Sing-Along Gender Theory: Sometimes it Takes Balls to be a Woman

Elizabeth Cook

Elizabeth Cook

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: There are three keys to thinking critically and clearly about class and gender. The first is to avoid thinking that there are essential ‘men’ and ‘women’. The second is to understand gender as relational – between men and women, but also between dominant and subordinate men, and between dominant and subordinate women. The third key is to remember that we are not actually unique, bounded individuals. Rather, we are social animals who are fashioned and exist only through exchange and social interaction.

These ideas are familiar to us in our everyday lives. However, it is easy to forget these ideas when ideologies of gender overwhelm us. The point of this Sing-Along is to make it easier to hang onto these ideas when gendering gets rough.

Song lyrics are wonderfully illustrative of gender theory. Indeed most popular songs are nothing but gender theory set to music. We have chosen examples from a while back, because they make very clear that the three key ideas needed to think critically about gender relations have been around a long time. We have included a lot of examples, because they are so much fun. Enjoy, and don’t worry if you don’t have time to listen to them all. But do start with Elizabeth Cook explaining why essentialism is a problem because Sometimes it takes Balls to be a Woman


Essentialism means there is something fundamental, or of the essence of a person, about being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. In any given setting, such essential gender differences are often presented and perceived as absolute and dichotomous. That is, they are ‘essentialized’, and made to seem fixed, unalterable and always the same. As if no woman ever changes, and all women are identical; as if men don’t change, and all of them are the same.

But anthropologists and historians have taught us that people are gendered very differently in different times and places. So ‘being a woman, or being man’ is not fixed nor universal.

The paradox is that while many people will recognize that gendered identities are taught and learned (‘socially constructed’), these same people may, in the next moment, describe the world in terms of the labels ‘men’ and ‘women’ as if we all know what these words mean. But these words in English already presume the essential differences. So it is remarkably difficult to think outside that box. That is why we talk about ‘gender’, not men and women. It is still difficult to escape the box – but it’s a bit easier.

Loretta Lynn is challenging essentialism when she tells a rival You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take my Man.


Or consider Jayne County asking are you Man Enough to be a Woman?

jayne county

Or listen to Mama was a Truck Driving Man


Hegemony and Subordination

The second key is to realise that men are never simply more powerful than women. Always, some men are more powerful than some other men. Some women are more powerful than some other women. And always, some women are more powerful than some men.

It can be hard to remember this, because the Western ideology of essential gender differences says that men are powerful and women are yielding. Men are hard and women are soft, as if such a dichotomy and contrast is all that matters.

The best way to escape from such essentialisms is to think in terms of ‘hegemonic’ and ‘subordinate’ masculinities and femininities. These terms are unfamiliar, so we need to explain them. [1]

In any society, and in any situation, there is never only one type of masculinity, or femininity. Some men will dominate, and subordinate others. Sometimes these power relations, and inequality, are more or less permanent, systemic, and bound up with social class.

Earth Kitt’s Old Fashioned Girl certainly understands about dominant masculinity and the bargain she is willing to make with patriarchy.

eartha kitt

Eliza in My Fair Lady quickly learned exactly what she was up against, in terms of dominant class styles and her own flower girl femininity.


In other cases the differences can be much more fleeting, but part of a play of power. And in that moment the more powerful man will perform one kind of masculinity, and dominate the other who can only respond in subordinate ways.

As Johnny Cash sings, the mother who warns her young son Don’t Take Your Guns to Town knows exactly how vulnerable her lad is will be in the face of hardened older men.


But this can be confusing, because we often think of ‘tough guy’ masculinities as hegemonic. When we think of dominant, and dominating men, we have a man like this in mind.


There may indeed plenty of times and places (and films) when such a tough guy will bully others. But if we look at class relations across the society, his masculinity is that of a subordinate man. Everything about him is coded working class. 

Here is a picture of hegemonic masculinity. Everything about his is coded ruling class. 


Here is another member of the ruling class.


Part of our confusion is because dominant masculine styles are usually not ‘marked’. We tend to be very aware of the masculinity of working class men. We tend not to notice the masculinity of upper class men. But it is there. Ruling class men are performing masculine power almost all the time.


We see it all the time when we watch them, but we also pretend we don’t. Ideologies of gender inequality say that working class men are responsible for gender difference, and for the suffering of women. This way of thinking allows ruling class men mostly to escape responsibility for the deep sexisms of class society.

And of course there is not just one subordinate and one dominant masculinity. Here is a photo from Turkey in 2014.

turkey coal miner

President Erdoğan came to visit the town of Soma right after a mining disaster killed 201 mineworkers. The miners greeted Erdoğan with a protest about the government’s’ disregard for mine safety. The man on the ground is a middle aged miner. The two men with guns holding down the miner are from the Turkish special forces. The man in the suit doing the kicking is Yusuf Yerkel, a Harvard graduate, a former graduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and a special adviser to Erdoğan.

The miner is doubtless braver and tougher than the Special Forces goons – he is a coal miner, after all. But here he is being punished for speaking truth to power. The Special Forces thugs are ruling class enforcers who are expected ultimately to rely on brute force. The surprising actor in the scene is the enraged upper class nerd whose anger provoked him to reveal the bully behind his (hegemonic) masculine cool.

If unquestioned, a cultural premise that associates ‘men’ with power amounts to a mystification, benefiting some people and disadvantaging most others, both men and women. So it is far better to think of ideologies which privilege some men (and some women) by associating them with particular forms of power as ‘hegemonic’, and to remember that hegemonic masculinities and femininities are always relational.

Hegemonic masculinities define successful ways of ‘being a man’. And in doing this, they automatically define other masculine styles as inadequate or inferior – as subordinate, marginalized, complicit or even failed masculinities.

The same can be said of femininities. That is, there is no dominant, successful style of being a woman which does not immediately also define other female styles as subordinate or inferior in a variety of ways.

But with such relationships, there is of course always resistance to inequality. Here Jeanne C. Riley sings Harper Valley PTA about a working class woman who hits back at the bigwigs who run the high school Parent Teachers Association.

Or listen to the Dixie Chicks singing about domestic violence in Goodbye Earl. They tell the story of a revolt by working class women against an aggressive working class man.

dixie chicks

Resistance can take many forms, and sometimes class dominance and hegemonic styles of masculinity are completely overturned by subordinates and subordinate styles of masculinity.

In the movie Deliverance a scene of pure class struggle is enacted through dueling banjos.


Partible People

The third key idea for understanding gender is ‘partible people’. If notions of masculinity and femininity, like the notion of gender itself, are fluid and situational, then we must consider the various ways people understand these ideas in any particular setting. And we must ask how various masculinities and femininities are defined and redefined in social interaction.

Two ideas which dominate popular culture today – individualism and identity – make it easy for us to forget what we know very well from experience: that we are created through social relations and interaction with other people. Losing sight of this is a huge political loss, and it is also endlessly confusing.

Our physical inheritance is part of who we are – that also comes from other people, as do the culture, language, skills and aspirations we acquire as we grow up. And this process doesn’t stop. Who we are – as set of feelings and ways of being in the world – is our response – messy and imperfect as it may be – to how other people have treated us, in the past, how they treat us in the present, and how we think they are likely to treat us in the future.

Because who we are can only be understood relationally, we need a way of thinking how – on a micro level – this works. How, actually, do we have an impact on other people, and how, actually, are we altered through interactions with others?

This is not as obvious as it may seem at first sight.

The anthropologist, Marilyn Strathern, uses the notion of ‘impingement’ to discuss the effects people may have on each other. This has much to recommend it. It is descriptive but it’s a word that does not come with a lot of baggage. Unlike the notion of ‘power’, impingement is not automatically associated with men or social dominance. Moreover it can be used to describe aspects of any social transaction.

Another idea Strathern borrowed from McKim Marriott is that of ‘dividual’ people. This is a way of thinking of human beings as having permeable, changing boundaries which alter in response to different kinds of social interactions and in different social settings.

Think for a moment about gendered essences and the partible bits of people: scent, taste, touch, thoughts, emotions and substances such as breast-milk and semen’ and the psychic and material conditions of well-being and misfortunes. Even our hearts can be experienced as separate from our bodies, as Marilyn Monroe points out in My Heart Belongs to Daddy.


We are changed when we catch a whiff of perfume, when are touched by another person, when we are fired by a new idea, when we hear another person cry or when we ourselves are physically harmed. And, vice-versa, of course, we change others – when we’re happy, when we’re anxious, when our feet smell bad.

And these are real, bodily changes: an orgasm is real, pregnancy is real, breast milk is real and grows babies. And the chemical changes in our noses real when we smell something pleasant, or noxious. So too do our eardrums vibrate when someone speaks to us, or shouts, or tortures us with white noise. So too do our bodies respond to soft stroking, but they also bruise, and break, and we can easily be killed by other people.

Sex, of course, changes us. Here is Julie (not Julia) Roberts singing He Made a Woman out of Me.


Even ingesting a tablet can make transform and liberate. Here’s Loretta Lynn singing The Pill. (For this we have only the recording, not a video, because the song was so widely banned when it first appeared.)


There are many ways we all experience ourselves as ‘dividuals’, but these remain largely unmarked because of the western emphasis on the unitary person, the individual, and the increasingly important propensity of ‘commodity logic’ in our search for ‘identity’.

Commodity logic is what disposes us to be fascinated by the attributes of things and their power – from the most modest dress to designer clothes and powerful cars. And we seek a one-to-one relation between such things and our unitary selves. And we expect and want to be transformed by the connection.

We associate ourselves with these desirable things through a kind of contagious magic – we touch them , wear them, drive them, and their qualities rub off on us. We are permeable people in these moments. We are actually altered by our contact with things – they penetrate us, they change our posture, they have an effect on what happens to us next.

Only consider the Spooky Men’s Chorale from Australia singing Don’t Stand Between a Man and his Tool

man and tool

Or consider Nancy Sinatra’s boots in These Boots Are Made for Walking.

nancy boots

Janis Joplin knows how things can change us when she sings Oh, Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz.


Even shampoo can transform your life. Here is Glenn Close singing I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right out of my Hair.


And inevitably these commodities are gendered. The Texan is only as good as his horse, but is he riding a stallion, or only a gelding or a mare? The woman who wears executive suits, to execute something or someone, and the woman who drives a red Maserati are more powerful and masculinized through the contact.

Gift-giving, exchanging food, praising someone or giving censure, all these experiences also transform us. Again think of us as permeable: we share food, accept a present, and we are altered in the experience. And the transformation maybe be temporary, but it may also be understood as life- long: as Kipling knew well, ‘You’ve eaten our salt’ is a fierce challenge to disloyalty in many parts of south Asia.

This kind of obligation is actually how social life works. We give something to someone, they return the favour. We are social animals – we exist because of quid pro quo.

And of course exchanges are gendered. Women go to baby showers, wedding rituals are drenched in gendered images. If he buys you a drink, are you more likely to give out? And it is not only things, but people, who can become part-objects in social exchanges. That’s what dowries, prenuptial agreements and trophy brides are all about. And that is what serfdom and slavery are about too.

However, commodification is only one logic of partibility and exchange. Partibility also offers the possibility of equal exchanges, and of liberation. Here are the words of the Lebanese and American poet Khalil Gibran, sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Listen to Loretta Lynn singing Coal Miners Daughter. Her father was a coal miner, and she is explaining how love and solidarity helped them survive poverty while working their fingers to the bone.

coal miners daughter

Or best of all, here is Johnny Cash singing Man in Black. He is performing a masculinity that is neither hegemonic nor subordinate, but rather an equal and insurrectionary masculinity. He is able to do this because he is part of a mass movement, but also by putting on gendered shirt and trousers of only one colour, and then never changing his clothes.

johnny_cash_man in black




[1] This important idea comes from a 1985 paper by Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell and John Lee, ‘Towards a new sociology of masculinity’, in Theory and Society, 12, 5, 551-603 and was subsequently developed by Connell in 1985, in Gender & Power (1987, Cambridge: Polity) and many other publications.

dislocatingThe ideas about gender outlined here were first worked out by Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne in Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies, London, Routledge, 1994, particularly the introduction and the first chapter. You can download a pdf of the book here: dislocating_masculinity-libre.

Our debt to Marilyn Strathern’s Gender of the Gift is great. She is just very hard to read.

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