November 2018

Between a Cuck and a Hard Place: Masculinity and Online Uses of the Word ‘Cuck’

I analyzed how users of The_Donald subreddit use the word "cuck" so you never have to visit their website.

by Kyle Robert McMillen

The politics of the alt-right have emerged into mainstream discourse. Growing from mostly online communities, news outlets and internet onlookers have attempted to decipher the language—among other aspects—of the alt-right. A small portion of the language that the alt-right employs includes specific phrases or words that carry significant meaning in that community. The word ‘cuck’ has garnered attention from online publications,[1] print journalists,[2] and academics.[3] While people more familiar with online discourse may have been exposed to this term throughout their many interactions on the internet, ‘cuck’ garnered national attention in April 2017. During that time, The Washington Post and other news outlets reported that former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon referred to Jared Kushner as a ‘cuck’ while in a White House meeting.[4] Since then, many have attempted to interpret the meaning of this word within alt-right politics.

While many investigators have, I believe rightly, pointed out the gendered and racialized nature of how members of the alt-right use this centuries-old word, how members of the mostly-online alt-right community use the word and the meaning they ascribe to the word has been neglected. I chose to examine one online alt-right community—the subreddit The_Donald—to examine the meaning that members of this community give to the word ‘cuck’ in their online discourse. Using modified grounded theory to guide my research, I argue that members of this specific online community use the word ‘cuck’ in a wide variety of ways that shift over time and context but always returns to issues of power. These uses, while varied, operate within logics of—and have theoretical implications for—hegemonic masculinity.[5]

Theoretical Orientation and Approach

My study utilizes a grounded theory approach. Grounded theory is “guided by questions, rather than hypotheses, in the interest of allowing data to drive the generations of explanatory theory.” In other words, I use grounded theory to let the members’ meanings guide my explanations of a phenomenon and then connect to theory. Within that framework, I will employ what sociologists Corbin and Strauss refer to as “modified grounded theory.”[6] The modification that Corbin and Strauss refer to occurs when the researcher has come with prior knowledge or hypotheses surrounding the phenomenon in question—in this case, the word ‘cuck.’ Basically, while I am still using questions and members’ meanings to generate my data, I should acknowledge that I hold a priori knowledge on the word ‘cuck’ due to recent popularity of think pieces and academic works on the subject.[7] The questions that guided my study are as follows:

  • How do users of the subreddit The_Donald use the word ‘cuck?’
  • Do any patterns emerge in the usage of the word?
  • How many times is the word ‘cuck’ used within the subreddit?

This study also relies on viewing gender, and therefore masculinity, as something that is not intrinsic to one’s being but rather something that is performed. By performance, philosopher J. Butler encourages us to recall that “acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.” In other words, gender is something that is done repeatedly and evaluated by others rather than something one is.[8] Therefore, masculinity is something that is accomplished or done.

Masculinity can be understood as a series of socially-constructed “gender practices” associated with the male sex category that are bound by social and historical context and are relational to other gender performances.[9] Masculinity is not something that can only be expressed by men; women and people who identify as gender fluid can perform masculinity—sometimes at a social cost.[10] “Hegemonic masculinity” is the most dominant expression of masculinity in a given historical context or “the configuration of gender practices which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy.”[11] Hegemonic masculinity is often associated with control,[12] dominance,[13] compulsory heterosexuality,[14] and homophobia.[15]

Research Site and Methodology

The_Donald subreddit was created in June of 2015, just after Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy for President of the United States in June 2015. Its “Community Details” page announces that the subreddit was created as “a never-ending rally dedicated to the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.” As Donald Trump’s popularity grew, so did the subreddit. There were 575,393 subscribers at the time of publication, making it the 153rd most popular subreddit of over 9000 total active subreddits on the website. I chose to focus on The_Donald in my study because of the role that the subreddit has played and continues to the play in the “online culture wars.”[16]

To analyze the discourse used around and containing the word ‘cuck,’ I utilized the search function within Reddit itself. I then used Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw’s notion of “open coding,” which includes going “line-by-line to identify and formulate any and all ideas, themes, or issues” that arise from my data.[17] I then coded both the titles of the posts and the uses of ‘cuck’ in the posts with the codes that arose from the data. The codes that emerged organically from the data allowed me to better understand how the users on the subreddit used the word ‘cuck’ and the contexts that the word was employed.

What is a Cuck? Who is a cuck?

The origin of the word ‘cuck’ is centuries-old and originally used to describe “a man with a wife who has been unfaithful; it more specifically refers to a man who (knowingly or unknowingly) helps raise offspring that are net genetically his own.”[18] In conservative circles, the term was co-opted in the late-20th to early-21st century to describe a conservative that had been ‘cuckolded’ or is not conservative enough to maintain the values that are most important to a right wing audience—or a cuckservative.[19] Within the subreddit and in the months between the beginning of the campaign through his election, I found 215 posts that contained the word ‘cuck.’ Within those posts, the word ‘cuck’ appeared 3113 times. Using the abovementioned coding methods, I uncovered 12 distinct uses of the word ‘cuck:’

  • Personal Insult (PI)
  • A liberal/shows an opposing political ideology (L)
  • Play on words (ex. Calling Mark Zuckerberg “Mark Cuckerberg”) (POW)
  • A reference to actual cuckolding (AC)
  • Something explicitly anti-Semitic (AS)
  • Referring to a conservative that is not conservative enough—a cuckservative (CS)
  • A general insult (to a non-specified target) (GI)
  • A verb and/or adjective (ex. he was cucked) (CAV)
  • Someone who is dumb or unintelligent (CID
  • Someone who is weak (CIW)
  • Someone unmasculine or a comment about masculinity (M)
  • Using cuck in the context of immigration or in reference to Islam (or both) (I)

These codes are not mutually-exclusive; comments or posts that inhabited more than one code were counted in both or all of the codes that applied. As we can see from the wide variety in how the word is used in the tables below, the meaning that is ascribed changes with context and time. Ultimately, however, the main theme with these codes and the ways that the word ‘cuck’ is used returns to power. In each of the codes that emerged, power or the lack thereof on the part of the cuck is what ties this community to this specific word. Using insults—whether personal or general—serve to delegitimize others and thus position others as less powerful. However, the high number of labelling the cuck as liberal (shown in orange) has some significance when viewed in the context of current gender ideologies.

“Cuck” in Title

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“Cuck” in Post

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While ‘cuck’ may serve a variety of linguistic functions, part of the meaning will always be gendered due to the original gendered and sexualized meaning of the word cuckold. While many posts containing ‘cuck’ reflected hegemonic masculine practices, some of the more popular posts complicate the idea of ‘cuck’ being used to maintain hegemonic masculine boundaries. For example, the most upvoted post in my sample (pictured below) featured a gay, biracial man describing his breakup with an ex-boyfriend due to the author’s affinity for Trump. The comments varied, but were all very supportive. This post demonstrates how masculinities within The_Donald are not necessarily hegemonic using sociologist R. W. Connell’s definitions because of the self-described sexual orientation and race of the post’s author. In fact, this version of masculinity values political ideology over the exclusion of traditionally subordinated masculinities (such as gay masculinity).[20] While still valuing traditional gender roles, the subreddit users’ valuation of political ideology over sexual orientation reflects a shift in how these users are viewing masculinity and power. This new performance of masculinity, one that values political ideology as a mainstay of that performance within alt-right communities, could be best described as a “Maga Masculinity.” I define “Maga Masculinity” as a performance of masculinity emerging from the shift to the political right in the Trump era that, while involving aspects of hegemonic masculinity, puts sharing a particularly radical version of conservatism—and an affinity for Donald Trump—as a prerequisite.

McMillin5

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McMillin8

“Maga Masculinity,” Brett Kavanaugh, and the future of American Masculinity

I would argue that we saw a version of “Maga Masculinity” enter the mainstream during the confirmation hearings of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While feminist theorists have long acknowledged the political nature of gender, political ideology and masculinity came together during the hearings. While Dr. Ford described the horrible behavior of a younger Kavanaugh—behavior that could have been ripped straight from the pages of Michael Kimmel’s Guyland—the narrative quickly split along gender lines. The defense of Brett Kavanaugh became not only a reaffirmation of a particular type of masculinity, but also was couched in political contest; supporting Brett Kavanaugh meant being on the side of conservatism while opposition to his behavior was centered around liberal politics. The defense of the ‘boys-will-be-boys’ behaviors that seemed to be indicative of Kavanaugh’s adolescence also necessitated a conservative political agenda. I would expect that, as the Presidency of Donald Trump continues, this “Maga Masculinity” will only intensify. As conservatism continues to be more closely tied to Donald Trump himself, the masculinity that he and his followers perform will continue to be a key component of conservatism itself. I also expect that rival political masculinities will become more prominent, such as a liberal masculinity that might accept certain gendered behaviors currently eschewed by those on the left as long as the ‘correct’ political or partisan ideology is reflected. If that is true, then scholars both in political science and gender studies will have to take a closer look at how much the political and the gendered intertwine and what consequence that has for masculinity. And for the United States.

Kyle McMillen is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Within his program—Education, Society, and Culture—Kyle examines how inequalities are reproduced in the U.S. education system. Specifically, Kyle examines how gender inequities reproduce themselves in educational settings; namely, how aspects of masculinity and heteronormativity are normalized in school-sanctioned activities like school dances.

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Notes

[1] Bever, April 7, 2017; Lahitou, November 16, 2016; McDermott, November 28, 2016; Roy, November 16, 2016; Schwartz, August 1, 2016; Weigel, July 29, 2015. 

[2] Frost, 2015; Nagle, 2017.

[3] Condis, 2018; Hawley, 2017.

[4] Bever, April 7, 2017.

[5] Connell, 1995.

[6] Corbin & Strauss, 2008 as cited in Grzanka & Maher, 2012, p. 375.

[7] Bever, April 7, 2017; Condis, 2018; Frost, 2015; Hawley, 2017; Kight, April 6, 2017; Lahitou, November 16, 2016; McDermott, November 28, 2016; Nagle, 2017; Roy, November 16, 2016; Schwartz, August 1, 2016; Weigel, July 29, 2015. 

[8] Quotation in Butler, 1990, p. 185; West & Zimmerman, 1987. 

[9] Butler, 1990; Connell, 1995; Kimmel, 2012; Pascoe, 2007, p. 6.

[10] Halberstam, 1998; Lemert, 1996; Sedgwick, 1995.

[11] Connell, 1995, p. 77.

[12] Kimmel, 2012, p. 6; Mullaney, 2007, p. 400.

[13] Connell, 1995, p. 77; Ezzell, 2016, pp. 194-195.

[14] Mora, 2016, p. 236; Pascoe, 2007, p. 86.

[15] Kimmel, 1994, p. 126; Connell, 1995, p. 68.

[16] Nagle, 2017, p. 9.

[17] Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L., 2011, p. 172.

[18] Hawley, 2017, p. 94.

[19] Hawley, 2017; Red Eagle & Day, 2015.

[20] Connell, 1995.

References

Bever, L. (April 7, 2017). Steve bannon’s ‘total cuck move,’ explained. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/04/07/steve-bannons-total-cuck-move-explained/?utm_term=.a43a2ab5166e.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Condis, M. (2018). Gaming masculinity: Trolls, fake geeks, & the gendered battle for online culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ezzell, Matthew B. (2016). Healthy for whom?—Males, men, and masculinity: A reflection on the doing (and study) of dominance. In Pascoe, C.J. & Bridges, Tristian. (Eds.) Exploring masculinities: Identity, inequality, continuity, and change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frost, A. (2015). No such cuck: The conservative jeer. The Baffler 29, 106-109.

Grzanka, P. & Maher, J. (2012). Different, like everyone else: Stuff white people like and the marketplace of diversity. Symbolic Interaction 35 (3), 368-393.

Halberstam, J. J. (1998). Female masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hawley, G. (2017). Making sense of the alt-right. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: the perilous world where boys become men. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Kimmel, M. (2012). Manhood in America: A cultural history. Oxford University Press.

Lemert, C. (1996). Series editor’s preface. In Seidman, S. (Ed.). Queer theory/sociology. Cambridge: Blackwell.

McDermott, J. (November 28, 2016). How the alt-right made ‘cuck’ the word of the year. MEL Magazine. Retrieved from: https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/how-the-alt-right-made-     cuck-the-word-of-the-year.

Mora, Richard. (2016). Latino boys, masculinity, and puberty. In Pascoe, C.J. & Bridges, Tristian. (Eds.) Exploring masculinities: Identity, inequality, continuity, and change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nagle, A. (2017). Kill all the normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and tumblr to trump and the alt-right. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Red Eagle, J. & Day, V. (2015). Cuckservative: How “conservatives” betrayed America. Kouvola, Finland: Castilia House.

Roy, J. (November 16, 2016). ‘Cuck,’ ‘snowflake,’ masculinist’: A guide to the language of the ‘alt-right.’ The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-alt-right-terminology-20161115-story.html.

Schwartz, D. (August 1, 2016). Why angry white men love calling people “cucks.” GQ. Retreived from: https://www.gq.com/story/why-angry-white-men-love-calling-people-cucks.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1995). “Gosh, boy george, you must be awfully secure in your masculinity!” In Berger, M., Wallis, B., & Watson, S. (Eds.). Constructing masculinity. New York: Routledge.

Weigel, D. (July 29, 2015). ‘Cuckservative’—the conservative insult of the month, explained.

The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/07/29/cuckservative-the-conservative-insult-of-the-month-explained/?utm_term=.b05380a3bd4c.

West, C. & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender and society, 1 (2), 125-151.

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