K. Allison Hammer's 'Masculinity in Transition'

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday January 9, 2024
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Author K. Allison Hammer
Author K. Allison Hammer

In this current moment in history, K. Allison Hammer's new academic tome "Masculinity in Transition" provides, a "vision of gender justice in a time of selective care and empathy."

The book grew out of Jack Halberstam's book "Female Masculinity," and addresses both patriarchy in the real world, and gender as ideology. A central argument of the book is that masculinity cannot be viewed apart from our corrupt socioeconomic system, "racial capitalism."

Hammer is a faculty member at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale's in the Women Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. She is also a multi-disciplinary artist and cultural critic.

The book does an admirable job of tracing the complex set of ideologies that developed out of our nation's abused and abusive colonial past, as well as our economic and political systems of power.

But this book is unique in that it examines systemic normative masculinity, taking the focus away from individual bad actors, proposing how a broad range of transgender and queer masculinities have redefined what it means to be masculine. Furthermore, "Masculinity in Transition" questions why trans masculinities are separate from the study of cis masculinity. Rather than focusing on cisnormativity, whiteness, and heteronormativity, the book moves the field toward a more complete picture of masculinity.

My one criticism is that it is counter-productive to use the term "white supremacy" to describe anything other than the KKK, Neo-Nazis and similar groups, its longstanding definition. Yes, institutional racism is baked into the system, but it is very different from actual white supremacy. Conflating the two unintentionally normalizes the viewpoints and behaviors we collectively seek to extinguish.

Author K. Allison Hammer  

Unruly Alliances & Butch Exceptionalism
Because masculinity is very much in transition, not fixed, it can be influenced by "unruly alliances," which are "reimaginings of masculinity found in the writings and artistic performances of butch lesbians, gay men, cisgender femmes, and trans and nonbinary individuals."

Hammer makes this highly academic work more accessible by including analyses of changing masculinities in fascinating artistic works such as the films "Brokeback Mountain" and the far lesser known "Silver & Gold" (2009) by Nao Bustamante.

Additionally, feminist masculinity is explored in chapter 4, "Virtue is Divided: Unruly Alliances in Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein." The writings of celebrated 20th-century butch writers Cather and Stein show them nostalgically admiring WWI soldiers while also expressing the need to care for them.

Hammer coined the term "butch exceptionalism," not exclusive to lesbians or trans men, for this type of masculinity. It is a mature and caring masculinity that transcends the self. These aspects of Hammer's work are of great interest to the academic community.

Today's Toxic Masculinity
"We are living under the ugly shadow of brotherhood and patriarchy," stated Hammer on BookTalk. The problems now are "less about fatherhood now and more about brotherhood run amok," a brotherhood too immature to sustain democracy (what happened to good sportsmanship?) if it sees nothing wrong with banning together to terrorize us, as was done in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021.

Hammer rebrands "toxic masculinity," as "normative masculinity," but I would argue it is better termed "immature masculinity" or "men acting like toddlers." As we've seen, many males today, even on the world stage, are unashamed to openly behave like toddlers. The sacrifice demanded of men in the past to do their duty to job, family, and country for the sake of their wives and children have severely eroded. Today, men settle for inward-looking vain prerogative.

Hammer is open about the fact that her view of masculinity was shaped by an abusive father. Those of us who had stellar male role models in our family (men who devoted themselves to developing their talents and to positive productivity) may have important contributions to the discourse.

For example, it's clear society is complicit in dumbing manhood down to the toddler stage of getting what one wants when one wants it (through the Internet, the weaponizing of masculinity in the music industry, normalization of overindulgence in drugs/alcohol and no-fault divorce). And indeed, both toxic femininity and toxic masculinity are on the rise.

Queer Masculinities
Hammer shows that while queer masculinities can and have made significant contributions toward correcting toxic masculinity, the trend is that "trans and queer masculinities often reiterate similar patterns of behavior." This is a serious departure from the past, when the gay movement was all about freedom for consenting adults because love is love, a message that resonates far and wide.

As the book was published, news emerged that music mogul P. Diddy/Sean Combs, long-time lovers with Clive Davis, allegedly forced male artists to have sex with him in exchange for record deals. It is a treacherous display of domination, an atavistic return to the abuses of the ancient world, and it is indefensible.

If this is where things are going, setbacks to the gay movement will inevitably follow. The social sciences have traditionally been very good at documenting pathologies, but focus less on providing a picture of health and how to achieve it.

In contrast, "Masculinity in Transition" imagines a future masculinity that is healthy, and no longer needs to be superhuman, but can fully embrace the full meaning of being human, which naturally includes human vulnerability.

In particular, it looks toward a future in which pathological masculinity is healed and the events now taking place in Gaza, an open demonstration of masculinity at its most psychotic, can never take place again.

'Masculinity in Transition' by K. Allison Hammer, University of Minnesota Press, $24.95.www.upress.umn.edu

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