Male: Masculinities in Post-war and Contemporary British Literature
Everybody seems to be talking about, writing about, or studying masculinities these days, and about time too. What is most extraordinary about the eruption of masculinity studies in recent years is that it has taken so long to catch on. The fact that feminists of all kinds have been busily deconstructing femininities for decades ought surely to have made it obvious that masculinities are also constructed.
Among the many urgent reasons for taking a serious look at masculinity is male violence against women, described by Michael Kaufman as “a grave epidemic and a terrible form of terrorism.” Perhaps for this reason—its very urgency—the first essay in this uneven but nevertheless valuable collection of studies deals with male aggression in the work of the “Angry Young Men.” As the author of the essay, Susan Brook, points out, many of the “Angry Young Men” have long enjoyed a reputation for being radical critics of post-war inequalities in British society. Their protagonists are “the disaffected, alienated, lower-middle class or working-class men typified by Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956)” who “captured the voice of their generation: rebellious, radical, striking out both against the inability of the welfare state to deliver its promises, and against the cultural complacency and consumerism of the Macmillan era” [p. 19]. Yet despite being taken up by the Left with its “long tradition of romanticizing working-class men as the subject of politics” [p. 31], Jimmy Porter is not interested in “Civil Rights or the British invasion of Cyprus” [p. 30]. In fact, Jimmy Porter mainly defines himself, not in terms of class, but of gender, and everything that the play criticizes is perceived in similar terms. Jimmy’s wife is accused of emotional superficiality and dishonesty, the upper classes are weak and unable to express their feelings, while the play itself, and its emphasis on working-class masculinity is a reaction against the earlier “camp institution” [p. 27] of British theatre in the persons of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan. Seen in this light the play becomes a study of masculine aggression, directed particularly against Jimmy’s wife Alison. Both Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel have argued that anger is one of the few conventionally acceptable manifestations of emotion in a man. Anger, although not necessarily unacceptable in itself, does become unacceptable when it leads to violent behavior. It is ironic that Jimmy’s celebration of his own emotional integrity is really nothing more than a celebration of behavior which, far from being subversive, actually reinforces traditional models of aggressive masculinity.
While Jimmy Porter represents a disappointingly conventional model of masculinity, John Rebus, in the novels of Ian Rankin represents traditional Scottish working-class masculinity as a “model in crisis” [p. 59]. The idea of masculinity in crisis, incidentally, is disputed by the editors of the volume in their introduction, who argue that to describe masculinity as being “in crisis” “hints at a somewhat elegiac pose of regret, suggesting that to attempt a remedial reconstruction of masculinity as we know it might be a stance much more preferable to expectantly accepting its impending demise” [p. 10], and they prefer instead to discuss masculinity as a gender “in transition” [p. 11]. Rebus’s crisis, if that is what it is, is due to his being both Scottish and a detective. Gill Plain, in her study of masculinities in contemporary Scottish fiction argues that a Scottish detective is by definition in opposition to his effete English counterpart and therefore, like his American predecessor, may assume no other guise “than that of the hard-boiled investigator” [p. 58]. To back up this theory we are told that there are no hard-boiled English investigators in fiction, and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is wheeled out as an example. Ironically, Plain’s claim that “Rebus operates as a PI within the police force” because “Government and police are seen as corrupt forces that feminize the individual detective by depriving him of agency” [p. 59] is also true of fictional English detectives. Robert Reiner, for example, in The Politics of the Police argues that Morse, among others, is “in the great detective tradition, relying on brainpower not police power,” and “acts as a vigilante, invoking his private sense of injustice, not due process of law.” Jack Regan of the 1970s TV series The Sweeny is, as Plain admits, an exception to her own generalization, but she excuses it on the grounds of his cockney regionalism. She might also have mentioned the fictional Glaswegian TV detective Taggart, unquestionably hard-boiled, but replaced in the series on his death by a younger detective who, despite his undeniable Scottishness, is most definitely not hard-boiled. Gill Plain's generalizations about Scottish, English and American detectives are flawed by the narrowly selective nature of the examples chosen, but the importance of national identity to models of masculinity is undoubted. Just as Jimmy Porter's proletarian identity is defined in terms of gender, the hard-boiled Scottish and American detectives’ identities are defined by not being “effeminately” English. The fact that there are Scottish and American detectives who are not hard-boiled, and English detectives who are not “effeminate” simply proves how shaky constructions of masculinity are.
Questions of national and working-class identity are also the theme of Emma Parker’s excellent study of Graham Swift’s Last Orders (also released as a film directed by Fred Schepisi). Perhaps not surprisingly both Parker and Plain are ambivalent in their conclusions, both suggesting that changes are afoot in both England and Scotland, but that there is a way to go yet before traditional masculinities, and in particular their representations, are given their “last rites” [p. 103].
Gay identities are discussed in a number of essays. Emma Liggins considers the urban gay male in the fiction of Alan Hollinghurst who, she argues, is concerned with both “promoting the pleasures of the gay scene and questioning the ethos behind it” [p. 159]. Gay culture is identified by a number of critics (Sinfield, Mort, Whittle) as being constrained by “a reliance on metropolitan models of homosexuality” [p. 159], which places an emphasis on gay pubs and clubs, promiscuity and youthfulness. The alternative, which is too often seen as a retreat into heteronormativity, is to find a stable partner, settle down, and behave, effectively, like any boring married middle-class heterosexual couple. Liggins concludes that “Queerness is vulnerable without a subculture to sustain it, yet the narrowness of the existing subculture […] tends to restrict the gay identities made available” [p. 170].
The question of heteronormativity is central to Richard Hornsey’s article on Joe Orton “Of Public Libraries and Paperbacks: ‘Deviant' Masculinity and the Spatial Practices of Reading in Post-War London.” Hornsey argues, and he is fairly convincing, that even those apparently sympathetic to Orton’s homosexuality are often “profoundly homophobic.” The problem lies with the models of gay masculinity that biographers such as John Lahr have imposed on Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell; the former is represented as being so promiscuous that he is denied “the measured self-control and self-knowledge essential to ‘proper’—heterosexual—masculinity” [p. 36] while the latter is “portrayed as a classic neurotic queer, whose feminine insecurity became a visible insecurity outside the domestic sphere, and for which he is despised” [p. 36].
Hornsey goes on to compare the fates of Orton and Halliwell, who were sentenced to six months in jail for the stealing and mutilating of seventy-two public library books, with that of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Orton and Halliwell’s "mutilation" of the books they allegedly stole (though it is the fact that the books were returned which seems to have been the main problem) lay in the fact that they added "blurbs" which offered an alternative to the books’ conventional heteronormative plots. Why, Hornsey asks in his article, was Lady Chatterley so universally defended by the literary establishment, while Orton and Halliwell, whose case was also one of obscenity and censorship, were ignored entirely? Was it because they were gay? While I agree with Hornsey’s basic premise that Lady Chatterley was acceptable for being heteronormative, I find it hard to blame the likes of Helen Gardner for their testimony in its favor. Similarly, I am not sure I agree that Orton’s and Halliwell’s reverence for Shakespeare was proof of their inability to “critique the cultural hierarchy to which […] heteronormativity was attached” [p. 52]. More than half of Shakespeare’s sonnets are, after all, about the homosexual relationship between an older and a younger man, as I have no doubt Orton was aware. Hardly a case of heteronormativity.
I have only discussed
about half of the articles in this collection, although they are all
well worth reading. The essay by Irene Rose, for example, on Jackie
Kay’s Trumpet, a work with which I am not familiar,
has convinced me to get hold of a copy as soon as possible. The number
of articles on British nationalities and masculinities, including
Rhiannon Davies’s on Ian McEwan, underscores not only the connection
between national identity and masculinity, but with postcolonialism
as well, while Antony Rowland’s study of the poetry of Carol
Ann Duffy provides a useful new look at the well-worn subject of patriarchy
and male power. With such a variety of issues explored, and texts
discussed, it is inevitable that some will be of greater interest
to readers than others; nevertheless, Posting the Male is
a useful contribution to the ever-expanding masculinities corpus.