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Brittany Everitt-Penhale & Kopano Ratele

To cite this article: Brittany Everitt-Penhale & Kopano Ratele (2015) RETHINKING ‘TRADITIONAL
African Review of Sociology, 46:2, 4-22, DOI: 10.1080/21528586.2015.1025826

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Published online: 04 Sep 2015.

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Brittany Everitt-Penhale
University of South Africa & Medical Research Council

Kopano Ratele
University of South Africa & Medical Research Council

The concept ‘traditional masculinity’ appears frequently in research on gender from
multiple, diverse contexts. Yet there sometimes appears to be a surprising lack of
critical engagement with the concept in such work. Its meaning is at times taken for
granted, yet the diversity of ways and contexts in which it is deployed demonstrates
the importance of interrogating it. The term ‘traditional masculinity’ carries many
meanings, some of which are incompatible with both a social constructionist
framework of masculinity as well as a critical perspective on tradition. In this article,
grounding our thinking in a rereading of some of the critical literature on tradition,
we critique some of the usage of ‘traditional masculinity’, and make suggestions
for thinking with and about ‘traditional masculinity’ in ways that are more congruent
with critical understandings of both ‘tradition’ and ‘masculinity’. The article makes

of south africa

South African Review of Sociology DOI: 10.1080/21528586.2015.1025826

Volume 46 | Number 2 | 2015 Print ISSN 2152-8586 | Online 2072-1978
pp. 4–22 © South African Sociological Association

This article was originally published under the heading “Rethinking ‘Traditional Masculinity’ as
Constructed, Multiple, and Hegemonic Masculinity”
Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

three main contentions: 1) ‘traditional masculinity’ is socially constructed, 2) there

are multiple ‘traditional masculinities’, and 3) ‘traditional masculinity’ should not
be uncritically equated with hegemonic masculinity. It cautions that, by failing
to acknowledge some of the term’s ideological functions, scholars within critical
gender studies risk reproducing such meanings in ways that are incongruent with a
critical perspective on masculinity and may also reflect some of the very discourses
on masculinity they are seeking to challenge.

Keywords: masculinity, traditional masculinity, hegemonic masculinity, social

constructionism, tradition-modernity binary

‘Traditional masculinity’ seems to be an epistemological blind spot in some of the
critical social science research on men and masculinities. In their criticism of Pleck’s
(1981) conceptualisation of the ‘traditional male role’, Carrigan and colleagues (1985:
571) commented that, ‘in the “traditional” basket are included not only the working
class and American ethics but also “primitive societies,” making a theoretical category
that should have quite a few anthropologists (Margaret Mead not least) turning in
their graves’. Nearly three decades later, a lack of clarity remains about the concept of
‘tradition’ in relation to masculinity. The concept of ‘traditional masculinity’ (or some
variant, e.g. ‘traditionally masculine’), is often deployed as a construct in the literature
on masculinities and in the study of gender more broadly. ‘Traditional masculinity’ is
constructed by the subjects of research on men and masculinity as well as by researchers
themselves. Sometimes it appears as a central concept (e.g. Luyt 2012; Santaularia
2010); in reference to a specific masculinity scale utilised (e.g. Levant et al. 1992;
Mahalik et al. 2003); or alternatively as a self-evident term in an offhand comment (e.g.
Anderson 2005; Weitzer and Kubrin 2009). Despite its widespread usage, we propose
that it is sometimes misused in gender studies and studies of men and masculinities in
particular. Following Ratele (2013: 134–135), we find that in the prevailing accounts
of ‘traditional masculinity’ within the field of critical studies of men and masculinities,
at times ‘unreflective assumptions about tradition leak out’. While the term ‘traditional
masculinity’ may be regarded by researchers as a convenient ‘shorthand’, we contend
that some of the ways in which the term is used in this field are incongruent with the
assumptions of critical perspectives of gender; draw on uncritical perspectives of
‘tradition’; and may reproduce certain ideologically retrogressive functions of the term.
The main problematic is that ‘traditional masculinity’ is often used as a transparent, self-
evident concept, as a result of which researchers may approach it as a singular, static
entity; as the opposite of ‘modern’; as inherently negative and patriarchal; and, at times
rather confusingly, as synonymous with hegemonic masculinity.
The article makes three main contentions: 1) ‘traditional masculinity’ is socially
constructed, 2) there are multiple ‘traditional masculinities’, and 3) ‘traditional

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

masculinity’ should not be uncritically equated with hegemonic masculinity. To frame

the arguments we make, we provide a thumbnail account of the idea of masculinity as
a social construction and an overview of Connell’s influential contribution to the field.
Thereafter, we review some of the work on the concept of tradition, before discussing
the literature that uses ‘traditional masculinity’ and critiquing of some of this usage. We
then make several proposals on how to think with and about the concept of ‘traditional
masculinity’, in ways consistent both with social constructionism as well as with some
critical perspectives on the nature of tradition. Towards the end of the article, we draw
on the example of the clothing of amakrwala – young Xhosa1 males recently returned
from initiation – to further illuminate certain elements of our argument.
Importantly, we are primarily situating this critique within the aforementioned
perspectives on masculinities, and therefore it does not speak to all frameworks in the
social sciences that deal with ‘traditional masculinity’. A significant example of what
is excluded is the body of research that seeks to measure traditional masculinity or
masculinity ideology through the use of scales (e.g. Levant, Hirsch, Celentano and Cozza
1992; Mahalik et al. 2003), located for the most part within the field of psychology and
dominated by studies from North America. Likewise, we do not explicitly examine
‘traditional femininity’, yet, like ‘traditional masculinity’, this term often appears to
be taken for granted in research papers, and thus several of our points may similarly
apply. Although not explored in this article, given the inherent complementarity of
the constructs ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ (see Schippers 2007), we also argue for
the importance of examining the relationship between what one labels ‘traditional
femininity’ and ‘traditional masculinity’ in specific contexts.


In order to locate our examination of the concept of ‘traditional masculinity’, we will first
describe some of the features of the relevant frameworks. Significant influences within
the field of critical gender studies, and studies on men and masculinities in particular,
are the social constructionist account of gender (e.g. Hare-Mustin and Marecek 1988;
Lorber and Farrell 1991) as well as the approach to masculinity associated with the
Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell (e.g. Carrigan, Connell and Lee 1985; Connell
1987; 1995; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Although Connell’s work draws on
the social constructionist views of gender, the two are separated by some important
differences. In this section, we give an overview of both of these accounts, in order to
outline the frameworks from within which we are interrogating the use of ‘traditional
Contrary to the essentialist perspective of gender, wherein gender is viewed as a
fixed and inherent characteristic of individuals, from a social constructionist perspective
masculinity and femininity are not seen as stemming from individual women’s and

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

men’s minds and bodies, but rather as that which is socially constructed as being
appropriate, natural or desirable for each gender. Constructions of masculinity vary
between and within different geographical, historical and situational contexts; proscribe
and prescribe certain behaviours and characteristics for boys and men; and are given
power by the belief that masculinity is natural and inherent to all males (Kaufman 1994;
Kimmel 1994). Gendered behaviour in conformance with ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’,
by males and females, respectively, legitimises as well as reinforces the categories by
providing ‘evidence’ for their existence (West and Zimmerman 1987).
One of the most influential accounts of gender that has grown out of this perspective,
originating in the field of sociology, is the formulation predominantly associated with
Raewyn Connell. The seminal article related to this work is Carrigan, Connell and Lee
(1985), ‘Toward a new sociology of masculinity’. These authors conceptualised gender
in a model that takes into account patriarchal gender relations as well as the organisation
of power between different groups of men. It was argued that one can speak of multiple,
hierarchical ‘masculinities’, spawning from the intersections of various identity markers
such as ‘race’, class and age (Connell 1995). In line with the social constructionist
perspective of gender, masculinities are seen as being relatively fluid, with context
regarded as central to how different masculinities are shaped and evaluated (Carrigan et
al. 1985; Connell 1995; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005).
An integral concept of this formulation is ‘hegemonic masculinity’, whose usage in
South Africa reflects global trends and can be found across multiple disciplines including
sociology, psychology, education and health (see Morrell, Jewkes, Lindegger and
Hamlall 2013). This concept was drawn from the Gramscian notion of class hegemony,
which entails maintaining a particular configuration of power not primarily through
force, but rather through the persuasion of most people in a society of the legitimacy
of the ruling group’s position (Gramsci 1971). In relation to the sphere of gender,
Messerschmidt (2012: 58) noted that the model of hegemony served to emphasise
how the success of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ was achieved ‘largely through cultural
ascendancy – discursive persuasion – encouraging all to consent to, coalesce around,
and embody such unequal gender relations’. ‘Hegemonic masculinity’ was articulated
as being a particular version of manhood, which through such ‘discursive persuasion’
occupies a superior position in relation to other masculinities within a given context,
which are alternatively viewed as being ‘subordinated’, ‘marginalised’ or ‘complicit’,
depending on various factors (Carrigan et al. 1985). In addition to its role in structuring
hierarchical power relations among men, hegemonic masculinity in most of its current
forms is seen as playing an integral part in maintaining patriarchal gendered relations
between men and women (Carrigan et al. 1985; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005).
Over the many years since its conception, given its extensive appropriation in
different fields within the social sciences, Connell’s formulation of masculinity and the
ways in which it has been used have received certain criticisms, and the concept has also
been expanded and/or remoulded in different ways (e.g. Beasley 2008, 2012; Demetriou
2001; Hearn 2004; Jefferson 2002; Lusher and Robins 2009; Schippers 2007). The task
Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

of unpacking how these reformulations relate to ‘traditional masculinity’ in particular

is beyond the scope of this article. However, some of the critiques of the usage of
the concept of ‘masculinity’ (and hegemonic masculinity in particular) can be seen as
directly related to the criticisms of the usage of ‘traditional masculinity’, and will thus
be dealt with later in the article.
Although Connell’s formulation of masculinity draws on the social constructionist
perspective of gender, she regards the explanatory ability of this perspective of gender
as incomplete, in particular in relation to gendered embodiment (see Connell and
Messerschmidt 2005). However, although the level of congruence between Connell’s
approach and social constructionist principles may be contested, it is argued that the
way in which we both criticise and reformulate the usage of the term ‘traditional
masculinity’, using elements of the social constructionist perspective, is nonetheless
applicable to those working within this frame.


In thinking about ‘traditional masculinity’, it is fruitful to introduce some of the insights
from the literature on ‘tradition’. Much like ‘traditional masculinity’, ‘tradition’ is
used to mean different (and sometimes incongruent) things by different authors and in
different contexts. Although widely used, the concept of ‘tradition’ is seldom clearly
defined or articulated. This issue is likely to stem in part from the fact that it is ‘at once
commonsense and a scientific category’ (Handler and Linnekin 1984: 273), and it has
been argued that for the most part social scientists’ use of the notion has been either
‘dismissive or indiscriminate’ (Soares 1997: 6). Despite the elusiveness of the concept
and the lack of consistency in its usage between and among the disciplines (Rodriguez
2001), several key themes from this literature arise that are relevant to contemporary
usage of the term ‘traditional masculinity’.
A central theme of this literature is of the tradition–modernity binary, commonly
demonstrated within the usage of the term ‘traditional masculinity’. Scholars have
argued that, despite the perception of a dichotomy between these concepts, the
distinction between them is rarely clear, and ‘traditional’ practices can be shaped or
enabled by modern inventions and vice versa (e.g. see Bendix 1967; Clifford 2004;
Goldstein-Gidoni 2000; Goodkind 1991; Gusfield 1967). A demonstration of the falsity
of the tradition–modernity binary comes in the form of the notion of ‘the invention of
tradition’. First articulated by Hobsbawm (1983), it was argued that certain traditions that
appear to be age-old are in fact more recently ‘invented’, a phenomenon subsequently
demonstrated in multiple empirical studies (e.g. Goldstein-Gidoni 2000; Goodkind
1991; Howard 2003). An example of a clearly invented tradition is the inclusion of
diamonds in engagement rings, which has been primarily attributed to clever marketing
by South African mining company De Beers with New York advertising agency N.W.
Ayer during the late 1930s (Epstein 1982). Handler and Linnekin (1984: 276) went

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

even further to suggest that there is no difference between ‘real’ or ‘invented’ traditions,
arguing that ‘tradition is a model of the past and is inseparable from the interpretation
of tradition in the present’.
Even in the case of practices genuinely passed down from the relatively distant
past, it is arguably impossible for ‘traditions’ to remain static amid changing contexts
and subjects, as is demonstrated later in this article in the illustration on amakrwala. Yet
‘tradition’ serves significant functions to different groups and societies. Soares (1997:
15) conceptualised tradition as ‘a resource warehouse’ for contemporary subjects,
which shapes their reactions to present-day difficulties. Ben-Amos (1984: 115) argued
that society is active in its interaction with tradition, selecting and inventing elements
of the past to create tradition as ‘a constructed canon, projected into the past in order
to legitimize the present’. Similarly, Macleod (1999: 13) argued for an understanding
of tradition as involving ‘a continual process of integration and exclusion of various
Labelling objects or phenomena ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ serves particular
ideological functions in the social sciences (and humanities), albeit sometimes in
the guise of an objectively descriptive one (see Gusfield 1967). Connell (2011: 104)
comments on the importance of the tradition–modernity binary in the history of
sociology, linking it to colonialism and arguing that, ‘Difference between the metropole
and the colony, interpreted as “progress”, was the discipline’s key organising concept’.
Likewise, Talbani and Hasanali (2000: 616) note that social scientists often categorise
sex-role ideologies as either ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’, in which
Traditional ideologies apportion men with greater social status and power than women. They
also legitimize male domination and control over women, economic and political resources of
community and society. In contrast, modern ideologies allow a more egalitarian distribution of
social status and power.

‘Traditional’ and ‘modern’ are thus used to contain the notion of a chronological
progression from the past to the present as well as a social progression towards more
gender equitable conditions. This also reflects how they are used in some South African
masculinities research (e.g. Walker 2005). Yet despite their commonplace usage in
this fashion, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ gender ideologies (in terms of chronological
progression) do not always fit within the above characteristics. Rather, researchers have
found that ‘modern’ developments and technologies sometimes lead to more rather than
less oppressive gender relations and practices (see Bernal 1994; Denetdale 2006; Penna
and Campbell 1998).
Notably, in contrast to Talbani and Hasanali’s (2000) abovementioned
conceptualisation of ‘tradition’ in relation to gender as inherently pejorative, many
people use the notion of ‘tradition’ to alternatively indicate the legitimacy of certain
gendered practices or beliefs (see also Thomas 1992). An example of a debate reflecting
these competing ideological frameworks surrounds the revival of virginity testing among
certain communities in South Africa. Opponents of the practice view it as outdated,

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

a violation of the girls’ rights and a reflection of the view that girls and women are
to blame for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, whereas proponents argue that the ‘tradition’
demonstrates a culturally relevant solution to the (‘modern’) issues of teen pregnancy
and the HIV/AIDS pandemic (see Leclerc-Madlala 2001; Scorgie 2002).
The simplistic notion of a tradition–modernity binary, although both common
and commonsensical, is ill-fitted to the ways in which ‘traditions’ have come to be
conceptualised; as invented, at times malleable, historically situated symbolic resources,
which are constituted within modernity and interact with contemporary ideologies,
technologies and other social factors in various complex ways. It can be argued that the
utility of examining traditions lies in investigating the various social factors that inform
and shape them, as well as the ways in which they are utilised, as opposed to viewing
them as straightforward reflections of past practices.


Ben-Amos (1984: 97) commented that, ‘In folklore studies in America tradition has been
a term to think with, not to think about’ (emphasis in original). To some extent a similar
statement could be made about ‘traditional masculinity’ in the field of gender studies.
The term has been used often, yet it appears to have been less frequently thought about
– that is, critically interrogated. Ratele (2013: 14) argues that ‘traditional masculinity’
tends to be used uncritically within studies on masculinity, and that this usage produces
a view of ‘traditional masculinity’ that is ‘precisely the opposite from what is understood
about all masculinities’, in the sense that it is ‘taken to be predestined, homogenous
[homogeneous], without history, and shorn of psychological processes’. While
researchers may find the concept a useful tool or shorthand, the implications of careless
usage may be contrary to the aims of those deploying the term. Clatterbaugh (1998:
25) posited that the amount of ‘historical baggage’ carried by the more general terms,
‘masculinity’ and ‘masculinities’, might lead to confusion in their use in masculinity
studies, and likewise the various types of ‘baggage’ carried by ‘traditional masculinity’
may play a role in its ambiguous or unclear usage.
In this section, we delve deeper into the shortcomings in the usage of ‘traditional
masculinity’ in some masculinities research. In tandem with these criticisms, we apply
some of the insights from the literature on traditions to the concept of ‘traditional
masculinity’, and present suggestions that we think are important to consider when using
the concept of ʽtraditional masculinityʼ within critical studies on men and masculinities.
These suggestions relate primarily to the assumptions that 1) ‘traditional masculinity’ is
socially constructed masculinity, 2) there can be multiple ‘traditional masculinities’, and
3) ‘traditional masculinity’ should not be uncritically equated to hegemonic masculinity.
Our first proposition is that in order to be congruent with the frameworks used in
critical studies on men and masculinities, ‘traditional masculinity’ needs to be shown

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

as a social construction. Accordingly, the discursive functions of the term should be

carefully navigated. It is worth remarking that ‘traditional masculinity’ is constructed
by the subjects of research on men and masculinities as well as by the researchers
and theorists themselves. Yet sometimes participants’ constructions of ‘modern’ and
‘traditional’ masculinity are indiscernible from the researchers’, and who is constructing
what becomes indeterminate. Similarly, in certain instances authors simply parrot
participants’ constructions without unpacking their discursive functions. From a critical
perspective, such practices may be problematic, particularly in light of the ideological
connotations of the terms, ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’.
In some ways the undefined use of ‘traditionally masculine’ or ‘traditionally
feminine’ serves to reproduce an essentialist perspective on gender. Such usage assumes
a shared conception of gender, independent of context or cohort. Thus without having to
say ‘these traits/behaviours are masculine/feminine independent of context’ and hence
make an essentialist claim, the use of the modifier ‘traditional’ might inadvertently
serve the same function while avoiding such a critique. Although those utilising such
terms in this way may not adhere to essentialist perspectives on gender, such usage may
nonetheless serve to reproduce the notion of these binaries as existing independently to
that which is constructed.
In relation to the notion of ‘traditional masculinity’ as socially constructed is the
importance of considering the ideological implications of the term. As discussed, both
the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ may be used to conflate chronological and social
progress, and the term ‘traditional’ may also be used to imply the unquestioned legitimacy
of a belief or practice. With regards to the conflation of social/chronological progression,
as noted by Connell (2013: 9), the usage of both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ masculinity
reflects the ‘narrative of progress’ demonstrated in some of the international literature
on masculinities, in which the former construct is ‘often understood as patriarchal
and perhaps violent’ whereas the latter is more often depicted as ‘more expressive,
egalitarian and peaceable’. Such usage of the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ in relation
to gender was critiqued earlier in this article primarily in light of the fact that gendered
power relations cannot be seen in all contexts as simply progressing towards equality in
parallel to the chronological progression of time.
Alternatively, in relation to the sense of legitimacy granted to things labelled
‘traditional’, one of the issues covered in the previous section relates to the fact that
that which is labelled as ‘tradition’ may not be as static and age-old as represented. This
is of particular relevance to the South African context, where certain practices lauded
as ‘tradition’ are used to serve heterosexist, patriarchal ideologies and structures (e.g.
Maitse 2000; Rankhotha 2004; Ratele 2013; Robins 2006). As such, that which might
be labelled ‘traditional masculinity’ within a given context should not be assumed to be
a static set of features associated with men that has been timelessly passed down through
generations. This is the way in which those with an interest in maintaining practices or
power structures labelled ‘tradition’ often represent it, in which its presumed historical

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

consistency is seen as legitimating its unquestioned continuance, yet the validity of such
representations should not be uncritically accepted.
Likewise, the discursive functions of the label ‘traditional masculinity’ should be
interrogated in relation to the interests and intentions of those assigning it. Although
the tradition–modernity dichotomy may be a dominant framework that men draw on
in certain contexts, it is nonetheless important for researchers to take into account the
socially constructed nature of this framework. An example of where such a critical
approach is taken is Chadwick and Foster’s (2007) research. These researchers
demonstrate how the ‘traditional macho man’ served the purpose for some of their male
participants as a ‘straw man’ to which they could compare themselves, and as such this
figure ‘emerged as a key trope and was often derided, mocked and constructed as the
contemptible other’ (ibid.: 32). These authors argued that through this process, some of
their participants were able to hold onto essentialist notions of gender difference while
simultaneously ‘project[ing] the rising negativity associated with masculinity onto this
other’ (ibid.: 32). Chadwick and Foster’s paper therefore avoids simply reproducing
participants’ accounts of ‘the traditional macho man’, instead elucidating the concept’s
discursive function in that particular context. As a social construction and a discursive
resource, ‘traditional masculinity’ should therefore be understood as not apart from but
rather as constructed within modernity (i.e. contemporary times) by ‘modern’ subjects.
Our second proposition is that, given the insight of social constructionism and in
particular Connell’s contribution to masculinities studies, critical research on men should
appreciate the multiplicity of potential ‘traditional masculinities’. The common use of
‘traditional masculinity’ in the singular, without contextualisation, is incongruent with
the notion of masculinities as both multiple and context-specific. Hammer and Good
(2010: 305) argue that ‘using the term “traditional masculinity” risks obscuring the fact
that different cultural groups have different norms for what is traditionally masculine’,
and note of the research they cited that ‘when the researchers above refer to traditional
masculinity, the reader should assume they are referring to the “prescribed dominant
masculine style” of the majority (i.e. White, heterosexual) culture that imposes its
influence on men living within the United States’. In the South African usage, conversely,
Ratele (2014: 40) argues that ‘traditional masculinity’ has ‘often been carelessly linked
to blackness’. The type of usage that is taken for granted in each of these contexts sheds
light on the discursive landscape around the term ‘traditional masculinity’ in each place,
with their diverse ‘raced’ and ‘classed’ implications. Yet it demonstrates that, contrary
to such taken for granted usage, there are vastly different constructions of ‘traditional
masculinity’ across various ethnic, racial and national contexts. It is likely also possible
to find a diversity of competing ‘traditional masculinities’ even within a single context
or group. These factors suggest that when using the term ‘traditional masculinity’, it is
important for scholars to be explicit about which construction of ‘traditional masculinity’
they are referring to and, like when investigating other masculinities, historicising,
contextualising and describing the construct they are naming.

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

Our final proposition is that ‘traditional masculinity’ should not be uncritically

equated with hegemonic masculinity, and that when each term is used the relationship
between them should be explored. This comment is based upon the observation that
‘traditional masculinity’ is at times used synonymously with ‘hegemonic masculinity’
within critical studies on men and masculinity. For instance, within the aforementioned
seminal work of Carrigan et al. (1985: 563), the authors make this comment about
Bednarik’s observations on the connection between the commercialisation of sexuality
and aggressiveness: ‘[H]is stress on the contradiction between the hegemonic male
image and the real conditions of men’s lives is notable. But he never questioned that
the traditional image is the primordial, true nature of man’ (emphasis added).Within
this quote it is apparent that ‘the hegemonic male image’ and ‘the traditional image
[of men’s nature]’ are used interchangeably by Carrigan et al., which can be read as
implying their meaning is the same. In more recent articles, other authors in the field
also seem to similarly use the concepts of ‘traditional’ and ‘hegemonic’ in relation to
masculinity interchangeably.
Equating hegemonic masculinity with traditional masculinity is problematic for
several reasons. Given the common associations of the term ‘traditional masculinity’,
when used by gender researchers (as discussed), by labelling hegemonic masculinity in
a given context as ‘traditional masculinity’, researchers may inadvertently be implying
a set of meanings and connotations that imply (negative) features beyond the specific
context being discussed. Furthermore, while in some contexts that which is constructed
as ‘traditional masculinity’ may overlap with hegemonic masculinity, ‘traditional
masculinity’ within any given context is not necessarily hegemonic, and may even be
marginalised (see Ratele 2014). Even in some articles where ‘traditional masculinity’
is explicitly not equated with hegemonic masculinity (e.g. Hatfield 2010), it is still
generally unclear as to what exactly its relationship is to other masculinities, including
hegemonic masculinity (notable exceptions include Moolman 2013; Ratele 2014).
This lack of critical examination of the relationship between ‘traditional masculinity’
and other masculinities seems incongruent with Connell’s framework of hierarchical,
relational masculinities.
In line with the fact that the concepts, ‘traditional masculinity’ and hegemonic
masculinity, are often used interchangeably, criticisms against certain uses of
‘hegemonic masculinity’ (e.g. see Connell and Messerschmidt 2005; Messerschmidt
2012) are similarly applicable to the usage of ‘traditional masculinity’. One such
criticism is of when ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is referred to as a personality type; a set
of characteristics; or simply an ‘assemblage of toxic traits’ (Connell and Messerschmidt
2005: 854), and a similar analysis can be made of some uses of ‘traditional masculinity’.
For instance, in their compelling article on misogyny in rap music, Weitzer and Kubrin
(2009: 18) implicitly equate ‘traditional masculinity’ with hegemonic masculinity
in a paragraph where they also argue that the aversion to fatherhood depicted in the
rap lyrics studied ‘may be regarded as an extreme form of traditional masculinity,
where the father is largely absent from his children’s lives’. Although this is the only

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

mention of ‘traditional masculinity’ within this article and it is not further explained
or contextualised (a demonstration of how its meaning may be taken for granted), it is
clear that it is not implied favourably. Comparable to how similar usage of ‘hegemonic
masculinity’ has been critiqued, such usage of ‘traditional masculinity’, as an assumed
set of negative traits, is incompatible with both the social constructionist and gender
hegemony frameworks. At the very least, an explanation for why the authors have
chosen to label such traits as ‘traditional masculinity’ is warranted, although what such
an explanation is likely to reveal is a particular ideological use of the term ‘traditional’.
The implied incontrovertible pejorative use of ‘traditional masculinity’ also ignores that
‘traditional masculinity’ may also be drawn on as a positive identity (e.g. Moolman
Although we have argued that usage of the term ‘traditional masculinity’ is often
uncritical, this is not the case for all work in this field. Alternatively, some researchers
seem to indicate the socially constructed nature of ‘traditional masculinity’ by referring
to it as ‘“traditional” masculinity’ (i.e. using quotation marks around the ‘traditional’
or even the whole term) (e.g. Gibbs and Jobson 2011; Robins 2006) or else explicitly
referring to it as a social construction (e.g. Chadwick and Foster 2007; Moolman 2013).
Moreover, the use of the alternative term, ‘traditionalist’, seems to be appearing in the
masculinity literature with greater frequency (e.g. Broughton 2008; Laurier Decoteau
2013; Ratele 2013), a usage that indicates an awareness of how some groups/individuals
may use the notion of ‘tradition’ ideologically. Hammer and Good (2010) also point
out the importance of recognising the contextual-specificity of each construction of
‘traditional masculinity’ as it is referred to within different research on masculinities.
Such deployments of the term are more appropriate within the social constructionist
framework as well as with Connell’s framework on masculinities.


A useful example to illuminate elements of each of these three propositions is of the
self-stylisations of amakrwala – young Xhosa males recently returned from initiation.
Initiation, which involves seclusion, ritual circumcision and instruction about manhood,
marks the transition of Xhosa males from boyhood to manhood and confers on the new
men specific cultural privileges associated with manhood. The example of ubukrwala2,
as a form of what one might label ‘traditional masculinity’, provides evidence for the
importance of taking into account the three factors suggested in this article regarding
traditional masculinity: as constructed, multiple, and not simply synonymous with
hegemonic masculinity. Firstly, this example demonstrates some of the ways in which
‘traditional masculinity’ can be socially constructed, and the implications thereof.
Labelling ubukrwala as a form of ‘traditional masculinity’ performs particular discursive
functions, the nature of which is dependent on the context. This is made clear by the

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

greatly divergent ideological implications behind the term, ‘tradition’, as it might be used
by critics of initiation (as outdated) versus the proponents of initiation (as legitimised
by its connection to the past). The media has paid particular attention to the number of
deaths and injuries occurring each year, from causes such as hypothermia, dehydration or
complications arising from circumcision. In line with different ideological perspectives
on ‘tradition’, competing public discourses surrounding such reports include the
importance of ‘respecting tradition’ in South Africa; the possibility of transforming the
tradition by using ‘modern’ medicine and doctors to perform the circumcision (this is
currently taboo and initiates going to hospital will not be considered men); and outright
condemnation of the process as ‘barbaric’, ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ (see Kepe 2010;
Mavundla et al. 2009; 2010; Vincent 2008).
Another element of ubukrwala linked to how tradition is constructed is the clothing
worn by amakrwala on their return from initiation. In line with the stereotypical
narrative of ‘African tradition’, the ubiquitous image of initiates (abakhwetha) within
media reports shows them outside in the mountains during initiation, often naked or
near naked, with white clay smeared on their bodies. In contrast to this representation,
however, on their return the characteristically stylised clothing that many amakrwala
wear is reminiscent of a style originating in nineteenth-century Britain, including
items such as tweed-style jackets and flat caps. There are several specific imported
brands whose items are the most coveted, some of which have been popular amongst
amakrwala for decades. These clothes are distinctive in a way in which those unfamiliar
with the practice would be unlikely to label as ‘traditionally African’, yet this practice is
described by amakrwala as part of Xhosa tradition. Thus, although most of the practices
surrounding initiation are constructed as stemming from distinctly African, precolonial
times, the style of clothing worn on return from initiation and the focus placed on the
(foreign) labels and price of these items are indicative of the influence of what might
be constructed as a more ‘Western’ consumer culture. It is likely that particular social,
historical and economic factors enabled this distinct style of clothing to become imbued
with particular meanings about what it means to be a man at a certain point in history,
thus facilitating its assimilation into ubukrwala to become the integral element that it is
today. The clothing therefore represents a more recently ‘invented’ tradition: far from
ubukrwala remaining static, the practices and ideologies surrounding it relate distinctly
to its ‘modern’ context and to the active reproduction of ‘tradition’ as a symbolic resource
by contemporary subjects. It is therefore an apt demonstration of the importance of
taking into account the fluidity of tradition, highlighting that ‘traditional masculinity’
should not be seen as a static construct.
Secondly, the distinctiveness of this example further demonstrates the importance
of acknowledging the multiplicity of what one might label ‘traditional masculinities’.
As discussed earlier, when people refer to ‘traditional masculinity’ in different contexts
the meanings are numerous, and the motivations for constructing different elements
of masculinity as ‘tradition’ will also vary. This was exemplified by the fact that

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

how ‘traditional masculinity’ is used in the United States seems to be more typically
linked to whiteness (Hammer and Good 2010), whereas in the South African context
the ‘traditional’ is more typically linked to blackness (Ratele 2014). Yet within the
same context there may also be multiple ‘traditional masculinities’. For instance in
South Africa, one might use the term ‘traditional masculinity’ to refer to discursive
constructions in Xhosa, Zulu, English or Afrikaans groups, and while there may be
various overlaps there will also be important distinctions. Even within a single cultural
group, different life stages are likely to be associated with dissimilar constructions of
masculinity. Relating to our example, within Xhosa culture the types of masculinity
viewed as ideal will differ for males before, during, and after initiation, as well as later
in life. Each of these factors highlights the merit of carefully locating what is labelled
(or what one labels) ‘traditional masculinity’, and the idiosyncrasies thereof.
Lastly, the more complex element of an analysis of ubukrwala as a ‘traditional
masculinity’ is its relationship to hegemonic masculinity. The high cost of the sought-
after brands means that such clothing is often unattainable to many young Xhosa males
(e.g. Macanda 2012). Ubukrwala thus seems to demonstrate the tension between an
exalted ‘traditional masculinity’ and a ‘modern’, financially successful masculinity,
where accomplishment of the former is partially dependent on access to the financial
resources related to the latter. Hegemonic masculinity is often characterised largely by
financial success, which is not easily attainable to many young Xhosa men. As such,
while ubukrwala occupies a position of relative cultural dominance among many young
Xhosa males, it is nonetheless marginalised within the larger context of hegemonic
financially successful masculinity. In line with Connell’s (2011) commentary on the
necessity of developing local, ‘southern’ perspectives on gender, one might analyse
this juxtaposition of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ elements of ubukrwala using locally
developed theorisations of hegemonic and ʽtraditional masculinityʼ. For instance, the
seemingly paradoxical practices within ubukrwala could be framed within Moolman’s
(2013: 6) notion of a ‘dual hegemony’ of both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ masculinities
in South Africa, wherein the former is linked in particular to the accumulation of wealth
and power, whereas the latter is seen as linked to cultural ideologies around ‘authentic
and exclusive African manhood’. Similarly, these aspects of ubukrwala reflect
Ratele’s (2014) commentary on the complexity of hegemonic masculinity in relation
to marginalised males in South Africa, wherein he emphasises the significance of the
cross-currents of consumerism and traditionalism within masculinities in South Africa
as well as arguing that the masculinity exemplified by ‘traditional/ist men’ is often
in fact marginalised. Such analyses would demonstrate that ubukrwala, as a form of
‘traditional masculinity’, can neither be described as straightforwardly hegemonic nor
static, and it represents the complex relationship between masculinity and contemporary
social and economic factors.

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

We have primarily aimed to do three things. Firstly, we have offered a critique of
how ‘traditional masculinity’ is sometimes used within critical studies of men and
masculinities. We have argued that its usage is at times potentially careless or uncritical,
and as such is sometimes incongruent with certain core assumptions of the social
constructionist perspective of masculinity as well as the perspective of masculinity
associated with Connell. We have additionally argued that such usage at times takes a
common-sense understanding of ‘tradition’, without adequately exploring the different
elements of this term, including its ideological functions.
Our second aim was to explore some of the literature on tradition, in order to inform
a more complex understanding of the ‘traditional’ element of ‘traditional masculinity’.
In particular, this literature demonstrated the complicated relationship between the
‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’. Drawing on empirical examples, we argued that the
‘traditional’ is never simply an artefact from the past, but rather it is both shaped by
contemporary factors as well as utilised by contemporary subjects. We further emphasised
how the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ can be used ideologically in various ways. This
literature thus sheds light on some complexities overlooked in much of the usage of
both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ within masculinities research.
Our third and final aim was to utilise these insights as well as take note of the
critiques offered to outline the beginning of an approach to understanding and researching
‘traditional masculinity’ in ways more congruent with the frameworks mentioned. Our
proposed ideas stressed the socially constructed nature of ‘traditional masculinity’ and
the importance of being critical in one’s usage of the term. In particular, we highlighted
the importance of researchers exploring the ideological functions of the term ‘traditional
masculinity’. We also emphasised that the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ should not be
taken as mutually exclusive when thinking about ‘traditional masculinity’; the example
of amakrwala was used to demonstrate how ‘traditional masculinity’ is not simply a
product of a past immemorial, but is constituted within modernity. Importantly, what we
have argued for is not the abandonment of the term ‘traditional masculinity’ (although
for certain usages this will be the case). Rather, we have argued that the term may be
useful as a concept, however, both the limitations and implications of its usage should be
acknowledged, and it should be approached with a critical perspective of its constituent
The argument put forward is on the surface a very obvious one: According to critical
studies of men, all masculinities are socially constructed. And yet the obviousness of
the argument belies the epistemological blindness about the very conceptual devices
and discourses that we deploy to illuminate our objects of interest. These very devices
that we use to critically examine the social world and to resist dominant discourses,
paradoxically may serve to reproduce some of the ideologies we aim to challenge. It
is hoped that this article helps to illuminate this ‘epistemological blind spot’ in critical
gender studies.

Everitt-Penhale and Ratele Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

1 The Xhosa are one of the largest ethnic groups in South Africa.
2 The identity and practices of young Xhosa male initiates.

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BRITTANY EVERITT-PENHALE is working on her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and

Community Counselling at Stellenbosch University. She previously worked as a researcher
on the Masculinity, Tradition and Social Change Programme at the Institute for Social and
Health Sciences at Unisa and the Violence, Injury & Peace Research Unit at SAMRC/Unisa.
She completed her Master’s in Psychological Research from the University of Cape Town
in 2013, where her dissertation focused on male students’ talk on rape in South Africa.
Her research interests include masculinity and femininity, violence, feminist perspectives,
heterosex, and sexual violence.

Everitt-Penhale Rethinking ‘traditional masculinity’

KOPANO RATELE is Professor in the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at the
University of South Africa (Unisa) and Researcher at the South African Medical Research
Council-Unisa’s Violence, Injury & Peace Research Unit. He is past president of the
Psychological Society of South Africa and chairperson of the board of Sonke Gender Justice.
He writes on boys, men and masculinity.