Masculinities.

Historic and personal perceptions of masculinities in the Australian settler context. 

Daz Chandler in discussion with Dr Matthew Allen.

Listen to this chapter's accompanying podcast

Q:

You're the only historian and male-identifying member of this project. How do these two factors inform your approach to understanding heteropessimism?

A:

This project evolved out of a feminist reading group which I joined because I was aware of how little I knew about feminist scholarship, and what a gap that was in my historical thinking. As Joan Scott has famously argued, gender (like class or race, or sexuality) is a category of historical analysis which historians have to engage with to understand the past. So I've come at heteropessimism from the perspective of trying to critically gender and sex my ideas. As a cisgender man, the first thing is to be humble about how little I can know from my privileged standpoint. But (and yes, I get the irony of what I'm about to say) I also think my male standpoint is important in our discussions - I tend to think all standpoints have unique and valuable perspectives. The responses to Seresin's provocation (and indeed the framing of her piece) have largely focussed on the heteropessimism of women but what struck me immediately is that many men are also (differently) heteropessimist. Male heteropessimism is more likely to be cynical rather than critical because men tend to get more out of heterosexual relationships, even depressing heterosexual relationships. But I was immediately interested in thinking about the way that men often characterise their marriages and relationships as at best a convenience and at worst a curse. As an Australian historian, working at UNE (where Russel Ward taught) I immediately thought about this in relation to The Australian Legend  because the kind of iconic larrikin masculinity he was interested in was also, frequently, misogynistic and cynical about marriage. On this basis it seems to me that the concept of heteropessimism has to also apply to men, and I'm especially interested in thinking about the history of this in an Australian context.

Q:

When contemplating perceived masculinities in the Australian settler context, you examine Russel Ward's 'The Australian Legend' which centres the mateship of egalitarian bushmen. How much of this ideal has factored into your understanding of masculinity?

A:

Like most contemporary historians I'm very ambivalent about Ward. To be generous, his work ignores women but I think there is clearly a latent misogyny underpinning it. With that said, Australian society has been dominated by men since colonisation (if not before - a more complex question) and Ward was right to see the kind of legendary masculinity he celebrated as significant to Australian identity - the way we publicly imagine ourselves as Australians. Legendary masculinity is also complicated. I'm not willing to simply condemn it out of hand. Part of what Ward was interested in was the political implications of a convict society which celebrated bushrangers and swagmen and, as he argued, there is an egalitarian and democratic streak in Australian political thought which arguably stems from the legend (or the chartists!). In my own research I'm interested in thinking critically about democracy and I increasingly believe that the egalitarian democratic ideals we celebrate are fundamentally grounded in exclusion - first and foremost of women - from political citizenship. The classic illustration I write about is the public bar where everyone is equal and shouts his round in turn - and only men are allowed (as customers - served by female barmaids as Diane Kirkby and Claire Wright have pointed out!) Finally, I also think my own masculinity bears the stamp of the legend - though I hope I'm sufficiently critical about this that it doesn't make me an arsehole. I do have a core group of mates (all men I went to an all-boys high school with) and I can see what is at stake in the gendering of my relationships and the power relations implicit in them. So I'm trying to think critically about my own masculinity as well.

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In this project's introductory chapter, you are quite open about your background and how that has shaped aspects of your interpretations of gender identity and sexuality. With that in mind, are there any aspects of this legend that you have found challenging to remove from your lens on gender performativity? 

No one can see their own blind-spots beyond their own standpoint. I try to be critical about my masculinity and sexuality but one of the most rewarding parts of this project for me has been hearing from, and thinking seriously about, the perspectives of women and non-straight identifying people. Democracy can seem like a straightforward good when your citizenship is unquestioned. I can increasingly see that my learned instinct - learned from my dad who was also an academic - to let the best argument win, is a position of privilege. I am learning to hold my tongue and listen to the wisdom of quieter voices. More specifically relevant to heteropessimism, I'm uncomfortably straight. To elaborate, I am very straight and increasingly uncomfortable with the implications of that so am forcing myself to think about my own sexuality and how I have learned to perform it and it is challenging. Through this project I came to the idea that I was 'heteroambivalent' and that has actually helped me to understand my discomfort with some of the conventional models of straight male sexuality and the ways in which they objectify women.

Towards the end of your first interview about Ward and the history of sexuality in Australia with prominent Australian historian, Frank Bongiorno, you reveal that you're actively trying to "queer your sexuality." Do you see the exploration of heteropessimism as a useful tool in this regard and what outcomes are you hoping to see?

Yes I do. As I say, I've come to a realisation that I am at least heteroambivalent. Thinking about this now, it suddenly strikes me that the idea of compulsory heterosexuality (Adrienne Rich) applies to straight people too. Growing up, I did not see options for how to express my sexuality. I was not sexually confident (which can briefly mask a lot of sins) and it seemed like hitting on women and sleeping around were the only ways to be 'a real man.'  Equally, I'm also very ambivalent about another dominant model of masculinity; the respectable husband and fatherhood. Heteropessimism has also helped me articulate something I've become more and more aware of - that I'm attracted to women but reject the heteronormative model of heterosexual relationships that our culture promotes (a model that, incidentally, is not really compatible with the Australian legend). The model I see promoted in the media is so obviously gendered and I'm not comfortable with the kind of masculinity - or femininity - it prescribes. I don't want to be a provider. I don't want a home-maker. Heteropessimism is helping me think through what I do want from my relationship and why I'm uncomfortable with the norm.

Q:

What did you find most interesting / what surprised you most about your in-depth conversation with Frank Bongiorno?

A:

Frank's book was published in 2012 and a decade is sometimes a very long time in the history of sexuality (eg the 1890s).

Frank was very frank about his view of the book in light of recent scholarship and I really enjoyed that discussion. I don't think the book is outdated. I think it's an important text that frames the key issues in the history of sex, and that future scholars will need to respond to. But as he said himself, he would write it very differently today. As historians, I think we were both interested in the way that perspectives on the past could change quite noticeably in a short time period, and I found that discussion very interesting. Will we still be talking about heteropessimism in 10 years time?