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How Can We Read The Complex, Pluralistic Ranges Of Behaviours And Expectations That Shaped Men's Lives In Different Periods And Cultures?

Olivia Harris / Reuters

In a recent interview given to promote his new book, The Descent of Man, the artist Grayson Perry discusses a figure he identifies as Default Man, those who benefit most from 'traditional masculinity ... with its values of power and wealth, alongside character traits of stoicism and efficiency.' For Perry, the dominance of this figure and this form of masculinity in contemporary society are desperately in need of change and challenge to counteract the rising tide of male mental health problems. His book includes 'a manifesto for men, which outlines a new set of rules to fit a more "pluralistic masculinity"', rules which are seen as enabling men to be more in touch with their emotions and thereby better able to navigate modern life.

The language used by both Perry and his interviewer throughout the piece is interesting. Masculinity is consistently singular, even when being defined as pluralistic, and the masculine qualities embodied by Default Man are 'traditional', a monolithic understanding of what it has meant to 'be a man' over time. Yet the history of masculinity, a sub-discipline that has developed in Britain over the past 30 years, shows how the concept of 'masculinity' has always been pluralistic and historically contingent. Whether in terms of middle-class British fathers who expressed themselves emotionally and sentimentally in the mid-19th century or the acceptability of extramarital sex and the production of illegitimate children at designated points in the male life cycle in 15th-century Europe, men's lived experiences across time challenge the idea of a static 'traditional' masculinity as the touchstone of normative male behaviour.

This is not to say that there are not common themes of socially appropriate male behaviour that appear across time and in different contexts. Violence, for example, emerges again and again as an appropriate expression of maleness from antiquity to the present day. Such expression is, however, always contingent on variables such as age, class, occupation and motivation. Violence among young apprentices in the 16th and 17th centuries, often arising from drunkenness associated with feast days, might be deplored but could be socially understood in ways that such violence among their elders would not. Stylised violence among middle-class German students in the 19th century, in the form of duels, could be read as a mark of social respectability. And the violence of soldiers, when confined to times of war or distant imperial holdings was not merely accepted but, by the modern period, celebrated as a form of ideal masculinity.

If violence tended to be seen as a form of masculine expression appropriate to youth across historical periods, then the status of head of household can similarly be seen as a common historical trope of mature male respectability. This does not necessarily mean a man who conformed to the male breadwinner norm, working outside the home as the sole, or even primary, financial support for his dependents, an ideal which formed in the late 19th century and was principally adopted by the middle and so-called 'respectable' working classes. Rather it encompasses a wide range of social and economic behaviours relating to the support and control of household dependents which responded to variable economic, social and political circumstances across time and region. To be a head of household in medieval Italy might involve different responsibilities and behaviours than in mid-twentieth century America, but nonetheless was deemed equally important as a sign of masculine maturity, and one which co-existed with very different expectations of behaviour associated with both younger and older men.

How then can we read the complex, pluralistic ranges of behaviours and expectations that shaped men's lives in different periods and cultures? The historian John Tosh has made the distinction between 'masculinity as a social status, demonstrated in specific social contexts' and 'manliness', 'a cultural representation of masculinity rather than a description of actual life.' The latter informs our understandings of what 'traditional' masculinity looks like, emphasising as it does the qualities of masculinity that were valued and valorised at particular points in the past, with those of the near past, particularly those celebrated by our parents' generation, given primacy. But as Tosh points out, the gendered assumptions that underpin both female oppression and the cyclical 'crises of masculinity' that appear in popular discourse every generation, namely that men are 'the' sex, the norm against others are defined in gendered terms, while women are the 'other', a category whose entire identity is defined by gender, also shape definitions of masculinity. Only by viewing the lived experience of maleness as historically pluralistic and contingent can we start to develop our ideas of what masculinity was and is and, in so doing, challenge the social norms that govern our understanding of gender in our own particular moment of history.

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