Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rural masculinity, work, and media representation

Philip Morris retired their iconic "Marlboro Man" in 1999. Projecting an image of masculine strength in untamed nature, the smoking cowboy was an image of a ruggedly physical rural laborer that sold millions of filtered cigarettes. Indeed, when devising the character, the broadest consensus around a signifier of masculinity in focus groups was the cowboy figure. The Marlboro Man is gone now-- Philip Morris discontinued the ad campaign as cigarette advertising was largely regulated away in the late 90s, and plenty of former Marlboro Men died of smoking-related illnesses. But more broadly-- does the cowboy do the same kind of cultural work in conflating rural lifestyles and livelihoods with masculinity as it used to?

Although the cowboy is still an instantly recognizable image for many Americans that signifies hard physical labor in rural places, and the attendant masculine associations, real cowboys are few and far between in 2017. Some trace the end of the cowboy era to the invention of barbed wire, which happened in the 1870s. The cowboy is not the only association with rural livelihoods and masculinity-- loggers, miners, and oilfield workers have all been theorized as archetypes of rural masculinity. The key component? Work as the defining component of masculinity. 

I. Work and rural men

What is "masculine" about rural work? Jobs in extractive industries require a high degree of skill and mastery to avoid serious injury or death on the job. They necessitate physical strength, resilience, and stamina. Although these defining traits are by no means "essentially" masculine, American culture genders them that way. 

In addition to the on-the-job masculine traits, extractive industry was the driver for the strongly gendered narrative of the white man "conquering the wilderness" in the West. The men engaged in such work were heirs to the dual goals of establishing white hegemony in the West and bringing its bounty into the dominion of the United States. 

Rural livelihoods outside of extractive industry also display these traits- such as a high degree of serious danger in the grain farming industry. Farming, too, has historically been a way for rural men to display traditionally masculine traits like strong work ethic, tolerance for danger, and physical strength. 

II. Media representation and the post-work rural man

What happens to rural men's sense of self when jobs leave town? Although rural economies were once heavily dependent on traditionally masculine jobs, many rural economies have shifted from these industries to a more diverse spate of jobs, not all of which are "masculine" in the traditional sense (see, for example, hospital work or tourist re-enactments of extractive industry). How are men in these areas developing masculine identities without masculine work to perform?

Rural men are not forging their identities in a vacuum-- there is an enormous media apparatus designed to observe, repackage, and resell 'rural lifestyles' to rural people. Through media representation, one can track a changing culture of rural masculinity. Although hard work is still valorized in country music, big ticket consumer goods and pleasure-seeking consumption are increasingly ways to express a manly identity. See, for example, the transition from songs glorifying blue collar work like "East Bound and Down" and "Six Days on the Road", to songs like "Truck Yeah"-- glorifying the high dollar commodity of a truck.

Similarly, see the commodification of hunting-- once a male-gendered method of obtaining sustenance for the family unit, now the touchstone for a dizzying array of camouflage products for both men and women as a signifier of rurality. Again, the emphasis on work for the development of rural identity has been supplanted by consumption.

The rural lifestyle media also depicts toughness to the point of pugnacity as a masculine value. Readiness to fight has always been part of country culture (and not limited to men). Recent developments in country culture have included an amplification of this vein. Mixed martial arts has enjoyed a boom of popularity in rural places, following after the perennially popular professional wrestling that emerged from rural carnival sideshows in the 1930s. Manly posturing by rural men around fighting and physical conflict has always existed-- but now it is commodified and resold to rural viewers.

Rural masculinities are shaped and refined by media representation. In the absence of the structuring force of work, the media of "country culture" packages and redistributes an image of the rural man as a consumer and flaunter of masculine products and a self-assured, sometimes pugnacious figure, but less and less as a worker. This new rural masculinity may unfortunately be a fragile self-image to maintain without a paycheck. The result is bad for family structures and may cause mental illness among those unable to sustain job-centered self concepts. It may be possible to frame these issues as symptoms of toxic masculinity and not rural problems. However, the rhetorics of toxic masculinity are sold to rural men by the bushelful in political discourse, and maybe that alone is cause to take a closer look at how rural men are constructing their self-image. 


Anne Badasci said...

While I certainly wouldn't title myself any sort of expert on rural masculinity, I can at least speak from my own experience growing up a small, heavily farm-life focused region of California. I have snapshots in my mind of things that really speak to your thoughts on rural masculinity and its changing landscape; for instance, my mom hails from a long line of farmers and other types of jobs that required men to "work with their hands." When she married my dad--a civil engineer--my mom's father was distraught. He was actually worried that he wouldn't be able to "provide" for my mom and their future family, despite my father making at least twice as much (and on a more stable basis) than my grandpa's income. There were always these running jokes at my dad's expense made by my mom's side of the family: that my dad was a "pansy" and a "lightweight," that he had "a woman's hands" from working an office job. The fact that he had obtained his college degree was not a point of pride, but of "big city" norms. I was raised to believe that education was extremely important, and my own brothers dream of being engineers just like my dad. Beyond my own familial experiences with masculinity in a rural town, I also grew up alongside classmates facing similar issues. To be frank, very few of my high school classmates graduated college, or even left my small town. The vast majority of them remain rooted in Hanford--which is of course not inherently a bad thing, but I do find it at least interesting to ponder questions of whether taking any opportunity to leave home, even just for a few years, could have been a factor in shaping an identity different than that you speak of in your post. At the same time, I myself advocate consistently for the idea that college is not the right choice for everyone, and that stigmatizing careers in farming and similar industries is ultimately completely counterproductive; we all like to eat, after all. I think it's an interesting dilemma, and something I ponder on quite a bit, especially given my continued social and online interactions with people from my hometown who would proudly consider themselves descendants of they Marlboro Man ilk.

dnlauber said...

Thank you for such an insightful post, Willie. While reading your post, I could not help but think about the lyrics to "Here in the Real World," recorded by country music star Alan Jackson. For those reading this that are not as familiar with country music lyrics as me, here is a link to the lyrics ( Relevantly, the opening of the song sings "Cowboys don't cry, and heroes don't die. Good always wins, again and again."

I definitely see the sense of rural masculinity promoted not only by media and culture, but history as well. When we think of the Wild West and Rough Riders ( there is no doubt why images of masculinity and strength are triggered when thinking about cowboys. However, I wonder if these ideas of strength and masculinity are limited to men only.

On the one hand, thoughts of rural women might lead to contrived notions of submission to the patriarchy and views of women only living to run a household and serve her husband. These ideas are also grounded in Christianity. In this class we have discussed the intertwining themes of religion and rurality. See Ephesians 5:24 "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."

On the other hand, I also couldn't read your post without another song running through my head: Brooks & Dunn's famous country hit "Cowgirls Don't Cry." The chorus sings: "Cowgirls don't cry. Ride, baby, ride. Lessons in life are going to show you in time. Soon enough your gonna know why. It's gonna hurt every now and then. If you fall get back on again. Cowgirls don't cry." ( Maybw it is not only rural men, but rural women as well who are conditioned to be hardened and emotionless.

Perhaps these ideas of masculinity an strength are for rural people as a whole, and not just men. Regardless, your plug about mental-health is both valid and important. Both songs I mentioned reference how cowboys/girls "don't cry." This seems like an unhealthy way to live and, as you state Willie, potentially a more general problem of "symptoms of toxic masculinity."

Courtney said...

This was an interesting post, especially in relation to the video we watched about the Hog Farms a few weeks ago. When we picture "farmers" or "ranchers" I think we still have the idea of the Marlborough Man in our minds-- a denim-clad (white) man, maybe riding a horse through some cattle or driving a tractor. But the reality is very different. We've de-"masculinized" most of this work. Now, these industries operate much like a business than labor tending to land. Now machines and undocumented immigrants perform the labor we idealize in this Marlborough Man-esque style. However, this shift doesn't seem to take away the "masculine" attributes we identify with farmers/ranchers/etc.

I personally cannot help but lump together much of rural america as a poster child for "fragile masculinity." When we read about Trump voters stories of their dependence on coal, or work that is just generally not available, I have a hard time wrapping my head around why they don't seek other careers. I understand that that is much easier said than done, but I also feel like there is an air of entitlement to live this rural-manly-life. Specifically, I think pitting the ideas of environmental protection against private economic gains using land is extremely telling of fragile masculinity. There seems to be this idea that "man" conquers/owns/uses land in a way that I have yet to see applied to a female population.

Jenna said...

While reading your post I just kept thinking of this commercial I remember seeing about farmers. I actually managed to track it down it it is apparently a Dodge Super Bowl Ad from 2013 ( The commercial starts out with a quote that goes: "And on the eight day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker, so God made a farmer" (a quote from Paul Harvey's poem, "So God Made a Farmer" The commercial shows photos of churches, fields, tractors, cattle, crops, trucks, and other such "quintessential" rural images. While there are women shown in the commercial, there are only three women, compared to 18 men portrayed (only one of whom appears to have been a person of color). The three women (or more accurately two women and one girl) are all portrayed standing and looking at the camera. While some of the men are also in this position, they are also shown, bailing hay, riding tractors, walking through the field, or having their hands dirty from a days work. So, it seems that even though the "Malboro Man" has been retired, the image of the rugged (white) masculine rural man tending to the land and putting in hard physical labor is still alive and well in American mass media, even if it has been slightly repackaged.

Mollie M said...

I think there is definitely a link between expectations of masculine identity and some rural fight to bring coal and other similar jobs back to rural areas. On the other hand, maybe that these extraction jobs seem to be the only ones available -- is that a reality or an expectation based on tradition and identity?

I liked what was said about the media packaging ideas of masculinity and distributing it widely with the example of the "Marlboro man," but I also am wondering -- are rural folks the primary consumers of this media? I find it difficult to cut through stereotypes of rural people that the media is presenting and actual realities of rural life. I am sure rural people intake a great deal of media that displays certain ideas of masculinity, but I also wonder whether the tradition of gender roles/identities that are passed down are at least as powerful as the media, if not more so.