Mad, bad or sad - what is a man to do?

June 29, 2007

The historic perception of women as mentally weaker than men has been turned on its head in modern times, a gathering of academics will hear this week.

Traits defined as masculine are now more often associated with mental disorder; femininity, newly defined to include a broad range of characteristics, is linked with sanity and common sense.

Mark Micale, professor of history at the University of Illinois, will tell the Men and Madness conference at Manchester Metropolitan University that physicians and scientists in the past ignored and covered up evidence of male mental vulnerability. "Masculinity successfully constituted itself as the voice of reason, knowledge and sanity in the face of massive evidence to the contrary," he said. "Nineteenth-century physicians in France and Britain wrote long treatises on women's nervous disorders but never addressed men."

Nineteenth-century women could not win, conference organiser Berthold Schoene, professor of English at MMU, told The Times Higher . Frailty, lack of education and passivity were "feminine". "But women who tried to move away from the standard were judged as unnatural and deviant," Professor Schoene explained.

Feminism demolished the patriarchal standards of femininity, Professor Schoene believes, but standards of masculinity remain relatively rigid and narrow. "Thanks to feminism, women can demonstrate attributes traditionally seen as masculine and yet remain feminine, while masculinity is still narrowly defined and does not allow the expression of 'feminine' traits," he said.

Academics at the conference will examine changing standards of masculinity as represented in modern and contemporary culture, and the impact of these standards on male mental health.

Clive Baldwin, a research student at Birkbeck College, London, will compare James Jones's 1951 novel From Here to Eternity , in which a character sees the knife scars on his body as a sign of his male identity, with Russell Banks's Affliction (1989). In Affliction , suggests Mr Baldwin, the main character's violence and murderous acts are a "manifestation of a madness at the heart of masculinity".

From Canada's Trent University, Lewis MacLeod, professor of English literature, will discuss Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore , in which a stoic former Navy man, is presented as "an ideal model of 'traditional, normative masculinity'", an element of stability in an "unstable postmodern environment". Ultimately the character's rigidity and inability to accept a world "without things in working order" leads to his downfall.

Changing attitudes to masculinity can also be seen in war films. Katarzyna Szmigiero, of the Swietokrzyska Academy in Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, will show how cultural representations of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder changed between the First World War and the Vietnam War.

Shell-shocked soldiers were once perceived as unmanly and suspected of homosexuality, immaturity or cowardice. In contrast, the depiction of Vietnam veterans in films such as Taxi Driver focused on their "hypermasculinity", especially uncontrollable aggression.

Professor Schoene believes that such changes in perception show that masculinity is in a transitional stage.

"A lot has been said about masculinity in crisis, which suggests it is stuck in some way and needs nursing back to health. I prefer to see the gender as more mobile and flexible."

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