Muscular Masculinity: Representations of Masculine Ideologies in Male Body-Based Performance Art

Throughout my research on representations of masculinity in male body-based performance art, a dominant pattern has emerged over the last fifty years.  In the works of Chris Burden, Andre Stitt, and Gilbert and George, normative masculine traits have been performed to an excess, which seems to destabilise hegemonic masculine ideologies.  I have come to call this pattern Muscular Masculinity, which is a metaphoric parody of hypermasculine identity.

What is Hypermasculinity?

Hypermasculinity in many respects is closely associated with hegemonic masculinity, and as such can be articulated as the hyperbolic performance of strength, power, control, emotional resistance,  and stoicism by men. This is best demonstrated through the action hero for example Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jason Statham.

When performed it has a relational impact on other genders and marginalised identities, as such men who assert hegemonic masculine characteristics, traits and behaviours, do so in order to enhance their status.  However, whilst similar, hypermasculinity is not the same as hegemonic masculinity.  It is the heightened performance of a few masculine norms, rather than being the actual norm itself. 

In addition to enforcing some normative masculine ideologies about the male body, hypermasculinity also compensates for those which are lacking. The poor, jobless male youth, for example, might not be financially successful, but he might gain feelings of power by excessively displaying his masculinity through aggressive sexism and violence (Karp 2010, pp.65). Hypermasculinity in this respect also becomes a mask for male inadequacies, weaknesses and other qualities that undermine normative representations of gender.  

The reiteration of hypermasculinity is learnt through mainstream cultural mediations, such as film, news, sports and mainstream heterosexual pornography, to name but a few. The latter, for example, teachers men that in heterosexual relationships female and male bodies should be seen as oppositional binaries. The female sex worker is expected to perform a sense of pleasure in her activity, and these are coded in particular ways.  Lax-mouthed expression, the caressing of her own body, the groan of a deep penetrative pleasure, and most importantly the pleasure of losing control. 

Whilst there is a sense of passive uncontrollability associated with her, the male sex worker is almost always perceived as active and machine like. Not only through his hard physicality, but also in his actions where he functions with emotional resistance and technical efficiency; his only goal is to bring her to orgasm (Garlick 2009, pp.608).  This is because to ejaculate in pornography is not about pleasure for the male it is about controlling the representation of her pleasure through skill and endurance (Williams 1989, pp.101). In this respect the men in these films are not demonstrating sex at all rather they are demonstrating power over their bodies, and their female co-workers (Thomas 1996, pp.21). This demonstration of power masks the cultural fear that male bodies, as with female bodies, might be uncontrollable.

Hypermasculinity in art?

Hypermasculine representations can also be found in art, but in many respects these images do not just reinforce hegemonic ideals. Instead they also seem to destabilise the whole idea of hypermasculinity in relation to normative gender roles.  It is as if whilst concealing the inadequacies of maleness, they also aim to reveal them.  

Touko Laaksonen, is best known for his pseudonym Tom of Finland, and his illustrations of gay culture and fetish art.  In his later works he depicted males, with super-enlarged physical traits, both muscular and penile, physically dominating other men.   Usually this form of violence was representative of authority. On the one hand he illustrated police officers, or the armed forces, and on the other criminals or social deviants such as leather clad biker gangs. However, the cathexis of these hypermasculine images are not focussed on heterosexual desire as seen in mainstream pornography, but rather on a homosexual one. 

In the Jailhouse Series (1987) one illustration depicts a police officer receiving oral sex through the bars of a cell from an inmate, whilst at the same time receiving anal sex from another officer.  In this particular illustration the masculinised binaries of authority, those men who uphold the law and those who break it, becomes blurred.  Authority becomes socially deviant through homosexual desire, whilst criminality becomes literally desirable.  As such, normative references of hypermasculine identity, power strength and authority for example, are turned against themselves to reveal a potential excess of meaning outside of heterosexuality.

The differences between hypermasculinity in mainstream culture and art practices.

This post-structuralist hypermasculine turn is also illustrated in male body-based practice.  Chris Burden’s stoicism turns into shock, Andre Stitt’s aggression becomes an infantile tantrum, whilst Gilbert and George’s emotional control becomes weird and awkward rather than an accepted norm.  However, the performances of these artists, and the illustrations of Tom of Finland, should not be confused as being simply hypermasculine. There is a difference  in how these artists use hypermasculinity compared to mainstream pornography.  Whereas the latter uses hypermasculinity to enhance elements  of maleness to mask inadequacies and to achieve status,  the former presents an ironic parody of hypermasculinity.

When parody is used in this way it does not refer to its usual definition, to mock.  The term para in parody is a Greek prefix meaning counter and against as well as to be near or beside (Hutcheon 1986-1987, pp.185).  In this context a parody is paradoxical as it ironically pulls close that which it comments upon in order to foreground an ideological, social and historical critical discourse.

Tom of Finland, and the body-based performance artists mentioned above, draw upon representations of hypermasculinity through the performances of those traits. In doing so they simultaneously critique them by revealing the instability of masculine ideals.  As such, the critique of masculinity in these works occurs as a result of their ability to defer its normative meaning.  In this context to parody masculinity means to continue to use authoritative understandings of masculine identity to the point where a transgression of gender boundaries occurs.  This causes a critical dialogue about gender representation, which in turn can aim to evoke change.

Muscular Masculinity is...

As such, these artists are not defined as being hypermasculine because whilst enforcing normative expectations of masculinity through hyperbolic performances of maleness, they also reveal the fragility of the gender order. Instead this thesis articulates these performances as being indicative of Muscular Masculinity. The word muscular is a metaphorical reference to normative masculine traits such as fortitude, strength (both physical and emotional), control, stoicism, and hardness.  Therefore, those artists mentioned above perform Muscular Masculinity because they present a parodic meeting of muscle with muscularity.  This demonstrates the potential for excess in masculine representations in body-based practice.


Garlick, S. (2009). "Taking Control of Sex? Hegemonic Masculinity, Technology, and Internet Pornography." Men and Masculinities 12(5): 597-614.
Hutcheon, L. (1986-1987). "The Politics of Postmodenism: Parody and History." Cultural Critique 5(Winter): 179-207.
Karp, D. R. (2010). "Unlocking Men, Unmasking Masculinities: Doing Men's Work in Prison." The Journal of Men's Studies 18(1): 63-83.
Thomas, C. (1996). Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, University of Illinois Press.

Williams, L. (1989). Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.