Perception of women in the Victorian Times: Review of Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood

“Women, it seemed, had no right to self-fulfillment that could stand for a moment against the claims of society on their wombs” (Russett 1989, 123).

Living in a society is equal to facing a variety of expectations, roles, and behaviors deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Women’s roles, in particular, have changed quite a lot in the past few centuries. Nowadays, people with uteruses have more reproductive freedom and opportunities to be economically equal to men than in the nineteenth century. The book Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Eagle Russett describes how women were perceived in the Victorian times. It focuses mainly on the source of the viewpoints, on people who had the power to convince the society of those perceptions – scientists. The book describes their findings and conclusions about womanhood, one by one, and dismantles them in a very powerful way.

In the nineteenth century, women had little to no say over their bodies, minds, and rights. White male scientists focused greatly on explaining differences between sexes; in other words, why they had little to nothing in common and why women were inferior to men. They took control over proving that women are physically and mentally unable to be equal to men due to Nature’s challenges that people with uteruses had to face, such as menstruating or being able to carry a child. Scientists at that time accepted only facts that would agree with that claim and rejected all information against their beliefs.

The author, Cynthia Eagle Russett, was born in Pennsylvania in 1937. She was a historian, earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Trinity Colege and her Master’s and Ph.D from Yale University, where later she worked as a faculty member. She wrote several books, though she is best known for her exploration of Victorian “findings” about womanhood in Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cynthia passed away in 2013, aged 76 years old, leaving behind a great legacy of fighting for women’s rights through exploring history.

A lot of what Cynthia Russett does is present statements and reasoning of white male scientists and let their words speak for themselves throughout the majority of the book; those alleged findings are challenged later on, at the very end. She mentions “experts” from a variety of fields of science, including phrenology, anthropology, craniology, biology, sociology, and many concepts within those fields of study. Victorian scientist greatly contributed to how women were perceived by the society at that time and what roles they were allowed to hold due to “the near-total absence of information in the field of sex differences, which made it inevitable that ideas now seen as preposterous were not preposterous at the time” (Russett 1989, 183). People listened to them; they had no other choice as no other credible source of information was available to them. Scientists were responsible for shaping society’s beliefs, despite the fact that later on they were proved wrong.

In the Victorian times, it was well-established that women were inferior to men. Many white male scientist were highly motivated to prove that statement to be correct. Any differences between men’s and women’s bodies, they emphasized, and automatically made men the one to hold the superior traits, no matter what they were. They held a firm belief that bigger equals better, which applied mainly to people’s bodies and brains. It was known that men were bigger than women, both in terms of physical appearance and brain volume/skull size. They claimed that “women’s brains were smaller and lighter than those of men” (35) and women’s skulls resembled more those of gorillas than men (36). Scientists refused to admit that heavy brains existed among “idiots, imbeciles, criminals, insane, and other defectives” (37). Women were also compared to children, said that “the brain of woman as a whole was always in a more or less infantile condition” (54). The full maturity of women was seen to be reached earlier than in men, which meant that a crucial part of development, women never attained. Men would always be better developed; they pass the “woman stage” and develop abstract thinking and reasoning. Half the population was automatically put in a disadvantaged position to be considered a significant contribution to society’s success. Simply put, a woman was an underdeveloped man (74).

A very important stigma that was emphasized during the Victorian times and still exists in many spaces today is menstruation. GIVE DATE Scientists claimed that “the phenomenon of menstruation was alone fully sufficient to explain why women could never hope to stand on a level of social and professional equality with men” (30). They connected it to the claim that the more someone eats, the more they think, and the more energy they have. Menstruation took away that energy. They used method of manipulation to make sure women understand the responsibility they bear – that of preserving the human race. They claimed that “the necessary outcome of an absolute intellectual equality of the sexes would be the extinction of the human race” (105). They also stated that the energy that men can put into thought and education, girls have to use during the development of their reproductive systems. Because of what Nature “gifted” them with, they were set for failure, both in educational and professional settings.

Scientists also decided that motherhood is a woman’s only role and goal in life. “She is the sex sacrificed for reproductive necessities,” they said (43). Alongside came the claim that the suffering connected to childbirth is exaggerated because women, just like Black people, do not feel pain; “[…] even the pains of childbirth caused little suffering to women” (56). Feeling pain was associated with courage, which was a characteristic of men and men only, therefore “[women’s] courage must be indifference; their endurance, insensibility” (57). That particular example shows a point previously mentioned about scientists deeming acceptable only information that fits their beliefs. Since there was a possibility that women were brave because of the way they could cope with pain, it needed to be dismantled, therefore they were claimed to be numb, unable to feel physical pain.

The book provides an opportunity for the reader to put the present and the past into perspective. Many people do not realize that the oppression that women face today started in the place of no evidence for many aspects of womanhood. Some individuals nowadays might say that societal roles are there for a reason and are based on science. As Cynthia Russett proves in her book, the science of the past is not what we would define as science in modern times. In Victorian times it was far from objective, not based on real evidence, and many findings at the time were assumed based on pre-existing beliefs. In other words, a group of white men decided that women are inferior and have no benefit from education or equal opportunities – and people listened, accepted it as the universal truth, and passed it over generations.

One of the things that readers might struggle with while reading the book is being overwhelmed by the amount of names and scientific facts presented. The author includes a great number of names; however, there is rarely any relevant information about their backgrounds. It would be a great addition to know the context of how popular a scientist was at the time, how influential, and to put more focus on explaining that to the reader. Additionally, a lot of theory was presented, though only addressed to be wrong or incorrect at the very end, if ever. The author might have tried to remain objective, which she succeeded in, though information shared in the book is disproportionate to the challenging of that information present. Moreover, women’s voices were not amplified enough, they played a passive role in the book. For example, there is no mention of general population’s response to most of the harmful claims made by the scientists (such as women compared to gorillas or children). It is an aspect that can be seen as missing, and might have made the book significantly stronger.

Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Eagle Russett is a very important resource as it provides an accurate and well-researched historical context of women’s oppression. Even though what Victorian scientists claimed was seen as true a long time ago, a lot from what they said still applies to a certain extent to modern times. The book is a powerful tool for everyone, especially those involved in the fight for women’s rights. It can create a research-supported argument against the fact that, for example, women’s role is to bear children and their wombs can and should be controlled by the society and the government.

Works cited:

Fox, Margalit. 2013. “Cynthia Eagle Russett, Chronicler of Women’s History, Dies at 76.” New York Times, December 18, 2013.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle. 1989. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Review of “Medical Bondage” by Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens

Gynecology was not always the well known field of medicine that is present in the United States today. In fact, gynecology is a relatively new development in medicine that came to fruition in the United States in the 19th century. START HERE Before modern gynecology arose in the 19th century, women’s health was the job of women. Midwives were the heads of women’s health and pregnancies. These midwives were almost always women. It was not until the practice of gynecology took root that men became involved in women’s health. In her monograph, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Deirdre Cooper Owens explores the impact that enslaved and working class women had on the development of gynecology and in return, the impact that gynecology had on them.

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Foucault and the Ottomans: A Review of Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World, 1500-1800

Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab Islamic World 1500-1800, as a historical text, helps show how Foucauldian ideas about the construction of the subject, as it relates to sexuality and gender, existed within non-Western frameworks. As El-Rouayheb points out, Foucault argued that El-Rouayheb’s thesis is based on social constructivist ideas, in that he argues that “homosexuality”, as our modern, Western context constructs it, did not exist during the period studied in the book. Rather, many of the distinctions the current idea of “homosexuality” upholds as critical ran together, and, more importantly and saliently, the idea of “homosexuality” does not recognize or does not place the same amount of emphasis on many distinctions that existed in the Arab-Islamic world from 1500-1800.

As presented in the introduction, El-Rouayheb’s methodology is that of a historian. He engages with other historians at times in the book, but the bulk of his evidence comes from his presentation and analysis of primary source texts from the time, most of which are from the culture itself, and which include poetry, legal sources and other writings of the time. El-Rouayheb acknowledges the limitations of his work; by focusing on analysis of written texts, his survey of Arab-Islamic “homosexuality” tends to focus on urban, male members of the educated elite in the Ottoman empire, a group that doesn’t cover all of the Arab-Islamic world of the time as El-Rouayheb notes. Still, his use of primary sources seems to counter many of the misperceptions about what is and was labeled homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world from Western sources, both contemporary to the period and later.

However, El-Rouayheb seeks to employ the work of other historians, like Foucault, in order to produce a thesis and a lens through which to view his primary sources. In addition to referencing Foucault as a source for the intellectual framework upon which he constructs his thesis, El-Rouayheb also looks at the work of other historians of the Middle East, such as Bernard Lewis and Marshall Hodgson who write about the societal “acceptance” of “what Islamic law prohibits”, but draws distinctions between their conclusions and his own, highlighting the difference between sodomy (liwat) and love (El Rouayheb, 3). He also warns about trying to make broad conclusions about the state of a large region of the world with many varying opinions based on a handful of resources (8- Note: Unless otherwise specified, all citations come from El-Rouayheb). His exploration of the current field is not entirely dismissive; El-Rouayheb cites other authors, such as Arno Schmitt, Everett Rowson and Thomas Bauer, as finding similar conclusion as he himself draws (7-8).

His first chapter, entitled “Pederasts and Pathics”, is an overview of what kinds of relationships or sexual encounters occurred between men and boys at the time. While he does spend some time in the beginning of the chapter discussing penetration as an act of aggression and violence, the center of this chapter are relationships between adult men and boys.

His second chapter, called “Aesthetes”, addresses the phenomenon of love poetry directed towards youths by adult men, in order to highlight the important distinctions and nuances that seem to refute the idea that “homosexuality”, as we conceive of it, existed in Arab-Islamic world of the time. Key to El-Rouayheb’s argument in this chapter are the divisions this culture placed between an aesthetic appreciation of beauty, pining and chaste romantic love and the sin of liwat. Additionally, such divisions sometimes, though not always, lacked the gendered dimensions that a concept like “homosexuality” would necessitate. For example, El-Rouayheb notes that the beauty of women and boys was considered comparable, and expressed through the same sort of language (67). More broadly, love poetry, in El-Rouayheb’s analysis highlights the ways in which romantic and sexual attraction between men and boys not only existed, but was celebrated through praise of boys’ bodies and expressions of the man’s romantic longing for the beloved in this poetry.

Finally, the last chapter of El-Roauayheb’s book, called “Sodomites” focuses on the legal codes that existed at the time, and examines the varying opinions about sodomy across different legal schools of thought.

According to El-Rouayheb, while there were certainly sexual and romantic relationships between men and boys in the pre-modern period within the urban elite of the Arab-Islamic world, to call such behavior “homosexuality” is an oversimplification. The modern, Western concept of the “homosexual” as we understand it today did not exist. Distinctions existed within what we would call “homosexual” behavior existed in the Arab-Islamic world of 1500-1800 that do not exist in the modern West today, or were emphasized much more saliently in this time and place than they are in our modern, Western context. Most important of these was the difference between the penetrator and the penetrated, a distinction that is not as emphasized in a modern Western context.

The distinction between penetrator and penetrated is not a simple one. While the penetrated does seem closer to the modern, Western idea of the “homosexual”, both the penetrator and the penetrated seemed to have different places in society, which in some ways seem to exist as an undercurrent in our own modern society. In many ways, penetrating another person was a sign of everything masculine: dominance, manhood and victory. The rhetoric of penetrating another man was sometimes employed by authors as a way to assert their dominance in quarrels over one another, as El-Rouayheb points out in his first chapter. This is not to say, however, that acting as a penetrator with another man acquitted one of any social stigma tied with sex with another man.

The penetrated was, in many ways, closer to the social idea of the “homosexual” developed in the late 1800s in Europe and persisting into the twentieth century. Like “homosexuality”, the desire to be anally penetrated in the Arab-Islamic world was sometimes treated as an illness (ubnah) and conceptualized as such (19). While a term for “sodomy” does seem to exist in the Shari’a (or legal guidelines based on the Qu’ran and hadith) and is prohibited, this term seems to imply that the burden of sin of this practice is placed on the penetrated. It is also important in this context to emphasize another important feature of Arab-Islamic “pre-homosexuality’: the relationship between man and boy. El-Rouayheb points out that much of the behavior that we would deem nowadays as “homosexual” occurred between grown men, assumed to be acting as penetrator, and boys, assumed to be the penetrated. El-Rouayheb complicates this simplistic notion, noting that there’s no way to predict what kind of sexual behavior occurred between men and boys behind closed doors, but does emphasized that the underlying assumption of the society was, should sex occur between the two, the boy would act as the more “passive” partner, and that the rhetoric of romantic poetry written for boys by adult men in this context does place the “beloved” in a feminized and more submissive role than the adult man pursuing him.

However, penetrator and penetrated was not the only distinction that is key to an understanding of the ways in which relations between males in this context can’t simply be boiled down into a homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy. For example, he notes the importance of the difference of the chaste desire of most love poetry in contrast to sodomy, in the second chapter (89). Even beyond the important distinction of chaste romantic love vs. the perceived lust of sodomy, some of the sources of the time suggest that some men chose to write romantic love poetry for fictional beloveds, reinforcing the difference between thoughts and actions that make “homosexuality” a problematic term in this case (110-111).

Certain distinctions that we hold as clear, too, may be different in the differing cultural contexts. For example, in El-Rouayheb’s last chapter, he discusses how many legal schools considered sodomy between both unmarried men and women and between men and boys equal under law, and many lesser sexual acts between men and boys (such as intercrural sex or fondling) weren’t even near the same level of punishment as unmarried fornication between men and women (138).

Overall, El-Rouayheb’s book is thorough and is well-supported. He effectively applies the idea that sexuality, like gender, is constructed, and supports this claim using a wealth of primary source documents and fellow historians’ work. He notes the limitations of his work, and seeks to avoid making broad generalizations based on limited sources. Despite the limitations he notes in his work, he is able to make a good, well-rounded argument by using a diverse set of sources such as poetry, first-person accounts and legal documents in a way that notes the nuances across the Arab-Islamic world but also is able to extract key conclusions.  El-Rouayheb’s book is not perfect, however. El-Rouayheb argues that many of the distinctions, like penetrator/penetrated and romantic love/sodomy, were indicative of a lack of the concept of homosexuality in this concept, because these distinctions do not exist in our modern, Western context. I would argue, instead, that some of them do exist, but have served to more clearly define gender categories do exist in the modern, Western world. For example, in the film “Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders”, the idea of penetrator vs. penetrated is broached in relation to gay men in the West. Almost all of the men asked identified themselves as “tops” as opposed to “bottoms”, not because they thought it made them any less gay men, but because it solidified their more masculine role in the relationship. Similarly, modern Western society does seem to recognize a difference between romantic love and sexual desire, but tends to ascribe romantic love as a “feminine quality” rather than the more “masculine” desire to have sex. While drawing parallels between the Arab-Islamic pre-modern world and our modern Western context, El-Rouayheb does help situate the topic in relation to a modern, Western reader. While this comparison is not always perfect and can ignore nuance, it does help remind us of the cultural relativity of our own context, even when El-Rouayheb’s conclusions about the modern world are not always completely crystallized. Despite this caveat I would place on El-Rouayheb’s work, his work is an insightful addition in the academic area of gender and sexuality studies.

Alternate Grant Proposal Assignment: Virginity as a Social Construct Poster at 1972 Sex Positivity Fair

As an alternative to the Grant Proposal assignment, Caroline Okel, Vance Graves, Felicia Zi, and Collin Epstein created a poster for the Sex Positivity Fair hosted by 1972, ‘a group at Davidson College focused on gender expression on campus and issues affecting women’, according to their Facebook page. We chose to examine virginity as a social construct, hoping to start a conversation with attendees at the fair about how they experience virginity. We researched information on four topics related to virginity that caught our interest, and provided sticky notes and pens so that those who came to the fair could respond to our poster by adding their thoughts to it.


One of the topics that we were interested in exploring for our poster was the comparison between the expectation that people have for losing their virginity versus the experience that they actually have. As Hanne Blank describes in her book Virgin: The Untouched History, we are able to define virginity without describing its loss. She recognizes that we “speak of virginity loss rather than virginity itself… [because] virginity is because it ends” (Blank 96-97). Their definitely is a fascination with the topic of “the first time,” especially in a college setting, but we have noticed that for most people we know, the first time was not all what it is cracked up to be. For example, in Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Loss, she interviews people about their stories of losing their virginity. As Bryan Meyers summarizes in her book, “It was just so unbelievable that this, like, this thing you talk about your life is actually happening. And honestly, I think that… it’s not as, like, as mind-blowing as you expect it to be” (Carpenter 72). Therefore, we asked individuals to answer questions about their expectations that they have for their first time or that they had prior to their first time. We found that those who had not lost their virginity expressed desire for a first time with someone they loved and that they feel comfortable with. When actually discussing the first time, the sticky notes expressed more of a feeling of less than ideal conditions such as disappointment, a lack of feeling changed by the experience, and awkwardness. One person simply answered “NO” when asked if it met their expectations. This portion aimed to shed light on the fact that the first time may not be a romantic, life-changing moment like the virginity loss scenes portrayed in popular movies like Titanic and The Notebook and that this is perfectly okay.


A topic that was initially a starting point for conversation in our group was the definition of virginity. We were interested in social and cultural constructions of virginity, and the myth of the hymen was something we discussed and included in our poster, with the main takeaway being that no medical definition exists for what constitutes virginity. One of the open-ended questions we asked on the poster read, “How do you define virginity?” People posted a variety of answers, demonstrating that different individuals defined virginity differently, and that virginity had a different value for every individual. An answer that we found particularly striking was, “IT ISN’T REAL.”  Our group also discussed stigmas and double standards surrounding the idea of virginity, such as social perceptions of male versus female virginities. We included a few memes from pop culture films to demonstrate these double standards, and people seemed to find them not only amusing, but relatable. A female responded to the question, “How did your parents influence your views?” with, “My parents taught me that virginity is purity. I should wait until marriage.” Another female responded with, “Same!”, demonstrating that these gendered perceptions still exist in today’s society. Given that most of the posts were anonymous, it was difficult to find connections between people’s answers and their gender, but the clear variety of answers demonstrated that virginity meant something different for everyone. Ultimately, our group was pleasantly surprised with the amount of people willing and eager to participate in the open-ended questions. It was interesting to generate conversation about a topic that is not normally discussed in everyday conversation and read what people had to say about it.


Another one of the topics we researched for our poster on virginity as a social construct is virginity in the LGBT* Community. We examined how views towards virginity differ between the straight and LGBT* communities. For example, it is often debated as to whether or not lesbian women can actually lose their virginities. This belief stems from the idea that one cannot have sex without the involvement of a penis. In order to change how we look at virginity in the LGBT* community, we need to change how we look at sex. Perhaps we, as a society, view things from a very heteronormative viewpoint. This is due to compulsory heterosexuality, a concept put forth by Adrienne Rich in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). With this concept, it is believed that for most people, straight is the default sexuality. This view is very constricting when it comes to looking at how we view sex, and therefore the construct of virginity. Because we asked questions about what people believe to be sex, it was interesting to see whether or not Davidson students would comply with compulsory heterosexuality when answering questions. Interestingly enough, many of the students who answered questions about what they believe sex to be, left gender out of their answer, like when one student wrote that, “Sex is when two or more people have intimate relations with their sexual organs.” Another student just defined sex as, “when all parties orgasm.” It appears that these students took away something from our poster, or perhaps already came with thought that that when we discuss sex, we need to be more inclusive of other sexual orientations and gender identity.


           We also explored historical and cultural representations of virginity in our poster. Historically, virgins have been represented in Western cultures in a series of narrow roles: women as pillars of virtue, men as pathetic or eccentric, and both as holy or deified. Cultural images of virgins contribute to what Barbara Risman refers to as “gender as structure” at the “interactional level of analysis: cultural expectations” in her essay Gender as Structure. These images are crucially dependent on a very heteronormative definition and expectation of gender.

       Female virgins in history are usually portrayed as exceptionally virtuous, usually because of their virgin status (ex: Queen Elizabeth I). Culturally, virginal leaders garnered more respect as virgins, perhaps because of their apparent rejection of men.

        On the other hand, men are typically portrayed as pathetic losers (ex: Steve Carrell in the 40-Year-Old-Virgin) or as eccentric geniuses (ex: rumors about Sir Isaac Newton). In either case, the attitude in which these men are viewed is a sort of bemused surprise. In contrast to women, the expected state for men is as not a virgin. However, failure to conform is not regarded as deeply shameful for men as it is for women.

        The role both men and women have filled as virgins has been as holy people (ex: Joan of Arc, St. Augustine) and as deities. However, even as deities, male and female virgins are represented very differently. There are vastly more female virgin goddesses in Western traditions (ex: Artemis, Athena, the Virgin Mary) than male virgin gods (Jesus). Additionally, the implications for male and female people differ in that all women are implicitly expected to be Mary, but no/few men are held to the standard of Jesus.

        It is important to understand that our telling of history is an important component of how we construct our culture. The clear dichotomy between male and female virginity represented in our culture reinforces the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” that Adrienne Rich describes in her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Learning about how virginity has been understood and portrayed historically allows us to understand virginity as a social construct, and puts the responses of students who reacted to our poster into a wider cultural and historical perspective.

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Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta

Black Masculinity

I first picked up Riché Richardson’s book, Black Masculinity in the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta solely because I have great respect anyone who can get a scholarly work published with the word “gangsta” in the title. I was unprepared for the depth and scope of the work I had before me. Upon initially picking up the book, I was surprised by what felt like a narrow approach to a broad topic. Richardson approaches her subject through the lens of southern black literature (not the well-known kind) published mostly in the 1960’s-1980’s. As I read, I changed my mind about just how narrow Richardson’s lens was. Upon finishing the book, Richardson’s choice of popular film, literature, and music appeared suited vehicles through which to explore to the portrayal of black southern masculinity.

Riché Richardson was an associate professor of English at the University of California Davis when she first published Black Masculinity. She credits personal interest in the south as one of the major motivators in pursuing the project: “Admittedly, my background as an African American born and raised in the south has partly fueled my passion to engage in systematic critical reflection on the region,” says Richardson in her introduction.[1] She credits scholars in the Duke English department for allowing her the creativity to be experimental in her methods in a time when the field of “southern studies” was in the process of big change. The change to which Richardson referred was the development of the field of “new southern Studies;” Black Masculinity is Richardson’s foray into this field. Richardson’s second intervention is into the field of black masculinity. Recent years have brought scholarship investigating hierarchies of sexuality within black masculinity, “however,” Richardson argues, “beyond the expanded conceptions of black masculinity yielded by the work on sexuality, black men frequently continue to be treated as an undifferentiated and monolithic racial and gender category.”[2] Black Masculinity and the U.S. South is Richardson’s venture into the intersecting fields of southern studies and studies of black masculinity.

Richardson’s analysis of southern black masculinity follows a rough timeline from the roots of the Jim Crow south in the beginning of the Klu Klux Klan, through the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, and into today’s “Southern Rap” movement. She argues that southern black masculinity exists at the bottom of a hierarchy of black masculinities, and that culturally prevalent “types” of the southern black masculine identity are the foundation of the hierarchy. Types such as the “uncle Tom” or the “black rapist” are rooted in the Jim Crow and slavery south, and are the tools through which southern black masculinity has been subjugated to other black masculinities. Richardson calls for studies that probe distinctive black masculinities, and proposes her study founded on regional masculinity as the beginning of such a process.

Richardson begins chapter one with the identification of three “types” of black masculinity, both of which are clearly rooted in the south: the bad negro and the black rapist. The bad negro is the black man who is a lawbreaker and a trouble maker. Richardson roots the bad negro type firmly in the south by claiming him as “an outgrowth of the “rebel slave,” with roots in African American folklore.”[3] The bad negro of the civil rights era was “not essentially bad so much as the fruit of the repressive southern Jim Crow ethos.”[4] The second type –the black rapist—grows out of the bad negro. The black rapist is the white supremacist version of the bad negro. He is not only bad, he is dirty and animalistic: he has designs to pollute the white race by raping white women. The third type is the antithesis of the first two: the uncle Tom is the passive and has evolved into an asexual (and sometimes homosexual) type. The black rapist is primarily a vehicle of white oppression, the uncle Tom is primarily a vehicle of black oppression: the bad negro has been used by both groups to oppress southern black men.

All three types are key to Richardson’s analysis. In Chapter one, Richardson turns to a reflection of the bad negro and the black rapist in white supremacist thought as explored in William Bradford Huie’s novel The Klansman. (Which is itself a complicated parody of and reflection upon the white supremacist thought prevalent in The Birth of a Nation and The Clansman). The movie The Klansman, released seven years later, offers a reflection on the way that the types influenced the black power movements of the 1960’s. Richardson argues that changes made in Huie’s novel when it was adapted for screenplay reflect the appropriation of the bad negro type by the black power movement. Authentic black masculinity was linked with violence in resistance: by shifting a key scene in the novel away from the rape of a black woman and onto the lynching of a black man, the creators of the movie the Klansman highlight white supremacists’ attack on black masculinity. Richardson finishes her chapter with an analysis of O.J. Simpson’s characterization of a “bad negro” type following his arrest ad highly-publicized trial. The bad negro and the black rapist type are mixed in O.J.’s portrayal when his white wife is examined as a part of his identity.

Chapters two and three move beyond Richardson’s analysis of black masculine identity in the south as formulated by white supremacists and into the inner hierarchies of black masculinity. Richardson uses chapter two to explore the hierarchies of black masculinity, and chapter three to connect the white supremacist ideologies of the bad negro and black rapist to the formation of the black masculine hierarchy. Richardson uses the vehicle of Charles Fuller’s work A Soldier’s Play to begin to examine how black men relate among themselves. Through the struggles of an all-black army unit in WWII, Richardson argues that Fuller exposes the stereotypes of southern black men that are used for their degradation, such as stupidity and animalistic sexuality (both of which are based in the white supremacist thought that produced types such as the black rapist). In Richardson’s argument, I was beginning to see the connection between a black southern masculine identity, as defined by white supremacists, and the denigration of black southern men by other black men. Fuller’s exploration of this denigration, argues Richardson, was intended to expose the flaws in hierarchical black masculinity. Richardson believes Fuller failed, and I was inclined to agree. Fuller, in assigning the Northern Black male as the hero of the story and relegating the southern male character to a silent death, perpetuates the hierarchy that places southern black masculinity below that of the urban north.

Chapter three, and Ralph Elison’s Invisible Man, allow Richardson to explain why hierarchies like those exposed through Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play exist, through the lens of black rural otherness. Richardson argues that Elison’s use of Invisible Man to juxtapose white American subjectivity with elite notions of blackness within the African American south exposes the root of the subjugation of southern black masculinities to other black masculinities: the discourse of southern white supremacists, who use the black rapist character to identify the southern black male with animalistic sexuality, allows other black masculinities a sense of superiority. Richardson’s exploration of Invisible Man was the glue that held chapters one and two together, and began to weave the created types of black masculine identity into black men’s own performance of their masculinity.

Richardson is careful to point out that ultimately Elison, like Fuller, is unable to escape the trap of perpetuating the stereotypes of black masculinity: Elison’s hero (like Fuller’s) ultimately ends up appealing to the north for the formation of his authentic masculine identity. “The novel advances the logic of urban as authentic in definitions of black masculinity.”[5] Richardson demonstrated that because  black masculinity in both Elison and Fuller’s stories was constructed by, but not of, the southern types against which it was opposed, northern black masculinity dominated.

Richardson explores how this dominant ideology of northern (and urban) masculinity was expanded by the  black power movement of the 1960’s: specifically the speeches of Malcom X. Malcom X subjugated not only southern black masculinity, in ferociously denying his southern roots, but also through the use of the uncle Tom type. In several speeches, Malcom X invoked the uncle Tom as not only a rural and passive character, but also as a character that was homosexual: pleasing his white master and desiring him in an erotic and subservient way. By invoking the uncle Tom as homosexual, rural, and passive, Richardson holds that Malcom X links authentic black masculinity with an urban setting, heterosexuality, and violence. According to Richardson, this hyper-masculine, sexualized type of back masculinity is perpetuated by Spike Lee in his films of the 1960’s such as Get on the Bus, School Daze, and Bamboozled. Richardson sets up her final chapter when she argues that Malcom X and Spike Lee’s promotion of violent urban and sexualized black masculinity paved the way for the rise of gangsta rap.

The final chapter is where I finally began to see how the strands of Richardson’s narrative came together to offer a coherent description of black masculinity. Chapter five presents Richardson’s analysis of modern “southern rap” as it engages with the types present throughout all of black masculinity. In the beginning of the chapter, Richardson raises the question: Does the popularity of southern rap (rap being an inherently urban and masculine art) gained in recent years through the success of groups like No Limit records and Cash Money Millionaires, represent an elevation of black southern masculinity in the hierarchy of black masculinity itself? Richardson’s analysis would seem to say no. Richardson’s southern rappers are not freeing themselves through their rise in popular rap culture; they are only binding themselves again to the oppressive types of southern masculinity originally propagated by white supremacists.

Richardson shows how young black rappers claiming to “gangstas” and “playas” is just a re-casting of the bad negro and black rapist types initiated by white supremacists in the beginning of the formation of black masculine identity in the south. Southern rap has thrived playing with the stereotypes of which it is all-too conscious. Southern rappers have “turned southern stereotypes into a commodity.”[6] Yet, it appeared to me that the black southern rappers of Richardson’s final

The Album Cover of Joe Blakk's "Way Down South"
The Album Cover of Joe Blakk’s “Way Down South”

chapter fell into just the same traps as the novelists in the chapters before them; calling out southern stereotypes only reinforces them, and secures the idea of a urban and northern masculine identity. At one point, Richardson analyzes Joe Blakk’s “Way Down South” and comes to the same conclusions as I did: “While it confronts the condescending attitudes of Northerners, the message of “Way Down South,” which at bottom, says that “we are just like you” in some ways concedes the superiority and exemplariness of northern models of black masculinity. The South emerges as a mere simulacrum by its logic.”[7]

The South emerges as a mere simulacrum… Richardson’s own words critique her work, for after reading Black Masculinity, I can see the southern black masculine identity as nothing but a simulacrum. The problem with Black Masculinity is its inherent suggestion that the nature of black masculine identity is the shadow of the reflection of white supremacist thought. After finishing Richardson’s book I was left wondering, what is the true nature of black southern masculinity? It has been cast as the uncle tom, or the bad negro, or the black rapist. It has been subjugated below violent urban masculinity by non-southern black men’s appropriation of white supremacist types of black masculinity. If southern black masculinity really is the root of so much of universal black masculinity (as Richardson claims), why can she not offer a concrete definition of black masculinity apart from the ghost of white supremacism? Throughout her whole work, Richardson never once suggests a definition for black masculinity.

And maybe, just maybe, a definition of the essence of southern black masculinity was not the goal for which Richardson was aiming. Black Masculinity and the U.S. South is a strong examination of the historical treatment of the black male identity as evidenced through cultural artifacts. Richardson’s use of texts and film is engaging, and effective when in each chapter she pairs the cultural artifact with a historical or current event. When discussing The Birth of a Nation, for example, Richardson displayed the relevance of her argument by connecting her theory of the film to O.J. Simpson’s trial. After reading Black Masculinity, I am convinced of the need for a geographical analysis of identity categories, especially when it comes to race. Richardson’s argument that much of universal black masculinity finds its roots in the south is compelling, as is her argument that southern black masculinity is subjugated through the use of historical types. In light of this subjugation, asking for a historical definition of southern black masculinity may be beside the point. The most important part of investigating black masculinity in the U.S. south may be the way it engages historically, not its essence. Maybe all Richardson’s work needs is a new title : Cultural Reactions to Black Masculinity and the U.S. South, or something along those lines. Of course, if only for the sake of my own interest, she’ll have to keep “gangsta” in the title.




[1] Richardson, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 11.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 34.

[5] Ibid, 156.

[6] Ibid, 207.

[7] Ibid, 218.