Irén Annus is Associate Professor of American Studies and a member of the Gender Studies Research Group at the University of Szeged. Her research has primarily centered on issues related to Identity Studies, with a particular focus on the social construction and visual representation of minority groups in the US since the 1800s – including women, racial/ethnic groups and religious communities. Email:
The beginning of the 21st century has been marked by a series of challenges to mainstream white masculinities in the US, in particular by the unexpected attack on 9/11 and then by the recession precipitated by the housing crash of 2008. Studies on previous historical periods have revealed the series of challenges and resultant changes that white masculinities in the US had undergone, thus supporting post-modern conceptualizations of social positions and identities as always being in a state of flux and intersecting in multiple ways. There seems to be a common understanding that the attack on the World Trade Center opened up yet another phase, one which is connected to the global presence of the US. Hamilton Carroll has found that the current “crisis of masculinity is a local (i.e. nationally specific) response to a global phenomenon, for while globalization accounts for some of the most profound transformations of modern American society, the national is still the level on which such transformations are most commonly felt, negotiated and understood. The erosion of masculinist privilege at both the global and the national levels produce a dialectics of crisis … often interpreted and understood at the micrological levels of home, family, and male psychology” (2011, 3).
Breaking Bad was one of the most popular and widely acclaimed television series in recent decades, aired between 2008 and 2013 on the AMC network. It addressed a wide range of contemporary issues, among them the crisis of American hegemonic masculinity, which it portrayed through the experiences of the main character, Walter White, and his microcosm: his family, relatives, so-called co-workers and business relations. This paper draws on Nick Trujillo’s model of representations of hegemonic masculinity in American popular culture (1991) to investigate the figure of Walter White and explore the specific ways in which he can be considered as an embodiment of the post-9/11 crisis in hegemonic masculinity. Moreover, the study also maps the logic this program offers along with specific strategies White employs in order to try to remedy this condition and reconfigure hegemonic masculinity.
2. Hegemonic masculinity in crisis
Hegemonic masculinity as a concept was introduced by Connell (1987) to refer to a set of practices that made male dominance possible in contemporary societies. It described a normative type of masculinity which became hegemonic by having been accepted as the ideal for members of a particular society: “It embodied the currently most honored way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men” (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 832). Trujillo has studied various representations of hegemonic masculinity in the contemporary American media and identified five common characteristic features: “(1) physical force and control, (2) occupational achievement, (3) familial patriarchy, (4) frontiersmanship, and (5) heterosexuality” (1991, 290). By physical force and control, he is referring to the physical strength associated with the muscular male body, a trope through which masculine power is constituted as normal and natural. Occupational achievement captures not only work opportunities and the division of labor along gender lines, but also the financial success and subsequent recognition that men tend to gain from their participation in the labor market. Patriarchy, referring to male dominance within the family, and by extension, within society, is a feature of hegemonic masculinity that is recognized to have softened towards the end of the 20th century, primarily as an outcome of second-wave feminism. However, Trujillo reminds us that the appearance of the “sensitive father” figure in fact did not challenge the structural hegemony enjoyed by men: what it has changed is that this new figure shares in the joys of childrearing more than its traditional counterpart (1991, 291). The symbol of the frontiersman captures the daring, strong, brave, self-reliant and fearless white young man who is most widely depicted in the archetypal image of the American cowboy, popularized through the genre of the Western. The last feature confirms that American society continues to be deeply heteronormative; therefore, it encourages monogamous relationships and the institution of marriage, along with the traditional nuclear family model – even if, I must note, only a minority of the American people live in this family structure by now. Heterosexuality also defines public behavior and encounters, modes of exchanges with other men – as well as women.
This model of hegemonic masculinity was challenged on 9/11. In fact, the attack challenged the entire American society and culture. Beck has argued that the US transformed from a risk society into a threat society after 9/11, whereby risks of ecological conflicts, global financial crises, and global terror kept American society under an uneasy feeling of constant threat (2002, 42). An essential feature of this shift is that “individual risk is being challenged by a world of systemic risk, which contradicts the logic of economic risk calculation” (2002, 44); this has thus created a new environment for the nation to manage. The US was unable to stop foreign terror on that September day, its men were unable to protect the country, the nation, and innocent people had to pay for this with their lives. This posed questions regarding hegemonic masculinity as well as increased the importance of the home, the homeland, concepts that also became instantly repoliticized (Leyda 2013). The heroic effort of the passengers aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on its way to the White House was indeed the only exception in the series of attacks that day, out of which American masculine pride managed to surface.
Actually, former challenges and subsequent repositionings of white masculinities started to emerge in the US after the 1960s, as a result of complex social, political and economic transformations. Robinson has emphasized that post-industrial American social realities were no longer in correspondence with traditional narratives of white hegemonic masculinity (2000, 2) as the various changes impacted not only the lower class, but also the majority of the middle class, which was the largest depository of this masculinity. She has claimed that these challenges, however, did not represent the subversion or end of white masculine privilege as it only had to be readjusted and reconfigured in ways through which it could ultimately reconstitute its former status. A number of other scholars (including Haraway 1991 and Wiegman 1999) have noted that key to white masculine privilege has been the fact that it has inhabited invisible, unmarked, transparent bodies that have been hidden in history, constituting the unproblematized norm, against which Otherness was constructed in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. As the result of the Civil Rights Movements, this unmarked position, previously exempt from a series of social practices, such as surveillance and forms of control, started to be problematized. In their response, white men began to rely gradually on the logic of the emerging identity politics or “visibility politics,” as Phelan so aptly described it (2003, qtd. in Robinson 2000, 3).
This has become a unique undertaking still under investigation, but I would like to point out three important moments in this process, as I have found that these have shaped the strategies used post-9/11 in general and are represented in the series Breaking Bad in particular. One, white masculinity, having been challenged by a set of economic, social, political and ideological changes, could no longer be perceived in purely essentialist and universal terms; consequently, the process of its particularization began. This led to the plurality of white masculinities represented in current television programs as playboy masculinity, skirt-chasing masculinity, patriarchal masculinity and science nerd masculinity, to mention a few (Lotz 2014, 1-2). Two, white masculinity started to delineate locations from where transformations aimed at recouping white male privilege could be achieved (Carroll 2011, 7): it started to employ the logic of and to engage in the discourses and practices of marginalized groups, in the course of which, as Carroll observes, “white masculinity attempts to manage the stakes of its own fragmentation by co-opting the forms of representational meaning secured by women, gays and people of color” (2011, 6). Three, a key constitutive element of the resultant “reactive strategies” (Robinson 2000, 6) or “affirmative reactions” (Carroll 2011) that aim at reconstructing masculine heteronormative privilege is the positioning of white masculinity as being “injured” (Wiegman 1999, 126-7), “victimized” (Robinson 2000, 5), “disenfranchised” (Robinson 2000, 57), etc. Lotz has found that this has been translated into expressions of a “personal politics of injury” (2014, 1) in current media representations of masculinity, while Leyda (2013) has noted that these representations exercise what “Steven Shaviro calls post-cinematic affect: part of the recessionary structure of feeling, the show ‘give[s] voice (or better, sounds and images) to a kind of ambient free-floating sensibility’ that is both symptomatic and productive of how it feels to live in the US during the financial crisis and its aftermath.”
This strategy was a legacy on which hegemonic masculinity could rely after the attack on 9/11, which was a direct assault on white American masculine power in particular. The myth of the US as a protected, safe place, the homeland that cannot be touched by foreign aggression, fell to pieces as Americans watched the Twin Towers collapse before their own eyes. The country seemed weak and vulnerable: with the fall of the landmark skyscrapers, surrounded by the myth of indestructibility, everything else that skyscrapers had represented in the US for the past century also vanished: as Santayana put it long ago, “the American Will inhibits the skyscraper … [it] is the sphere of the American man … all aggressive enterprise” (1911).
Carroll has proposed that responses to the crisis after 9/11 have brought about the “acceleration of preexisting American cultural formations” (2011, 18). Adelman (2009), for example, has pointed out the power of the depiction of the armed forces after 9/11, arguing that the figure of the soldier has functioned as an archetypal image through which American men could hope to be “sold(i)ered” together, thus also re-establishing a bond between hegemonic masculinity and nationalism in the public discourse and imagination. Kusz (2008) has studied the increasing emphasis given to sports in popular culture in the period, with which they have served as a potential arena for the process of remasculinization. It seems to me that the initial reaction to the crisis in masculinity indeed mobilized traditional values, associated with physical strength, military spirit, bravery, endurance and perseverance: the firefighters and policemen on the scene that day and in the days to follow captured the image of the new hero in the context of both the metropolis and the nation. This return to physical masculine power is also in line with the emerging impact of sports, ultimately demonstrating that post-9/11 efforts at remasculinization relied heavily on dimensions of muscularization, one that the up-and-coming American middle class men had already experienced in the mid-19th century through Christian muscularity. Lotz (2014) has found that in most recent television programs – most of which also reflect upon the economic crisis triggered by the housing crash in 2008 – male figures are often represented as struggling to define forms of masculinity which are considered acceptable by society and has argued that these characters express a longing for patriarchal masculinity first and foremost – one which integrates the traditional masculine roles of being a proper husband, father and successful provider as well. This is a claim that would strongly apply to Breaking Bad as well.
3. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad narrates the last two years in the life of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), an ordinary middle-aged high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, NM, who lives with his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), a stay-at-home mom to their teenage son Walt Jr. (R. J. Mitte), who has cerebral palsy. The pilot episode opens with a puzzling series of images of the Southwestern desert, with a pair of pants inexplicably wafting through the air and then landing by the side of a dirt road only to be driven over by an old RV speeding away in a hurry, driven by a white man wearing a pair of underwear, shoes and a gas mask. As he stops the RV and gets out, he hears sirens approaching. He immediately puts on his shirt hanging on a hanger on the side mirror, records a brief good-bye message to his family on a small video camera, and steps out into the road, having taken a gun out of the back of his underwear, and gets into a position with legs spread apart, ready to shoot, like a cowboy in a Hollywood Western. At this point, the opening credits appear. What follows is a condensed summary of the events of the previous three weeks, setting the tone and providing the basic framework for the whole series.
It starts with a morning scene, White getting out of bed and surveying their home: baby care items, presents in boxes, and an award from 1985 on the wall surround him in their otherwise bare bedroom as he is doing his morning exercises. During breakfast we meet the whole family, learn that it is his 50th birthday and that they are short of money since they cannot afford a new water heater for the house. We see White in action as a teacher amongst uninterested and disrespectful students, to whom he is attempting to define chemistry as “change … growth, decay, then transformation” (1.1). In the afternoon, he works for a local carwash, humiliated by his unappreciative students and the corrupt immigrant owner of the place. He ends up being late for his surprise party, during which his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), a DEA officer, shows off his gun, enjoying the attention of all the male guests and Walt Jr. as well. At one point, White unwillingly takes the gun in his hand and when he comments on how heavy it is, Hank’s response puts him in his place: “That’s why they hire men!” (1.1). A succession of emasculating experiences continue at night in the bedroom with his wife, but it is topped by his diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer the following day. Instead of collapsing and crying for help, he keeps it to himself and after a period of quiet lamentation in their deserted back yard he makes a decision to break bad for the remaining part of his life. He creates a master plan: he blackmails one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a drug dealer, to partner up in a meth business: White would produce the drug and Pinkman would distribute it. This decision empowers and liberates him at once, and places him on a path that takes him deep into the criminal world. The rest is the twisted, unexpected, often disturbing unfolding of his new business undertaking and his transformation from a resignful family man into a ruthless criminal under the pseudonym Heisenberg.
4. Pants flying in the sky: Mr. White and hegemonic masculinity in crisis
As noted above, a number of studies have discussed the general sense of the crisis of hegemonic masculinity in the US after 9/11, one that has only been deepened by the recession that has emerged in the years after the attack. Breaking Bad captures this crisis perhaps most vividly through the figure of the protagonist, Walter White. The flying pair of pants in the opening scene of the pilot episode symbolizes this crisis, as does White’s initial appearance in his underwear: it introduces an unusual situation in which no one is wearing the pants. The audience is doubly puzzled as he is wearing a gas mask, evocative of some dangerous military operation by association, introducing an abnormal, twisted situation, even if this all takes place in the desert outside of Albuquerque, NM, with Los Alamos National Laboratory only 95 miles away.
I argue that Walter White fails to meet any of the criteria for hegemonic masculinity presented by Trujillo except for one: heterosexuality. The nature of his sexuality is problematized in the pilot episode when Jesse asks him – as White is getting undressed as he prepares to cook meth – “What are you doing?”, and then later, as Jesse starts taping him with a focus on White’s brief-cut white underwear with the strap tied in a bow from his protective apron hanging over it, saying: “Yeah, work it, baby, work it!” (1.1), to which White responds by aggressively shutting off the camera. After this, his heterosexuality remains unchallenged. As for how masculine he is in his heterosexuality, this is also addressed in the same episode, in the bedroom scene after his birthday party, where he has passively allowed Skyler to take the lead in satisfying him. However, this is turned around at the very end of the episode; as we watch him after laundering the bills from his first meth payment, he now takes the lead in bed and expresses a behavior that is forceful and masculine – one that eventually will turn more aggressive and violent throughout the series.
In the pilot episode, White fails to embody masculine physical force and control. The audience can see his almost sterile, white, somewhat elderly body, with a spare tire, loose skin, and deepening wrinkles on his face. The news of cancer, afflicting his body already in a state of decay, takes away from him even the idea of a possible chance to increase his muscularity. Symptoms of the cancer and the effects of his treatment offer a realistic, almost graphic portrayal of his weakening body later in the show. In fact, most likely he has never been too muscular: as Hank notes in the toast he proposes on White’s birthday – following his comment on how only men are hired at his office – White has an enormous brain, which they would not hold against him as he has a good heart. Indeed, intellectual excellence is not among the features of hegemonic masculinity surveyed by Trujillo either. And the feminizing reference to White possessing a good heart nicely rounds out the discourse of his demasculinizination.
His body is witness to a lifestyle which is primarily connected to interior spaces: his face is not tanned or touched by natural elements. He is not the image of the sporty outdoorsman, the contemporary embodiment of whom Trujillo describes as a frontiersman. Moreover, his character also lacks the temperament, courage and self-reliance associated with this figure. Sadly, he is only able to satisfy this cultural expectation related to hegemonic masculinity through his skin color. Shortcomings in his spirit of adventure and competition also appear through flashbacks: White has started out as a talented chemist but has chosen to throw away the chance to pursue a successful career as an academic, to gain wealth as an entrepreneur and to live a life of true happiness with the woman he adores. He made a series of decisions to give it all up; I argue, thus, that he is at least partly responsible for his current state: his unfulfilling job, financial hardships, and lack of respect and recognition. The worsening economic crisis only accentuates his low level of occupational and financial achievement, in which he has had a hand himself.
The last feature of hegemonic masculinity on Trujillo’s list is familial patriarchy. White is a failure in this regard: he and Skyler have decided that she should stay at home, take care of their handicapped son and focus on the baby on the way, hopefully even pursuing a career in writing short stories, but this is a weak façade that is ready to collapse any minute. Walter is unable to provide for his family financially, not even working at two jobs. Their house, symbolizing their family, needs mending: it seems outdated, dark, and uninviting. His car is also old and in sore need of repair. They find it difficult to pay their bills, attempting to save on food and all their other expenses. White is also a failure as a husband because he does not behave like a man with his wife: he expresses no passion towards her and often acts as if he were ashamed in front of her. He also fails to be a good father, to be the male role model for his son, to earn Walt Jr.’s respect and admiration. His seems to be a family on a path toward disintegration, held together primarily out of duty and routine, not true love and respect.
5. Pants fallen on the ground: Mr. White and attempts at re-masculinization
What strategies does the program employ to respond to this corrupted state of hegemonic masculinity? The underlying logic of the series initially follows the pattern of identity politics aimed at recapturing the damaged power position that comes with masculinity insofar as White is depicted in a general state of deprivation at the onset, disenfranchised and marginalized, both in physical and financial terms. At times, throughout the program his relationship with his wife – although initially framed as a proper traditional marriage with a stay-at-home wife – is portrayed as if traditional gender roles have been reversed, such as Skyler disapprovingly reminding him in the pilot episode not to use their credit card for small payments and/or without her approval. The news of cancer completes the image of White as being injured and victimized. White recognizes the gradual disintegration of both his masculinity and body and decides to translate it into a “personal politics of injury” which would lead up to his act of taking control, resulting in his self-liberation from the restrictions of his mundane, unsuccessful life. Faucette has argued that White represents a figure who, through “a need for freedom and control [tries] to reclaim masculine authority” (Faucette 2014, 75). He decides to become a self-made man: powerful, successful, respected and idolized all at once.
His act of self-liberation marks his entrance into the criminal world as he puts his knowledge of chemistry to use: cooking pure meth. Lotz proposes that turning to “illegal situations” often represents the solution in “male-centered serials” which investigate men’s lives in an effort to define “how to be a man” (2014, 5). While White continually veils his true motivations by insisting that he is doing it for his family, to provide for them and to ensure their financial security for when he is no longer with them, the audience realizes with the unfolding of the story that this is not the case. White enters the masculine world of hardcore criminals – interestingly, thus, the program becomes a male-centered series in terms of the characters as well, since there are only two female figures consistently present throughout the show: White’s wife Skyler and his sister-in-law, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt). This male-centered realm of danger, competition and violence that White enters echoes Kimmel’s proposition about true masculinity being “a homosocial enactment…fraught with danger, with the risk of failure, and with intense relentless competition” (1994, 120), which primarily takes place within the matrix of the male gaze. That is, the series creates a context within which true masculinity can be achieved through the ways in which one relates to and is perceived by other men.
When White makes his decision to enter into the meth business, he regards it as a necessary step to provide for his family, to recapture his patriarchal masculinity. Initially, he surprises his wife with his increased sense of masculinity and potential to satisfy her as a woman. This sense of masculine power, however, keeps on escalating until finally White ends up ordering her around, objectifying her and sexually assaulting her, thus driving her to despair, an abandoned effort to run away, an extramarital affair, deep depression, and a suicide attempt. White’s relationship with his son also undergoes a transformation: he is becoming more assertive, loud and expressive of his opinion, starts acting like a careless wealthy person, for example, buying Walt Jr. a car on the spur of the moment, until finally his son learns the truth about him and refuses to see him ever again – this being Walt Jr.’s painful act of self-liberation. The pretext of White’s actions being self-sacrificial for his family’s sake surfaces throughout the program, and it is not until the closing episode that he admits to Skyler: “I did it for me!…I was really alive” (5.16).
I believe that it is first and foremost his knowledge of chemistry that draws him into the underworld: his ability to cook pure meth. This can be interpreted as the beginning of his occupational success, bringing him financial rewards as well, being yet another segment of hegemonic masculinity that he seems to be able to recapture. This is not a legitimate business, however; its first unexpected yield thus appears already in the pilot episode, with Krazy-8 and Emilio appearing by White and Pinkman’s mobile lab. White learns soon that the evolution of his business comes at a price: money, cruelty, human lives present no obstacle to him in this violent world of drugs, where public shootings and racialized gang wars set the stage for a successful business model – all concealed, invisible, under the veil of regular, respectable businesses, like a fast food restaurant and the car wash. Nothing is what it seems to be and should be. Ultimately, White’s business, which has reached a global scale, disappears, as do all the men and one single woman involved in the drug business, including White himself. The only person to survive is Pinkman.
In the course of his business, White takes on the name Heisenberg, symbolized by a black hat which he puts on to signify his alter ego. His wrinkled face, harsh eyes looking out from behind his glasses are yet again evocative of the Western tradition in American culture and of the figure of the cowboy, the frontiersman. This connection allows for the allusion of a cultural context for the series that takes us back to historical times, drawing on a particular American archetype of masculinity, placed in the wilderness of the Southwestern desert. This archetype embodies physical strength and control, adventurous spirit, the ability to overcome challenges, both natural and human. The gun is an inseparable object in the Western scenes, which is also constitutive of White’s power in the context of the human wilderness. His business power escalates with each episode, as does his sense of personal power and masculinity. With that, however, his aggression and merciless killer instincts also evolve, ultimately resulting in his complete disintegration before his family and partners. The masculinity he is able to constitute, however, is not hegemonic, nor is it lasting, as his fall is as fast as his rise has been: he ends up dying in the last episode alone on the floor of the lab run by the criminal gang he once hired to do his dirty work.
Most scholars seem to agree that White is not a hero; he is rather an anti-hero or a reluctant hero at best, who is “involuntarily placed in a situation where he must act” (Leyda 2013). He is an everyman, with no real possibility to re-capture hegemonic masculinity – he represents damaged goods, destined to failure, along with all the other men of his generation: they all die or disappear by the end of the series. The only two men to survive him are Jesse, his surrogate son and partner, whom White saves by freeing him from criminal slavery. In the closing episode we can see Jesse franticly driving away from his captivity, physically free, but with a body and soul filled with lasting scars. Walt Jr., White’s biological son, is the other figure, who is morally uncompromised, but is physically challenged. I think neither of them absolves or forgives Walt. But they ended up being invested with the task of re-configuring and re-constituting white masculinity. They are the ones who, based on White’s definition of chemistry – which is life itself for him – will experience transformation that follows the growth and decay he himself embodied.
The series confirms the message in the opening scene: no one catches the pants flying in the sky, they fall to the ground. Indeed, the program offers no immediate redemption for hegemonic masculinity. The adult men in the series are all depicted as morally compromised, weak and unworthy one way or another to be invested with the power captured by hegemonic masculinity. The program seems to leave it to members of the next generation to develop their own strategies and own musculine identities. The legacy passed on to them, however, overshadows any great potential as they are already suffering damage, both physically and psychologically, which they have inherited from previous generations of men and their failure to reaffirm traditional constructions of hegemonic masculinity. Thus, only the future can tell who will pick up the pants and wear them again.
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