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.
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.
Sometime last week I got to thinking about Superman. It was actually a Facebook post of the image included here that peaked my interest (it’s been tweaked courtesy of a friend). I thought to myself, here you have this comic book character who’s not only superhuman he’s super(hetero)masculine. He possesses otherworldly strength and mental abilities but, just to keep things in perspective, he has that one weakness; he’s a he who happens to be white, straight, good looking and dashing (even in tights); he’s iconic; and he’s all-American. I‘d say that Superman is the superhero of all superheroes and, technically, he’s physically disabled. Think about it, he was this non-normative ‘super other’ forced to conceal his identity behind an unassuming, awkward and, let’s face it, emasculated figure of a man. Yes, his identity had to be hidden so that he could get on with his job of protecting the planet but also because of the haters and naysayers, the people so committed to the status quo that their own discomfort with the unfamiliar and unknown is perceived as a threat to the livelihood of all humankind. A little dramatic, yes, but not so far off. In real life people tend to shy away from difference and change because it’s often beyond control. It doesn’t help that doomsday imagery of dystopic futures floods the news media and gets into our heads. Enter the superhero/villain narrative, it’s good versus evil at it’s best and it helps us cope. An interesting interpretation of this narrative, according to my husband, is M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen the film so I had no idea it was written as a superhero/villain story. It also came as a surprise to find out it was an ‘origin’ story with more of an interest in the mundane, human aspects of its characters.