This October, the UT Austin Department of Sociology and Fem(me) Sem welcomed sociologist Angela Stroud for a public talk and discussion with graduate students about her new book, Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry. Dr. Stroud completed her PhD in sociology at UT Austin in 2012 and is now an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Northland College in Wisconsin.
Dr. Stroud opened her presentation with graphs showing rates of American gun ownership. Despite an overall decrease in gun ownership since 1970 (rates have fallen by nearly 20%), the Obama Era has seen a sudden proliferation of concealed handgun licenses. In 2007, she said, 4.5 million Americans held such licenses. But since, more than 6 million additional licenses have been administered, bringing today’s total to a staggering 11 million. But why? To better understand the explosion of firearm sales and spread of concealed carry legislation, Dr. Stroud sought to uncover what motivates Americans to attain permits and buy guns.
During the talk, Dr. Stroud shared insights from her fieldwork in gun licensing courses, as well as excerpts from the in-depth interviews she conducted with gun permit holders. The title of the book plays on an old maxim in pro-gun discourse (“only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun”), but as Dr. Stroud explained, it also highlights a key finding: the cultural relevance of the “good guy” trope. She unpacked the construction of the “good guy” identity, arguing that its conflation with whiteness and hegemonic masculinity helps explain the appeal of concealed carry as a symbolic practice for men. She drew on elements of critical whiteness theory and Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity to analyze participants’ narratives about the protection they perceive guns to offer.
Ultimately, she found that cultural definitions of “good” gun owners rely on a classed and racialized dichotomy of masculinities. Respondents saw themselves as “good guys” who earned the right to own guns through training and civic service, as opposed to to “bad guys,” whose gun ownership threatened the safety of “good” families and communities. Dr. Stroud argued that this binary paints white men as responsible heroes while casting Black and Latino men as dangerous criminals. Additionally, the trope displaces deviant whiteness onto working-class men (whom her participants dismissed as uneducated “Bubbas”). She also touched on how geographical space is invoked in “good guy” discourse, pointing to respondents’ racialized conceptualizations of sites like the highway, the ghetto, and the home.
Dr. Stroud’s work has a particular resonance within the context of the University of Texas at Austin. Texas’ new campus carry legislation, which took effect this past August, gives students and faculty members the right to carry concealed handguns in university buildings such as classrooms and dormitories. The law has added fuel to an already blazing national controversy about guns. It has also galvanized the UT community, sparking petitions, protests, resignations, lawsuits, severalfacultyop-eds, and a slew of cancellations from scheduled visitors ranging from famous musicians to guest lecturers.
Good Guys with Guns critically intervenes in gun control debates by illuminating an understudied facet of American gun culture: How gun owners understand the necessity of guns is tied to how they see themselves and their place in the world. Dr. Stroud’s talk added an important voice to the campus conversation about concealed carry, showing how both pro- and anti-gun advocates misunderstand the deeper issues of race, class, and gender that shape how Americans understand guns.
Good Guys with Guns is available through the University of North Carolina Press. You can follow Dr. Angela Stroud on Twitter at @astroud.
Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.
Earlier this month, an Australian CrossFit athlete named Khan Porter posted a video to his Facebook page. The video opens on Porter in a gym. He sashays to the Beyoncé hit “Single Ladies.” Suddenly, mid-routine, Porter performs a 264 lb snatch: He lifts a cartoonishly huge barbell above his head in one swift motion, then drops it with a triumphant thud and picks up dancing where he left off.
The original video, which has been deleted, had more than 1.7 million views. Porter has since followed up with a second post, saying, “I posted my video because I think the way the public reacted reflects a pretty cool shift in preconceived notions of masculinity and think that’s grounds for starting some more positive conversations about what it means to be ‘a man.’” The post goes on to address the connections between masculinity, mental health, and suicide.
Porter’s video and follow-up post have both received an outpouring of support online, from comments on Facebook to features and praise on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and espnW. Many commenters—including Porter himself—have likened the video to actor Channing Tatum’s recent appearance on the reality series Lip Sync Battle, in which Tatum performed a drag rendition of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).” The video of Tatum’s performance went viral, too.
It is tempting to embrace Porter’s hope that the widespread love for his video reflects a sea change in contemporary conceptions of masculinity—a move from rigid, fragile identities to more flexible, durable ones. But while it is true that masculinities are always in flux (Kimmel 1996), masculinities scholars debate the extent to which these changes are liberating for women and marginalized groups of men. Is the response to Porter’s video as revolutionary as these media outlets profess, or is it a mirage, tricking us into believing that patriarchy has fundamentally changed? Masculinities scholarship suggests that the video reveals the elasticity of an institution like patriarchy. It can stretch to change form or appearance, but its hierarchical structure and resulting inequality stays the same.
Sociologists Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe (2014) have devised a useful concept for understanding the continual shifting of masculinities. For Bridges and Pascoe, hybrid masculinities refer to the “selective incorporation of elements of identity typically associated with various marginalized and subordinated masculinities and—at times—femininities into privileged men’s gender performances and identities” (2014:246). In other words, men enact hybrid masculinities when they include bits and pieces of identities associated with marginalized “Others” into their own identity projects. These Others can include men of color, working-class men, rural men, queer men, and women, among others. Bridges and Pascoe argue that even though all kinds of people use hybrid masculinities, it is men who have the most privilege (i.e., white, straight, wealthy, cisgender) who are freest to enact these identities while still being seen as appropriately masculine.
Porter partially acknowledges this when he points out that gay men are not allowed the same flexibility in constructing hybrid masculinities as straight men (though it should be noted that this point also serves—intentionally or otherwise—to stress that Porter himself is straight). However, two additional privileges help make Porter’s hybrid identity “acceptable” to a broad audience. First, he has what Pascoe calls “jock insurance” (2003:1427), meaning he conforms so closely to the standards of hegemonic masculinity that he can behave in conventionally nonmasculine ways without having his masculinity questioned. These standards include traits like athletic prowess, attractiveness, and sexual skill. Porter’s website states that he is a professional CrossFit athlete. His Instagram account is filled with photos and videos that showcase his athletic ability, muscled build, and signifiers of wealth (e.g., a BMW, an expensive watch, vacation photos). Articles describing the viral video tend to mention Porter’s sexual desirability, calling him “super hot” “eye candy” with a “flawless” physique and “all-too-perfect upper body strength.” These elements of Porter’s performance and its reception work together to ensure that his dance moves do not detract from his manliness.
Second, Porter is a white man. Compare Porter’s experiences with those of Odell Beckham, Jr., star wide receiver for the New York Giants, to understand the advantage his race affords him. Beckham, who is Black, is also known for dancing. He grooves in the end zone after a touchdown and in videos posted online. He also posts photos on his Instagram account that show displays of tenderness and affection toward other men. These behaviors seem aligned with what Porter sees as a transformation in socially-accepted performances of masculinity. However, the response to Beckham’s hybrid masculinities differs dramatically from the response to Porter’s. Rather than celebrate Beckham’s identity, online commenters and media organizations have responded by interrogating his heterosexuality. Streams of comments on Beckham’s Instagram describe his sexuality as “suspect” and explicitly insist that he’s gay.
For instance, a photo of Beckham hugging longtime friend Jarvis Landry (a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins) drew dozens of comments like the following:
blessings_catchings He’s really gay people and it’s not because of this pic.
alexryansanch Looking very suspect.
marley_chapo He kissn his neck
Compare this response to the praise heaped on high-profile friendships of white celebrities. The so-called “bromance” of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon, for example, has been celebrated by the media for years at no cost to public understanding of their manliness or heterosexuality.
These attacks on Beckham’s identity have taken a toll on the football field. Numerous sources including the Giants organization have stated that players have targeted Beckham with homophobic language all season, occasionally spurring confrontations with other players. Before a December game against the Carolina Panthers, players reportedly taunted Beckham with “gay slurs” during pregame warmups. Beckham went on to strike Panthers cornerback Josh Norman repeatedly on the head during the game, resulting in a one-game suspension. Panthers players continued to undermine Beckham’s masculinity after the game, publicly feminizing him with words like “bitch” and “ballerina.”
American culture regards NFL football players as paragons of masculinity and toughness. If anyone should be able to leverage “jock insurance,” it should be an NFL football star. Yet when we compare the radically different responses to Porter’s and Beckham’s enactments of hybrid masculinities, we can see racial disparities in the effectiveness of jock insurance. White men, it seems, have more space to construct hybrid identities (e.g., showing affection to other men, dressing in drag, dancing to Beyoncé music) than men of color.
Though well-intentioned, Porter’s “strategic borrowing” (Bridges & Pascoe 2014:252) of elements of black femininity may actually work to obscure and reinforce systems of patriarchy and white supremacy rather than dismantling them. Bridges and Pascoe write:
By framing middle-class, young, straight, White men as both the embodiment and harbinger of feminist change in masculinities, social scientists participate in further marginalizing poor men, working-class men, religious men, undereducated men, rural men, and men of color (among others) as the bearers of uneducated, backwards, toxic, patriarchal masculinities. Even as young White men borrow practices and identities from young, gay, Black, or urban men in order to boost their masculine capital, research shows that these practices often work simultaneously to reaffirm these subordinated groups as deviant, thus supporting existing systems of power and dominance. (2014:253)
Applauding Porter’s identity while criticizing Beckham’s reinforces racial disparities in public conceptions of manhood: Porter appears bold and enlightened for engaging in behaviors for which Beckham is painted as deviant. Porter’s video and accompanying statement celebrate the freedom of white men to play with masculinity, but they will do little to dismantle systems of oppression that punish men of color for the same behaviors. Rather than subvert the structural inequalities of patriarchy and white supremacy, Porter’s appropriation of elements of femininity and black culture amount to—in the words of sociologist Michael Messner—“more style than substance” (1993:724).
Bridges, Tristan and C. J. Pascoe. 2014. “Hybrid Masculinities: New Directions in the Sociology of Men and Masculinities.” Sociology Compass 8(3):246-258.
Kimmel, Michael. 1996. Manhood in America. New York: The Free Press.
Messner, Michael. 1993. “‘Changing Men’ and Feminist Politics in the United States.” Theory and Society 22(5):723-37.
Pascoe, C. J. 2003. “Multiple Masculinities? Teenage Boys Talk About Jocks and Gender.” American Behavioral Scientist 46(10):1423-38.
Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katie_k_rogers.
South by Southwest (SXSW)—a music, film, journalism, and tech festival held annually in Austin—came under fire last week for a decision to cancel a scheduled 2016 panel called “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” as well as one other panel related to the gaming community. SXSW cited threats and harassment targeting the panel as its reason for canceling.
Some heralded this new event as a victory for anti-harassment activists. Former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, for example, praised SXSW’s handling of the situation in a Facebook post:
This week, Austin’s SXSW faced well-deserved criticism after a decision-making misstep to cancel panels on women in gaming and digital harassment. In the last day, SXSW leadership have actively sought to correct course. People will make errors in judgement and will face consequences. It is important that we applaud when organizations realize their mistakes, and actively seek remedies. To that end, I gladly accepted an invitation to participate in the newly announced day-long Online Harassment Summit at SXSW. See you Austin to talk about how we must respect all people, all genders, in both the real world and the digital world. Thank you SXSW and all those who will be a part of this great new day!
However, not everyone is satisfied with this fix. For one, critics have pointed out that the new summit on harassment will include speakers who are affiliated with online harassment movements. “Level Up” panelists Katherine Cross, Caroline Sinders, and Randi Lee Harper say this raises serious “security concerns” for the summit. When Sinders expressed these concerns to SXSW, organizers responded by stating their commitment to preserving a “big tent” that encompasses a diversity of opinions. “If everyone shared the same viewpoint,” wrote SXSW, “that would make for a pretty boring event.”
Sinders stresses that any “big tent” has less to do with specific topics covered and more to do with creating a safe space for conversation. She argues that SXSW could have provided enhanced security for the “Level Up” panelists, instead of simply canceling their event. Others add that framing the situation as comprised of two parties with equally valid “ideas and opinions” implies that the issue of online harassment is something that is up for debate. Instead, they say, harassers give up their claims to credibility and legitimacy the moment they harass.
This heated response to issues of online harassment makes sense given recent controversies in the tech industry, particularly GamerGate, which has been consistently associated with the SXSW cancellations.
What is GamerGate?
In August 2014, an anonymous group of internet users began a coordinated and ongoing online harassment campaign against people—primarily women—who condemned sexism in the video game industry. This amorphous hate mob came to be associated with the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate. The movement targeted female video game developers, journalists, actresses, academic theorists, and other professionals and practitioners. The targets shared one thing in common: Feminism.
Online attacks have included rape threats, death threats, threats of mass shootings, and the creation of online flash games that allow players to beat up feminists who critique misogyny in video games. Many targets have also been doxed, meaning personal information like home addresses, phone numbers, employer information was found and publicly posted online. Doxing moves harassment offline, forcing several targets to flee their homes when violent, detailed threats showed up online alongside their addresses.
Self-identified members of GamerGate (called “GamerGaters” or “gators”) counter that their movement is not about harassment at all. They claim that harassers constitute a vocal minority. Instead, they define GamerGate as a movement about improving “ethical standards of video game journalism.” They accuse journalists of collusion with feminists and “social justice warriors,” saying these so-called conflicts of interest have contributed to a political correctness in game reviews.
Feminist game critics and their allies have widely questioned this “ethics” narrative, with many calling it a conspiracy theory. They argue that GamerGate’s true motivation is to police the boundaries of gaming culture—to exclude women, people of color, queer people, and transgender people and to silence their criticisms. They also contend that social media analytics data and the origins of the GamerGate movement show how this concern for “objectivity” and “ethical journalism” masks an effort to keep gaming as white, masculine, heterosexual, and cisgender as possible.
If this is indeed the case—if the root motivation of the GamerGate movement is white supremacism, heterosexism, cissexism, and misogyny rather than journalistic ethics—an obvious question follows: Who are these men, and why do they hate the people they see as outsiders?
Gender, Boundary Policing, and the “Gamer” Identity
Jeopardy! champion-turned-cultural-critic Arthur Chu describes GamerGate as follows:
Who are GamerGate? It’s one part entitled white guys claiming ownership over a subculture they feel is being invaded by outsiders. It’s one part entitled people who aren’t white guys who have, for one reason or another, made peace with being part of a white-guy-dominated culture and now enthusiastically join in trashing people who try to change it, for various complicated reasons. […] And it’s of course one part brazen opportunists with no prior interest in gaming seizing a chance to draw clicks while striking a blow against the left in the culture wars.
Here, Chu makes two points: (1) that gaming culture has historically been dominated by white men[i] and (2) that the harassment is less a result of GamerGaters’ sheer hatred of women than it is a violent defense of what they see as an existential threat to the “gamer” identity.
A number of journalists and feminists have described GamerGate as an outgrowth of a broader culture war about sexism and media, in which GamerGaters take issue with increasing racial and gender diversity in video games and in gaming culture. They say GamerGaters fear that this “bias” (read: writers calling for more diverse representation of characters in games) will change the games they love, the culture they identify with, and the social cohesion they depend on for feelings of belonging.
Katherine Cross, a feminist gaming critic and sociology PhD student at City University of New York (CUNY), posits that “GamerGate styles itself as a perverse kind of social justice movement for all gamers, constructing ‘gamer’ as an oppressed class unto itself.” Cross goes on to write that GamerGaters “claim to speak for the forgotten and bullied nerd, the outcast and misunderstood hobbyist who just wants to play video games yet is scapegoated for various and sundry evils.” On its face, this script makes logical sense: Raewyn Connell (1995) might conceive of “geek” or “gamer” masculinities as marginalized when compared to hegemonic masculinity, the dominant form of masculinity in society.
However, as Cross goes on to point out, “What this tidy narrative has always deliberately ignored is that all of GamerGate’s targets have been nerds and gamers.” That is, the very group of people that GamerGate purports to protect—gamers—include the very same people it attacks: women gamers.
If male gamers consistently considered women gamers to be genuine, authentic members of gaming culture, Cross’s point would clearly illuminate the contradictory logic of this narrative. But often times, they don’t. A common accusation levied against feminist gamers to undermine their criticisms is that they are not “real,” authentic gamers. For example, entire Reddit message boards, YouTubevideos, and blog posts have been devoted to “outing” feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian as an imposter. They aim to discredit her words by showing that she isn’t truly a gamer.
The popular trope of the fake geek girl offers another clear example of this. According to a CNN blog post by Joe Peacock, fake geek girls are “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.” Peacock elaborates (emphases mine):
What I’m talking about is the girls who have no interest or history in gaming taking nearly naked photos of themselves with game controllers draped all over their body just to play at being a “model.” I get sick of wannabes who couldn’t make it as car show eye candy slapping on a Batman shirt and strutting around comic book conventions instead. I’m talking about an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street. […] I hate poachers. Pure and simple.
This definition of the fake geek girl is twofold, involving (1) a heightened performance of femininity and (2) cultural incompetence. For Peacock, fake geek girls have highly feminine, sexualized expressions of gender—they wear little clothing and “strut” around at comic cons. They are also “wannabes” who pretend to know about gaming to gain the attention of men, but really have little more than a superficial knowledge of the culture. The conflation of these two attributes in the fake geek girl trope exemplifies larger gender dynamics at play in gaming culture: incompetence is considered feminine. Thus, women must constantly perform their gaming knowledge to cast off the “fake” label and prove their authenticity as gamers.
Masculinities scholars (e.g. Pascoe 2007) observe similar processes in spaces where competence is considered masculine, which traps women in a double-bind: Expressing competence might afford women some legitimacy, but being taken seriously as a competent person means repudiating anything seen as feminine.
In a response to a critique of his original piece, Peacock adds (emphases mine):
For the record: I feel the same way about men who poach women. My wife is a marathoner (and I’ve even run one myself, and OH MY GOD I’ll never do that again). She participates in lots of female-specific events, like Iron Girl and the Nike Women’s Marathon. There are men who attend the expos and conferences for these events specifically to hit on women. I feel the same way about them. They’re gross.
Here, Peacock aims to prove his point—that he is an equal-opportunity despiser of cultural “poaching,” which he seems to understand as a hostile intrusion into a gendered social field[ii] by someone whose gender doesn’t belong. But for his comparison of gaming culture to women’s marathons to hold water, gaming would have to be analogous to a men’s-only marathon. Such a comparison reveals a belief that gaming culture is a fundamentally male space, designed to exist specifically and exclusively for men.
When Harassment Silences Discussion of Harassment
“Level Up” panelist Caroline Sinders says enhanced security would have made her feel safe enough to participate, but SXSW did not give her the chance to request it. To be fair, there is some precedent for opting for cancellation over risk of harm. Sarkeesian once cancelled a speaking engagement at Utah State University in light of a mass shooting threat. She had requested that metal detectors be used at entrances for the safety of attendees, but police declined to prohibit concealed weapons per state law.
Even so, SXSW’s navigation of this situation is confusing. GamerGate was one of the most widely covered, controversial tech debates of the past year. Given the mainstream media’s coverage of GamerGate (let alone the Twitter discussions), one might wonder how SXSW’s organizers could possibly not have anticipated such a response. It seems unbelievable that the organizers of an event billed as an “incubator of cutting-edge technologies” would be so out of touch as to not have anticipated backlash to a panel on online harassment.
Could providing additional security for the “Level Up” panel have been financially or logistically impossible? This seems unlikely. SXSW is staffed primarily by volunteers—not paid employees—and regularly features celebrities, some of whom almost certainly require beefed-up security. It seems reasonable to expect that enhanced security measures would be possible at SXSW, and so I wonder: why did the organizers cancel the panel without consulting a single panelist? Why was that decision made behind closed doors? And why is “online harassment” a justification to silence a discussion of that very subject? It could be that SXSW genuinely and naively miscalculated. But it could also be possible that the organizers knew exactly what they were doing—and they chose to reinforce the gendered boundaries of an industry to avoid rocking the boat.
[ii] The concept of the gendered field comes from feminist interpretations of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) theories of social reproduction (see Laberge 1995, McCall 1992, McNay 1999). Bourdieu (1990) conceives of social life as a series of games, simultaneously played out in a social landscape divided into collective spaces he calls social fields. Each field has its own set of rules and a particular hierarchical dynamic, wherein social actors compete to occupy dominant positions. A gendered field, then, is a field that is socially marked as masculine or feminine, thus benefiting participants who behave in ways that conform to the gendered coding of the field.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. “Structure, Habitus, Practice.” Pp 52-66 in The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Connell, R.W. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Pascoe, CJ. 2007. Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Laberge, Suzanne. 1995. “Toward an Integration of Gender Into Bourdieu’s Concept of Cultural Capital.” Sociology of Sport Journal 12: 132–146.
McCall, Leslie. 1992. “Does gender fit? Bourdieu, feminism, and conceptions of social order.” Theory and Society 21: 837–867.
McNay, Lois. 1999. “Gender, habitus and the field: Pierre Bourdieu and the limits of reflexivity.” Theory, Culture, and Society 16 (1): 95–117.
Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katie_k_rogers.