Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Conference, RMIT, 1-3 December 2022
Affirmative Feminist Boys Studies Panel I: Formations of Masculinity
Chair: Dr Shawna Tang (USyd)
Paper 1: Hannah Hayes (USyd), “‘Boys are crying out’: Initiation through school-based ‘Masculinity programs’”
In recent years, peer-on-peer sexual violence, abuse and harassment in schools has made headlines in Australia and the United Kingdom. Social media petitions “Teach Us Consent” by Chanel Contos in Australia, and “Everyone’s Invited” by Soma Sara in the United Kingdom have drawn attention to the concerns of young people that consent and gender education has not been effectively or adequately delivered throughout their formal education, contributing to sexual violence in schools. My project looks to explore “masculinity programs”, designed by organization and charities for use in schools. These programs are posited to fill the gaps in Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculums, which have made sexual consent explicit and mandatory content from 2023 in Australia and 2020 in the United Kingdom. This project aims to analyse “masculinity programs” available in the Australia and the United Kingdom, looking at emerging themes and pedagogies used to explicitly and/or implicitly teach masculinities and sexual consent. Through thematic analysis of the program websites, “initiation” has emerged as a reoccurring concept utilised by many of the “masculinity programs”. Early analysis suggests that some programs are marketed to provide an “initiation” or “rite of passage”, while others focus on an assisted “transition” or “journey” into manhood. Many “masculinity programs” locate themselves as the solution to combatting the negative, external forces of social media, mass media, pornography, drugs, and alcohol that lead young men to “toxic” attitudes and behaviours. However, positioning young men as needing “initiation” into manhood to become “good men”, risks (re)producing hegemonic discourses that uphold gendered power, limiting these programs” ability to critically engage with discussions of consent and relationships.
Paper 2: Finola Laughren (USyd), “Who’s Responsible?: The Question of Men’s Agency in Feminist Critiques of Consent”
In this presentation, I consider the relationship between consent culture and the recent proliferation of toxic masculinity as an analytic concept in feminist scholarship, arguing that both discourses rely upon an overly simple account of agency. Feminist scholars have demonstrated that consent culture is uncomfortably compatible with a neoliberal regime that constructs subjects as in absolute control of, and therefore absolutely responsible for, their actions and their effects. As Katherine Angel, among many others, has rightly pointed out, this reliance on an illusory transparent self-knowledge ultimately serves to position women as responsible for ending the sexual violence of which they are disproportionately the victims/survivors, thereby minimising the constitutive force of patriarchy. At the same time, feminists critique discourses of consent for absolving men – and the patriarchal structures that support them – of the responsibility to take women’s sexual safety and, indeed, satisfaction, seriously.
Though I agree with the structural critique of patriarchy and its attendant recognition of the power differential between women and men, I am struck by the distinct ways feminists treat the agency of women and men in their critiques of consent culture. On the one hand, there is poignant critique of responsibilising discourses for failing to capture the influence patriarchy has over women’s choices. On the other hand, there is the assumption that because men have more power relative to women, patriarchy must therefore exert less profound an influence, rather than a different kind of influence. Men’s actions in sexual encounters are constructed as genuine expressions of their agency, which imputes to men the very kind of agency that feminists critique patriarchal discourses for imputing to women. I will argue that this essentialises a connection between men’s agency and toxic masculinity in a way that threatens a regenerative feminist project. To avoid reifying patriarchal gendered relations, feminists should consider more deeply how patriarchy seeks to impose on men a sexist masculine identity.
Paper 3: Grace Sharkey (USyd), “Mother and I: Dimity, Maggie and Me”
This paper is a rumination on Ianto Ware’s 2021 book Mother and I. As it slides between biography, memoir, and philosophical work, the book traces the life of Ware’s mother, Dimity, as she raises him in the working class suburbs of Adelaide. As Dimity comes out as a lesbian and joins her local women’s lib group, we are given Ware’s own reflections on being a boy and becoming a man in a home built on socialism and lesbian feminism. I will consider Ware’s book through twin metaphors of structure and texture by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003), by way of Jessica Kean (2017). As Dimity would remind us, the personal is the political. I want to think through big things without losing the particular. Ware’s book is endlessly generative for thinking about queer family making, suburban Australia, and boys raised without fathers. While I want to attend to these big ideas, I also wish to stay close to the texture of their story.
I will attempt to do this by staging an autotheoretical encounter, drawing from my own life as a daughter raised by a single father in the suburbs. I do this, in part, to position Mother and I in a similar canon to Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick (1997) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015). Largely focused on Nelson and Kraus, there has been an influx of academic writing on “autotheory”. I argue that while Mother and I is a history of a wilful family, it also traces an archive of a different kind: work by feminists, lesbian activists, and writers many among us would be familiar with: Sara Ahmed, Edward Said, Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde and, of course, Adrienne Rich. This is what Robyn Wiegman would call the book’s “citational universe” (2020). I consider Ware’s book amongst other autotheoretical works to think about how some boys are positioned in feminist futures.
Paper 4: Sarah Demekech Graham (USyd), “Eschatological Dilemmas: The figure of the African American Boy”
The Feminist Boys Studies Research Group… “is committed to moving beyond seeing boys and boyhood as obstacles to a more gender equal future and to critically inquire into the experiences and representations of boys, without homogenising them but also without reducing them to a problem space” (https://boysresearch.org/). This presentation concerns Black masculinities and boyhood in the United States to outline the specific problem posed by the figure of the African American boy and young man. Building on a discourse analysis of scholarship by Tommy Curry, founder of the emerging field of Black Male Studies, who argues that “to choose to write on Black males is to accept that you and they are in conversation with death” (The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, 2017), various media texts are examined to demonstrate the use of the Black adolescent as a both hyperfeminised and hypermasculinised (Lamelle, 2010) presage of moribundity.
Affirmative Feminist Boys Studies Panel II: Some Dominant Parameters of Boyhood
Chair: Dr Liam Grealy (USyd & Menzies Centre for Health Research)
Paper 1: Catherine Driscoll (USyd) & Liam Grealy (USyd & Menzies Centre), “The Energies of Boyhood”
This paper considers the widespread perception of boys and boyhood as characterized by energy and liveliness but at the same time a reluctance or incapacity to channel energy efficiently into the production of mature competencies. Boys are often figured as both too fast and too slow for what’s expected of them, too energetic and action-oriented for the classroom or for happy domestic containment. Too slow to grow up or too stalled by obstacles placed in the way of their natural energies to be able to embrace manhood.
Framed by theoretical accounts of norms and normativity, we will consider some long discursive precedents for understanding boyishness as simultaneously energetic promise and management problem. We will consider educational discourses, from Rousseau’s Emile to cultural welfare programs like the YMCA and the boys scouting movement and critical debate about boys in classrooms; on resonant imaginations of innate boyhood energy at odds with society like Kim, Huckleberry Finn, and Peter Pan, and their entanglement with figures of arrested development; on regulatory debates over such stimulating influences as comics, videogames and pornography; and on recent philosophy and scholarship on the cultural impasse of generations (now) of boys perceived as unable or unwilling to become men. In coming to grips with the resilience of this discourse on boyhood energy, including in how it relates to models of bio-social development, we want to open an argument for thinking of boyhood as a more mobile designation for orientations, experiences, and bodies.
Paper 2: Prudence Black (USyd & Adelaide), “‘It’s Just the Way Boys Behave’: The Pathologization of Boys”
This paper is an attempt to open up a discussion about the pathologization of boys, in particular using the diagnosis of ADHD as an example. It will draw on the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking’s nominalist interest in ‘classifications of people, in how they affect the people classified, and how the affects on the people in turn change the classifications’ (Hacking, Making Up People, London Review of Books 28:16 2006). One such classification is the way people have been understood as objects of scientific inquiry. He discusses this in relation to ‘transient mental illness’ (Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, 1998). He defines a transient mental illness as an illness that appears in an ‘ecological niche’, flourishing in a certain time and place, and later fading away. As a cultural historian I want to think about way the diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder) proliferated at a certain time, and the way young boys became its preferred ‘niche’, where the pathology may not be an actual negativity, but the positive grounds for the growth of a marketable discursive formation.
Paper 3: Timothy Nicholas Laurie (UTS) & Catherine Driscoll (USyd), “Class, Labour, and Boyhood in the Australian Cinematic Imagination”
Australian cinema has long been marked by a preoccupation with the perceived habits, colloquialisms, aspirations and failures of working-class boys and men. While films about class focused almost exclusively on white Australians at least until the 1990s, the last two decades of Australian cinema have witnessed more sustained explorations of everyday multiculturalisms and Indigenous identities in the formation and contestation of social inequalities. However, while Australian filmmakers have thickened their representations of class as a complex cultural formation, the relationship between class and labour practices themselves has been relatively neglected both on Australian screens and in Australian film studies scholarship. Australian films emphasising boys and young men often keep work at a distance, on the other side of developmental or social obstacles. When labour practices are foregrounded in films such as The Rage in Placid Lake (2003) or Kenny (2006), issues around the gendering of class and the transformation of labour practices are often assimilated or even dissolved in the overt focus on static masculine archetypes and stereotypes. This paper argues that what has become recognisable as a viable representation of masculine identity in Australian cinema remains significantly indebted to – and perhaps overly attached to – formative images of working-class-ness linked to primary and secondary industries. This leads both to a relative erasure of contemporary class dynamics dominated by service industries, and to limited understandings of gender and class as linked primarily through the idea of the male labourer. We suggest that films about boyhood and masculine adolescence, in particular, provide important opportunities to reflect on the ways that class-based social relationships and labouring practices are folded into specific figures of masculinity, and into patterned – if not entirely cliched – understandings of the lives to which boys aspire.