The Failure of Masculinity

By Matthew Cheney

I had something else ready for this column, but then I read a story in the New York Times with this opening paragraph:

It started with a Twitter message on Sept. 19: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Two days later, another Twitter message:

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again."

The next day, the subject of these messages, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a first-year student at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.

It was at least the fourth suicide of an American teenager during the month of September because of homophobic harassment or bullying.

In Houston, Texas, 13-year-old Asher Brown suffered relentless bullying, with students making fun of him for various reasons—he was Buddhist, had Asperger's Syndrome, spoke with a lisp, wasn't the most coordinated kid, and, his father said, "Yes, he was gay."

In Greensburg, Indiana, 15-year-old Billy Lucas endured constant bullying from classmates who assumed he was gay. He hanged himself.

In Tehachapi, California, 13-year-old Seth Walsh was openly gay, and his peers tormented him because of it. He tried to hang himself in the backyard of his house, and spent nine days in a coma before his parents gave permission for life-support to be ended.

These are just the suicides we know about right now, the ones that have gotten some headlines. There have been many others and there will be many more.

(In the Annoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, the largest school district in the state, seven students have killed themselves since January, and at least four of those students had reportedly been victims of homophobic abuse.)

I am saddened and sickened by these cases, but I have trouble blaming the harassers too much. Certainly, I hope they realize how their actions made another person feel so lonely, so injured, so hopeless that death seemed like a good option. It would be a mistake, though, to pretend the abusers are simply little monsters, separate from the society of which they are a part.

This is about homophobia, yes, but it's also about gender roles. Suzanne Pharr has called homophobia "a weapon of sexism," and her analysis seems accurate to me—homophobic abuse is a tool used to valorize certain ideas of masculinity and punish deviations from it.

C. J. Pascoe developed this idea in a book with one of the most attention-grabbing titles of any academic text I know: Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Pascoe's book is an ethnographic study of a suburban school, and it draws on feminist and queer theories to analyze the processes that build and support concepts of masculinity. "Achieving a masculine identity," she writes, "entails the repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity," and she sees "the school itself as an organizer of sexual practices, identities, and meanings." She found that official school policies and practices encouraged narrow views of gender and sexuality, and she discovered that teachers said and did things to create a "collective affirmation of masculinity" which "replicated definitions of masculinity as homophobic and sexist."

The ideal masculinity espoused by the cultures of most American high schools is a power fantasy—"real men" are strong, dominant, and heterosexual. Boys have two ways to show that they are striving for this ideal: they can try to demonstrate power and mastery over girls, and they can try to show that they have not failed in their masculinity by taunting boys who are weaker or less conformingly masculine than themselves. Pascoe calls these the twin gender strategies of confirmation (compulsory heterosexuality, proved through dominance over women) and repudiation ("the fag discourse"). In Pascoe's study, behaviors that expressed these strategies almost always occurred when boys were together in groups, because these are types of gender performance, and they need an audience.

The harassment of Tyler Clementi was somewhat different from the bullying of Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and Seth Walsh: it was not only about enforcing norms of masculinity and heterosexuality, but also about sex as spectacle and homosex as freakshow. It's possible that Clementi's harassers would have watched and encouraged other people to watch if Clementi had a woman in the room instead of a man, but it's unlikely that it would have been as fascinating to them. The roommate watched from a woman's room ("Molly's") while the room he shared became a stage for homosex, though the actors had no idea they had an audience. They watched because they perceived what they saw as abnormal, worthy of notice, and they shared because doing so not only punished the abnormality (through assumed shame), but also strengthened their own claim on normality. We watch freakshows not just to gawk at monsters, but to feel less strange ourselves.

Mere compassion and tolerance will not stop victims of homophobic attacks from feeling so abject that oblivion becomes their only desire. The forces that construct and police masculinity as something homophobic and sexist must be weakened. We must encourage and practice gender strategies that do not enact power fantasies and freakshows. We must build our identities from something other than domination and abjection.

I'm not convinced the concepts "masculinity" and "femininity" do us much good—but if we must have such concepts, then we should strive to create a society in which the only failed masculinity is a masculinity that destroys other ways of being.

Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site,, and the anthologies Logorrhea, and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.