Masculinity in crisis (again)?

Another week, another Observer article prompting me to blog, this time one concerning ‘masculine crisis’ and domestic violence, specifically the murder of children by their fathers.  Or rather, this blog post from Joanne Bailey (whose blog I urge you to follow; it is fabulous) questioning the historical construction of family murders as masculine crisis.

First of all, I absolutely agree with Joanne and the many commentators on the original article who point out that a ‘crisis of masculinity’ is no excuse for family murder (or indeed murder of any sort) and that this sort of argument amounts to victim blaming.  The men who commit the murders are responsible for their own actions and, as Joanne so eloquently argues, not representative of ‘masculinity’ in its entirety or even, from the evidence available, of a particular type of masculinity, although speculation on this latter is quite interesting. The children and their mothers who are the ultimate victims of these murders should never be presented as the cause of their own deaths through the threat they pose to the masculine identity of the men who killed them.

There has been a general consensus on this from the comments on the subject that I have seen.  What interested me, however, was the general assumption that ‘masculinity in crisis’ meant masculinity threatened by the increased power of women, as if gender relations were a zero-sum game.  Yet there is a history of ‘crises of masculinity’ dating back to at least the beginning of the 20th century which sheds a rather different light on the subject.

In my own work, the earliest ‘crisis of [British] masculinity’ I have come across (and I would love to hear from anyone working on earlier examples) was the one that resulted during the Boer War as a reaction to the poor physical fitness of many of the volunteers.  This prompted much national soul-searching about the ability of the British man to match a masculine ideal embodied by the soldier, particularly when set against the rugged frontier masculinity of the Boer farmer who was defeating the British soldier in battle.  By the eve of the First World War, these concerns about the physical state of British masculinity had been supplemented by concerns about its moral state, with the 1918 Pemberton Billing libel case giving voice to the moral panic that conflated homosexuality and fears about the success of the war effort. This was not masculinity threatened by the economic and social power of women; rather it was masculinity threatened by urbanisation and poverty on the one hand, and luxury and decadence on the other.

During the war, the ‘crisis of masculinity’ found another popular name, shell shock, a condition which appeared to emasculate men who suffered from it, depriving them of the ability to be either successful soldiers or self-supporting wage earners in civil life.  Historians and literary critics such as Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert have long argued that shell shock can be (and was) read in part as a response to growing female power on the home front.[i]  Yet, as I have argued at length, this crisis was just as often constructed as a crisis of masculine maturity, a response to the growing authority of the state over men’s bodies and actions in wartime that resulted in infantilisation rather than either the effiminisation feared by Pemberton Billing and his ilk, or the brutalisation that structured post-Second World War anxieties.

The association of brutalisation with masculinity in crisis developed, I believe, much more strongly after the Second World War.  Certainly work on American culture suggests that fears over the state of post-war masculinity were played out in fantasies of male violence and hypersexuality such as the ‘true adventure’ pulps of the 1950s and ‘60s which were constructed in direct opposition to ‘dynasty of the dames’ railed against by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers (1942).[ii]  Here we have the ‘crisis of masculinity’ as it appears in the comments in The Observer being spelled out: masculine identity is undermined through the domesticity imposed by powerful women who are invading the public domain, and men are attempting to reclaim it through violence against women.

The problem with this reading, as I think the history of the first half of the twentieth century shows, is that it is a limiting way to define masculinity.  Not only are there multiple masculinities at any one time, encompassing the domestic, the heroic, the alternative, to various degrees but these masculinities can be, have been and still are defined against many other identities, not just women.  My own research is suggesting that the image of the child/boy was a far more significant ‘other’ against which to define masculinity in the early twentieth century than women, whatever their growing social and political power.  Race and class have been equally powerful structures for masculine definition, and thus have as much power to precipitate crises in that self-identity.  None of this starts to answer the question raised by Joanne, as to why violence against the other is seen so often as the appropriate way for individual men to attempt to define their masculinity.  But perhaps by exploring the phrase ‘masculinity crisis’ in more depth we can begin to perceive its limits as a way of categorising men who commit these heinous acts.

[i] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987), 172; Sandra Gilbert, ‘Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War in Higonnet, et. al., Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 197-226.

[ii] See Bill Osgerby, ‘Two-Fisted Tales of Brutality and Belligerence: Masculinity and Meaning in the American “True Adventure” Pulps of the 1950s and 1960s’ in Ellis and Meyer, Masculinity and the Other: Historical Perspectives (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 163-189.

Library time

So, another hiatus in posting here while I have done battle with my next conference paper, this one on representations of shell shock as immaturity across 20th century British popular culture.  It is the third paper I have written on the subject.  Every time I write the proposal for the paper I think what a brilliant idea it is; every time I actually sit down to write the paper itself I find myself doing vicious intellectual battle and wondering how I could think there was any mileage in the concept at all.  Still, I must be doing something right as both the previous tilts at this particular windmill have been published. And this is a conference paper, so I am going to leave it intentionally (honest, guv!) rough in the hope of getting useful feedback.  Given that the conference is being attended by what feels like all the world-class historians of shell shock available, this could be either a very good (or very, very bad) idea.  We will see. I am going to write the second draft next week.

This seemingly endless struggle has been interspersed with some work more directly related to what I am paid to do.  I spent a fabulous week in the Army Medical Services Museum (about which I intend to write a much longer blog shortly) and gave a paper to the Legacies of War seminar series. (Like the majority of those papers, it will be on-line soon here.)  This was another rough draft and the feedback was immensely useful so I am hopeful that, when I actually get around to rewriting and expanding the paper, there will be some hope of publishing it.

Library Shoot 58 (2)I also spent a really enjoyable Saturday morning in Special Collections, working with writers from Snowgoose.  Legacies of War is working with writers from the project to research a series of monologues based on the civilian experiences of the First World War in Leeds which will be performed on camera and available for festivals, as an educational tool and to view on-line.  The Saturday session I helped facilitate was an opportunity to introduce the writers, who were unfamiliar with working in historical archives, to the holdings of the Liddle Collection.  The Liddle catalogue is something of a mystery, even to professional historians with archival experience.  Add to that the complexities of copyright law and queries over the reproduction of images and the potential for intimidation is quite high.  So it was a complete joy to help this group quite literally get their hands on original documents and objects. Library Shoot 42 Library Shoot 24 (2)An hour in and everyone was engrossed in their research, a sight I found remarkably rewarding.  It was also a pleasure to be able to offer advice to someone whose research interest is likely to take her beyond Special Collections and into the city archives and other resources that I am not familiar with.  Helping someone to plot the map for a research journey is almost as exciting as plotting your own, I discover.

Library Shoot 53 (2)

My work for Research for Community Heritage has, to date, been somewhat confusing and occasionally unnerving but the interactions with the community research groups have, as this last experience exemplifies, been enormously rewarding in unexpected ways.  (On a similar note, some work I have done with Headingley LitFest has made me view Park Square in Leeds in an entirely new light.)  There are aspects of the project that make an unanswerable case for community engagement by the academy. More thought needs to be given about the ways in which such engagement integrates with other academic responsibilities, especially for early careers researchers, but the engagement itself offers enormous potential rewards for all involved.

(Photo credit: All photographs are by Laura Whitaker of

A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer

On the contemplation of male facial hair

So, it is November, or Movember for certain sections of the population who are currently growing facial hair in aid of research into men’s health, specifically prostate and testicular cancers.

Now, I have never had a particular interest in this charitable movement, bar the occasional friend e-mailing with an amusing picture and a request for donations (my husband has always refused to get involved on the grounds of the need to retain his dignity in front of his students), but the conjunction of this fund-raiser with the inevitable historical reflections that accompany Remembrance Day on 11th November always strikes me as poignant.

One trope that quietly haunted my research into masculinity and the First World War is that of facial hair as a signifier of masculinity.  I wrote in my monograph about men’s insistence on shaving even in the most difficult of circumstances, in order to retain their sense of humanity in the hell of the trenches, but I never really explored further.  Yet I as I think about moustaches, I cannot help thinking about the references made to men growing facial hair in order to appear more mature when they came to enlist, in both memoirs and fiction.  And I wonder how many officers grew moustaches specifically to give themselves a sense of authority, an authority associated with mature masculinity, over the (often older) men that they were leading.

The link between male facial hair and maturity seems to me to have been particularly strong at the turn of the twentieth century.  Of course, the biological link transcends historical periods, but literary references and cultural artefacts relating to facial hair and shaving as a symbol of maturity seem particularly prominent in this period.  And certainly if you look at collections such as the Imperial War Museum’s Faces of the First World War, from which Private Johnston’s photograph (above) comes, the number of young men sporting moustaches is notable. The image is a poignant one, of young men striving to attain a maturity of image that they would never achieve in life.

How does this link with Movember?  I’m not entirely sure.  The fundraisers of the movement are, in with their growth, flaunting the life-affirming nature of the ability to grow old enough to grow facial hair in the face of ill-health.  The link may be especially powerful in relation to testicular cancer, with its cultural implications of impotence; less so in relation to prostate cancer, which is far more common in older men who have already achieved maturity.  For the young moustache growers of 1914-18, the threat of death and mutilation was far more immediate and threatening to their sense of both maturity and masculinity, making their facial hair even more complex in its significance.  I am sure there is a paper in all of this (and perhaps someone has already written it.  I remember listening to a fabulous paper on masculinity and nineteenth-century beards at a conference several years ago.)  In the meantime, I remain unable to look at all these young men with their newly-sprouted declarations of charitable intent without a small pang of pity for their youth and, dare I say it, innocence.