Star Turn: John MacInnes

April 12, 2001

Why do men run the world while women run the baby's bath? Olga Wojtas is made to think critically about gender identities.

"Is sex work?" asks John MacInnes. The 90 students shift uneasily in their seats.

"It certainly involves quite a lot of effort, and there may or may not be quite a useful result nine months later. What would make it not work?" MacInnes asks.

Silence.

"Does anybody want to argue that sex isn't work?" The silence deepens.

Fifteen minutes earlier, the second-year Edinburgh University sociology students would have had no hesitation in classifying sex as a leisure activity. But MacInnes has forced them to challenge their attitudes to work and leisure with a series of slides ranging from volunteers rescuing birds after an oil spill, to a woman ironing a shirt.

They have already decided that work involves physical effort and a goal, and that something can be a chore even if motivated by love. Sex just suddenly got a whole lot more complicated.

MacInnes, reader in sociology, is out to make students think critically, questioning the logic of conventional categories. He uses this to lead into the main topic of the module, ideas of masculinity and feminity. "There's a very intimate connection between work and gender," he continues. Societies have had very strict ideas about appropriate work for each sex, and while such ideas may be weaker in modern times, they still exist.

"I want you to tell me what the essence of masculinity is," he says, getting the students to divide themselves into small groups.

"Men have more muscle, so they're physically stronger than women," says a female student. "You're basing masculinity on biology," complains a man.

The groups' definitions of masculinity emerge. Strong. Courageous. Protective. This provokes sarcastic simpering from one young woman. "That's very idealistic - 'I'd like a man to be strong, courageous and protective'."

Not touchy-feely. Dominating. Aggressive. There is eye-rolling from some of the class and a mutter of "very stereotypical". Authoritarian. Competitive. Rational. Another whisper: "They're just going through the alphabet."

One young man can stand it no longer. "So many famous examples of men aren't like that at all. If you take a historical figure like Fred Astaire, it seems to me he's a man's man, but none of this would apply. He's debonair and charming and witty."

MacInnes nods. "We came up with a list that everyone could recognise, but we also recognise that there's something funny about it. Is there anything exclusively male about these characteristics? Clearly no. Do you know any men like that?" "Buzz Lightyear," suggests a student. This could be a perfect example of the theory that society throws up dominant ideas that are not necessarily an accurate guide to the world, the class decides. MacInnes urges them to check how often social scientists use the term "masculinity" in books and articles but fail to define it, relying on the reader to make certain assumptions.

"It's a rather dubious exercise. If you talk about something without defining it, it becomes very slippery," he warns.

The confusion over definitions, he suggests, springs from an attempt to reconcile contradictions in modern society. There is an assumption of fundamental equal rights, but it is obvious that men and women continue to do very different things.

Inventing the concept of gender identity, of masculinity and feminity, offers a means of rationalising why men end up running the world and women end up running the baby's bath.

MacInnes aims to show that this is a concocted theory to explain why men have the power, resources and status in an allegedly equal world. In fact, their position is a hangover from patriarchal societies, now being undermined by capitalism.

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