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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Buff and busted: Criminalizing men

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In Part One of this essay, I argued that the Jeremy Meeks (aka "hot felon" ) story was a fascinating social media phenomenon, but the meta-commentary surrounding it missed the opportunity for two important social discussions.

The first was that of categorizing and cauterizing criminality. In a nutshell, I argued that the media (and many others) categorize people in prison as amoral, and as something fundamentally different, less human than us. The Meeks story brought this classificatory tendency to light.

In this article I'll discuss a second point that was absent from the viral flare-up: the role that masculinity plays in this kind of classification, and whether or not Meeks and other criminalized men can draw on their masculinity to escape the consequences of social cauterization.

Jeremy Meeks (I think) has a penis

It would be totally wild and totally amazing to watch the internet implode on itself if Meeks were actually revealed to be a post-op transgender person (who remembers the melee over Chelsea Manning?). But at the time of this writing, Meeks identifies as a male, has lived his life as a male, and is married to a woman with whom he has a child.

So, I feel pretty safe in writing that the Jeremy Meeks story also has to do with the tried and true tale of masculinity. Few people have discussed how and to what extent Meeks–and other guys in prison, more broadly–can call on male sexuality and structural ideals of masculinity to combat some of the moral degradation inherent in imprisonment. This article aims to correct this gap in the discussion.

The "Meeks Phenomenon" seems like worlds away from the nightmare of Elliot Rodger (the young man who went on a shooting spree in Santa Barbara because he was still a virgin), and in many ways it is. Besides geographic proximity, Meeks and Rodgers share only one of the triumvirate of concepts that are so popular in social science: Race, Class, and Gender.

Racially and by class, Meeks and Rodger couldn't be more different. But, gender-wise, we see a thread of commonality between the two. Rodger employed ideals of masculinity (sexual prowess, access to resources–female bodies, in this case) to justify his actions.

Meeks, on the other hand, now may employ similar ideals (sexual prowess, access to resources such as modeling contracts and love letters) to dig him out of the hole that Race and Class and some bad choices helped him dig.

Basically, the intentions of Rodger and Meeks are wildly different, but the way masculinity operates–as something that may help justify or correct–always seems to be the same.

There are seemingly infinite theoretical concepts I could use to support this last statement, but I'll stick to one: hegemonic masculinity. This is an idea developed by a guy named R.W. Connell, and has summarily been critiqued, disregarded, reformulated, and all the other things we social scientists like to do. But some of it is pretty compelling. Namely, Connell draws on the notion of hegemony to discuss how masculinity has many hierarchical, idealized levels that men fall into–the top being hegemonic, or most powerful, and the rest being varying levels of less powerful subordination.

Yet, regardless of where a man falls in that hegemonically masculine hierarchy (depending on things like race and class, and other temporal and geographic specificities), he is capable of drawing on the ideals and ideologies of the top hegemonic level, thus always being complicit in male domination.

Meeks falls somewhere on the lower rungs of that hegemonically masculine system. He's a person of color who is charged with felonies–definitely not the most powerful dude out there (and he's even expressed as much, claiming to not be a kingpin or mastermind of the crime that got him arrested). But what he does have under his belt is being a man. As much as classifying him as a felon or criminal is dehumanizing, the fact that he's a hot male felon at least gives him something to build from.

Can masculinity, and specifically hegemonic masculinity, help Meeks?

When I first noticed the story going viral, I was immediately reminded of the tumblr I stumbled on a few months back called Hot and Busted. It's a photo gallery aesthetically curated by the site's owner, with mug shots and charged offenses of hot males from around the country. The comments on these photos are just as…how can I put it–bold?–as the most salacious on Meeks' Facebook photo. It was only after I began writing this essay that I recognized the pervasive way in both instances that masculinity was working its hegemonic grasp.

All the individuals we've discussed so far are men, not women. Do you think women in prison (besides those fictional ones in Orange is the New Black) would have the same chance as Meeks of a viral mug shot launching their post-prison modeling careers? Or, because we strip them of makeup, put them in orange jumpers, and tell them not to smile (all normative characteristics of female beauty), there is no chance for women in this respect? Do we associate violence and risk as hegemonically masculine traits, and thus can somehow find this compelling in "bad boy" Meeks, but altogether deplorable in a female?

These questions, among others, demonstrate the invisible power of masculinity that afford Meeks and other hot, busted dudes a small leg-up in this regime of cauterization and social branding.

We have to recognize the masculinity aspect of the Meeks story, as much as we have to recognize the point from my first essay. This is one of the things I'm working on for my dissertation regarding the phenomenon of inmate wildfire fighting. How do people in prison, who are categorically under the gaze of systemic racism and classism, claw their way back to human status, or in the case of inmate firefighters, even heroic status?

The cynical answer to this question is, "It's not possible," and I mostly agree. Strong cheekbones or a badass prison job can't fix the extent to which male individuals are classified, degraded, excluded, and branded in the course of incarceration.

But to clamber upwards at all, for there to be any hope, I'd argue that drawing on one's masculinity–and the resources, power, and dignity it affords–is the most efficacious place to start.

When satire gets it right

There was a satirical article on Clickhole titled "Are We Setting Unrealistic Standards of Beauty for our Felons?" that summarizes everything I've been trying to say so far. It stated,

"These days, it seems the average car thief, drug dealer, or arsonist is taught from a young age that in order to be considered a true danger to society you must also have piercing blue eyes, perfect bone structure, and full, pouting lips…. with so many relentless portrayals of unrealistic felon beauty bombarding our criminal population left and right, many believe that the damage is already done."

Much like 90 percent of what The Onion and its new venture Clickhole writes, it's funny because it's true. The joke they're making is that Meeks has now set an ideal standard for male beauty that other people in prison simply can't live up to, so why should they even try?

The true part is, this is exactly what he's done.

The Meeks phenomenon has reaffirmed the public's belief that a "bad boy" may be attractive if that physical quality only momentarily shifts our gaze, a moment that quickly ends with him remaining squarely outside of moral and social acceptance.

What it may do (who knows, no one has published the opinion of other inmates on the matter) for people in prison is to remind them that their faces can be plastered on social media with minimal consent, that they can be manhandled by a judicial and social system which holds at least a modicum of responsibility for their transgression, but they can maybe—just maybe—find some way to escape.

For male inmates, the potential for escape can potentially come in the form of blue eyes and bone structure, in the power of masculinist ideals.

But can one ever really escape the branding, the hegemonic ideology, the consequence of rhetoric? I think Clickhole may be right. The damage is already done.

The way masculinity operates—as something that may help justify or correct—always seems to be the same.

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It's a fine line between criminal and saviour. James Dean as Han Solo, by Rabittooth via DeviantArt.
It's a fine line between criminal and saviour. James Dean as Han Solo, by Rabittooth via DeviantArt.