As a society, we’ve never been good at talking about gender dynamics — especially not online. So, when Rihanna, ASAP Rocky and Jonathan Majors all posed for recent photo shoots, the internet wasted no time tying the images back to the tired old conversation about the supposed “emasculation” of Black men.
When British Vogue’s March 2023 cover dropped featuring stunning images from Rihanna’s first official family shoot with her partner ASAP Rocky and their son, the pushback on Twitter was swift. Some commenters claimed the pictures showed Rihanna as a “dominant woman” — she’s walking ahead of him in the shot — and ASAP as a “submissive man” (he’s holding their baby) and that it was “crazy any man would agree to a photo shoot that emasculates him like this.”
Ebony magazine also released a truly beautiful February cover featuring actor Jonathan Majors shirtless, draped in pink and wearing denim boots. Once again, certain people felt like Hollywood’s portrayal of Black men was making them look “defeated and weak.” (Majors’ look for the magazine’s cover is actually a tribute to the One Piece character Doflamingo, but “real” Black men aren’t allowed to like manga either, I guess.)
This trend of dissecting Black men’s every move for signs of emasculation has even spiralled into people posting marked-up photos purporting to decode the hidden agenda behind the images. In these photos, everything from the couple’s posture to their facial expressions is being scrutinized, with minute details, like whether or not they were smiling and the direction their crotch is facing, being taken as proof of some grand plot to bring down Black men. In one particular photo of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, it’s noted that their relationship was definitely “not fine” at the time because she’s not smiling or leaning into him, and (gasp!) is sitting with her legs open. It’s a very mid-2000s clues-on-a-cork-board-connected-with-string type of conspiracy that would be easy to dismiss — even laugh at — if it wasn’t so dangerous, and so false.
Here’s the thing, emasculation isn’t real. It only exists as a tool to reinforce patriarchal violence. The term's origins go back to the 17th century Latin term for “depriving something of its male functions, virility or procreative power.” Essentially, “emasculation” means making someone less of (what society would define as) a man.
Okay, let’s take the term at its original definition. If something makes you less of a man, we need to interrogate what it means to be a man, and why that needs to be so strictly enshrined, so fiercely protected. The reality is that being a “man” doesn’t really mean anything. And in defending “masculinity,” what men are really defending is the power that has been socially ascribed to manhood, not any special qualities that are inherent to being a man. We live in a patriarchy; one that rewards men that adhere to its tenets. So in truth, the only real value that “manliness” holds is the social benefits afforded to men who subscribe to it.
And although this obsession with manliness cuts across cultures, Black people’s experience of it is unique. The “great emasculation conspiracy” that has long been pushed in the Black community is a product of both church culture and the long and brutal history of sexual violence as a tool of white supremacy. “Western culture’s objectification and sexualizing of Black bodies contributed to the sexual vulnerability of enslaved men and women,” writer Thomas Foster explains. “Both enslaved men and women endured violations of their bodies and a general lack of consideration for their privacy; they were scrutinized, groped, and objectified by enslavers.” To this day, the rape of male slaves is still frequently remembered as being more objectionable than the rape of female slaves, because it “emasculated” the men. That history — and the patriarchal lens through which we (mis)understand it — have helped support all the theories about the effort to “feminize” Black men.
The ridiculous pushback to ASAP Rocky being the one carrying his baby in the Vogue family photo is also very telling. It’s worth noting too that Majors was derided for a second photo (shot for the same magazine) that showed him shirtless, holding roses and draped in satin. And what’s even more egregious than these asinine attacks is the message they send. We are teaching young boys that being a man means never letting your woman walk in front of you, never holding your baby, never wearing pink or red, never crossing your legs, and never hugging your friends or kissing them on the cheek.
What’s even more egregious than these asinine attacks is the message they send. We are teaching young boys that being a man means never letting your woman walk in front of you, never holding your baby, never wearing pink or red, never crossing your legs...
The push against “emasculation” also disparages childcare while expecting women to happily do the work. And that’s one of the cruelest tricks of the patriarchy: simultaneously denying that women are treated unfairly, while making sure men don’t have to face anything that even closely approximates the female experience.
For young Black boys, they’re learning that they don’t have to show up as active parents because that’s “a woman’s job.” Then there’s the needless gendered rules on how boys should dress, groom themselves, speak to girls, treat other boys and even function as part of a family.
This kind of thinking is also the faulty foundation upon which other forms of discrimination are firmly set. In the years since Lil Nas X gained fame, he’s faced everything from campaigns to get him off the internet to allegations that he encourages kids to follow satan. The floodgates of homophobia were unleashed upon him and he was accused of being an agent of this emasculation agenda, all because he doesn’t fit into traditionally-held views of masculinity. Even Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan weren’t safe from the gender and sex police when they dared to embrace in a photo shoot.
The most laughable irony of this pushback against emasculating Black men is that it’s often framed as being in service of Black women. They’ll say what woman doesn’t want a strong MANLY Black man by her side? And if all women sit by and let the “good Black men” be “gay” who, in God’s name, will be left over to marry us?
Meanwhile, the work being done to end emasculation really only serves cisgender men and their interest in maintaining gender and relationship hierarchies. And if there was any argument that “emasculating men” would make them less attractive to Black women, then you only have to look up the #JonathanMajors hashtag that was trending on Twitter for days after the shoot was shared. “Jonathan Majors seems like he has a gentle and attractive spirit,” one user wrote. “The type of soul you want yours to connect with. They don’t make that often.”
We’ve gotten used to the idea that pushing back against emasculation is a legitimate way of defending male dignity, and even securing women’s coveted position as wives, when really, it’s always been about protecting power — and power is something these men definitely don’t need any more of.