Themes for a future study of men and masculinities in modern Scotland
Scotland currently lacks any meaningful analysis of what it means to be a man. Writing in 2010, commentator Gerry Hassan argued, ‘We urgently need to start a wide-ranging debate about Scottish men and masculinities, our behaviour, attitudes and assumptions. And we need men to contribute to this’.
Seven years on and this debate is yet to materialise.
So what themes should take precedence in this conversation? In this post I will sketch key issues to help further future discussion.
Like all countries, Scotland suffers from a national history that is too masculine. The mythological aura around figures like William Wallace (wrongly) and Robert Burns (rightly) is overwhelmingly one-sided and, in the process, misses out on many fascinating aspects of Scotland’s diverse history.
In more recent history, Scottish men have been labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’ or associated with the ‘hard man’ image. Regardless of any truth in these stereotypes, we need to consider the continued impact of these representations on men in modern Scotland.
The twentieth century was undoubtedly a period of great change for gender relations. Yet, with the altered status of the male breadwinner and weakened link between employment and masculinity, men had to redefine themselves in ways that are often overlooked. Scant work has been done in this area: the Scottish masculinity in historical perspective workshops, organised by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History, as well as rigorous research by historians such as Lynn Abrams and Jeffrey Meek among others. However, given the impact of this history on the present day, much more attention is required.
Education is one of the key issues in Scotland today and presents a number of challenges for Nicola Sturgeon’s government.
When we break things down by gender, some important differences are apparent. In secondary school education, 65.9% of female school leavers achieved one or more qualifications at SCQF level 6 (a Higher) or above compared to 54.7% of male school leavers. This trend continues in higher education: female students constitute more than half of the country’s university population (56%).
The gender politics among men is often overlooked, yet it is an integral element of how power and gender operate.
Women face a number of specific issues in education, several of which are outlined in Engender Scotland’s 2016 Gender Matters in Education roundtable report. Importantly, as the report notes, many of these problems relate to the ‘performance of masculinities’ in the classroom and thus highlight the need to also consider men’s actions and behaviours in educational settings.
Interactions with others / interactions among men
Men do not live in a vacuum but engage in everyday encounters with others. Men need to think about their actions, their impact upon others and their responsibility to act in an appropriate and respectful manner. Sadly, some men (as well as women) fail to watch what they say, particularly in the world of social media. Twitter too often descends into a hate-filled environment where people feel emboldened to dish-out misogynistic, as well as racist, abuse.
Men should acknowledge that, in some instances, there is a need for women-only networks that provide a space that differs from other political environments. A perfect example of this is Women for Independence, one of the most successful campaign groups to emerge from the 2014 referendum. The group encouraged many women to become involved in the Yes movement and helped engage people in politics who might have otherwise been deterred. Men are welcome to champion the group’s work while also understanding the need for such a group to exist in the first place.
Yet, when thinking about everyday encounters we must also remain mindful that men are not a monolithic concept. Within this broad camp exists many overlapping and intersectional identities along the lines of class, age, race and ethnicity, sexuality and other factors. The gender politics among men is often overlooked, yet it is an integral element of how power and gender operate.
The most rigorous studies of men and masculinities emerge from the pioneering scholarship of feminist and queer theorists who first analysed gender as a power structure that shaped people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, theory can help uncover the pervasiveness of normative masculine identities, too often hidden in plain sight.
Locating masculinities in the past is a problematic exercise as some forms of masculine identity (for example, those who were ‘white’, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘able-bodied’) went ‘unmarked’ and therefore seemed normative or commonsensical to actors at the time.
American sociologist Michael Kimmel has written extensively on this subject and argues that the normalcy of non-marginal masculinities rendered men’s gendered actions ‘invisible to themselves’ (‘Invisible Masculinity’. Society 30, no. 6 (September 1993): 5). For understandings of gender to move forward we need to shine a light on these ‘invisible’ identities.
These themes offer a rough outline of potential paths to explore further – I welcome additional suggestions.