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  • Deconstructing Hegemonic Masculinity:Understanding Representations of Black and White Manhood in Print Advertising
  • Kevin D. Thomas (bio)


Hegemonic masculinity is a symbiotic construction. Left to its own devices, hegemonic masculinity would collapse in upon itself because it would no longer be able to support the weight of the myths upon which it is built. It is only through its relationship with other socially constructed concepts that hegemonic masculinity is able to thrive. Most notably, hegemonic masculinity derives its meaning and power through its dichotomous interaction with hegemonic femininity, particularly in the ways in which hegemonic femininity aids to define what hegemonic masculinity is not. If sensitivity, gentleness, and passivity were all coded as feminine traits, masculine traits would encompass their antithesis (i.e., indifference, aggressiveness, and domination). However, hegemonic masculinity is dependent upon more than hegemonic femininity for meaning.

Research related to advertising and hegemonic masculinity typically does not engage their relationship from an intersectional perspective. Developed by Black Feminist scholars, the theory of intersectionality presumes that sites of identity are inextricably linked.1 Rather than viewing identity characteristics as independent units, identity markers such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class are deemed as interacting on several, and often, overlapping spheres. As stated by Collins, an understanding of the self requires a clear comprehension of how identity characteristics interrelate with one another, societal systems, and structures.2 Research conducted using an intersectional approach provides such a perspective.

A look back at representations of black and white masculinity during and directly after the antebellum era3 clearly illustrates the importance of incorporating intersectionality into the study of hegemonic masculinity. Prior to the end of enslavement, the Sambo figure represented the dominant discourse relating to black masculinity.4 This archetype was perceived as dim-witted, lazy, and happy-go-lucky. These are all traits that were clearly not associated with the dominant discourse of white masculinity. White manhood was configured around enterprising thought, strong work ethic, and judiciousness.

It is important to juxtapose these constructions with dominant discourses of black femininity to illustrate a clear picture of the fluidity of hegemonic masculinity. During the antebellum period, black femininity was predominantly embodied in the Mammy caricature.5 She was positioned as a strong, diligent worker who was fiercely loyal to her white owners. Conversely, white femininity was portrayed as the nexus of beauty, morality, and respectability.6 As such, black femininity as it was embodied in the black female mammy was positioned closer to the understanding of white masculinity than to the construction of black masculinity as revealed in the black male Sambo. Black men were completely divorced from masculinity (in its white hegemonic form), while black women had masculine traits sutured onto their identity, thereby divorcing femininity (in its white hegemonic form) from black women. Following the end of enslavement, there was a turn in the dominant discourse of black masculinity—the Sambo gave way to the Brute Negro. As strikingly portrayed in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, the Brute Negro (as he is presented in the blackface character of Gus) was innately savage, animalistic, and a predator of white women. This characterization is a far cry from the antebellum Sambo. During slavery, the dominant portrayal of black masculinity framed black men as harmless imbeciles; post-emancipation, the discourse had reconstructed black masculinity and equated it with hyper-masculine savagery.7

In order to understand this shift, the state of the nation must be examined. During the time of the Sambo, it was in the nation's best interest to differentiate black masculinity from white masculinity—the institution of enslavement demanded it. Proponents of enslavement created and disseminated representations of black masculinity (and Blackness in general) that justified slavery and assuaged white guilt.8 Correlating black masculinity with an underdeveloped, childlike existence became part of the process of rationalizing and validating enslavement. This positioning bolstered the narrative that slave owners acted as surrogate parents dutifully guiding the progress of all of those within their sphere of influence.

However, post-emancipation Sambo ceased to be a productive site of black masculinity discourse. In order to uphold white supremacy, black masculinity was transformed from childlike to evil incarnate...