“Unpacking Hegemonic Masculinity: The Layer Cake” by Vijay Pendakur

This fall, I am serving as a faculty member for the first time, teaching a class titled: “Being a Man of Color: Race and Masculinity in Chicago.”  It’s a course in DePaul University’s freshman seminar program, so all of my students are first quarter freshmen.  21 of my 25 students identify as men of color and the overwhelming majority of these students are from deeply underserved communities in Chicago’s inner city.  Their stories are gritty and haunting and, as their professor, I often find myself learning immensely from listening to them.  As a group, however, they do not feel that they posses male privilege…and one of my goals is to awaken them to the layered, intersectional nature of privilege and oppression by the end of the quarter.


One of the “break through” moments we’ve had as a class this quarter came during the week they read Michael Kimmel’s article, “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity.”  In searching for a way to help my students connect to this brilliant piece of scholarship, I thought of examining hegemonic masculinity as a layer cake…after all, who doesn’t like cake?  Part of my intent with this blog post is to share this adaptation of Kimmel’s work with you so you can use it with your students.  Here we go:


If hegemonic masculinity were a layer cake, the frosting would be performance.  Masculinity doesn’t exist in fixed time or space.  It’s a performance.  Men act out a set of socially constructed, fluid codes to assert, prove, and defend their manhood.  This performance is critical to the existence of hegemonic masculinity and can be observed in the every day behavior of boys and men throughout their life span.  But that’s just the frosting.


Scrape away the butter-cream goodness, and you’ll find your top layer of fluffy cake: the scrutiny of other men.  Men perform masculinity for other men.  Men are constantly watching, evaluating, and judging other men, from the time we are little boys.  It is this constant “police state” that fuels our need for constant performance.  Men are scrutinizing other men, quick to label some as unmanly.  Even non-participation in the ritual scrutiny can jeopardize one’s manhood.  The most effective strategy to keep the critical gaze off of oneself is to point out another man’s unmanliness.  This Foucauldian panopticon, or a system of discipline in which everyone keeps tabs on one another because they are always wary of who is keeping tabs on them, ensures the performance of masculinity by making all men participate. (Oh yeah…the geek temperature just went up a few degrees…)


What makes men scrutinize other men you ask?  Great question! The next layer of our deliciously disturbing layer cake is made from racism, sexism, and homophobia.  These are the tools that men use to construct forms of unmanliness.  While carefully scrutinizing one another’s performance, racism, sexism, and homophobia provide us with a variety of “put downs” to strip someone of their manhood.  You want to put a man down?  Compare him to a woman.  You want to let all the other men know that one man doesn’t fit in?  Call him gay.  Racism provides archetypes of hypermasculinity, effiminated masculinity, and subservient masculinity that allow White men to create norms and others, such that Black, Asian, and Latino men operate on the margins of hegemonic masculinity.  Racism, sexism, and homophobia are the drivers of the constant scrutiny that, in turn, maintains the performance of masculinity.


So far, this cake has two layers and a thick coat of frosting.  As powerful as these layers are, this cake wouldn’t remain standing without a strong base.  At the bottom of all of these layers is a foundation of fear, shame, and silence.  This is the most important part of understanding hegemonic masculinity.  Fear, shame, and silence make racism, sexism, and homophobia work on an interpersonal level.  These core emotions create a culture of consent among men in supporting hegemonic masculinity.  Think about an elementary school playground.  Most of the games young boys play involve performing masculinity.  Those that don’t play well or don’t play at all fall victim to the scrutiny of other men and are labeled with the tools of racism, sexism, or homophobia.  But are all the boys playing these games evil?  What would make someone participate in such a deeply unhealthy and un-enjoyable process?  From our earliest age, men live with fear and shame.  The fear of being labeled unmanly coerces participation in the rituals of manhood.  The shame of experiencing labeling (being labeled or labeling others) produces silent consent as well.


In writing about fear and shame, I can’t help but think of a memory from fifth grade.  A group of us boys were playing “500” using a tennis ball and bouncing it off of the side of the elementary school during recess.  The person throwing the ball would yell a number and whip the ball as hard as they could against the brick and mortar side of Oakton Elementary and we’d all scramble around, shoving and tripping one another, to catch the ball and receive the points.  The first one to five hundred points got to go throw the ball as hard as they could against the wall.  Part way through our game, someone noticed that Eric, a boy in our grade, was playing double-dutch with the girls.  Just a few years earlier, in second and third grade, it was no big deal to see boys and girls playing double-dutch together.  But now, as fifth graders, Eric’s choice to play double-dutch inspired us to start calling him all sorts of sexist and homophobic names.  Slowly, the girls swinging the plastic-coated jump ropes stopped their right-left oscillations and Eric looked over at us.  We continued to taunt and jeer him until he looked at the girls, took a deep breath, and came running over to join the game of 500.  For me as an adult, and as a social justice educator, it’s impossible not to think of the powerful role of fear, shame, and silence on my elementary school playground, for Eric and for the rest of us boys.


It’s this foundation of the layer cake that allowed the men in my class to connect the visceral experiences of their childhood to a system of privilege and oppression that is deeply problematic.  Before we tackled the layer cake of hegemonic masculinity, many of the men in my class would say, “My family is poor, I grew up in a dangerous neighborhood, and I have to work many hours while going to college. I am not privileged.”  Examining the layer cake provided us an entry point into the complexity of their experience, allowing us to acknowledge their struggles while also attending to the existence of male privilege.  When we talked about feelings of fear and shame, many of them shared stories from elementary and middle school that allowed us to ask the important question of whether hegemonic masculinity harms men too.  The four women in my class provided powerful insights into what they see happening to young men in this layer cake system.  They also shared stories of how they have supported this system by teasing men about being “girly” or “gay.”


To be clear, this isn’t “Dangerous Minds” and I’m not Michelle Pfeiffer.  The Kimmel article and the layer cake idea helped many of my students deepen their understanding of hegemony, masculinity, and social justice.  A week later, however, much of what I thought had been learned seemed forgotten.  Some of my students simply couldn’t remember what we’d talked about.  Others openly disagreed with Kimmel’s thesis.  Many seemed sleepy, bored, or uninterested.  It was 9am on a Friday morning…my job was just beginning, and I was reminded that teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.


In what ways do you see male privilege leveraging racism, sexism, and homophobia in your campus communities?  For us as student affairs educators, how does understanding the role of fear and silence in supporting hegemonic masculinity empower us to work more effectively with college men?  In what ways do you see women on college campuses supporting hegemonic masculinity?


Vijay Pendakur, Director – Office of Multicultural Student Success

DePaul University vpendaku@depaul.edu 

Follow me on Twitter at @vijaypendakur





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7 responses to ““Unpacking Hegemonic Masculinity: The Layer Cake” by Vijay Pendakur

  1. kathy sisneros

    honestly, i genuinely appreciate you’re knowing that you are out there doing the work. a warm and fuzzy moment 😉

  2. Sumun Pendakur

    This was a great post, Vijay! Not only did you unpack the complex ideas around masculinity, particularly the performance of hegemonic masculinity, but you also provided a valuable tool for practitioners to use in Student Affairs work, and in classrooms. I really appreciated your reflection/flashback to 5th grade. Who hasn’t participated in some form of oppression in some part of their life? The journey (or the marathon, as you put it) is to do the work to challenge yourself, others, and the world around you — without getting overwhelmed, giving up, or checking out. Thanks for keeping us and your students checked in.
    🙂 Sumi

    • Donna Lewis

      I really appreciate the simplicity of your analogy and was literally visualizing every layer of your “cake” as I seemingly moved with ease through this very complex issue. As a high school teacher, I also empathized with your obvious disappointment in what appears to be your students lack of interest in the subject only one week removed from original class discussion. However, I am certain that they will remember the experience that you provided far beyond their undergraduate tenure. Further, although I have no first hand knowledge of women supporting hegemonic masculinity on college campuses, a recent observational experience I completed on a high school campus revealed that girls appear to have a “natural” propensity for supporting and legitimizing stereotypical male roles (i.e. standing around watching boys play soccer or being the custodians of their belongings) and content with being bystanders instead of contenders (which further reinforces sexism and homophobia). We obviously have a long way to go in this quest for universal understanding, acceptance, equality, and justice but your blog certainly begins to pave the way…

  3. Susan

    I really appreciate your insights, Vijay. The layers are indeed complex and overlaid, one on another, and just like with a well-made cake, it’s tricky to know where the cake starts and the frosting ends. The other thing to remember is that ‘the cake’ as it stands ‘works’ for a lot of people, in their hearts and minds, anyway. It’s difficult to sell the idea that the best thing we can do for ourselves, for all of us, is give up the cake. I wish you the best in your efforts to make the cake’s current recipe a little less appetizing this semester, and to engage your students in coming up with a new, more equitable, and equally tantalizing dessert!

  4. A fantastic tactic teach a set of complicated notions…Well Done!

  5. Eileen Ie

    Such a thoughtful and incredibly rich analysis of the complexities of masculine identity construction! As a sociologist who teaches gender studies and have studied male privilege and the detrimental effects of the “tough guise” I couldn’t help but think of girl culture when you wrote, “Men perform masculinity for other men. Men are constantly watching, evaluating, and judging other men, from the time we are little boys. It is this constant “police state” that fuels our need for constant performance. Men are scrutinizing other men, quick to label some as unmanly”. We can say the same thing about girl culture but switch out “unmanliness” with “sluttiness”. If the worst thing you can call a man is a woman, the worst thing you can call a woman is a slut. This fear of being labeled “slut” or “whore” is not just imposed by the dominant gender but reproduced by women! Most of the time women don’t realize that calling another woman a “slut” reflects our own internalization of male domination but also our contribution in perpetuating the very structures that constrain us. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece!

  6. Dana Tate

    This is powerful and right on the money. It is an eye opener for those who are educators and feel the responsibility to curb these oppressive behaviors occurring in the classroom. Thank you for bringing this to your classroom of young adults, those that may have begun taking off their rose colored glasses right about now!
    Dana Tate

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