically vulnerable and compliant).
My focus in this article is on the quality content of the categories “woman” and “man”.
Embedded within the system of symbolic meanings that articulate and define gender
positions and their relationship to each other are qualities members of each gender category
should and are assumed to possess. I argue, in contrast to Connell and Messerschmidt
(2005), it is in the idealized quality content of the categories “man” and “woman” that we
find the hegemonic significance of masculinity and femininity.
Connell and others who theorize and research masculinities acknowledge that
masculinity is always defined through its difference from femininity, however Butler
places the relationship of difference more centrally in her conceptualization of gender. For
Butler, heterosexual desire, as a defining feature for both women and men, is what binds the
masculine and feminine in a binary, hierarchical relationship. In contemporary Western
societies, heterosexual desire is defined as an erotic attachment to difference, and as such, it
does the hegemonic work of fusing masculinity and femininity together as complementary
opposites. Thus, it is assumed that men have a natural attraction to women because of their
differences and women have a natural attraction to men. While there is far more to the
content of masculinity and femininity than erotic desire, the construction of hetero-desire as
the ontological essence of gender difference establishes the meaning of the relationship
between masculinity and femininity. Regardless of one’s sex category, the possession of
erotic desire for the feminine object is constructed as masculine and being the object of
masculine desire is feminine. Heterosexual desire is defined as the basis of masculinity as
others have argued (Anderson, 2002; Connell, 1987; Dowsett, 1993; Fejes, 2000; Garlick,
2003; Kimmel et al., 2005), but it is also, and importantly, the basis of the difference
between and complementarity of femininity and masculinity.
Difference and complementarity alone, however, do not constitute hegemony.
Hegemonic features of culture are those that serve the interests and ascendancy of ruling
classes, legitimate their ascendancy and dominance, and encourage all to consent to and go
along with social relations of ruling. Although heterosexual desire marks both difference
and complementarity in Western societies, the cultural construction of embodied sexual
relations, along with other features of masculinity and femininity, defines a naturalized
masculine sexuality as physically dominant in relation to femininity. For example, despite
women embracing and expressing sexual agency at different historical times and in
different cultural settings, contemporary, Western constructions of heterosexual sex still
reduce it to penetrating and being penetrated and that relation is consistently constructed as
one of intrusion, “taking”, dominating (Segal, 1994).1 Compulsory heterosexuality and
hegemonic constructions of sexuality as natural or grounded in biology establish the
“naturalness” of the complementary and hierarchical relationship between masculinity and
1 The specific content of the relationship between masculine and feminine sexuality as outlined here (erotic
attachment to difference and penetration as domination) is limited to contemporary Western cultures.
However, my more general assertion that a central, hegemonic function of masculinity and femininity is to
establish a symbolic relationship between the features of masculinity and those of femininity in a way that
legitimates men’s dominance over women can be utilized as an analytic framework across cultures.
90 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
femininity. Placed together in relationship to each other, these features of masculinity and
femininity provide the hegemonic scaffolding for relationships between men and women as
“naturally” and inevitably a relationship of dominance and submission.2
We can take this focus of relationality and identify other characteristics that define the
relationship between women and men as complementary and hierarchical. As identified in
the vast empirical literature on masculinities, hegemonic masculinity can include physical
strength, the ability to use interpersonal violence in the face of conflict, and authority. These
characteristics guarantee men’s legitimate dominance over women only when they are
symbolically paired with a complementary and inferior quality attached to femininity. To
complement these characteristics in a way that subordinates femininity to masculinity,
femininity includes physical vulnerability, an inability to use violence effectively, and
compliance. Even if few women and men actually embody these characteristics in relation
to each other, the symbolic relationship established through these hierarchical complementarities provides a rationale for social practice more generally. Thus, the significance of
masculinity and femininity in gender hegemony is that they establish symbolic meanings
for the relationship between women and men that provide the legitimating rationale for
social relations ensuring the ascendancy and dominance of men.
In the on-going process of recurring patterns of social practice, the quality content of
masculinity and femininity becomes not just the gender identities or gender displays of individuals, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a collective iteration in the form of culture,
social structure, and social organization. The idealized features of masculinity and femininity
as complementary and hierarchical provide a rationale for social relations at all levels of
social organization from the self, to interaction, to institutional structures, to global relations
of domination. As individuals, groups, and societies use masculinity and femininity as the
rationale for what to do and how to do it, and collectively do so on a recurring basis in
different institutional settings, not just gender difference, but also the implicit relationship
between genders become a taken-for-granted feature of interpersonal relationships, culture,
and social structure. That is, gender difference is institutionalized (Lorber, 2000; Martin,
2004) but, importantly, so is gender relationality.
For example, in her research in Vila Sao Joao, Brazil, Claudia Fonesca finds that gossip
about wives’ infidelity is common despite strong norms against it (Fonesca, 2003). In the
village, men are expected to provide economic support to their wives who, in return,
promise sexual exclusivity. People in the village talk about cheating wives who violate
these norms, but interestingly, it is the husbands of cheating wives who are the brunt of
jokes. This loss of status for men “with horns” (the expression used by villagers for a
cuckold) allows women to use the threat of infidelity as a mechanism of interpersonal
power and, Fonesca argues, causes men to be protective and control women’s movement
and employment. While Fonesca suggests that men’s control of women is an outcome of
cheating wives, and this might be true in specific relationships, the prevalence of the gossip
2 I want to draw the important distinction between the symbolic meaning of penetrative sexual relations and
the lived, embodied experience and relations of power and domination. I am not suggesting, as Catherine
MacKinnon (1989) and others have, that embodied intercourse is always/already relations of male
domination. The relationship between the symbolic construction of the masculine in hetero-sex as
penetrative and dominating and the lived experience and power dynamics of hetero-sex is an empirical
question. As Lynne Segal (1994) suggests, the symbolic construction of penetration as domination might in
fact be an ideological move to mask the real relations of power that work to women’s advantage in heterosex. That is, the erotic content of the relationship between masculinity and femininity serves the hegemonic
function of masking women’s sexual power.
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 91
and joking, without an equal frequency of actual cheating or women being sanctioned,
suggests that the gossip itself might offer a rationale for men controlling their wives. A
focus on the relationship between masculinity and femininity as constructed through
discourse rather than on the specific behaviors of husbands and wives shows how the
symbolic construction of the man “with horns” serves a hegemonic function. The gossip
and jokes are not simply stories about the behavior of individual men and women, but also
about what is a good and desirable marital relationship between women and men. By
constructing the cuckold as ridiculous, ineffective, and weak, the stories and jokes
themselves expose and marginalize behavior by women and men that, if embodied, would
threaten the hegemonic marital relationship between husbands and wives. Far from being a
static set of characteristics embodied by even some women and men, the “man with horns”
and the “wily woman”, as constructed through gossip and joking, legitimate and naturalize
the economic and sexual exchange between wives and husbands and, thus, provide a
legitimating rationale for men’s control of their wives, men’s sexual infidelity, and women’s
economic dependence on men. The gossip and joking serve this hegemonic function but
also offer space for women to use these meanings to negotiate interpersonal power
dynamics in their relationships with their husbands and with other women.
It is through social practice that the hierarchical relationship between masculinity and
femininity organizes material relations of social life. Practice, then, is not masculinity and
femininity as Connell suggests; social practice, in all its forms, from embodied interaction to
child raising, sexual activity, developing and executing policy, passing legislation, producing
television programming, and invading countries, is the mechanism by which masculinities
and femininities, as part of a vast network of gender meanings, come to organize social life.
Masculinities and femininities provide a legitimating rationale not just for embodiment and
behavior by individuals but also for how to coordinate, evaluate, and regulate social practices,
and therein lies their hegemonic significance. Here we distinguish between what we are
defining as contextually and culturally specific sets of meanings for what women and men are
and should be (masculinity and femininity) and the mechanism (social practice) by which
those meanings come to shape, influence, and transform social structure. In her critique of
Connell’s book, Masculinities, Patricia Yancey Martin (1998) writes,
I can accept that man and woman are places in a system of gender relations and that
masculinity is practice. But I have trouble understanding how masculinity is a place or
an effect. When a man dresses “like a woman”, is he in a masculine or feminine place?
How can we know? I think we have to know the substance of societal gender norms
and/or ideologies to which people orient practice to ascertain whether it is (a form of)
masculinity. Are we not otherwise forced to reduce masculinity to man and femininity
to woman? (p. 473)
In the conceptualization offered here, masculinity and femininity are not a place, a
practice, or a resulting structure. The “place” Connell refers to is the social locations
“woman” and “man”, while the embodiment of masculine or feminine characteristics by
individuals is gendered embodiment or display. Embodying and producing the relationship
between masculinity and femininity in social interaction is “doing gender” (West &
Zimmerman, 1987), and the extent to which a hierarchical and complementary relationship
between masculinity and femininity is institutionalized is gender structure. This offers a
conceptual and empirical path out of conflating the practices of men and women with
masculinity and femininity and allows for those occupying the social location “woman” to
engage in practices or embody characteristics that are defined as masculine and for “men”
to embody features of femininity. Masculinity and femininity and their constructed
92 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
relationship to each other are an available rationale for practice and a referent with which to
interpret and judge, not just the gender displays and practices of individuals, but all social
relations, policy, rules, and institutional practice and structure.
Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) argue that, although there is a symbolic component
to masculinity, masculinity should not be reduced to a cultural norm. They write,
Discursive perspectives emphasize the symbolic dimension, whereas the concept of
hegemonic masculinity was formulated within a multidimensional understanding of
gender. Although any specification of hegemonic masculinity typically involves the
formulation of cultural ideals, it should not be regarded only as a cultural norm.
Gender relations also are constituted through non-discursive practices, including wage
labor, violence, sexuality, domestic labor, and childcare, as well as through
unreflective routinized actions. (p. 842)
By suggesting that a theoretical reduction of masculinity to the realm of the symbolic
ignores the ways in which gender relations are constituted through non-discursive practices,
Connell and Messerschmidt are conflating gender relations with masculinity. In the model
presented here, masculinity and femininity are relegated to the realm of the symbolic,
however, they are conceptualized as just one aspect of gender relations. If we do not
collapse all gender relations into masculinity and femininity, there is no reason that
conceptualizing masculinity and femininity as an available rationale for individual and
social practice negates or ignores the non-discursive practices by which men as a group
dominate women as a group. Masculinity and femininity, as a web of symbolic meanings,
provide a rationale, or as Garlick (2003) suggests, a technology available for organizing
social practice that, over time as recurring patterns of practice, become, produce, and
legitimate male dominant interpersonal power relations, a gendered division of labor, an
unequal distribution of resources and authority, global imperialism, and so on. Thus,
masculinity and femininity are hegemonic precisely in the ideological work they do to
legitimate and organize what men actually do to dominate women individually or as a group.
If, when, and how femininity and masculinity provide a rationale for practice are
empirical questions and could be explored at all levels of social organization. However,
instead of focusing either on masculinity or femininity or only on the practices of women
and men, this model encourages an additional exploration of how a naturalized,
complementary, and hierarchical relationship between masculinity and femininity is
produced and deployed as a rationale or legitimating discourse for social practice, policy,
or institutional structure that result in or ensure inequality and domination, not just along
the lines of gender, but along the lines of race, class, sexuality, age, region, or nation.
Finally, Connell and Messerschmidt warn that reducing masculinity and femininity to
the symbolic can lead to the same problems identified with theorizing femininity and
masculinity as roles. Critics of gender role theory identify it as too static, as conflating
behavior and norms, as ignoring variation among women and among men, and as not
accounting for power (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Although in this model
masculinity and femininity are conceptualized as symbolic constructions, I am not
suggesting, nor is it necessary to conclude that masculinity and femininity are static roles
or a fixed set of behaviors that women and men adopt. Instead, the characteristics and
practices defined as womanly and manly are constituted through the proliferation of a
network of cross-cutting, sometimes contradicting discourses. The production, proliferation,
and contestation of the quality content of masculinity and femininity are on-going,
dynamic, social processes and include everyday practices such as gossip, story-telling,
informal and formal sanctions, and wider-reaching practices and processes like policy
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 93
development and implementation, legislation, social movements, media production and
proliferation, global economic relations, and so on. As Foucault (1978) suggests, power
operates through “a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various
strategies” (p. 100). Masculinity and femininity are conceptualized here as produced,
contested, and transformed through discursive processes, and therefore embedded within
and productive of power relations. In this model, then, power dynamics are central, not only
in the conceptual focus on the hierarchical relationship between masculinity and femininity
rather than the specific characteristics idealized, but also in terms of the dynamics of the
production, proliferation, and contestation of discourses articulating what men and women
and their relationship to each other is and should be.
Gender hegemony and multiple masculinities and femininities
Now that we have established that it is the relationship articulated through the quality content
of femininity and masculinity that is the central feature of gender hegemony, we can begin to
think about multiple configurations of masculinity and femininity and their implications for
gender hegemony. As Connell suggests, any conceptualization of hegemonic masculinity
must be first defined in its difference from femininity. I would add, however, that any
conceptualization of hegemonic masculinity must also be defined by the way in which it
articulates a complementary and hierarchical relationship to femininity. Connell’s definition
of hegemonic masculinity, with a few key changes (in italics) and the explicit addition of
femininity, serves us quite well. Hegemonic masculinity is the qualities defined as manly that
establish and legitimate a hierarchical and complementary relationship to femininity and
that, by doing so, guarantee the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.
Given the centrality of the relationship between masculinity and femininity in the new
definition, we now have conceptual space for hegemonic femininity. Hegemonic femininity
consists of the characteristics defined as womanly that establish and legitimate a
hierarchical and complementary relationship to hegemonic masculinity and that, by doing
so, guarantee the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.
Although the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity is one
of ascendancy for the masculine and for men, there is, I argue, an ascendancy of hegemonic
femininity over other femininities to serve the interests of the gender order and male
domination. Connell (1987) writes, “Femininity organized as an adaptation to men’s power,
and emphasizing compliance, nurturance, and empathy as womanly virtues, is not in much of
a state to establish hegemony over other kinds of femininity” (188). This statement is only
possible if femininity and masculinity are conceptualized in isolation from each other. A
different picture emerges by placing the relationship between masculinity and femininity at
the center of gender hegemony. If gender hegemony is produced through the relationship
between femininity and masculinity, our efforts to identify multiple and hierarchical
configurations of masculinities and femininities must also focus on this relationship. What
emerges are gender qualities that cluster into configurations that are constructed, not so much
in their difference from and inferiority to hegemonic masculinity as Connell suggests, but
instead against the idealized relationship between masculinity and femininity, as exemplified
by the cuckold and the wily woman in Fonesca’s work and identified above.
If hegemonic gender relations depend on the symbolic construction of desire for the feminine object, physical strength, and authority as the characteristics that differentiate men from
women and define and legitimate their superiority and social dominance over women, then
these characteristics must remain unavailable to women. To guarantee men’s exclusive access
94 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
to these characteristics, other configurations of feminine characteristics must be defined as
deviant and stigmatized. This is needed to define the ideals for femininity, but also to ensure
swift and severe social sanction for women who take on or enact hegemonic masculinity.
Practices and characteristics that are stigmatized and sanctioned if embodied by women
include having sexual desire for other women, being promiscuous, “frigid”, or sexually
inaccessible, and being aggressive. These are characteristics that, when embodied by women,
constitute a refusal to complement hegemonic masculinity in a relation of subordination and
therefore are threatening to male dominance. For this reason, they must be contained. They
contradict or deviate from practices defined as feminine, threaten men’s exclusive possession
of hegemonic masculine characteristics, and most importantly, constitute a refusal to embody
the relationship between masculinity and femininity demanded by gender hegemony.
It is precisely because women often embody and practice these features of hegemonic
masculinity, and because this challenges the hegemonic relationship between masculinity
and femininity, that these characteristics, when embodied by women, are stigmatized and
sanctioned. Hegemonic femininity is ascendant in relation to, what I suggest we call pariah
femininities. I propose calling this set of characteristics pariah femininities instead of
subordinate femininities because they are deemed, not so much inferior, as contaminating to
the relationship between masculinity and femininity. The possession of any one of these
characteristics is assumed to contaminate the individual, so by having the one characteristic,
an individual becomes a kind of person – a lesbian, a “slut”, a shrew or “cock-teaser”, a
bitch. Not only do the characteristics become master statuses for women who exhibit or
enact them, these women are considered socially undesirable and contaminating to social
life more generally. Examples of this can be found in Messerschmidt’s empirical work on
adolescent violence and gender (Messerschmidt, 2003). In one of his case studies, Tina, a
working-class white girl, successfully embodied femininity and was one of the popular
preppy girls at school. After Tina began wearing tighter and more revealing clothing, one of
her friends said she “dressed like a whore” (p. 89). When Tina physically assaulted her
friend, she was expelled from the preppy friendship group. She was, however, praised by
and recruited into the “badass group”. The “badass” girls were those who embodied a
sexualized, heterosexual femininity and were also physically tough and aggressive. Not
coincidently, the badass girls were lower in status than the preppies. Their status in the
school hierarchy reflects not just the idealized relationship between masculinity and
femininity (embodied by the preppy girls), but also between hegemonic femininity and
pariah femininities (embodied by the badass group). The symbolic construction of girls’
sexual agency and ability and willingness to use physical violence as undesirable and
deserving of sanction and social expulsion turns their potential challenge to male
dominance into something contained and less threatening.
Although pariah femininities are actually the quality content of hegemonic masculinity
enacted by women-desire for the feminine object (lesbian), authority (bitch), being
physically violent (“badass” girl), taking charge and not being compliant (bitch, but also
“cock-teaser” and slut), they are necessarily and compulsively constructed as feminine
when enacted by women; they are not masculine.
3 When a woman is authoritative, she is
not masculine; she is a bitch – both feminine and undesirable. The slut is decidedly
feminine. Through popular media and heterosexual pornography, the lesbian is consistently
3 This is where Halberstam’s (1998) work on female masculinities takes on such great importance.
Halberstam reveals not only how women can successfully engage masculinity as oppositional culture, but
that these oppositional cultures are the building blocks of, not only drag queen performance, but also the
performance of hegemonic masculinity by men.
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 95
constructed as the feminine object of masculine desire. Hegemonic masculinity must
become something completely different when enacted by women for the characteristics to
maintain their place squarely in masculinity and their only legitimate enactment solely in
the hands of men. The symbolic construction of pariah femininities, then, is a central
feature of gender hegemony and, as such, central to the very real, material sanctions exacted
on women who embody them. This suggests that, in any empirical exploration of gender
hegemony, one way to identify contextually specific features of hegemonic masculinity
would be to identify locally defined pariah femininities – characteristics or practices that,
when embodied by women in the setting, are simultaneously stigmatized and feminized.
Just as hegemonic masculinity must remain exclusively in the hands of men, hegemonic
femininity must cohere with the gender category “woman”. When a man exhibits
hegemonic, feminine characteristics – as in having desire to be the object of masculine
desire, being physically weak, or being compliant – he becomes the target of stigma and
social sanction, much like women who embody features of hegemonic masculinity. And,
like pariah femininities, possession of one characteristic by a man is culturally defined as
contaminating. Men having and acting on erotic desire for each other disrupts the assumed
naturalized, complementary desire between men and women, and weak, ineffectual, and
compliant men dislodge physical strength and authority from the social position “man”.
And so we have the “fag,” the “pussy”, and the “wimp” – kinds of men who enact
hegemonic femininity. And like women who embody hegemonic masculinity, men who
exhibit hegemonic femininity are viewed as contaminating to social relations more
We cannot, however, call these pariah masculinities. Men’s homosexual desire and
being weak and ineffectual are not symbolically constructed as problematic masculine
characteristics; they are constructed as decidedly feminine. Because femininity is always
and already inferior and undesirable when compared to masculinity, it can sustain features
of stigmatization and contamination. In contrast, masculinity must always remain superior;
it must never be conflated with something undesirable. It is cultural insurance for male
dominance that anybody who enacts or embodies hegemonic characteristics that do not
align with their gender category is stigmatized as problematic and feminine. Masculinity
maintains its position of superiority in relation to femininity and men maintain legitimate
possession of those superior characteristics regardless of who is embodying femininity or
masculinity. This means that there are no masculine characteristics that are stigmatized as
contaminating or as subordinate. There are neither pariah masculinities nor subordinate
masculinities. Thus, what were identified by Connell as subordinate masculinities, are, in
this model, simply hegemonic femininity embodied or enacted by men. Halberstam (1998)
and Messerschmidt (2003) identify specific forms of female masculinity by looking at how
women embody masculinity. Building on Halberstam and Messerschmidt, I propose that
there are specific forms of male femininity. However, they are not simply femininity
embodied by men, as Halberstam’s and Messerschmidt’s work would suggest. I argue that
we limit male femininities to the characteristics and practices that are culturally ascribed to
women, do the cultural work of situating the feminine in a complementary, hierarchical
relationship with the masculine, and are embodied by men. Because male femininities
threaten the hegemonic relationship between masculinity and femininity, they are both
feminizing and stigmatizing to the men who embody them. Just as we can identify
hegemonic masculinity by looking at the practices that are most stigmatized and feminized
when embodied by women, we can identify contextually specific hegemonic femininities
by identifying locally defined male femininities – the specific practices and characteristics
that are stigmatizing and feminizing when embodied by men. The benefits of not reducing
96 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
homosexuality to a subordinate masculinity become clear when we look at the symbolic
construction of masculinity and femininity within homosexual identity. Empirical research
consistently demonstrates that gay men claim their status as “real men” by defining their
embodiment of a gay identity in relation to in inferior feminine form – as a “straight gay” in
relation to effeminate gay men (Connell, 1992; Smith, Kippax, & Chapple, 1998), as “bear”
in relation to “twink” (Hennen, 2005), or as “top” in relation to “bottom” (Kippax & Smith,
2001; Lambevski, 1999; Underwood, 2003). Being a “straight gay”, a bear, and a top are
masculine to the extent that they embody characteristics symbolically defined as masculine.
Being effeminate, a twink, a bottom are male femininities in that they are symbolically
constructed as men embodying femininity.
As defined here, there are features of femininity and masculinity that are not central to
forming and legitimating a hierarchical relationship between men and women, and thus are
neither particularly feminizing nor stigmatizing. For example, Matthew Gutmann, in his
study of changing gender meanings and practices in Mexico City, found that working-class
men often participate in childcare and do not lose status by doing so (Gutmann, 1996). As
Gutmann explains, for lower-class families, economic changes have necessitated men’s
participation in childcare, which, in turn, has led to ideological changes in the meanings of
fatherhood and its centrality for defining manliness. In contrast, men in the higher classes
still draw a distinct line between fathering and mothering where fathers provide economic
support and mothers do all of the physical care and nurturing. At the same time, for all
classes, caring for children and motherhood are still central features of femininity. Because
there is little stigma attached to men’s fathering practices, nurturing children is not, in the
context of working-class Mexico City, a male femininity. It is, however, a male femininity
among the higher classes, illustrated by the consistency with which upper class men
attached a feminizing stigma to men who “carry their babies”. Fathering, then, is not a
feature of hegemonic masculinity in working-class Mexico City because the meanings for
fathering as a component of masculinity do not establish a naturalized, hierarchical
relationship between women and men. It is, however, still a feature of hegemonic
masculinity among men in the upper classes.
Limiting hegemonic femininity and masculinity to only those characteristics and
practices that articulate a complementary and hierarchical relationship between women
and men offers conceptual and empirical space to identify idealized gender characteristics
that do not perpetuate male dominance and therefore can be viewed as positive and
valuable. For example, Lena Eskilsson’s (2003) research on a logging culture in the
northern pine forest region of late nineteenth century Sweden suggests that, while there
were characteristics considered masculine and feminine, valued masculine characteristics
were not defined in hierarchical relation or in opposition to femininity. Masculinity
consisted of a strong work ethic, skill, and maturity and was not juxtaposed to inferior and
complementary characteristics valued in women. Not coincidentally from the perspective of
the theoretical model provided here, Eskilsson found little evidence of male dominance in
this culture despite a gender division of labor, gender segregation, and differences in the
qualities valued as masculine and feminine.
Further, as I have argued elsewhere, a focus on the relationship between masculinity and
femininity opens up the possibility for empirically identifying ways in which hegemonic
femininity and masculinity, pariah femininities, and male femininities can be intentionally
replaced with, what I call alternative femininities and masculinities (Schippers, 2002). In
that study, I identified how members of a specific rock subculture reject hegemonic
masculinity and femininity as defined within the specific cultural discourse of mainstream
rock culture. Instead of valuing the characteristics and practices that symbolically situates
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 97
the male rock musician in relation to and dominant over the female groupie, members
publicly and consistently repudiate the practices of both musicians and groupies in
mainstream rock through their music, their practices, and their talk. Through the
proliferation of an alternative set of meanings for being a musician and for erotic attraction
to musicians, men and women in the subculture establish alternative femininities and
masculinities that provide a rationale for individual and social practice at the rock show. In
this case, alternative femininities and masculinities are discursively valued traits and
practices in women and men that do not articulate a complementary relation of dominance
and subordination between women and men.
As the examples above suggest, what actual characteristics and practices are idealized as
masculine and feminine is ultimately an empirical question and will vary by context, group,
and society. The importance of context cannot be overstated here. Because of cultural,
economic, political, and social variation across groups and societies, what specific features
of masculinity and femininity ensure men’s dominance over women as a group will vary
depending on context (Dellinger, 2004). While there might be overarching features of
hegemonic masculinity and femininity that cross-cut contexts, groups, and perhaps
societies, what those are is an empirical question. In fact, when looking at empirical
explorations of masculinity in a Western context, we find that even heterosexual desire can
sometimes take a back seat to other, more salient masculine characteristics within a
particular context. For instance, Eric Anderson (2002) found that openly gay athletes were
not stigmatized for their homosexuality as long as their athletic abilities provided, what he
calls, masculinity insurance (p. 865), meaning the men were superior athletes and
embodying this feature of masculinity overshadowed their gay identities. In the context
of sport then, perhaps superior athletic ability is an equally central feature of hegemonic
masculinity along with heterosexual desire (Messner, 1992). Interestingly, this masculinity
insurance was effective in preventing the contaminating effects of homosexual desire only
if the gay athletes did not publicly express any homosexual desire around their teammates.
Further, when sexuality did emerge as salient, the gay athletes reported having to
sometimes express desire for women sometimes, to prove to their teammates that they were
just “normal guys”.
Finally, I suggest that we move away from defining variation in gendered practice across
different races, classes, and settings as different masculinities and femininities, and instead
understand this variation as hegemonic masculinity and femininity refracted through race
and class difference. There is no reason to suggest that within the logic of gender difference,
masculine and feminine qualities are not available to and required of women and men of
color and to working and poor, white women and men. What appear to be different
configurations of femininity and masculinity is instead group and cultural variation in the
embodiment of hegemonic femininity and masculinity. Though the culturally specific forms
of masculinity and femininity might vary, in their relationship to culturally specified
characteristics of hegemonic masculinity within the setting or group, they reify hierarchical
gender difference and legitimate male dominance. This opens space for empirically
identifying hegemonic femininity in white, middle-class culture and non-white, nonmiddle-class culture. For instance, to build on the work of Pyke and Johnson (2003), we
might ask what are the characteristics and practices valued in white, middle-class women
that hetero-sexualize their relationship to white, middle-class men? What idealized features
of femininity construct them as weak or ineffectual in relation to white, middle-class men?
And what are the characteristics that do the same in Asian-American cultures and
communities? We could also explore culturally and community specific forms of pariah
femininities and male femininities.
98 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
But what of the relationship between white and Asian femininities identified by Pyke and
Johnson? If gender identity is constructed through Western discourse as the ontological
substance of human subjectivity, as Butler (1990) suggests, then excluding subordinate race
and class groups from being “real” women and men provides a legitimating rationale for their
social, political, and economic subordination. Thus, as is so clearly demonstrated by Pyke
and Johnson, minority racial/ethnic groups and working and poor classes are constructed as
undeserving “others” or as problematic because of their gender practices. As Pyke and
Johnson show, stereotypes of or the actual gender practices of subordinate race and class
groups or nations are often supportive of gender hegemony, but only as they intersect with
race and class hegemony. However, race and class differences in gender performance or
social organization, not embodied and institutionalized gender differences between women
and men, provide the rationale for placing upper- and middle-class, white men and women
higher in social status than others and rendering the gender practices of others as illegitimate.
As gender meanings cross-cut other systems of inequality, they are folded into and
support race and class hegemony. It is through racist and class-based ideology that
differences among women and among men in gender practice along the lines of race and
class are constructed as differences in value or as moral or social problems. For example,
Julie Bettie’s research on class and ethnic relations among high school girls interrogates
differences in the girls’ embodiment, practices, desires, and goals (Bettie, 2003). She finds
that differences in the girls’ race-class performances of femininity reflected and perpetuated
structural inequalities along the lines of ethnicity and class. Importantly, Bettie found that
peers and adults read all of the girls through the lens of heterosexuality across ethnicity and
class. However, the “preps” or middle-class white girls’ performance of heterosexuality was
interpreted as the only legitimate embodiment of “good girl” and “good student”. In
contrast, Las Chicas, working-class Mexican-American girls, were interpreted by teachers
and administrators as hyper-sexual and focused more on hetero-romance than school
because of their performance of race-class femininity. It is significant to point out that
Bettie found that Las Chicas’ race-class performance of femininity, as articulated by the
girls themselves, was less about hetero-romance and more about resisting their class and
ethnic location in school hierarchies. Las Chicas and the preps embody their gender
identities and are intelligible as Las Chicas and preps by performing the characteristics,
preferences, and desires idealized within their specific structural and cultural location.
Despite these race and class differences, all the girls embody the social location girl and, as
Bettie identifies, heterosexuality. Both groups of girls, Las Chicas and the preps, experience
their embodiment of femininity as legitimate and desirable in relation to girls and boys
within their ethnicity and class location. The privilege experienced by the preps is an
outcome of the symbolic construction by teachers, administrators, and the preps of Las
Chicas performance of femininity as inferior and outside the definition of good girl and
good student. As Bettie astutely points out, though the derision expressed by teachers,
administrators, and the preps is a discourse of gender, the hierarchies themselves are about
race and class difference, not gender. Although Bettie does not focus on the relationships
between boys and girls, one can imagine that the performance of femininity, across class,
reflects and reproduces the heterosexual matrix in race-class specific forms. Only by
analyzing hegemonic femininity in both groups of girls can we begin to identify how
femininity is implicated in male dominance across race and class. This allows us to
conceptualize and empirically analyze hegemonic gender relations between women and
men of subordinated class and race groups while also recognizing how the cultural
construction of those practices serve dominant class and race interests. By excluding
members of some groups from being “real” or “good” women and men, white supremacy
Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102 99
and class privilege are legitimated at the same time that the idealized quality content of
masculinity and femininity is reinforced in both socially dominant groups and socially
subordinate groups. Gender hegemony benefits from race and class hegemony when the
gender practices of subordinate race and class groups are defined as problematic or deviant
in order to reify and legitimate the ideal quality content for femininity and masculinity.
However, the function of these hierarchies is not to reify and legitimate gender difference
and gender hierarchy, though they rely on and ultimately support the gender order. The
function of the stigmatization and material sanction is to establish hierarchies of value on
the basis of race and class difference and legitimate local, regional, and global relations of
race and class inequality.
Conclusion: implications for research
With the new model, any empirical exploration of masculinity and femininity and their role
in gender hegemony must focus on relationality. The following questions can be explored
in localized settings and in broader structures. 1) What characteristics or practices are
understood as manly in the setting? 2) What characteristics or practices are womanly? 3) Of
those practices and characteristics, which situate femininity as complementary and inferior
to masculinity? Answering these questions, especially the third question, will empirically
identify hegemonic masculinity and femininity, and importantly, the features of masculinity
and femininity that are not hegemonic-that is, those characteristics and practices valued in
women or in men that do not naturalize and endorse a hierarchical bond between the
masculine and feminine and men and women. Other questions can also lead to better
understanding of hegemonic femininity and hegemonic masculinity in particular settings.
1) What characteristics or practices of women are defined as feminine, contaminating, or
disruptive? That is, what are the pariah femininities circulating? 2) What characteristics or
practices of men are defined as feminine, contaminating, or disruptive? What are the male
femininities? Answering these questions, however, is just the beginning of understanding
gender inequality as it operates in local settings. The consequences of embodying these
ideals and putting them into social practice in terms of the distribution of power, resources,
and value are the true measures of gender inequality. Masculinity and femininity are
configurations of meaning and not practice, but it is only by identifying how putting these
ideals into practice results in unequal power relations and distribution of resources that we
can truly know if they constitute hegemonic femininity and hegemonic masculinity. This
suggests that simply asking people what the ideal characteristics are for women and for men
and then deciding how the characteristics line up as complementary and hierarchical will
not be enough. We would have to see which features of femininity and masculinity are put
into practice, deployed as a rationale for practice, and institutionalized to establish and
naturalize hierarchical and complementary social relationships between women and men
and those who do not fit either category.4 Our focus would not be identifying and
4 Here I am referring to transgender. Judith Butler (2004) suggests that the heterosexual matrix or binary
construction of hetero-difference to define “man” and ‘woman’ makes transgender un-intelligible and
therefore, transgressive. It is essential to recognize that gender hegemony does not simply ensure men’s
dominance over women, but also men’s dominance over people who are neither men nor women and
women’s dominance over people who are neither men nor women. Gender inequality is not simply the
unequal distribution of resources, power, and value between women and men, but also between those who
embody intelligible gender and those who do not. And gender hegemony, as conceptualized here, explains
how masculinity and femininity ensure and legitimate those relations of domination as well.
100 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102
describing the behavior of women and men, but the power relations and distribution of
resources among women, men, and others and how masculinity and femininity as networks
of meaning legitimate and ensure that structure. By researching masculinities and
femininities as conceptualized here, we can better understand the operation of gender
hegemony in local, regional, and global relations of inequality, and identify local, regional,
and global ways to challenge gender hegemony.
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studies, and sex. Theory and Society, 22(5), 697–709.
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masculinities, volume 1 (pp. 115–126). Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate.
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Mimi Schippers Is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Tulane University. The general
focus of her research is the embodiment and interactional production of gender and sexuality in everyday life
and culture. She is particularly interested in theorizing the links between embodiment, identities, meanings,
and interaction and broader relations of inequality. She is currently writing a book in which she compares
gay, lesbian, and straight bars in Chicago and Paris to identify culturally specific ways in which public
settings are hetero-sexualized through embodiment, interaction, and the control of space. Her current research
includes an ethnography of a street corner in New Orleans where the highly eroticized, straight bars of
Bourbon Street end and the gay bars begin. She is author of Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in
Alternative Hard Rock. Rutgers University Press, 2002.
102 Theor Soc (2007) 36:85–102

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