Theorizing Men and Men’s Theorizing: Mapping the Trajectory of the Development of Victorian Masculinity Studies

Natasha Anand

IGNOU (New Delhi), India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


This article presents an overview of critical studies on Victorian men and Victorian masculinity. It begins by defining masculinity and delineating how its sociology is typically understood as consisting of three main ‘waves.’ It then proceeds to tracing the early beginnings of Victorian Masculinity Studies through the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Subsequently, it provides a reading of major works on Victorian masculinity from the 1990s to the 2000s. In so doing, it argues how the trajectory of both literary and historical scholarship has moved away from the traditional focus on a unitary, homogeneous, and culturally sanctioned form of Victorian masculinity to the plurality of Victorian masculinities. Drawing from Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity, which posits a hierarchy of multiple masculinities engaged in power relations, the article reviews works that examine a series of dominant as well as subordinate masculinities as created, negotiated and sustained in the Victorian era. The article finally shows how the analysis of multiple forms of Victorian masculinity points toward the fluidity and instability of masculine identities thereby constructing the subject of Victorian masculinity as an ever-changing theoretical phenomenon embedded within historically, culturally and socially embedded discourse that is crucial not only to an understanding of Victorian studies but also to the academic study of both literature and history.

Keywords: hegemonic masculinity, masculinity vs. masculinities, subordinate masculinity, Victorian gender ideology


(a) Defining Masculinity

What is ‘masculinity’? Is ‘masculinities’ a more appropriate term? If yes, then how are Victorian masculinities socially, culturally and historically constructed? What are some of the ways in which Victorian masculinities have been conceived, researched, studied and theorized? It is imperative to state here that because the answer to the first question paves the way for answers to the remaining three, this article characteristically begins by tracing the origin and meaning of the basic term—masculinity.

The concept of masculinity or masculinities in its current form was first used in the mid-1980s, although prior to that, it had already been employed in psychology (Brod & Kaufman1994). In 1985 a classic article by Carrigan, Connell, and Lee was called “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity.” This was followed by Jeffrey Weeks’ Sexuality (1986), a text that coined the term ‘masculinities.’ A year later, a collection edited by Brod was called The Making of Masculinities, and by 1989 Jeff Hearn referred to ‘masculinities’ as a term describing issues and research about men. This being its foundation, what indeed does masculinity mean? The closest answer to this question is perhaps that masculinity encompasses all those values, perspectives, behaviours, practices, gestures, forms of speech, and body language which are typically associated with males and therefore culturally defined as not feminine. In this sense, masculinity is dependent on its others (e.g., women and gay men) for its definition. It follows then that masculinity is inherently relational rather than merely the product of genetic coding or biological predispositions (Clatterbaugh 1990; Whitehead & Barrett 2001). Because each culture that treats men and women as bearers of polarized character types embodies and exercises this concept of masculinity (Alsop et al 2002), it becomes important to pay attention, as the next section of this article does, to historical change and historical specificity that illustrate the social construction of masculinity, and to the plurality of ways in which masculinity is lived, practiced and sustained.

(b) The Sociology of Masculinity

The sociology of masculinity comprises the critical study of men and as such, it not only originates from but is also influenced by, and aligns itself with, feminist theories. But where feminist thinking tends to oversimplify the position of men in the gender order by upholding and amplifying their socioeconomic advantages against women, and viewing them in a somewhat universalist and unidimensional mode, as heads of family and state who wield power in a patriarchal society, Masculinity Studies strives to problematize this largely reductionist interpretation and challenges the portrait of men as essentialist. Masculinity Studies, then, in many ways, is the double of feminist criticism as it examines the social construction of and changes in ‘masculinities’ (as opposed to ‘masculinity’) based on men’s differences in sexuality, class, race, nationality and other such factors.

Since its beginnings, the sociology of masculinity has traversed across three distinctive theoretical ‘waves,’ almost in tandem with corresponding shifts in the theoretical patterns of feminist thinking. Influenced by the initial activity of the Men’s Liberation Movements located in Britain and North America, the first of these waves emerged during the 1970s and was concerned with the problematic of the male role, and the accompanying socialization processes and social control. It contended that men too, like women, are harmed by sexism in internalizing and attempting to conform to dominant expectations of masculine ideology, a process that Joseph Pleck (1981) has termed “male gender role discrepancy” (13). After the first developments were made under the paradigm of gender-role theory, the second wave of Masculinity Studies began to form following third wave feminism in the late 1980s. During this phase, Masculinity Studies focused on the experience of marginal and minority men and was concerned with issues pertaining to class, ethnicity, sexual identity and so forth. Exemplified by the work of Carrigan, Connell and Lee (1985), second wave theorizing introduced hegemonic masculinity as the touchstone concept of Masculinity Studies, and consequently the notion of plurality was established as a central tenet of masculinity. Derived from the Gramscian notion of hegemony, Connell defined hegemonic masculinity as the dominant masculine ideal of a culture (1987:183; 1995:77). This was followed by third wave theorizing in the early 1990s that viewed gender as a main discursive metaphor for exercising power. Prevalent even today, it is chiefly concerned with unraveling the complex relationship between men’s identities, and the naturalization of, as well as resistance to, patriarchal power. This cultural turn within the sociology of masculinity has been primarily influenced by feminist post-structuralism as well as theories of post-modernity (Butler 1990; Nicholson 1990), and focuses on questions of normativity, performativity and sexuality.

It is against such a background that this article charts the trajectory of the development of Victorian Masculinity Studies. Because the discourse on Victorian Masculinity Studies cannot be separated from the larger discourse within its parent field, that of Masculinity Studies, any overview of the former must necessarily begin with, and be informed by, an outline of the latter. This overarching context of the meaning and sociology of masculinity therefore equips us with the tools required to examine the growth of Victorian Masculinity Studies from its early stages to the present day.


Drawing from Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell’s theory which disrupts the notion of a singular, uniform masculinity to argue that there exist, instead, multiple forms of masculinities, each engaged in the power struggle to gain ascendancy over the other, this article employs her classification of the categories of hegemonic and subordinate masculinity (1987; 1995). Because the trajectory of Victorian Masculinity Studies essentially involves academic forays into both these hierarchical groups of masculinities—one that fits into the dominant or hegemonic ideal (heterosexual and therefore viewed in the Victorian era as normative), and another that qualifies as a subordinate type (homosexual and therefore viewed in the Victorian era as non-normative)—the article oscillates between providing a recapitulation of works that deal with the social and historical pressures which conditioned, characterized and bolstered the former with all its concomitant cultural denominations, complexities, contradictions and conflicts; and a summation of those that set out to tabulate the history, anxieties and the ideological as well as iconographical representations of the latter. In so doing, some of the research questions asked are: What distinguishes hegemonic and subordinate forms of masculinity? If social constructs such as the heterosexual and the gentleman are read as hegemonic, how are these located in the history, culture and ideology of the Victorian era? If non-normative figures such as the homosexual and the effeminate man are read as subordinate, how does this reflect questions of masculine identity and sexuality prevalent at the time? Finally, how does the dialogic framework between these two different kinds of male gender behavior operate in the context of the development of Victorian Masculinity Studies…Full Text PDF

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