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Man of the House – a study of masculinity in the mid-20th century home

18 May

By Kevin Guyan, PhD Candidate University College London

 

‘The living room in a family house looking through into the dining room’ by Frank Austin and Neville Ward for the 1949 Ideal Home Exhibition, Design Council Archive, University of Brighton.

‘The living room in a family house looking through into the dining room’ by Frank Austin and Neville Ward for the 1949 Ideal Home Exhibition, Design Council Archive, University of Brighton.

I study housing in the middle decades of twentieth century Britain with an interest in the effects of masculinities on men’s domestic practices. My research focuses on two major influences: the effects of planners’ masculine identities on the housing designs produced; and the types of masculinities encouraged through these designs.

After the environmental devastation of German bombing campaigns, a wave of technical, paternalist and omniscient planners took control of Britain’s postwar urban reconstruction. At the same time, as the war ended, planners worried that men would struggle to readjust to domestic life and face relationship difficulties with wives and children. As a result, the interior activities of the nation’s homes became symptomatic of the country’s recovery, and model housing estates, most notably Lansbury in East London, understood as templates for the country’s future. Using easy-to-read publications and housing exhibitions as platforms to disseminate their ideas, planners encouraged new expressions of family-orientated masculinities for both working and middle class men.

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Masculinities And The Vulnerability Of Displaying Art

4 May
detail counts castle

Detail of ‘The Count’s Castle’

Cultural ideals of masculinity and how men ought to be often centre round notions of strength and power, stoicism and determination, being the provider and protector.  Hegemonic masculinity is a way of understanding gender and power relations.  It is a cultural ideal of masculinity, which is characterised by toughness, fearlessness, power, control and maintaining the dominant position in society.  Hegemonic ideals of masculinity are often perpetuated through media and film, but they are ideals most men will never attain.  Nor do most men necessarily want to.

Cultural ideas of masculinity, like hegemonic masculinity, tell men they must not display weakness or vulnerability.  To reveal characteristics such as these, men run the risk of having their masculinity called into question.  Men who display emotion, vulnerability or weakness may be chided as being ‘sissy’, ‘soft’ or a ‘woman’.  These are the cultural expectations of men and masculinity that surrounded me as I grew up.  From my primary education through to secondary education, I jostled alongside other boys; surrounded by these notions of what it was to be a man.  Boys pushed and punched, they tested and teased, they sought out weakness and they exploited it.  I learned along side other boys, not to display vulnerability, but vulnerability was something I would experience again and again, as I began to pursue a career in the visual arts.
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Debunking the Myth of Childhood Sexual Innocence

8 Jun

Hello again and welcome to the second post from ‘Porn and Hookup Culture in an Irish Primary School’. For those of you unfamiliar with the first post in the series, over the coming months I will be sharing research findings about boys’ sexualities. Last month I mentioned that adults are deeply concerned about the effects of our sexualized culture on children, often claiming that today’s children are being prematurely sexualized. That children can be sexualized before it is developmentally appropriate relies on the idea that childhood is naturally a period of sexual innocence. This month’s post therefore unpacks the very notion that children are naturally innocent.

The fear of premature sexualization is premised on several misguided assumptions. The one we will be debunking today is that children are only pre-sexual (not fully sexual) since sexuality can only ever be triggered by puberty, and children are pre-pubertal.

We see evidence for this in the culture when, for example, textbooks for courses in developmental psychology fail to include sexual development in chapters on childhood. Instead, the topic of sexuality appears only when adolescence comes into focus. Developmental psychology in turn guides everyday popular understandings of children among those involved in teaching or caring for them in Western culture. As such it is shot through with power, in this case the power to discursively normalize the absence of sexuality for children but also to pathologize its presence.

We know that sexual experience among children is commonplace. For example, in the Kinsey studies of the 1940s and 1950s parents reported seeing children aged 2-5 self-manipulating and exhibiting their genitalia, in addition to exploring other children’s. We have also known since the 1960s that it is normative for 10-13 year-olds to engage in heterosexual kissing. Childhood sexual innocence, then, is an adult fabrication more than a natural feature of childhood.

Some psychologists do argue that ‘light’ sexual activities such as those above mark normal stages along the developmental trajectory but are a far cry from the sort of sexuality that is prescribed by children’s cultural milieu. That is, the extent to which our culture is sexualized is ‘too much too soon’ for children. Recognition of children’s sexual behaviors, not to mention the power of consumer capitalism, is preferable over the downright denial of childhood sexuality.

Nevertheless, what constitutes ‘too much too soon’ is in fact contestable when compared across time and space. During the 17th century, for example, the children of the French aristocracy were not shielded from sex but rather regularly encountered references to it in songs, stories and games. Fast forward to the 20th century and the following extract, taken from fieldwork with the !Kung San of the Dobe area of Botswana, further troubles the notion of precocious sexuality:

Like her counterparts in other foraging societies, the !Kung child becomes familiar with sexuality in early life. The youngest children sleep under the same blankets with their parents and are under the blankets during their parents’ lovemaking. From the age of eight or ten, children engage in sex play, which may include intercourse (…). The !Kung have no notion of virginity. I have never been able to come up with a concept or sense of a word that would correspond to our word virgin. Given the early sex play, I will hazard a guess that there are few !Kung virgins, male or female, at puberty.

(Lee, 1985: 39)

In summary, what we deem appropriate or inappropriate for children is historically and culturally contingent with the result that we cannot take it for granted that children are prematurely sexualized by the sexualization of culture.

Another way to see how sexuality is normative for children is to step back from the view of it as an essential, biological force that gives rise to bodily activities. When we see sexuality as a set of social practices, it is easier to recognize it as integral to children’s and adults’ everyday subjectivities and identities. Allow me to explain …

Foucault argued that sexuality induces specific gender effects and we see this eloquently elaborated upon by Judith Butler (1993). Individuals are assigned one of two sexes at birth. They are then expected and encouraged to do a gender in accordance with that sex. But the way to do that gender is guided by the belief that it should be done in opposition to the other sex/gender and that it should ultimately give rise to sexual desire for that opposite sex/gender. Put simply, we are getting our gender right when we are getting heterosexuality right, and vice versa.

People tend to heterosexualize their gender in many arenas and not just when being physically sexual. The same is true for children. In past research (Renold, 2005) primary school boys could successfully heterosexualize their masculinities by being a boyfriend though they could also opt out of the boyfriend/girlfriend culture without penalty by heterosexualizing their future masculinities. This was achieved by making reference to the skills that would one day be needed when the time came to have sex with women, thus consolidating a hegemonic heterosexual masculine identity in the present.

Boys could also heterosexualize their masculinity in the present by merely playing the right sport – soccer – or by fighting with other boys, or even just engaging in fight talk. Indeed those boys failing to display similar interests were marginalized as sissies or, you guessed it, gay.

Clearly then, childhood sexuality is much more than ‘light’ practice for the future but is also experienced seriously in many painful and pleasurable ways in the present.

The sooner we allow the full range of sexuality practices come into view, the sooner we can understand children’s experiences more fully and provide appropriate support. Might the panic over the premature sexualization of childhood be interfering with this goal? This is one question we will be returning to over the course of Porn and Hookup Culture in an Irish Primary School.

The Masculinities of Mario Dubsky

24 Oct

Detail of Good Friday Shadow _ Dubsky

I first discovered the work of Mario Dubsky in my final year of Art College, some 12 years ago. I was working on a series of paintings that explored bats and bat mythology. One day I was searching for some inspiration in the college library and came across a book of drawings by Dubsky[1]. At the time I looked upon his work with merely a visual art lens, enjoying his use of line and tone to create dark shadowy forms. The first drawing that grabbed my attention was ‘Good Friday Shadow’, which depicts a man naked but for an open shawl or shirt across his shoulders, arms out stretched in cruciform. It was the initial resemblance created by the out stretched arms and drooping shawl or shirt to that of the wings of a bat or vampiric creature that stirred my curiosity in Dubsky’s work.   Many of his drawings proved useful references to my own paintings at that time. Now at the early stages of a new series of painted works many years on, I have rediscovered Dubsky’s drawings and have been looking upon them with a masculinities lens.

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NUDIES

17 Oct

DESCRIPTION: Nudies is a compilation of found footage that represents one’s intuitive relationship to gender over time. By looking at what we were looking at, we start to define our relationships to larger systems as reactive and changing. Through this metamorphosis, the subconscious mind reflects most honestly the inner struggles and accomplishments that can’t be defined or pinpointed by waves.

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BIO: Meredith Degyansky, often under the alias of The Work Intern, is an artist/administrative aide that creates systems for paying off our debt, systems for redefining and valuing our labor, and systems that connect us to one another usually through food and conversations about sadness. www.theworkintern.org

A Fat Boy Trapped Inside a Thin Man’s Body

15 Sep
Aaron, before and now

Aaron, before and now

By Aaron Sternlicht

I’ve never taken my shirt off at the beach. I’m barely comfortable looking at myself naked in front of a mirror; how would you expect me to be comfortable in front of another human being. I’ve been overweight for most of my life. At the age of 25 I found myself having to buy size 44 pants because I could no longer fit into my 42’s. I was incredibly insecure, self-conscious, had low self-esteem and had a tremendous amount of anxiety and depression that stemmed from my obesity. Tipping the scale at 280 pounds at 5 foot 10 inches, I had reached my breaking point. I had enough and was ready to finally do something about my problem. It was the first time in my life that I was determined to take back control of my body. I started to eat less, eat healthier and joined a gym. In less than a year I lost over 100 pounds. It has been over three years since I started my weight loss journey. I’ve maintained my goal weight and today healthy nutrition and regular exercise are staples in my life. In fact, physical fitness has become somewhat of a passion of mine.

But I still won’t be taking my shirt off at the beach.

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The Eye of the Beholder

25 Aug

Whether you love it or loathe it, social media is omnipresent and every day millions of people upload millions of photographs to their social media pages for the visual consumption of friends, family and complete strangers.  John Berger (1972: 2) states that ‘every image embodies a way of seeing’.  Images posted on social media reveal much about those who made them, particularly how they view the world around them.  Unfortunately social media, through the types of images displayed there, can be used to reinforce dysmorphic ideas about our bodies and problematic views on gender and gender “normativity”.  Recently, I have been thinking about the types of visual representations of men and women that communicate dysmorphic or problematic messages, and specifically how others see [interpret] these representations.  What does a self-made image of a man or woman posted on a social media site mean to others who view them?  And to what degree can they impact on the spectator?  Do such images hold meaning for the spectator, are they more than a fleeting visual curiosity or distraction?  If such images do hold meaning; what meaning exactly?  I know of course the simple answer to these questions is – it depends!  Depends on the image and depends on who the spectator is.  None-the-less, I find this an interesting line of inquiry.
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