Lil Nas X at the 2019 American Music Awards. Cosmopolitan UK, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
This blog series showcases the student winners of the Yuan Changying Prize, sponsored by GENDER.ED and SPS’s Gender Politics Research Group. The prize recognises outstanding ‘gender observations’ written by students (and nominated by tutors) in the pre-Honours course Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World, convened by Dr. Meryl Kenny and Dr. Sarah Liu. Gender observations require students to link material from the course to their own day-to-day experiences and observations of ‘doing gender’. The prize is named after Yuan Changying in consultation with students, in recognition of the first female Chinese graduate in the University of Edinburgh’s history.
A Gender Observation of the portrayal of masculinities in ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’ by Lil Nas X – Heidi Hafner
Lil Nas X’s song ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’ (2021) and accompanying music video claimed 46.9 million streams in the US within 2 weeks of release (Trust, 2021), and within 4 days the public response deemed it one of the most controversial music videos ever (Wicker, 2021). Why? In the music video Lil Nas X takes us to ‘Montero’, a place where you don’t have to hide who you are, where I will argue power hierarchies are disrupted through the destabilization of traditional masculinities. First, I will analyse the nature of traditional masculinities, and how these are distorted. Then take an intersectional lens to explore gay masculinities and black masculinities, to see if conventional masculinities are reinforced, or just destabilized. By exploring these, I will conclude by arguing that these presentations of masculinities can be used to explain the public’s response.
Hegemonic masculinity is a societal pattern which creates a dominant masculinity in social life (Connell, 1995); it is maintained through the celebration and chastising of certain behaviours and presentations of masculinities. Although hegemonic masculinity is subject to change, due to the range of existing masculinities, violence is used as a tool to prevent change (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). Ronald (2012: 33) observes that hegemonic masculinity within rap and hip-hop music means an “oversexed, violent, misogynist identity of “ghetto realness””; an intrepid hypermasculinity that is self-preserving via violence. At the start of the music video, Lil Nas X is in the Garden of Eden where he is seduced by a snake, but one with his own male face. This retelling of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve destabilizes its traditional misogyny. Lil Nas X is pushed over by the snake, and then dominated by the snake who licks his body. This challenges the need for violence, instead presenting male passivity and submission critically deconstructing the gender stereotypes of long-established masculinities.
Traditional masculinities are a result of the concept of the male gaze. The male gaze suggests men have pleasure in looking at women and girls as “sex kitten[s]” (Oliver, 2017: 453); it objectifies women. Penney (2012) notes the actions of hip-hop group ‘The Slaughter Force’ who, in 2008, threatened beating and death to men wearing tight clothes as this was “queer” and “feminine” (Penney, 2012: 321); threatening the ““hard” masculine image within hip-hop culture” (Penney, 2012: 322). I believe this links to the male gaze: The Slaughter Force see tight-fitting clothes as feminine because they emphasize female curves and bodies which are sexualized by the male gaze. Since the male gaze doesn’t sexualize men through the dynamic of ‘looking’, men shouldn’t wear tight clothes but remain “cloaked” (Penney, 2012: 325) – wearing tight clothes presents men as sex objects when they should be sex subjects. However, in the music video, Lil Nas X presents as a sex symbol, in boxers and heels, subverting the male gaze and challenging the media’s presentation of women stemming from the traditional hegemonic hyper-masculinity.
It could be argued that Lil Nas X’s music cannot be understood outside of intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory is a method for understanding events in social life; multiple overlapping social factors exist, and combine to create oppressions and privileges (Hill Collins and Bilge, 2016). Lil Nas X is a gay, black male: employing intersectionality theory to look at his work could help analyse how his overlapping identities create a distinct presentation of masculinities. However, intersectionality theory is not going to be employed because it is fundamentally flawed in that it is built off racist stereotypes of black males; it requires “Black men to be theorized primarily through the sameness they share with men” (Curry, 2021: 132) and assumes black masculinities as “incomplete” (Curry, 2021: 149). Nonetheless, when looking at Lil Nas X’s portrayal of masculinities, it is vital to explore the intersections of race and sexuality, so this paper will now address these intersections, without falling into what Curry (2021) names ‘Intersectionality’s Black Male Problem’. Firstly, we turn to sexuality.
In society there exists a “presumed heterosexual matrix” (Butler, 1999: 68); conventional masculinity presumes a desire for women and a heterosexual expression of love. Homosexuality is “radically unconditioned by heterosexual norms” because it is outside this matrix (Butler, 1999: 154). So larger structures, for example hip-hop or the wider music industry, try to reinforce a heterosexual culture. One way of doing this is homophobia, which Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) observe as reinforcing the symbol of masculinity. Critically, the backlash to the expressions of homosexuality in Lil Nas X’s work reveal that this matrix is very much at play in society. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community I found it refreshing to see such an open expression of male homosexuality, revealing just how heteronormative masculinities in the music industry, and wider society, are. Therefore, one reason Lil Nas X is seen as challenging customary masculinities is through homosexuality, however, to fully understand this we must look at the intersections of race and sexuality. These can be explored through the concept of the ‘cool pose’ which reveals that young black men use symbols, such as clothing and language, to assert their manhood in response to racial oppression (Iwamoto, 2003).
Penney (2012) observes that gender binaries are reproduced through visuals; male hip-hop artists wear baggy clothes to reflect a strong manhood disassociated with femininity and queerness. This suggests that gay male bodies are, somehow, inferior to straight male bodies; that gay male bodies are weaker as they do not subscribe to traditional powerful masculinities. I argue Lil Nas X dissolves the idea of a weaker, inferior gay male body firstly through his language: the lyric “And now I’m actin’ hella elite” reveals that gay males can feel superior. Furthermore, his action of claiming the Devil’s horns at the end of the video reveals the power ‘weak’ bodies can obtain. Therefore, specific representations are used to present a gay black masculinity that challenges the cool pose.
An example of the ‘cool pose’ in popular culture would be the phrase “no homo” which is frequently employed by male hip-hop artists when they talk fondly of other males, to ensure their actions are not seen as homosexual (Jeffries, 2010, as cited by Bradley 2012). This represents the heteronormative anxiety in hip-hop culture; the phrase “no homo” acts as a barrier between heterosexual men and ‘homosexual’ feelings like affection. This shows that masculinities typically understand love heteronormatively, and that there is “no space for [the] affirmation of nonstraight male sexual identity” (Bradley, 2012: 267); language is used to present heteronormativity, which is supposedly manly. The use of lyrics such as “you’re cute enough to fuck with me tonight” whilst engaging in gay sexual acts disrupts heteronormative language in hip-hop.
However, there are elements of Lil Nas X’s work that don’t demolish, but instead reinforce conservative masculinities. hooks (2004) observes black male sexuality to be the start of black male’s dysfunctional behaviours – black males are conventionally hypersexual; sex is an avenue for their fulfilment, and when its insufficient black men turn to sexual violence in order to assert dominance. Lil Nas X’s music video reveals an obsession with sex through the inclusion of many black male sexual beings, such as the angelic figure that reflects Ganymede (Chow, 2021). In this way the sexual symbolism in ‘Montero’ fortifies the concept of hypersexuality within traditional black masculinities.
Nevertheless, hooks argument is weak: the sex symbolism, such as Ganymede (a long-lasting symbol of homosexuality (Chow, 2021)) can be seen as a way to reclaim homosexuality in the face of heteronormative masculinities. Furthermore, Lil Nas X’s work shows the argument to be fundamentally floored: hooks (2004) argues all black men crave dominance, and this is what they gain from performing acts of sexual violence. However, Lil Nas X uses the lyric ‘Call me by your name’ which subverts the dominant, aggressive narrative for submission; Lil Nas X is willing to lose his own identification. Again, hooks (2004) is challenged; she believes that black men obtain their manhood through the patriarchal need to spread their seed – Lil Nas X’s homosexuality destroys the argument that heterosexuality is the only way to manhood.
Given that the majority of Lil Nas X’s work supplants traditional masculinities, it disrupts the gender order. I think that the heterosexual matrix that dominates black masculinities, and the idea of an aggressive black male, form part of the wider concept of gender order – “gender is a way in which social practice is ordered” (Connell, 1995: 71). This is produced via heteronormative cathexis, in part, and maintained through social relations. The backlash to ‘Montero’, can be seen as a result of it unsettling the gender order with the homosexuality, and challenging of other typical masculine social practices like dominance and violence. I think that the backlash is an attempt to reinforce the gender order by viewing such social practices as controversial and disregarding them. Therefore, we see how Connell’s theory works in practice: the gender order is maintained through social practices and relations.
Ultimately, ‘Montero’ challenges the conventional ideas of masculinities in hip-hop and society; it breaks down their heteronormativity, as well as challenging the view that queerness within black masculinities is weak. Furthermore, it challenges the idea that black manhood requires aggression and domination to deal with racial oppression. Although it can also be seen as reinforcing the hypersexual black masculinity, by doing this through a homosexual lens the underpinnings of traditional masculinities are debated. Lil Nas X uses these representations to challenge the problematic nature of conventional masculinities and the gender order, which produce homophobia. This explains the public response – Montero challenges the traditional social practices that are conducted in social relations.
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Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities. Polity Press, pp. 67-86.
Connell, R.W., Messerschmidt, J.W (2005) ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender and Society, 19(6), pp. 829-859.
Chow, A. (2021) Decoding the Symbolism of Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ Video. Time. Available at: <https://time.com/5951024/lil-nas-x-montero-video-symbolism-explained/> [Accessed 20 October 2021].
Curry, T. (2021) Critical Psychology Praxis: Psychological Non-Alignment to Modernity/Coloniality. Milton: Routledge, pp. 132-154.
Hill Collins, P., Bilge, S. (2016) Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 11-30.
hooks, b. (2004) We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 63-74.
Iwamoto, D. (2003) ‘Tupac Shakur: Understanding the Identity Formation of Hyper-Masculinity of a Popular Hip-Hop Artist’, The Black Scholar, 33(2), pp. 44-49.
Lil Nas X (2021). Montero (Call Me By Your Name). YouTube. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6swmTBVI83k> [Accessed 17 October 2021].
Oliver, K. (2017) ‘The male gaze is more relevant, and more dangerous, than ever’. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 15(4), pp. 451-455.
Penney, J. (2012) ‘“We Don’t Wear Tight Clothes”: Gay Panic and Queer Style in Contemporary Hip-Hop’ Popular Music and Society, 35(3), pp. 321-332.
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Trust, G. (2021) Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’ Debuts at No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100. Billboard. Available at: <https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/9551483/lil-nas-x-montero-number-one-hot-100/> [Accessed 18 October 2021].
Wicker, J. (2021) Lil Nas X has last word as controversy erupts over ‘devil-worshipping’ video. The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/mar/30/lil-nas-x-montero-call-me-by-your-name-twitter> [Accessed 14 October 2021].