Stereotypical Masculinity in Tony Hoagland’s Poetry

I grew up as the youngest of five children—one older sister and three older brothers. Yep,

three brothers. I love those guys to death, but let me tell you: things got brutal every now and

again. Jay and Nick would fight and punch holes through walls, while Mom would scream in

utter disbelief. Alex may or may not have dragged me along the carpet, giving me a scabbing rug

burn big enough for my first grade teacher to wonder whether or not I was being abused. Oh, and

without a doubt, they were the most promiscuous of teens; they will admit it to this day. Girls

slept over at our house, only to find their angry fathers in their underwear banging on our door at

3:00 A.M. Naked pool parties when Mom and Dad weren’t home? You got it. Let’s just say, I

was really confused seeing a backyard full of naked teens when I was five. My experiences with

my older brothers inspired me to explore normative notions of masculinity, as I got older. Why

do men act the way they do? I decided to do some outside research and to explore Tony

Hoagland’s book Donkey Gospel. His poems “Muy Macho” and “Dickhead” exploit various

notions of normative masculinity: sexual domination of females, strength, perfect body image

and group mentality. You can bet Tony Hoagland’s poems reminded me of my older brothers.

After recognizing these stereotypes and considering my own experiences, I wondered why

Hoagland wants to portray stereotypical masculinity in his poetry. Even more, I questioned

whether or not men, like the speakers in Hoagland’s poems, could escape stereotypical

masculinity, and if so, what are the consequences?

But what actually is masculinity, and what does it mean to be masculine in today’s society?

Planned Parenthood says that masculinity is not equivalent to being a man. In fact, a number of

beliefs, characteristics and behaviors make up masculinity. Stereotypically masculine men “…
believe they are supposed to compete with other men and dominate women by being aggressive,

worldly, sexually experienced, hard, physically imposing, ambitious, and demanding” (“Gender

& Gender Identity”). The speakers in Tony Hoagland’s “Muy Macho” and “Dickhead” exhibit

and reflect on these stereotypically masculine characteristics.

In “Muy Macho,” the speaker sits at a bar with a friend who discusses his sex life, and

throughout the poem, the speaker reflects on his own experiences as a man. He uses war-like

language to display aggressive and sexually dominating sides of the masculine stereotype:

Listening to my old friend boast

About the size of his cock

And its long history,

As witnessed by the list of women

He now embarks on, enumerating them

As a warrior might recite the deeds

Accomplished by the family spear. (3-9)

Displayed like a warrior completing a number of valiant deeds, the speaker’s friend incessantly

brags about and literally lists the number of women who have seen his penis. He is proud and

even cocky—pun intended—about his sex life because so-called masculine men take pride in

being strong, like a warrior, and being sexually dominant. I can’t help but wonder why the

speaker’s friend feels the need to brag. If he didn’t brag about sex, or even discuss it, would

others still consider him masculine? The friend brags about his sex life in order to strengthen his

masculinity. Oppressing women makes him feel stronger and more like a man.
With this question in mind, I thought about my brother Nick and remembered our

conversation about his wild college days. Nick, although now 31, married and much less

sexually chauvinistic, told me that he used to be “such a dick” to girls, talking to some just

because he wanted to have sex and ignoring them afterwards. As a male college student, Nick

sought out sex like a warrior on a mission, and then he and his buddies would brag about their

sex lives. Considering sexual domination of women is normatively masculine, Nick, his friends,

or the speaker’s friend in “Muy Macho” might not appear masculine without talking about sex.

His masculinity would be threatened. According to Constructing Masculinity: “Gender is

achieved and stabilized through the accomplishment of heterosexual positioning, and where the

threats to heterosexuality thus become threats to the gender itself” (Berger, Wallis, Watson, and

Weems 24). Normative masculine gender involves sexual dominion; if a man doesn’t participate

in it, he threatens his heterosexuality and masculinity as a whole, and he might even appear

feminine or like a failed man. It’s as if stereotypically masculine men have sex just to say that

had sex because they know it will make them look masculine, and Hoagland demonstrates this

idea in “Muy Macho” through the speaker’s encounter with his friend.

Continuing on, the speakers in “Muy Macho” and “Dickhead” describe exclusive

environments to which only normatively masculine men belong. Each man must abide by its

rules, and outsiders are kept at a distance. In “Muy Macho,” the speaker says, “The bar tonight

has the feeling / of a hideout deep inside the woods, / a stronghold full of beer and

smoke” (13-15). The bar instantly transforms into a secluded area when the speaker and his

friend talk about sex, and this short conversation brings the speaker into the normatively

masculine sphere. He is no longer at the bar; he is far off, away from civilization. This place is a
stronghold, or a fortress protecting him and his friend from outside forces, and further secluding

the men from immasculinity. Only normatively masculine men can go to this hideout. Similarly,

in “Dickhead,” the teenage speaker often refers to “the world of men” (3, 37). He claims that

without having the ability to call bullies, who mock his scrawny body type, dickheads, he would

have no way of being in that world because if you’re not masculine, you don’t belong. Mosse

says that “stereotyping meant giving to each man all the attributes of the group to which he was

said to belong. All men were supposed to conform to an ideal masculinity” (6). If you can’t

conform, there’s no hope for you. You’re out of the group, and you’re deemed immasculine.

Without dickhead, the speaker is an outsider, and being an outsider during his insecure,

pubescent stage is scary to him. He therefore uses dickhead to belong in the “world of men.”

Similar to the exclusive hideout that the speaker in “Muy Macho” visits, he belongs to an

exclusive group. The speaker is a member “...to this tribe of predators, / this club of deep-voiced

woman-fuckers” (44-45). Men, including the speaker and his friend, conform to this group,

accepting the mode of masculinity, taking pride in sexual domination and aggression. They are

exclusive, different from those who don’t share their values (perhaps gay men and females). By

excluding others, stereotypically masculine men strengthen their community. Mosse says, “The

masculine stereotype was strengthened by the existence of a negative stereotype of men who not

only failed to measure up to the ideals but who in body and soul were its foil, projecting the

exact opposite of true masculinity” (6). Falling victim to the negative stereotype, women and

immasculine or gay men fail to represent conventionally masculine ideals and thus create tension

between themselves and masculine men. Stereotypically masculine men see those different from

them as a negative stereotype or as a group of outsiders. By understatedly acknowledging these
outsiders, the non-“woman fuckers,” men solidify their own masculinity. They create distance

between themselves and the negative stereotype and make their group appear more intense and

discriminatory, like a tribe with selective membership. You either belong or you do not.

After reading Hoagland’s poem and reflecting on my own experiences with three older

brothers, I wondered why any man would really want to be a part of such a brutal and oppressive

group. Then I thought, wait—maybe men can’t escape it, or maybe they don’t want to? Is it

comfortable to fit in with the crowd? Was this what Hoagland was trying to tell me all along? In

an interview, Hoagland says, “I’m not advocating the hyped-up brutal aspects of masculinity,

though at moments, in some poems, I am putting the masculine on display or even employing its

mannerisms, the better to talk and think about them” (Fierst). Hoagland purposely exhibits

masculine stereotypes, like sexual domination, aggression, ideal body type, and group mentality

to prompt readers—to force them to acknowledge these characteristics and to reflect on them.

After recognizing the stereotypes, I came to the conclusion that yes, many men, such as the

speakers in both poems can’t avoid masculine stereotypes and brutality and that escaping

masculinity is difficult and has its consequences. Consider this example from “Muy Macho”

where the speaker recognizes masculinity’s flaws but admits he does not want to escape them:

…part of me feels privileged,

Belonging to this tribe of predators,

This club of deep-voiced woman fuckers

To which I never thought

I would ever belong;

Part of me is more than willing to be wrong
To remain inside this conversation. (43-48)

Being a man means having power; it means being apart of a community. Sure, that community

might be a bunch of misogynistic “woman-fuckers,” (45) but the speaker knows that. He states

outright that being stereotypically masculine is wrong—but he is still willing to participate. He’d

rather be in the group than outside of it; he is not willing to give up his privilege, even if he

surrounds himself with predators or “Neanderthals” (32). The speaker even feels guilty, saying

that he never thought he would belong to such a demeaning group. Buchbinder, author of

Masculinities and Identities, explains this further and says that men are

…empowered in certain ways. The guilt experienced and expressed by a man,

whether concerning his own individual behavior or that of his entire sex, may often

be seasoned with complacency or satisfaction…as a man, he enjoys certain power and

luxury which enable him to meditate on and articulate that guilt. (Buchbinder 18)

Oftentimes, men have power over others, and while some feel guilty for perhaps belittling or

oppressing others, they might still feel satisfied with their superiority. The speaker in “Muy

Macho” feels guilty, but still knows he is privileged. He can’t believe he’s having such sexist

conversation, but is he going to do anything about it? Nope. He just can’t leave the conversation

with his friend; he can’t stop and say, “Dude! Do you hear how much of a dick you sound like

right now?” Maybe this is Hoagland’s way of telling us that men can’t escape conventional ideas

of masculinity because they’re afraid of rejection or are afraid of being outsiders. Some men

might think it’s better to be included than to be excluded. They are willing degrade women and

to appear hyper-aggressive, even if they disagree with it, because they assume that embodying

those images is better than appearing immasculine.
Hoagland extends his point about the difficulty in escaping masculinity when, in “Muy

Macho,” he writes, “Even if the roof were falling in, / even if the whole world splintered and

caught fire, / I would continue sitting here, I think, / entranced—implicated, cursed” (55-57).

This example displays the power that masculinity has over the speaker. He’s under a curse—

bewitched—tangled up in an evil sorcerer’s spell, and because of that, even if the world were

ending, he’d continue his conventionally masculine behavior. Hoagland concludes with, “We

can’t pull ourselves away from it / we don’t really believe there is another one” (64-65).

Stereotypically masculine men hold a curse over the speaker, and they pull him further into the

stereotype—to the point where he doubts his ability to escape. The speaker goes with what is

comfortable—with what he knows. He knows about normative masculinity, even its faults, and

because it is familiar to him, he continues to participate.

I’ve discussed that some men have a hard time escaping this standard of masculinity and

that some simply don’t want to, but what happens if you actually do escape? Let’s take a look at

the speaker in “Dickhead”:

…my weakness is a fact

So well established that

It makes me calm,

And I am calm enough

To be grateful for the lives

I never have to live again;

But I remember all the bad old days

Back in the world of men. (30-37)
The speaker, now narrating from the perspective of a grown man at the end of the poem, accepts

the consequences of no longer participating in standard masculinity. Buchbinder says, “For a

man publicly and unmistakably to give up his claim to masculine power and privilege may not be

to invite only the disapproval of other men but also their violence” (18). The speaker is weak, but

content, knowing that he does not have to live in masculinity’s world. He took a risk in giving up

his claim to masculine power, inviting others to once again see him as weak or as a target. This

speaker would rather be weak than be considered conventionally masculine, but he is still

grateful for having the word dickhead to defend him as a young man; it gave him a way of being

in “the world of men” when he was too young and insecure to risk being an outsider. Fearful of

seclusion and of being recognized as weak, not all men risk escaping masculinity. But, if you

escape, you might feel relieved, less pressured, and more independent. I believe that Hoagland

wants his readers to realize exactly that; he puts masculinity on display so that we can better

think about its faults and think about whether or not they are escapable. My three brothers aided

me in my research, allowing me to visualize and understand the speakers’ experiences in both

“Dickhead” and “Muy Macho.” Stereotypical masculinity is a part of our society, and escape is

difficult; most can’t or don’t do it. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. So, to all of the tough

guys out there, if you’re really so masculine, what’s stopping you from leaving? Don’t wuss out.
Works Cited

Berger, M., Wallis, B., Watson, S. and Weems, C.M., Constructing Masculinity. New

York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Buchbinder, David. Masculinities and Identities. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne UP, 1994.

Print.

"Gender & Gender Identity." Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood Federation of

America Inc., 2014. Web. 08 Mar. 2015.

Hoagland, Tony. "Dickhead." Donkey Gospel. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1998. 10-

11. Print.

Hoagland, Tony. "Muy Macho." Donkey Gospel. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1998.

37-39. Print.

Mosse, George L. The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. New York:

Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

"Tony Hoagland on Masculinity and Being an American Poet." Interview by Max Fierst.

Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 1999: 74-80. JSTOR. Web. 09 Mar.

2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/41807626>