At the last count, the male students following actively my Victorian Literature subject are 9 in a class of 50 active students (by this I mean that about 10 more are registered but never show up). This is about 20%, slightly higher than in other courses I have taught, in which the proportion was usually around 15% or less. Last year, for instance, my English Theatre class had only 4 male students out of 35 in total.
I have often wondered when lecturing how this male minority was taking in the heavy-handed feminist/Gender Studies orientation we have given to the two novels we’ve taught, particularly Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I do wonder too how this novel can be taught indeed without addressing gender issues not only because it narrates a harrowing story of domestic abuse but also because Brontë chose to embed her heroine’s diary within the letters that her second husband, Gilbert, addresses to his best friend and brother-in-law, Halford. I believe that Brontë didn’t want to alienate the men of her England by throwing into their faces Helen’s gendered suffering. Gilbert was, hence, created to frame her tale and suggest that not all men are as selfish as Arthur, Helen’s pampered husband. However, this decision has also elicited plenty of criticism regarding how women’s voice is ultimately edited and silenced in this novel by men’s, as shown in Gilbert’s manipulation of Helen’s texts (diary and letters).
I made a point in class, though seemingly not often enough, that because I am a feminist who writes about masculinities I am very much interested in men’s developing their own gender-related consciousness. In short, I hinted (or so I thought) that paper proposals considering what kind of masculinity is constructed through Gilbert’s letters would be welcome. We often discussed how he seemed not to be quite a gentleman and I’ve already written here about his proximity to Emily Brontë’s problematic hero-villain Heathcliff. Other male characters in the text –Arthur, Walter, Hattersley, even little Arthur– are also worth exploring. Well, to my surprise none of the 7 (I think) paper proposals dealing with this novel coming from young men discuss masculinity at all. Instead, they focus on feminism, (Victorian) women’s rights and Helen’s particular plea as a married woman artist.
This makes me a bit wary, as I can’t help suspecting that these male students are addressing feminist issues simply to please me and, well, earn my sympathy. This is not quite right. Although I realise they may be really committed to feminism I wonder why none of these young men has offered comments in class on gender issues; also why my hints regarding masculinities have not been followed. Most of them have, accordingly, got back from me their own paper proposal with an open, firm invitation to reconsider their chosen topic and write about masculinity. If you’re reading me, believe, I am truly interested in what men have to say about this aspect of Brontë’s novel.
This is by no means an atypical circumstance. Everyone doing Gender Studies notes men’s resistance to doing Masculinities Studies. American sociologist Michael Kimmel, one of the founding fathers, teaches an introduction as a compulsory subject within an engineering degree because otherwise he’d might not get enough students!! Gender Studies courses are regularly attended all over the world mostly by women (heterosexual, lesbian), secondarily by gay men. Why? The usual answer is that, whereas women usually enjoy discussing gender issues to better understand their own socio-cultural constrictions (and freedoms), men tend to stay away out of insecurity regarding their own sense of masculinity and, crucially, regarding whether they’ll be turn into targets of anti-patriarchal critique. This is why I stress that masculinity is NOT the same as patriarchy and that, though I’m very much against patriarchy as a hierarchical, power-based system of abuse I want to know as much as possible about masculinities (if possible, from men).
So here’s my invitation once more: address gender issues if you wish, but do so out of a personal conviction that it’s worth doing and feel free to discuss masculinity. You can make an innovative, important contribution and I’d totally welcome it. If having read this, you still want to discuss feminism, that is fine too, but make sure you do it sincerely, please, and not out of a gentlemanly or interested standpoint. Thanks!!