Return to Article Details Book Review of Masculinity in Transition written by K. Allison Hammer

Masculinity in Transition
K. Allison Hammer
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
259 pages
ISBN 978-1-5179-1435-6 (paperback)


Masculinity in Transition is a book written by K. Allison Hammer, a non-binary assistant professor at the University of Illinois. The volume was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2023. Hammer describe the book as one that builds on one of the necessary takeaways of the #MeToo which they identify as follows: “there does need to be a critique of masculinity, many critiques, but ones that are simultaneously critical of white supremacy and capitalism, including what I would call identity as consumption” (Hammer Book Talk, 11:19-11:36). In this publication, Hammer provides an interesting intervention on the concept of masculinity in relation to gender formation. To do so, they offer a complex critique of the term toxic masculinity and its association with straight, white men by arguing that the patterns of behaviors referred to in relation to the term can also be displayed by trans and queer masculinities. As such, the author proposes to use the term normative masculinity as an alternative for “toxic” in an effort to broaden the understanding of masculinity to one that both affirms and subverts hegemonic racial, social, political, economic and sexual hierarchies. Furthermore, the book also explores the responses to said normative masculinity in various forms including what they refer to as “unruly alliances,” a term that, “describes the kinds of bonds that occur outside of heteronormative domestic and familial arrangements, but without drawing on theories of queer kinship” (Hammer 2023, 3). Hammer’s aim with this book is therefore to question how masculinity could leave behind the same concepts and ideologies that led to its labelling as “toxic” in the first place. The book is divided into three parts, namely, “Part I: Challenging Phallic Supremacy,” “Part II: Challenging Conceptions of the Nation” and “Part III: Challenging Masculine Impenetrability,” with each part being constructed of two chapters. This thematic division allows for a better understanding of what needs to be deconstructed and challenged for the successful reimagination of masculinity and relationality in the future, something Hammer touch upon in their conclusion.

The first chapter of this book entitled “She’s a Pistol: Female Phallicism,” as its name suggests, builds on the phrase to explore the male anxiety related to the female claim of phallic power. In it, Hammer looks into the idea that while there was and still is a tendency to, “denigrate women who claim a female masculinity through the phallic” (Hammer 2023, 29), what they refer to as female phallicism can be an important way to challenge normative masculinity and, therefore, create various forms of unruly alliances. Indeed, building on Judith Butler’s theory of the lesbian phallus and Jack Halberstam’s theorizing of dildos as phallic signifiers, Hammer include trans women into the discussion of what the phallus can signify and its power to deconstruct divisions. This chapter includes the detailed analysis of two works of art, one of which being Nao Bustamante’s Silver & Gold (2019), a filmformance in which Bustamante is chased by a swarm of penises through the woods until she collapses and wakes up to a bedazzled, talking phallus protruding from under her sequin dress. Through the analysis of said filmformance, Hammer highlights the potential compatibility of the feminine with the phallus, which is embraced by Bustamante’s character at the end of the performance, as the latter is used to, “discover empowerment and freedom from racial/colonial constraints and from ritualized maintenance of white hegemony” (Hammer 2023, 46). To contrast this positive usage of the female phallus in art, the professor also explores in this chapter the harmful ways in which the filmic depiction of trans women as, in Butler’s terms, “having” has been transphallomisogynic. This re-interpretation of 1992 British film The Crying Game as well as the disgust and vomiting displayed by Fergus, the male protagonist, when faced with his girlfriend Dil’s Black trans-feminine body enables Hammer to draw a connection between the rejection, violence against as well as exclusion of Blackness and the female phallus. This chapter is made especially valuable by its theorization of female phallicism as both a source of crisis and the solution to it as well as its inclusion of trans bodies into the discussion.

The second chapter, “When I Was a Boy: Boi/Boyhood and the Unworking of Masculinity,” deals with the concept of “phallic” boyhood and its problematic appropriation by, as put by the author, “white boys” (Hammer 2023, 55). In it, Hammer comments on Freud’s understanding of boyhood as dependent on the phallus and his belief in the existence of only two “healthy” routes for the latter’s development, namely sadism and masochism. What stood out in this chapter is Hammer’s gripping readings of Emily Dickinson’s poems as her desire for what the professor refer to as “imagined boyhood.” This presentation of boyhood is described as, “a space of fantasy and creativity existing within the limitations of a historical moment, with or without corporeal or sartorial manifestations of gender transition or affirmation” (Hammer 2023, 60). This expression of imagined boyhood, according to Hammer, embodies a revision of Freud’s boyhood which is filled with ambiguity, but consequently, also filled with possibilities. As for the second part of the chapter, it explores works of trans poet Samuel Ace and non-binary poet Andrea Gibson. On the one hand, while Ace’s poems explore a desire for boyhood, they also recognize and acknowledge the history of and potential for violence associated with it. On the other hand, Gibson, by writing about their own life experiences and questionings, highlight the fluidity of gender as a series of becomings rather than a fixed point, something that can be discovered, misplaced but also re-discovered and re-claimed. What makes of these kinds of boyhoods potential grounds for unruly alliances is the poets’ vulnerability and openness in sharing their stories, therefore creating, “safe places for themselves and others to explore the desire of boyhood without shame, guilt or remorse” (Hammer 2023, 81) as well as the diversity of each experience.

The third chapter entitled “The “Not (Quite) Yet” of the New Collectivity: Feminist Masculinity and the American West” leaves behind, to a certain extent, the more individual experiences and embodiments of man/boyhood to focus on the problematic aspects of masculinity expressed through nationalism as exemplified by American Westerns. Here, Hammer explores multiple Westerns to demonstrate how the genre, “reif[ies] the coconstruction of masculinity and nation” (Hammer 2023, 97) through the representation of fraternities built on sameness, or what the author refer to as “masculine narcissism rather than difference” (97). Another important part of this chapter is Hammer’s highlighting of the exclusion of, “the sister, and by proxy the effeminate homosexual” (97) from said genre and the tendency of the latter as well as buddy cop movies to put emphasis on the emotional bonds between men rather than friendship between women. This makes of the depiction of feminist masculinities as well as the role played by women of color within works that challenge the normative masculinity present within these genres which disorder both gender and racial hierarchies as exemplified in Westworld and Godless in the professor’s words, an, “intrusion on the genre, suggesting a groundswell of potential change” (97). Nevertheless, it is also acknowledged that normative masculinity possesses an important staying power due to its adaptability as shown in Godless.

Building on these ideas, chapter four on “Virtue Is Divided: Unruly Alliances in Willa Carther and Gertrude Stein” addresses how normative masculinity is not necessarily embodied and performed. Through the example of the lives and works of Gertrude Stein and Willa Carther and informed by Jacques Derrida’s conceptualization of lovence, who, “express what [Hammer] call butch exceptionalism, a form of transnormativity in white, American monumentality” (Hammer 2023, 134), the professor examines the reasoning behind the two writers’ fascination and attachment to the stories of physically and psychologically wounded soldiers coming back from World War I. Furthermore, Hammer explains how, through their portrayal of disillusionment, disenchantment, understanding and compassion, Stein and Carter, “call attention to the failures of the normative masculinity and assigned male phallogocentrism” (Hammer 2023, 162). By connecting their own suffering and humiliation to that of said soldiers, both writers draw into their craft the very same type of men they represent in their fiction. Nonetheless, as Hammer brilliantly assess, this, “‘looking back,’ this wistful nostalgia for a bygone era of virile virtue” should not be taken by transmasculine subjects as, “a model for collective sustainability” (Hammer 2023, 164). Rather, I would strongly agree with the author on the need to find a balance between looking back and/or commemoration and sharp criticism of both past and present.

Chapter five introduces the last part of the book. “‘Skin of His Hand against the Skin of My Back’: HIV/AIDS Self-Writing and Film of the 1980s and ‘90s”, as its title suggests, discusses the concept of impenetrability in relation to the HIV/AIDS pandemic of 1980s and 90s. I especially enjoyed Hammer’s consideration of both the threat to masculinity implied by the penetrability of the virus and that which leads to the contracting of the latter as well as the suffering and bonds created, “with others, whether they are lovers, friends, or strangers” (Hammer 2023, 172), or put differently, the unruly alliances that can bloom from the embrace of the lack of need to conform to the ideal of impenetrability promoted by normative masculinity. To illustrate and build even further on their arguments, Hamer examines the painting of Hugh Steers, who died from AIDS related complications at the age of thirty-two, titled Bath Curtain (1992). I believe this emotionally charged and touching depiction of both the person suffering from AIDS and their male caretaker as vulnerable to be a perfect example of the kinds of unruly alliances developed in the midst of crisis which Hammer discusses throughout the chapter. Nevertheless, while Steers’ work illustrates a beautiful moment of tenderness and care within gay men’s own communities and intimate circles, the role of the political, economic, and social climate of the time in fueling anti-gay hate speech should not be forgotten. This tug of war between love and hate in relation to HIV/AIDS patients’ experiences is exceptionally well explored by Hammer in the chapter and resonates with the ways in which minorities are drastically affected by the stigmas and effects of pandemics. While the chapter focuses on the retaliations on gay, Black, poor men due to the virus in this context being HIV/AIDS, it would be interesting to consider how similar situations, treatments, exclusions, and discriminations were observed towards the Asian and Asian American communities during the height of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The last chapter, “‘A Man Is a Worker’: Economic Penetrability, Labor Abuses, and Landlessness,” considers the concept of penetrability in relation to labor and property or land ownership, two issues which are described by the writer as, “central to the development, and subversion, of normative masculinity. This part of the book is made especially relevant by the fact that, as pointed out by Hammer, labor and workplace abuses on queer and trans masculinities are often ignored when it comes to theorizing. Furthermore, they explore the corporations’ abuse of workers, the effects of fraternization on the political and economic system as well as the potential of the workplace as a, “powerful location for the denaturalization and transformation of masculinity and whiteness and for the development of unruly alliances that work against the norm of masculine impenetrability” (Hammer 2023, 252). The author therefore uses 1970s novel Stone Butch Blues to highlight the penetrability of heterosexual men in the context of the workplace as well as their fragility in the face of systematic working-class alienation, which leads to the temporary creation of connections on the basis of a share status as outsiders.

In their conclusion, Hammer reflects on the various ideas presented throughout the chapters, expanding particularly on the ideas found within the last two and focusing on the Covid 19 pandemic and Trump’s embrace of whiteness and masculinity as a shield against the virus. I found the professor’s interpretation of Trump’s, “brand of fascism” as being, “a kind of postmodern pastiche, in line with his many hoped hyperbolic admiration for authoritarian leaders” (Hammer 2023, 257) especially useful for the understanding of the increased embrace and popularity of right wing ideologies and dogmas in the United States post-Covid. I would also like to add to the conversation on penetrability in relation to the workplace that a recent study conducted by has recently shown an increased bias against the recruitment of people who add non-binary pronouns in their resumes (McGonagill). I believe this study to be of particular relevance to the need of forming unruly alliances in order to ease the effects of the systematic marginalization and rejection of queer people from and within the workforce as well as to critically confront the issues associated with normative masculinity.

To conclude, I found Masculinity in Transition to be an ambitious and enlightening take on normative masculinity and gender formation. It successfully blends together an array of academic texts with poignant illustrations taken from various fields of art such as literature, painting and films while providing new queer and trans friendly critical insights on the topics of phallic supremacy, dominance as well as impenetrability. Nevertheless, I would like to point out the context dependent nature of the heavy association of hegemonic power and normative masculinity with white cis male bodies which is present throughout the book. While, in the context of the United States, the emphasis on race is made necessary for the understanding of power dynamics by the blatant political and economic disparities between white American men and the ‘others,’ it is important to note that if exploring the same topic in, for instance, an Asian or Middle Eastern context, race may not have as much resonance and impact as it does on normative masculinity than it does in the U.S. This is something that, through reading this book, is clearly understood by the author as they emphasize on the existence of the same patterns of behavior outside of the white cis male body and within queer and trans individuals but may need to be explored further in future works. Overall, this book is an informative and transformative read which I would recommend to anyone interested in masculinity and queer studies and/or who would like to know more about the complex, simultaneous fragility, and resilience of normative masculinity within the United States’ context.


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