Dennis Rodman-"Barbie Doll Gone Horribly Wrong": Marginalized Masculinity, Cross-Dressing, and the Limitations of Commodity Culture

By Dunbar, Michele D. | The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Dennis Rodman-"Barbie Doll Gone Horribly Wrong": Marginalized Masculinity, Cross-Dressing, and the Limitations of Commodity Culture


Dunbar, Michele D., The Journal of Men's Studies


This article explores the relationship between NBA player Dennis Rodman's marginalized masculinity as a black male, his cross-dressing and gender play, and his location in consumer media culture. Through ethnographic content analysis of Rodman's media image on MTV (a new and emerging site for the study of sport and media), this paper explores the effects of Rodman's gender play, asking whether Rodman's image provides a challenge or disruption to prevailing notions of masculinity. Overall, Rodman's cross-dressing does little to offer a critique of hegemonic masculinity, but rather, serves to signal his own marginalized black masculinity. His gender play seems to be contained within heterosexual, and even hyper-masculine, boundaries that reproduce the very racist and sexist notions of black masculinity against which hegemonic masculinity is stabilized.

Basketball star Dennis Rodman has become a media icon known for his eccentric visual style of self-presentation that includes bright hair colors, body art in the form of tattoos and piercings, and cross-dressing. As an African-American male athlete, he embodies the marginalized status of black masculinity that simultaneously affords him his aggressive style of play on the court and his self-proclaimed "badness." Rodman's professional status in the field of sports, where hegemonic masculinity is reproduced, makes his visual transgressions and gender play particularly important to the study of commodity culture and its impact on the consuming public. What purpose does Rodman's cross-dressing serve within the realm of commodity culture where it flourishes? Does Rodman's cross-dressing further marginalize him from the mainstream culture, and does it offer a critique of hegemonic masculinity? What can we learn about masculinity through Rodman's gender play? This paper explores these questions through an ethnographic content analysis of Dennis Rodman's media image, focusing on his Music Television (MTV) show, the Rodman Worm Tour, where Rodman is given an authorized space to express his unique visual style for a young, spectacle-driven audience.

THEORETICAL APPROACHES TO CROSS-DRESSING

Social scientific research on gender takes a social constructivist approach over essentialist notions of gender as fixed and inherent to each sex. While social norms develop around what is expected behavior and appearance for each gender, the fact remains that doing gender is a process undertaken through everyday performance (Butler, 1993; Garber, 1992; Hawkes, 1995). Dress is an important part of that performance that serves to signal one's gender and often one's sexuality, since the two are highly conflated in contemporary culture (Butler, 1993; Garber, 1992; Hawkes, 1995). Since dress as a visual indicator is so central to the construction of gender, it also has the potential to be a site of disruption and a means to offer a critique of the hegemonic social order.

Central to the study of cross-dressing and other transgender practices is the mainstream binary model of heterosexual hegemony that views sex, gender, and sexuality in terms of dichotomous categorical pairs, including male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight (Garber, 1992; Hawkes, 1995; Tewksbury & Gagne, 1996). According to both Garber (1992) and Hawkes (1995), cross-dressers represent the possibility for the disruption of these dichotomous categories through their deliberate scrambling of gender codes (Hawkes, 1995, pp. 268-269) and their theoretical position as "the third" to the binary oppositions, resisting definition within the model and bringing the categories into a state of crisis (Garber, pp. 16-17).(1) According to Garber, it is this "space of possibility" (p. 17) that gives cross-dressing the power to disrupt, even without finding a single, literal meaning for itself (p. 390). At the same time, this third space of possibility represents the "other" (undefined as it may be) to the binary norm, "without which there would be no such thing as meaning in the first place" (p. …

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