In her 2004 book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, prolific Black feminist scholar bell hooks writes, “Nowadays I am amazed that women who advocate feminist politics have had so little to say about men and masculinity.” While feminist theory and activism has leveled staunch critiques of patriarchal power since the 1970s, hooks argues that little feminist work has explored how masculinity impacts men.
In the 20 years since hooks published The Will to Change, academic and popular culture explorations of masculinity have proliferated. Spurred by #GamerGate, Trump’s election, the rise of incels, and the #MeToo movement, many recent books, podcasts, and think pieces explore the dangers of “toxic masculinity” and how men can reject it. While conversations about toxic masculinity are now mainstream, these discussions often have a limited focus on how masculinity impacts white, straight, and cis men.
Allison Hammer’s new book Masculinity in Transition examines how non-dominant forms of masculinity help us rethink what it means to be masculine. Hammer, an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University, closely analyzes how a variety of film, television, and literary texts show us new ways of being and relating to masculinity. Their book is less interested in reforming what they call “normative masculinity” than seeing how particular examples of feminist, queer, and trans masculinities expose the fragility of masculinity itself.
Hammer joins other feminist scholars in criticizing the patriarchal, white supremacist, and capitalist roots of normative masculinity. However, their book focuses on what they call “unruly alliances”: relationships rooted in “a politics of solidarity” shaped by “the kinds of bonds that occur outside of heteronormative domestic family relations.” Hammer finds “unruly alliances” in forms of cultural production that emphasize transformative experiences of care and mutual aid. By reconceptualizing masculinity to center non-hierarchical relationships that transcend identity, Hammer argues that “masculinity becomes no longer wielded to dominance.”
When I talked to Hammer about Masculinity in Transition in January, they shared, ”what I really wanted to do was, instead of individual agency, to think about collective responses to toxic masculinity.” Rather than focus on individual, exceptional figures of toxic masculinity (think: Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, or Harvey Weinstein), Hammer wanted to explore masculinity as a cultural form that people of all genders can embody. “I was looking for examples that progress us forward,” they said. “Masculinities are really blossoming into this wide and beautiful variety. And so that was really important to me, to look for templates, to look for ways in which people come together around masculinity, and when the more generative aspects of masculinity become available.”
Hammer’s own relationship to masculinity was part of the inspiration for this work. Around the time toxic masculinity entered the zeitgeist in the mid-2010s, Hammer came out as non-binary:
“It was a very interesting time to come out…I really started to meditate deeply on what that meant for me because…a lot of the men that have been around me in my life are not people that I would want to emulate. So obviously, I’d been looking to ‘butch,’ but that didn’t quite resonate with me. I didn’t feel like I was a butch, like I’m not a [Leslie] Feinberg! I don’t have a motorcycle. I don’t know how to use tools,” they joked.
“And it was really my students and younger people who were more supportive of me coming out as non-binary. But I noticed a lack of nuance [in other conversations]. When I had top surgery, I would have feminist colleagues ask me if I wanted to go by he/him. It was almost an assumption that once certain changes take place, one is now on the ‘masculine side.’ And there are still accusations of internalized misogyny that transmasc people face, [as if] that ‘must’ drive them to do these things…So I was looking for examples, and I was looking for courage, and I was looking for community within the objects and movements that I was looking at. I found myself taking a very queer methodological approach of, this is a very eclectic collection of things and it maps on to some part of me. It maps onto some interest that I’ve had, that all just came together in this archive.”
While Hammer is careful not to romanticize any particular form of masculinity, they primarily look for unruly alliances in masculinities expressed by feminist, queer, and trans cultural figures. Some of Hammer’s case studies include the work of queer Chicana performance artist Nao Bustamante, contemporary TV series like Godless and WestWorld, the 1992 film The Crying Game, Black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ 1994 film Black Is…Black Ain’t, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” and the poetry of Gloria Anzaldúa, Emily Dickinson, Andrea Gibson, and Samuel Ace.
Hammer often puts these texts in conversation with one another, closely reading (or as they call it, “reading again”) for the resonances between them. The variety of texts span both historical and contemporary art: they want to “use the past as a resource to envision more livable futures,” they tell me, “not to dwell in the pessimism of the present.”
Central to Hammer’s understanding of “unruly alliances” is the need to “bond with people across political differences.” This often happens during times of crisis (the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, for example), but can happen in day-to-day interactions as well. “I got a lot of information about masculinity from my bisexual Buddhist stepdad,” Hammer says, who “had the same ethos of connecting [to others] and had the quality of being bold enough to say when he disagreed with something.”
Unruly alliances are “something that I live by,” Hammer reflected. “It’s sometimes easier to work within affinity groups. Of course we need that right now. But I don’t want to ossify into that either. I’m finding that sometimes when you talk to people you don’t think are going to be friendly, there may be some glimmer of understanding that then moves in a direction. Especially now that I live in a rural place, I try to keep an open mind.” As they write in the book, “What is needed is an expansion of what relationality can mean, across embodiment, gender identification, and sexuality.”
Hammer’s focus on relationality and care blurs the lines between masculinity and femininity. Indeed, they write, “Perhaps masculinity and femininity exist in fractal-like combinations, in fluctuating proportions that are subject to the movement of time and history.” Having recently read The Color Pynk: Black Femme Art for Survival, I found myself wondering about the (fractal-like?) relationship between masculinity studies and femininity studies and how we might discuss these embodiments and concepts together.
Hammer finds possibility in the ways that “masculinity is a fragile positionality.” That is, “masculine normativity often disrupts itself, as no subject position or group formation can maintain this kind of drive to be on top in all situations without rupture and contradiction.” In other words, if normative masculinity isn’t a stable form, we can find lots of ways to disrupt it. They elaborate, “Ultimately, the goal should be to envision all masculinity, and all genders for that matter, as malleable and subject to change, which helps avoid toxic traps, making it less likely that the traps will be built in the first place.”
To theorize about their case studies, Hammer draws on a variety of scholarship: both continental Western philosophy (what some call “high theory”) as well as more contemporary trans, queer, and feminist scholarship. While at times dense and abstract, it makes sense to draw upon the work of Western philosophical theories of masculinity in order to deconstruct it. By combining these texts with the work of masculinity studies, and transmasculine academics in particular, Masculinity in Transition stages a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary conversation about gender, embodiment, and cultural production.
Towards the end of our conversation, Hammer says they hope Masculinity in Transition inspires people to read and watch the film, poetry, and literature they analyze. “I invite you to look at these because they’ve had meaning for me,” Hammer adds, “and I hope that they might have meaning for you.” As Hammer writes, “cultural production can propose new ways of relating and being” that inspire us to rethink our understanding of masculinity. With Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign once again igniting cultural conversations about toxic masculinity, perhaps looking to art that imagines masculinity otherwise can move us all to build the unruly alliances we need to create and sustain a more just future.