Masculinity in Beloved and Girl in the Tangerine Scarf 

By Tala Besiso


The manifestation of social constructs amongst society is largely governed by conventional cultural practices and the belief system embraced by a community. Within the sociological realm, gender studies explore the varying pillars that constitute in explaining, rather than defining, phenomenon relating to different sexes. One of the core discussions in the gender field revolves around the study of men, delving into the notions of masculinity. Masculinity is generally explained as a set of social practices, actions, and behaviors that allegedly dictate the degree of masculinity within the community (Doyle).Through varying modes of literature, such as novels, authors are capable of exposing the consequences of conforming to masculine ideals. Through Toni Morrison’s novel Belovedand Mohja Kahf novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, the search and exercise of masculinity can destroy an individual's identity, distorting religious relationships, and violating a women’s status within a community. Therefore, the quest and practice of masculinity have notable problematic outcomes. 

Despite the ongoing exploration of masculinity, there remains a rigid traditional perception on manhood. The conventional notion of manhood often times subjects women to act in a certain way, whereby to be a man is to oppose that and strictly to avoid feminine behavior. Consequently, as definitions of manhood become associated with a women’s femininity, social pressure is placed on women to act in ways that pave the way for men to maintain and satisfy the patriarchal social structure. However, the proceeding literary analysis reveals how the construction and maintenance of masculinity is capable of culturally and politically subjecting other men as well as women. Hence, throughout this essay, the core of the discussion is not to scrutinize the perspectives on masculinity, rather, it is to highlight the toxic impact of perpetuating notions of masculinity upon a culture.


As a multidimensional field of study, prominent sociologists have provided varying interpretations and analysis to deconstruct the notion of masculinity. Sociologist Raewyn Connell has significantly contributed to developing interpretations of masculinity, as she explicitly focuses on what she calls hegemonic masculinity. Based on Connell’s conclusions, hegemonic masculinity comprises of displaying attributes such as physical and emotional strength possessed by superior males who are mostly light skinned men. According to Connell, men that are categorized within the hegemonic sphere are in an authoritative and superior position within a community, being placed at the top in a social hierarchy (Demetriou 341). Furthermore, Connell argues that the exercise of hegemonic masculinity is essentially the hegemony over women and subordinate masculinities that are composed  of black or working-class men (Demetriou 342). The evaluation and scrutiny of the consequences of this monolithic masculine hierarchy has led to what psychologist Michael Kimmel refers to as toxic masculinity, which instills harm and violence by superior men on others (Owen 970 ). Through Toni Morrison’s narration of Beloved, a story that encapsulates the virulent realities of slavery, Morrison demonstrates the toxic effects of hegemonic masculinity represented by the white slave owners on the lives of slaves. Similarly, Mohja Kahf’s coming of age narrative about a Muslim- American female, Khadra, also captures how social pressure to be masculine have a harmful impact on both women and men.


While the time period and storyline of the chosen novels vary; the geographical settingplays a fundamental role in comprehending the effects of hegemonic masculinity. The major communities in both texts represent minorities in the United States and these minorities are often criticized and pressurized by the white or native majority. Hence, whether it is the black slaves, or the Arab Muslim community being discussed, they are common in that their identities formulate under social pressure in order to seek acceptance.Furthermore, both Morrison and Kahf challenge the conventional characteristics of “ideal manhood” through their protagonists, however, it appears that through challenging conventional notions of masculinity, it poses a threat on superior male figures.

Literary Analysis

In Beloved, Morrison vividly illustrates the inability of black slaves to construct an independent identity due to the potent domination of white slave owners on all aspects of a slaves lives. The quest for an identity is exemplified through Paul D, a male black slave owned by a white owner, Mr. Garner. Mr. Garner’s dominance over Paul D begins to be questioned as Paul D says, “Was that it? Is that where manhood lay? In the naming done by white man who was suppose to know?” (Morrison 147). Here Paul D’s sense of disillusionment towards Mr. Garner begins, as the series of questions reveals Paul D’s contemplation on whether his name, which was chosen by Mr. Garner, symbolizes his identity. Evidently, through Paul D’s exploration of his manliness, his perceptions of manhood are finite and definite, as he refers to manhood using the pronoun “it” and assumes that masculinity “lay” in one place, and that place is in the hands of Mr. Garner. Therefore, the objectification of manhood suggests that Paul D’s views of manhood are not inherent or developed, but rather, they are granted and approved by a superior authority. Since Mr. Garner took charge in giving Paul D his name, Paul D comes to a realization that the process of naming is a powerful force in relation to unveiling his manhood. For Paul D, names are an embodiment of one’s identity, as they reflect culture and origin, and hence attempts to search for his manhood through his name. However, since “a white man” gave Paul D his name, Paul D’s identity was partly in the hands of white slave owners, which left Paul D questioning his own individuality. The reference here to Mr. Garner as “a white man” indicates the gradual transition of Paul D’s consciousness regarding his manhood, as he now views and places Mr. Garner in the same category as the other “white men” referred to throughout the novel. Hence, the act of naming can lead to the possible destruction and confusion to find an identity. Pierre W. Orelus argues that the white colonialism of black men was so powerful that the masculinity and search of a black man’s manhood is inherently associated with white men, who are representatives of hegemonic masculinity. Therefore, a hierarchical relationship is established, whereby the authority of the white men molds the identity and behavior of the black men. As evident, this hierarchy is capable of weakening the humanity of slaves such as that of Paul D’s (Pierre 65). 

Similarly, while Morrison exemplifies the effects of imposing hegemonic masculinity upon men, Kahf portrays how this hegemonic masculinity is subjected upon women. The male identity throughout Girl in the Tangerine Scarfis significantly affected and threatened by the behavior of “men’s” women in public. Through Khadra’s religious voyage, she is captivated by the recital of the Quran. However, her brother Eyad warns her against continuing with the recital claiming that “It’s almost like, if some girl’s singing in a sultry voice. You wouldn't want to do that would you? And I don't want to be put in that position” (Kahf 204). The comparison in this simile between Khadra’s voice reciting the Quran, a holy sacred scripture, to “some girl singing in a sultry voice”,  illustrates the hyperbole used by Eyad which exemplifies his willingness to relate the religious act of reciting the Quran to that of singing, concluding that Khadra’s way of reciting is seductive, and thus, must discontinue, as it could threaten his position amongst the guys. Eyad further imposes his masculine authority through the rhetorical questions he addresses to Khadra, which subliminally convinces Khadra to discontinue the recital. For Eyad, Khadra’s behavior could place him in an “uncomfortable position”, suggesting that Eyad’s concerns are merely related to “position” and status in society, as he seems to be afraid that his masculine identity would be questioned by the predominant Muslim community. Evidently, the rigid social expectations set by society upon men forces them to become part of a conscripted performance. Such social ideals of gender performance are criticized by gender theorist Judith Butler, who argues that gender is a theatrical performance in accordance with a social moral scripture that men are required to follow in order to be accepted within a society. Hence, Butler alludes to the ways in which gender expectations, predetermined by cultural practices, conceal and restrict one's identity to be revealed (Butler 4).

Interpretations of religion can promote patriarchy within a society as the validation of white hegemonic masculinity upon black slaves in Belovedis justified through religion. Through the white slave owner of Sweet Home, schoolteacher, Morrison embodies ways in which religion played a fundamental role in legitimizing slavery and white male supremacy. For schoolteacher, slaves are “creatures God had given him the responsibility of” (Morrison 176). The use of the word “creatures” dehumanizes and belittles slaves, implying that they are categorized as animals. This inferior categorization permits white people to control and take “responsibility” of the slaves’ lives, as they have been given permission by the ultimate authority, God. Moreover, through the slave owners perspectives, they are doing God’s work, and thereby, serving a favor for the slaves, because they are inferior “creatures”. Therefore, this common interpretation of Christianity justifies the oppression of slaves, and enforces the creation of a patriarchal hierarchy, where white men are descendants of God and are equally superior. The exertion of religion by white slave owners leaves slaves in a state of confusion towards religion. In chapter 10, Paul D begins with a flashback of his experience trying to kill Mr. Brandywine, his former master after schoolteacher, which leaves him trembling, as Morrison describes “out of sight of Mister’s sight, away, praise His name, from the smiling boss of roosters, Paul D began to tremble” (125). Through this phrase that is vocalized through Paul D, it is evident that Paul D only releases his emotions of fear out and away of “Mister’s sight”, as he does not want to appear as vulnerable in front of the rooster, nor humiliated by the “smiles” of the rooster. While “Mister” throughout the novel refers to the rooster, it could also refer to the white masters of slavery, as Morrison’s naming of the rooster as a “Mister” has the same syllables and sound as “master”. Hence, it could be argued the “Mister” serves to convey dual meanings of freedom and superiority of animals compared to slaves, or it could represent the white masters of slavery. Based on the second analysis, when Paul D is in the same scene with “Mister”, he praises God, exemplifying the presence of religion within Paul D. However, the reference to God, “Mister” and the “roosters”, all of which are more superior to him, illustrates Paul D’s lack of power and highlights powerful hegemonic masculinity. Thus, the alignment of these three forces by Paul D represents his sense of confusion.  Moreover, through this opening line in chapter 10, Morrison distinguishes between the different social classes of men, as she depicts masters and slaves side by side, highlighting Paul D’s sense of inferiority to the masters through the act of “trembling”.

The authoritative practices of men in Girl in the Tangerine Scarf are justified through using religious claims. Throughout Khadra’s journey to Saudi Arabia with her family, she attempts to go to the mosque for fajr prayer; however, she is forcefully returned to her parents by the Muslim police. Saddened by this incident Khadra “whirled” and begins to question “What about the Prophet saying ‘You must never prevent the female servants of God from attending the houses of God? I told the matawaathe hadith and he laughed- he laughedat me, and said ‘listen to this womanquoting scriptures at us!’”(Kahf 168). This potent scene is a depiction of the religious dichotomies between theories and practices. To Khadra, the Prophet promotes the essence and values of Islam, as the reference to the prophet’s sayings in this incident highlights how Mohja Kahf sharply contrasts religious theories and sayings with the practices of those who carry the Muslim label. This could allude to the fact that Mohja Kahf believes that theissue (if prevalent) is not within Islam as a theory, but instead with the people, especially men who modify and reinterpret Islamic scriptures to conform to their masculine superior image. This allusion is emphasized when the matawaawho heard the hadith “laughed”, whereby the repetition of the word “laugh” captures the mockery towards religious sayings spoken by a woman. The scene ends with the portrayal of the matawwa men’s superiority, as the pronoun “us” that is associated with the Muslim police’s position reinforces their superior and unquestioned authority. Accordingly, as argued by Connell, the hegemonic masculinity is constructed and imposed by superior men that have the ability to display their power through different means (Owen 981). Hence, through Khadra’s hardship with the matawwa men, Kahf depicts how men can use their masculinity to distort and modify religion to justify positions of power. 

A man’s sovereignty could be primarily defined through the treatment of women, as discussions of masculinity inevitably comprise of the relationship between men and women. According to Connell, within the hegemonic masculine sphere lies the notion of patriarchy, which refers to the institutionalization of male power over women within a society (Messerschmidt 21). The patriarchy establishes a form of subordination of women by men that is capable of dismantling a women’s educational, maternal, sexual, and political life. This patriarchal dynamic is vividly captured by both Toni Morrison and Mohja Kahf.

In Beloved, Toni Morrison illustrates the consequences of hegemonic masculinity on women through Sethe. As a black former slave and a mother, Sethe’s past experiences as a slave in Sweet Home have tormented her outlook on life. One of the most pivotal experiences to Sethe was when “those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came in here for. Held me down and took it” (Morrison 19). The gruesome imagery depicted in this scene where a mother is harassed by white men (schoolteacher's nephews), represents the extreme violations done by men to a woman's body.  The fact that Sethe refers to the nephews as “boys” suggests that they are premature white males, and yet, despite their prematurity, they are capable of rape as they are in a position of entitlement and power that enables them to hinder Sethe’s role as a mother, as they take her most valuable source of nourishment, her milk. Consequently, Sethe narrates this incident to Mrs. Garner, and as soon as schoolteacher finds out, “schoolteacher made one open my back and when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still.” (20). Sethe’s physical violations continue as she gets beaten, and this gruesome imagery explicitly illustrates the violent abusive act “boys” can achieve. The “tree” that “grows there still” becomes a metaphor of the physical and everlasting memory of her suffering as a female slave, and how the men’s physical acts upon her have created a permanent growing scar that becomes part of her identity.

This white hegemony upon women through the use of violence is further explored and explained throughout the novel, as Morrison states that “everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too” (191). The totalitarian system created by white men consisted of instilling fear through violence upon slaves. The process of instilling fear through violence allows these “men” to claim ownership of “everything”. The vagueness in the term “everything” implies that these men who had guns controlled and dominated all private and public matters.  Metaphorically, guns are not only a symbol of the power and strength of a man, but they also could suggest that the idea of masculinity is not innate and requires props for it to be defined and depicted. Evidently, through this quotation, Morrison’s ideas align with that of Judith Butler, who claims that notions of masculinity are a mere social construction (Butler 3). This social construction, according to leading political activist Kevin Powell, promotes violence in order to maintain positions of authority and superiority (Owen 979).

The perceptions of being a man throughout Kahfs’ novel hinges upon the acts of women, whereby this dependency creates social tension and pressure on both men and women. For the men, there are peculiar masculine standards in an Arab-Muslim community that they have to reach in order to establish an esteemed reputation. Khadra’s husband, Juma, begins to find it challenging to maintain his masculine image in the public’s eye, due to the way Khadra acts. When Juma comes home to Khadra to find no dinner, Khadra and Juma’s argument escalates into questioning gender roles, as Juma rhetorically asks, “who’s the wife in this picture?” (Kahf 241). The rhetorical question posed by Juma portrays his sense of arrogance, and the presumption that a housewife’s performance is confined by a set of standards that is predetermined in the image. This reinforces the idea that Juma is concerned with the “picture” or image that is displayed to the public, and this image depends on how his wife acts. In fact, he says to Khadra when she wants to join a demonstration that, “It’s alwaysmy business what anyone wants from you” and shouts, “You’re my wife.” (Kahf 241). This quotation demonstrates the eternal dependency of men upon women through Mohja’s use of the word “always”. Juma refines his relationship with Khadra through practicalities, as he refers to it as a “business”, which disregards the emotional dynamics of the relationship. This pragmatic relationship is reemphasized as Juma shouts “you’re my wife”, whereby it insinuates that Khadra belongs to Juma and the belonging is a void of emotions, suggesting that Khadra is more of a commodity. Furthermore, Juma reasserts his ideas through shouting, which is his way of trying to stamp his masculinity and dominance. Therefore, the image that husbands must comply within a society relies on their women's actions, and this interdependence establishes tensions in the relationship and distorts the true humanity of women and men.


Kahf’s narration of Khadra’s coming of age reveals that masculinity is also prevalent amongst the youth, having significant viscous consequences. As a young Muslim girl that wears a veil as part of her Islamic practices, two white male classmates, Brent and Curtis, were curious to see what lay beneath the scarf. The scarf created a “ripping sound”, and “her scarf was torn in two”, after revealing what’s beneath Khadra’s scarf, Brent responds by saying “It’s just hair, you psycho!” (Kahf 124). The encounter with two white boys represents the sense of curiosity that the male gender exhibit, and this curiosity could lead to the aggressive violation of girls, as in this instance the “ripping sound” heightens the idea that not only her scarf was ripped apart, but her emotional being was shattered.

Since they are white boys, their acts were not punished, instead, it was Khadra’s reaction that was criticized. Therefore, the act of hegemony shows that some societies accept it when young boys violate girls, as there are no serious punishments conducted to discipline the boys. This is extremely dangerous and problematic, as it can create an unsafe and insecure environment. Through psychological research, it has been shown that the journey of manhood begins at an adolescent age, where society entitles boys to subscribe to masculine standards at the expense of girls and women. Thus, the beginning and persistence of a patriarchal society begins at the youth and as a result, masculine traditions become difficult to remold. 


Therefore, through the multidimensional analysis of masculine studies, Connell’s theories of hegemonic masculinity provide a platform for the extraction of further studies associated with masculinity, such as gender performance, and hegemony upon women and subordinate men. Evidently, through the literary analysis in Belovedand The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf notions of masculinity appeared to be rooted in both storylines despite the difference in the time period, whereby Morrison’s story takes place through the mid-19th century and Kahf’s novel is set in the 21st century. By evaluating the masculine behaviors and acts in both novels, it is evident that masculinity is a destructive social notion capable of disrupting relations and violating humanity. The status quo is focused on dealing with extremities of gender related issues, while society has disregarded addressing masculinity as a significant consequence in resolving issues regarding gender. Society has become complacent with the perception and norms of masculinity and as such it is an issue that remained dormant for too long and must be challenged. 






Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 519–531.

Demetriou, Demetrakis Z. “Connell's Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity: A Critique.” Theory and Society, vol. 30, no. 3, 2001, pp. 337–361.

Doyle, James A. "Men & Masculinities: A Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopedia." Journal of Men's Studies13.3 (2005).

Kahf, M. Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Public Affairs, 2006.

Messerschmidt, James W. Hegemonic Masculinity : Formulation, Reformulation, and Amplification. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Morrison, T. Beloved. New York: Vintage, 1987.

Orelus, Pierre W. “Chapter 2: Black Masculinity under White Supremacy: Exploring the Intersection between Black Masculinity, Slavery, Racism, Heterosexism, and Social Class.” Counterpoints, vol. 351, 2010, pp. 63–111. 

Owen, Tim. Criminological theory: A genetic-social approach. Springer, 2014.

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