13-May-20 Fragile Masculinity

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My new bedtime read is The Tesseract by Alex Garland (1998).  It tells the story of gangsters, mothers and children in Manila, through four interweaving story-lines.  I am only a quarter in, just starting the second story-line.  The first introduced the character of Don Pepe, a ruthless gang lord who runs various protection rackets.  We are told in one recollection how, in a moment of unguarded over-familiarity, a farm overseer pats Don Pepe briefly with a hand sticky with sweat and cane juice, marking his suit.  Don Pepe orders for the man’s hands to be amputated, fatally.

I am struck by how often in fiction and screen-writing, crime bosses exhibit all the traits of what we currently call ‘fragile masculinity’.  DiMuccio and Knowles (2019) describe fragile masculinity as, “anxiety felt by men who believe they are falling short of cultural standards of manhood”.  They say that it can “motivate compensatory attitudes/behaviours meant to restore the threatened status of ‘real’ manhood”.  Think of the thin skins on display in Goodfellas, Scarface, The Godfather trilogy, American Gangster or The Wire.  The term is also used to describe certain political bosses.

In some ways the ascription is circular.  The majority of lead criminal characters in fiction and on-screen are men (art imitates life).  These characters are almost always over-masculinised, because they in turn informed and exemplify the definitions of hegemonic masculinity, hypermasculinity or toxic masculinity.  All such idealised forms of masculinity lead those who try to embody them prone to fragility. 

Female criminal characters also tend to be positioned around a gender binary: seen to ‘take on’ masculine characteristics in order to perform their villainous acts.  Think of Lady Macbeth’s cry of “Unsex me here/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty!” Recent representations of female crime leads (such as Villanelle in the BBC America series Killing Eve) have tried to divest women from the role of love interest, ice queen or token woman, for example.

These women can order amputations, as women.

Fragile masculinity is a fictional trope in crime-writing and may appear too two-dimensional to be useful in applied criminology (or beyond).  Yet anyone working in the field of gender violence or with young male offenders will likely concur, applied with nuance and context, fragile masculinity appears to resonate. 

At the same time, strip back gender and it is perhaps fragility which is the key factor.  Formed early by emotional neglect, harsh treatment, or untrammelled social entitlement.  A fragility of ego, which would make a sticky hand mishap a grievous personal offence.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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