Affirmative reaction: new formations of white masculinity

Steve Garner

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewpeer-review


BOOK REVIEW: Mathew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks (eds), BLACK GREEK-LETTER ORGANIZATIONS 20: NEW DIRECTIONS IN THE STUDY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN FRATERNITIES AND SORORITIES, Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2011, 320 pp., $50.00 (hb).

Hamilton Carroll's reading of various forms of American media is that in response to a perceived current ‘crisis of masculinity’, white masculinities are being reformulated in specific ways suggesting that redemption is possible. This crisis positions white males as the victims of the turn toward public discourses of civil rights, equality and affirmative action since the 1960s. The book develops Carroll's interpretation of how these alternative versions of masculinity are articulated, in the ‘representational politics of identity’ (6). Here, white masculinity becomes plural, demonstrating its ‘multiple locations’ (7). Carroll argues that white masculinity makes itself marginal (e.g. queer, Irish, working-class, etc.) by turning to ‘a reactive strategy under which it redefines the normative by citing itself as a marginal identity’ (6), to re-position itself. The key term to describe the representations that Carroll identifies and analyses is ‘labile’, which embraces both mutability and mobility.

The multiple locations are explored in the six essays comprising the three main chapters. These deal with heroes, popular television, music and film. The character Jack Bauer from the series 24 serves as the starting point for this analysis of mutability, introducing the threads of individualism, duty and redemption through family values that reappear throughout the analysis. Presentations of heroism in illustrated stories and magazines follows: these representations are now dominated by firefighters, as white ethnic working-class heroes. Leading on from this is a discussion of working-class men at work, using the television series American Choppers. Here the values of production deadlines and creative craftwork are locked in tension, as two brothers embody the ‘bottom-line’ vs creative prongs of the world of labour and their importance within masculinity. Eminem's recuperation of ‘white trash’ in 8 Mile involves what Carroll sees as an ultimately reactionary embrace of individualism, as he makes temporary class alliances with black Detroiters in order to recreate himself as unconnected to the negative aspects of white working-classness.

While Eminem seeks to distance himself from his family and make a new one with kindred spirits, the protection of family (or of surrogate family) resurfaces as a theme in the essay on film: Michael Douglas's character in Traffic, Matt Damon's in Syriana and Clint Eastwood's in Million Dollar Baby all stabilize themselves by (re-)assuming a patriarchal position.

I found Carroll's reading coherent, convincing and resonant in many respects with the ethnographies and qualitative interviewing projects on American whiteness with which I am more familiar. Addressing whiteness as contingent, heterogeneous and rooted in cultural, political and economic shifts is a project in which a number of scholars are already engaged, and Carroll's text is a very welcome contribution to this field.

Both American studies and whiteness studies are multi- rather than interdisciplinary fields. While I am sure cultural studies scholars’ would benefit from reading the social science research such as Lois Weis and Michelle Fine's many studies of working-class masculinities, and John Hartigan's ethnographies of ‘white trash’, so too would sociologists get something out of Carroll's study. Unfortunately, cross-over work with a foot in both empirical social science and cultural studies is still minimal in this field, although Hartigan's Odd Tribes (Duke University Press, 2005) is cited here.

Carroll's central argument illustrated in these essays is a stand-alone piece of work, however, I would like to have seen some representations of the past as points of comparison in this mainly ahistorical development. If the underlying themes of representations are mutability and mobility, what are the starting points against which the movement and transformations of the current formations are to be charted? What makes Michael Douglas's character in Traffic different from the ones that he and Robert Duvall play in Falling Down, a film with both a redeemed and a doomed white male, for example? How do representations of white men's twenty-first century relationships to the emotional craft of labour, business imperatives, class, African Americans, service to the flag, family, etc. compare to those of the 1980s and 1990s? We get a glimpse of this possibility from Carroll's treatment of Clint Eastwood's career (chapter 5). Eastwood's development represents almost a microcosm of the author's whole argument, moving as it does from the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry versions of aggressive masculinity, via the transitional man-with-a-name in Unforgiven, to the sacrificial protagonist of Gran Torino to Frankie Dunn. For me, this historicization, although limited in this particular monograph, is a necessary element of this project: hopefully to be continued?
Original languageEnglish
JournalEthnic and Racial Studies
Issue number2
Early online date8 Nov 2011
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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