Birkbeck 6: semi-conforming masculinity

Alexandra Shepard was the keynote early modern speaker at the Birkbeck conference on masculinity I’ve blogged about before and had some very interesting comments to make about the theme of ‘anxiety’ and ‘crisis’ in masculinity. She started from the point that there were far more ‘types’ of male identity than female identity (as reflected in early modern character books, compilations of stock types).These male identities coexisted with some tension, but she wanted to ask the question: how much hardship was there in the disparities between male ideals and male experience?

She argued that you can’t look at male anxiety without considering women’s experience of subordination, and that you shouldn’t ‘collude’ with patriarchal norms by doing so. Early modern society had a patriarchal form of manhood, in which full privileges were only available to a minority of men, but men who were excluded from this didn’t necessarily lose manhood. Instead, they drew on counter codes of fraternal ties, such as a male drinking culture (opposed to patriarchal ideals of sobriety).

Shepard also pointed out that part of patriarchal masculinity’s success was its malleability. There was a lot of condoning of official condemned practices, whether in elite libertarianism or the license given to violence and sexual misdemeanours by young men (regarded as ‘harmless play’). In particular, she argued that patriarchal dividends were not just available to elite men and that non-conforming men tended to be treated less harshly than non-conforming women.

Two interesting papers on the twentieth century from a session on masculinity and class confirmed and extended her ideas about the benefits of masculinity. One was Quinton Colville from the University of Kent on masculinity and class in the Royal Navy in 1900-1960. He was talking about how both naval officers (largely upper middle class) and ratings (working class) formed their self-images and group sense of masculinity, and how both groups regarded themselves as more manly than the other (the ratings by seeing the officers as starched/repressive and desk-bound, the officers by seeing the men as childish and unable to govern themselves). Both groups could also could see themselves (in different ways) as superior to civilian men.

The second was Alison Oram, who gave a fascinating paper based on part of her book, Her Husband was a Woman! Women’s Gender-crossing in Modern British Popular Culture, (review at THES). Oram looked at stories from 1900-1930 about working-class women who posed successfully as men for many years and even married. Such stories were apparently relatively common in papers such as the News of the World, and were surprisingly positive towards such women, seeing them as enterprising and entertaining, rather than threatening. (In that, they slightly contradict Shepard, showing non-conforming women could sometimes be accepted). One of Oram’s points is that such cross-dressing women could be fully accepted in their male identity even if they didn’t completely conform to the male ideal. Physically, they tended to be seen as youthful or slightly frail men and they were also able to get into semi-skilled ‘male’ employment (one was a plumber’s mate), by picking up experience on the job.

These studies of subordinate masculinities and Shepard’s remarks are very useful, because they remind us that not all masculinity is extreme. This is significant because much study of masculinity inevitably looks at the competition of elite men for true masculinity (in the medieval and early modern period because those are largely the men we have the evidence for, and in the modern period because of the importance placed on hegemonic masculinity as a concept).

Similarly, work on subordinate masculinity has often focussed on those who are most marginalised (such as black or gay men) or how working class/subaltern masculinity has been a reaction to economic/colonial subordination. In other words, we’ve tended to look either from the top of the male pyramid down or from near the bottom of the male pyramid up.

Those who lost in competitions for elite masculinity could suffer fairly extreme consequences (e.g. death for failed Roman politicians or Scandinavian warriors, social ruin for some later elite men). Most men, however, either didn’t compete for recognition as ‘top man’ in that way (e.g. slaves and serfs) or were in ‘competitions’ that were for smaller rewards and stakes (e.g. aiming to achieve a good reputation within their town). Yet even such men, who might not be seen as fully masculine, could still benefit from the privileges given to all men. (From the early Middle Ages, even slave marriages and households were acknowledged and this gave at least moral authority to the slave paterfamilias). Before we talk too much of ‘anxious masculinity’ or ‘masculinity in crisis’ we need to remember that even being a rather weedy looking plumber’s mate was a step up in the gender hierarchy for some people.

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2 thoughts on “Birkbeck 6: semi-conforming masculinity

  1. “Early modern society had a patriarchal form of manhood, in which full privileges were only available to a minority of men, but men who were excluded from this didn’t necessarily lose manhood. Instead, they drew on counter codes of fraternal ties, such as a male drinking culture (opposed to patriarchal ideals of sobriety).”

    This is illusory because it was a transitional period, without stability. The reality of our nature is clear in the great sweep of history: masculinity is the exercise of will over others.

    In that sense it is all patriarchal, all hegemonic. When history points to “alternative” masculinities, it is evidence only that historians are being revisionist, or that society itself was deluded.

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    • I’ve just come back from two conferences at which masculinity and its meaning in differing societies and social groups was extensively discussed. I’ll be posting on these in the next few weeks. But just to say at this point that it is far too much of a generalisation to say that masculinity is the exercise of will over others, and also that simply ignoring what societies say themselves about masculinity doesn’t seem to me to be good history.

      And one thing that history does teach is that what is seen by a particular culture (such as our own) as “natural” is very rarely so.

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