April 16, 2014

Maleness, Masculinity, and Professional Football

The NFL's response to homophobic remarks is proof that American hegemonic masculinity is changing

Print More


If you somehow missed it, there appears to be some pre Super Bowl drama for the San Francisco 49ers. In a media interview 49ers’ cornerback Chris Culliver made his thoughts on Gay people and any potential Gay players very clear: He doesn’t like them and they wouldn’t be welcome on his team.  The backlash to his comments has been amazing.  From teammates, coaches, and others in the NFL the response has been supportive of Gays and Lesbians with the message largely being: This man doesn’t represent us, we support the GLBT community and would welcome an openly Gay player on our teams.

I won’t go into the specifics, as it has already been covered in significant detail by various news outlets, blogs, and facebook status updates. If you don’t know anything about it, googling Chris Culliver should provide you with plenty of reading material.

Hegemonic Masculinity: What is it?

What I find interesting about this story is that it is proof that American hegemonic masculinity is changing. Yes, I know, “hegemonic masculinity” is one of those fancy academic phrases we like to use that sounds intimidating. My 25 cent definition for it is: the common sense, everyday stereotype of masculinity. It’s the image that immediately comes to your head when you think of masculinity. It’s the stereotypical idea of what we think is masculine and how a man is supposed to act.

It’s not a secret that American hegemonic masculinity has been obsessed with distancing itself from anything ‘Gay’ for a while. If you try to define masculinity, aside from “male” and “breadwinner”, it’s kind of hard. This is because masculinity is often defined by what it is not. The trend seems to be that while we may not know exactly what “is” masculine, we definitely can point out what “isn’t” masculine.

American Football: The Holy Grail of Masculinity

I think it’s safe to say that football is generally thought of as masculine. In fact, it’s the holy grail of American masculinity. Since men and masculinity are generally connected (please note that while connected, they are not the same thing and thus not equal to each other), football is how ‘guys’ bond. Some people may argue that if you don’t speak football, then you are not a man.

Masculnity and Heterosexuality

Of course, the backdrop of all this is assumed heterosexuality. For years, hegemonic masculinity has also assumed heterosexuality. So in a nutshell, American hegemonic masculinity has meant male, heterosexual, and football.

Homophobia: The Journey from Cool to Uncool

Over the past 20 years the GLBT community has blown the doors off the closet. Where GLBT characters simply didn’t exist in the 1990s, in 2013 GLBT characters not only exist in just about every major television show, entire primetime shows are built around GLBT families. As the mainstream culture’s idea of what it means to be gay diversified, it simultaneously humanized the GLBT community.

Where homophobia and heteronormative assumptions (heteronormative assumptions-the unquestioning belief that everyone around you is heterosexual) were once the unquestioned and assumed norm, the cultural shift has begun to stigmatize those who make homophobic comments. In other words: at some point in the past 10 years, making fun of gay people went from being cool to uncool.

Yes, I acknowledge in many places, homophobia is alive and well. Sadly, in these places, it is still ‘cool’ to be homophobic. However, those places are shrinking and not growing.

Breaking Down The Wall: Pro Sports and Homophobia

Am I surprised that 49ers Chris Culliver said the things that he did? No. Do I think he regrets making the comments? Yes. Do I think that his apology the next day represents how he authentically feels? Not really. Do I think he just had his world turned upside down? You Betcha!

Professional sports, and in this case the NFL, has been one of the last few places where you could make homophobic comments without any repercussions. Last year Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe articulately and passionately came out in support of gay marriage (If you haven’t read his letter, it’s definitely worth a google—it might be the only time you’ll ever read “narcissistic fromunda stain” in a sentence) and Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has publically supported and advocated for gay marriage in Maryland.

I think Chris Culliver somehow missed the memo that hegemonic masculinity was changing. For years he could make comments because no one called him out on it. For years, he probably made similar comments and was validated for them. If people weren’t laughing at or agreeing with his comments, they apparently never challenged him. This week, the American media did challenge him. This week, as he is about to go into the biggest game of his career, the American media, his coaches, and team owners made it very clear that that is not how an NFL player is supposed to act in public. Sure, some people will argue that this is just lip service. If the NFL is serious about supporting the GLBT community, Chris Culliver should have formal consequences, such as being taken out of the Super Bowl. Whether there are formal consequences or not, the very presence of a response is proof that things are changing. The fact that the response was immediate shows awareness that GLBT issues are on the radar of NFL leadership, not only to the general public, but also to all of the NFL players.

The Trickel Down Effect 

If maleness, masculinity, and professional football make up a large part of American Hegemonic Masculinity, then it appears that there may be a trickle down effect: public displays of homophobia are on the way out.

(NOTE: I know a lot of our Kinsey Confidential audience includes undergrads who have never taken a gender studies or human sexuality course. As a result,  I tried to keep this as basic as possible. If you want some advanced thinking, take this whole conversation and expand the idea of hegemonic masculinity to include race, social economics, religion, and physical body types)