Reflections on ‘Masculinities’ ten years on.

Article first published in 'Context' the news magazine of the Association for Family Therapy. A previous article was published 10 years ago and can be found in 'Publications'.


It often feels risky to re-visit the past. Not only is it ‘a foreign country: they do things differently there’ (Hartley 1953), but there is often an emotional charge attached to looking back, which makes the nature of the experience hard to predict in the present.


In 2003 I penned a modest piece for Context about the part played by literary reading in the construction of a masculine identity by four young men in their 20s: my sons Joe, Patrick and Dan and their flat mate, Mo. My husband, Mike, a man then in his 50s, contributed too. The information was gathered at a Sunday meal in a flat in Stoke Newington.


Ten years on I have been asked to revisit the conversation. The same participants are mostly still available and have agreed to consider the same kinds of questions and explore the way they see things now. We are all ten years older, much water has passed under the bridge and it is hard to know what to expect.


We met in relays on a couple of days in April 2013 and filled an hour or two with discussion. I identified some themes which are set out and elaborated below. As always, there are more questions than answers, and I have highlighted those which I found thought provoking in relation to systemic practice.


But…how to write it up?


My main thought since gathering the material has been ‘how on earth do I write that up?’ I wanted to explore a few thoughts about cultural influences (maybe reading, but also TV programmes, film etc.) on notions, and performances, of masculinity. My method was to set up a discussion with some questions, listen to what was said and try to produce an interesting article: a quick skate over the surface of this fascinating topic.


I find that, inadvertently, I have taken on a little piece of ‘qualitative research’. I was always very influenced by Norman Denzin’s view: ‘in the social sciences there is only interpretation. Nothing speaks for itself….I call making sense of what has been learned the art of interpretation.’ (Denzin 1998 p.313). These reflections are strictly local, but it is important to interpret and ground what may otherwise seem just a piece of idle chat in something more solid. It has been a great learning exercise for me and I found my interpretive role absorbing, taking me in some unexpected directions.


Above all, I really want to do our family views justice if I can.

So here goes!


The scene


Ten years on, another family meal is being prepared, again by male members. There are some striking differences. In 2003 we met in a flat in London. In 2013 the setting is our house in the far west of Cornwall. In 2003 my three sons and their flat mate were single. In 2013 they all have partners, two are married and we are planning my daughter’s wedding in the autumn. Her fiance has agreed to bring his views to this conversation. In 2003 the discussion was exclusively between men about ‘masculinities’, but in 2013 it seems natural that this one must involve the women too, if only because they have so much to say and are definitely unwilling to be excluded.


As our personal relationships have moved on, the circle has widened. Two of the original group are missing, but this is no problem as they can be caught up with by email, and I can collect feedback electronically. The means of communication in 2013 and the information available at the touch of a button are transformed in ways we would have found difficult to predict ten years ago.

Question: how much do changes in our therapeutic practice reflect and respond to these omnipresent, influential technological developments? How has the ‘explosion’ of electronic media affected the way we look at ourselves and those who are close to us? In 2003 it was easy to talk about ‘reading’ and to know what we meant. In 2013 it is much more difficult; we can see and hear whatever we want, more or less instantly, at the press of a button. We can consume continuously through electronic media and, if we have the skills, our mind and our senses can be occupied with several things at the same time. If this leaves little room for reflection and does not encourage ‘staying with’ something over a period of time, or until it is finished, what does this mean for the way we construct

ourselves and our relationships?


In our sitting room, the talk ebbs and flows and I try to keep up. Looking back, I note that this is a much more volatile and fast moving conversation than the one a decade ago. It’s also much more varied and wide ranging, reflecting, I think, the increased number of participants, the advance in their life experience since last time and the active participation of both genders. Also, we now have additional perspectives from teaching and education, medicine and commerce, as well as the media and practical engineering skills. No wonder it is harder to follow and makes the task of keeping on track really difficult.


Question: when I first began to learn about human systems, I remember we were keen to include the interaction of perspectives from school, workplace, friendship groups, ideas, beliefs etc. This not only adds richness to the stories we and those we work with tell ourselves and each other, but ‘widens the system’ opening up space for creativity. Where do we find the chance to do this today, in our personal and our professional lives? In many working contexts, especially in the public sector, there is constant pressure to focus, to categorise and to exclude. Arguably, there is more scope for enriching our constructions of identity now than ever before, so how can we best take account of this in our therapeutic conversations?


Less (or no) reading; more TV


In 2003 it was relatively easy to concentrate on books but in 2013 there seems to be much less reading, literary or otherwise. The main people who read significantly in this group are the ones who regularly travel by public transport, and TV drama is thought by some, including, we understand, no less a person than Sir Salman Rushdie (Telegraph 12.6.2011), to be ‘the new literature’.


So what are the formative ‘texts’ for this group? What dialogues might they open up about gendered identity, and masculinity in particular? Here the women take off with gusto on the subject of ‘soaps’. It seems agreed by all that soaps are a female interest. They are all about relationships and what happens in them. ‘East Enders’ is watched, but ‘Sex and the City’ is suggested as a more influential source text. ‘Girls’ is a contemporary equivalent, and ‘Prisoners’ Wives’ gives a further chance for relational thinking inspired by TV drama. None of the men watch equivalent dramas or TV soaps at all. Apparently ‘Entourage’ was supposed to be a kind of answer to ‘Sex and the City’ for men, but, whilst enjoyable, they don’t think it has spawned a proliferation of relationship-based soaps for men. They are very aware that the women find them endlessly involving, and I think I detect a slightly wistful air in their reflections.


Here I begin to realise that there is a danger that I am going to be writing quite extensively about things which I know absolutely nothing about. I used to watch Coronation Street in the 1960s, but that had rather an aversive effect with its Leonard Swindleys and Ena Sharples, and I never returned to TV soaps. It does occur to me, however, that both my husband and I listen quite regularly to ‘The Archers’ on Radio 4, where ‘country folk’ disport themselves in constantly moving patterns of relationship, and constructions of masculinity run the gamut from stolid, dependable Neil Carter, through self made toff, Brian Aldridge, ‘Jack the lad’ Jazzer, to suffering parent David Archer, trying to be firm but kind to his suddenly and inexplicably (except she has become a ‘student’) appalling daughter Pip. There is a recurring ‘brothers in bitter conflict’ theme, with Ed/Will Grundy and Matt/Paul Crawford both bidding for the ‘most rivalrous siblings’ award. Adam Macey is no longer ‘the only gay in the village’ and Alan the Vicar has shown himself to be an enlightened cleric, and in touch with his softer side, in ways too numerous to mention. It is a shame that true toff and green enthusiast, Nigel Pargetter had to die spectacularly last year, falling from the roof of his ancestral pile wrapped in a Happy New Year banner, but on the whole the scriptwriters do seem to be doing their absolute best to reflect (and generate) changing constructions of masculinity. Moreover, the Ambridge men meet up much more often now to discuss what is happening in their lives and recently one man (recently jilted Tom) was heard pursuing a slightly reticent Roy Tucker, by voicemail and text, just to exchange news about his erstwhile partner, Brenda, and to see if Roy thought there was any chance they might be reunited? The women, of course, continue to exchange opinions, gossip and wisdom, but they no longer have it all their own way in the relationship department.


Now, having got The Archers off my chest, and, knowing that they can be at least as aversive as any other ‘everyday story’, we can move on, with a question …

Given what might seem to be an expectation that men in UK 2013 could/should be willing and able to reflect on relationships and their own emotions, what can we as therapists/clinicians do to level the playing field, when women are likely to have had so much more practice in articulating their thoughts and feelings as a cultural activity? Popular media have traditionally made it easy for them to gain relational skills, and adopt a reflective stance, so how can men be confident that they can measure up to what they imagine may be expected of them? This expectation may be nowhere more daunting than in the therapy room.


Constructions of masculinity are up for discussion, alongside other constructions of gendered identity


I was interested to note that none of my informants seemed to have any doubt that a male identity is a serious topic for consideration and that changes could be up for discussion both publicly and privately. Even when a man has had little exposure to women as work colleagues, works predominantly either on his own or in an exclusively male environment, as one of the family informants does, there is room for change and fluidity, and this newly perceived freedom seems eminently worthy of nurturing.


Hardly surprising, I reflect, given the seeming imbalance between male and female roles and skills popularly depicted in entertainment media, that women can be so fluent and comfortable talking about feelings. In this group, there is no doubt that relationships and emotions are key aspects of life. It is desirable to acknowledge emotions and to use relationships to explore them and, if the sexes have developed different levels of relational expertise, this is a cause, if not for concern, then at least for comment.


So what in contemporary popular culture might foster that idea and promote dialogue? First of all, having a woman, or women, on hand could be useful in stretching the envelope around ideas of how men might be seeing themselves. Tony Soprano has his female confidante, Homer and Bart have Marj and Lisa, and, in the world of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, Brucey has Tess. In 2013 it seems that men do well in the media with women alongside them, no longer as ‘my lovely assistant’, but as a conversational partner who can contribute a feminine perspective, and temper any possible ‘banter’ more emotionally and relationally.

Secondly, it would be important that space is allowed for uncertainty, for taking, and challenging, views in the context of relational experience and dialogue. I didn’t follow ‘Big Brother’ after the novelty of seeing a one way screen used as part of entertainment, but the idea that people, women and men, would scrutinise and judge each other’s behaviour mainly, or entirely, in relational terms, and that this would constitute prime time TV, may have played a part in opening up a more gender-balanced way of looking at life. Similarly, I wonder how the votes cast for contestants on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (which represents couple relationships in an aesthetic, stylised way though dance) reflect a male/female balance. All I know is that, in our house, phoning in to express a preference is a strictly male activity.  


Sexual orientation is on the map in a new way

‘…You only have to think of how Chris Moyles has been replaced by Nick Grimshaw on Radio One’s Breakfast Show, to see how public perceptions are changing …’

one of my informants told me. I am, as I am often told, not the target audience for either of these presenters (Radio 4, as noted above, is my preference) so research was necessary. I found that Pink News describes the new presenter of Radio 1’s Breakfast show as ‘Radio 1’s most high-profile openly gay broadcaster’ (Pink News August 2012). I have heard since (now that I have sensitised to the phenomenon) that he was recruited to appeal to a younger audience; that he was prepared to be immersed in a bath of meal worms for Comic Relief; that commentators variously like his style and/or question the way he presents himself, that he is, in other words, in a position to be a profound influencer of ideas of masculinity. It seems to me that the point is not whether he is gay or straight, benefiting appropriately, or not, from publicity as a celebrity, but that he is a person in the public eye in the very centre of establishment media, opening up a space in which it is very acceptable to explore different views about, and demonstrations of, sexual identity.


Homophobia is undoubtedly still alive and well, and a tendency to use ‘gay’ as a pejorative term persists in the playground and the workplace, exerting a powerful influence on constructions of masculinity. Stonewall’s survey of portrayals of gay people on ‘Youth TV’ (‘Unseen on Screen, Stonewall 2010) found that gay, lesbian and bisexual people were portrayed in only 4.5% of total screen time in the sample watched; that 36% of that portrayal was negative; that a mere 6% was positive and that 49% of all portrayal was stereotypical. This doesn’t sound very encouraging but at least Stonewall is posing the question, and it is not clear how these findings relate to portrayals of gay, lesbian and bisexual people more generally in TV and other media for other age groups.


Question: how much can we, as therapists, explore media influences on constructions of gender identity for all age groups in the families we meet? How often do we ask about TV programmes, films and even, in this day of the ‘twittersphere’, books? Harry Potter has been around long enough to exert an influence on lots of young readers, and to shape their ideas of masculine identity into young adulthood.

As I found whilst compiling this little piece, there is an almost infinite amount I don’t know about cultural influences for different age groups, and I guess that would be so for many other practitioners. However, since when did this stop us asking thought-provoking questions and, sometimes, helping generations be more curious about each other?

By the way, it was in this area of enquiry that I learned a new word: ‘bromance’ – very neat.


Laddishness is ‘out’, the body beautiful is ‘in’

My informants tell me that ‘laddishness’ is no longer fashionable, as it was in 2003. They detect that some of the ironic edge that went with reading ‘Loaded’ magazine has been lost and been replaced by something blander, more open but less challenging. Instead they see more emphasis on softer elements of masculine identity and a daunting preoccupation with physical appearance. Edginess may have gone the way of body hair, as I understand it, for people of all genders. Fake tan and cookery programmes seem to have taken the place of what we might previously have called ‘blokiness’. Here, by the way, feedback from members of my reference group insists I clarify that they were only marginally ‘laddish’ in 2003 and, in 2013, none is known to use fake tan on a regular basis.


Last autumn I had occasion to find myself one Saturday afternoon in a waiting room in the basement of the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro. My companions were a rough selection of Cornish society, including several quite husky looking men. We spoke of the waiting time and one of the men remarked, ‘it’s alright as long as I get home in time for ‘Strictly..’’. There was general agreement about the importance of this. The final was imminent and we discussed the merits of various competitors, the consensus being that, although Dani Harmer was sweet and probably deserved to win, the real money was on Louis Smith, the Olympic gymnast and the possessor of a ‘body beautiful’ which would be hard to beat.


And, for those who failed to catch it, he did actually win!


A beautiful, healthy body is hard to criticise as an ideal, but it is also difficult to overlook the contribution being made to notions of beauty, sexual desirability and performance by easy access to pornography of all kinds, for people of all ages. The seriousness of the impact of this on young people is hard to quantify at this stage. This topic needs exploration in depth, but its effect on us all is undeniable, be we parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers or therapists.

Question: how do we as therapists take account of changing values amongst all our clients, regardless of age and physical condition. If impossibly high standards are set for appearance and fitness, and this is how people construct personal identity, how can we respond in a helpful way to the anguish of falling short? Images have become so easily captured and exchanged by phone, comment is instant and essentially anonymous and whatever is put onto the internet remains there until the end of time. How do we respond?


Flawed /ambiguous/confused hero


So, if ‘laddishness’ is no longer cool, how is the male figure leading the narratives of masculinity in our times on film or TV supposed to demonstrate that he is a hero? I am already noting a more diffuse sense of the basis and limits of identity in storytelling in 2013, and this goes for ‘masculinity’ too. In 1988, all Bruce Willis needed was a clean vest and a bunch of people to rescue, to be a convincing hero. Today’s thirty somethings, I’m reliably informed, are much more interested in engaging with a flawed hero who has personal and relational challenges to grapple with.


Contrast Jack Bauer in ‘24’ , a thriller series commencing in 2001,with Nick Brody of ‘Homeland’ , another thriller TV series which premiered in 2011. Bauer works in counter terrorism. He (mostly) knows who he is and what job he has to do. Brody is constantly ambiguous: is he a national hero or a terrorist himself? We are never sure and neither is he. Bauer’s job is to protect and rescue public figures and members of his family from attack. Brody is a kind of celebrity ex-marine whose identity is multi-layered both in public and at home. Bauer is a pretty active hero, without, as I recall, much in the way of relational angst. Action in ‘Homeland’ is often psychological, and relationships both domestic and professional are tortured. In ‘24’ women were often there rather more as plot devices, whereas in ‘Homeland’ the female lead mirrors and elaborates Brody’s anguished uncertainties and ambiguities every inch of the way.


‘The Departed’ (2006) starring Matt Damon and Leonardo di Caprio demonstrated quite movingly, I thought, the importance of the struggle to define personal identity, especially where the context poses particular risks. Briefly (and trying not to include any spoilers) two young men are leading double lives, one a policeman undercover in the Mafia, the other a gang member who has infiltrated the police. In order to save themselves each has to uncover the other, with obvious risk of annihilation in the process. Their essentially contradictory characters mirror each other to such an extent that life and death internal conflicts seem played out in the struggle we witness. The fact that I have always confused these two actors added an extra frisson for me at the initial time of viewing, when, for a few moments, I did actually think there was only one, intensely perplexed, character. Confusion aside, as a dramatic portrayal of opposites held in tension under extreme pressure, I found the film riveting, and the implicit comment on competing aspects of masculinity compelling.  


I feel obliged to speak briefly here of James Bond, whose portrayal, I understand, has also changed over time. I heard that the latest offerings, with Daniel Craig in the title role, have been less ironic, more in the ‘flawed hero’ line: 007 with an inner life and introspection. I did attempt to watch ‘Skyfall’ to observe this for myself, but there was still rather too much action for my taste and, if the hero demonstrated a more reflective nature, I’m afraid it passed me by. It would have done, because I fell asleep instantly, as I always do, when the car chases began.


Question: if, as seems likely, the construction of a masculine identity in 2013 involves acknowledging inconsistency and absence of certainty, both internal and external, have we prepared ourselves (as systemic thinkers/practitioners) appropriately to be sensitive to the vulnerability this exposes? This is an area of work in which women outnumber men. Some public figures identify a ‘crisis of masculinity’. What steps might we take to gain more understanding of these issues?


War films are back again.

Since 2003, two conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have dominated the scene and have produced their share of film and TV. Much of this, especially in relation to Afghanistan in UK, seems to be documentary. This must be unsurprising given the technology available and the cultural readiness for ‘reality TV’. A documentary is composed as a work of reporting, and perhaps of art, but it is distinct from a work of fiction. Its actuality puts the nature of conflict, and its place in the generation of identity, on the agenda in a particularly pressing, and perhaps enabling, way.


I was born immediately after the end of World War 2, and it has become increasingly clear to me over the years that my father did not share his experiences of his six years of active service very widely, if at all, with any family members and certainly not with his female relatives. Instead of that we watched war films, of which there were many in the post war period, and I am aware that my early ideas of men and masculinity were largely formed in relation to the portrayals we saw. How different that might have been, for him and for us, if we had been able to see sensitively, but realistically, filmed documentaries. Might they have opened up conversations and helped us to live more fully together?


The war in Iraq has been the inspiration for a number of films mostly made in the USA, some based on real events and using actual images, some entirely fictional though based firmly in the context of the real life conflict. Part of my heritage is a liking for war films, whether the combatants are wearing jungle or desert fatigues, and the films I have seen, from ‘Jarhead’ (2005), through the ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008), to ‘The Green Zone’ (2010) have all focused to a greater or lesser extent on the pity of war, the impact of action in a foreign land on young men and the personal conflicts which may arise in situations where personal values may turn out to be at odds with those of the government and/or the people at home. None has had any vestige of the ‘gung ho-ness’ of previous generations, and films like ‘The Messenger’(2009) have dealt sensitively and sympathetically with the interaction between the worlds of combat and of the families at home, mediated by individual personal experience.


Question: how does the availability of images and detailed information from war areas enable us to empathise with participants in conflicts which are undertaken in our names, either at home or abroad? In some ways it is easier to identify with the experience and respond to the invitation to engage with our own issues mediated by the lived realities of others. We and/or others may see ‘the soldier’ as the embodiment of an ideal masculine identity. What impact do we expect familiarity with the images of war and the impact of engagement on the combatants themselves, to have on us and on the families we work with, and how do we prepare ourselves to enter into a dialogue about them?



Women are there in a way they weren’t before

We began by looking at soaps and the relational practice this gives women. Few men are addicted to soaps, in the experience of my reference group, and most seem to prefer a bit of football or golf. The women I know report no more interest than previously in sport on TV.


So what might we watch together, as a couple embodying masculine and feminine principles? The answer, in our house at least, seems to be detective stories, and the picture here reflects changing gendered roles. On UK TV, it all began with Jane Tennison in ‘Prime Suspect’ way back in 1991, which, incidentally, is showing currently and has aged extremely well. The baton was taken up by such para-detectives as Amanda Burton playing pathologist, Sam Ryan, her successor Nikki Alexander in ‘Silent Witness’, and the various, relatively rational female professionals, in ‘Waking the Dead’. Most recently we have been treated to the remarkable Sarah Lund, she of the iconic jumpers, in the Danish thriller known in UK as ‘The Killing’.


These female sleuths share less with Miss Marple and much more with male predecessors in terms of their methods and disposition. Personal experience suggests that both men and women viewers can engage equally well with aspects of the characters. The fact that a female is in a/the central role, using many male qualities, but also available to explore relationships, or lack of them, to use ‘feminine’ skills of close observation and openness to the value of intuition, opens a space for debate, and provides for much more interesting stories. But then, I am a woman.


Question: if entertainment media invite us to move beyond stereotypes, or unwarranted assumptions about ‘masculine’ and ‘ feminine’, how willing are we to recognise the invitation and acknowledge the limitations of our current ideas and practices?



So is all this a good or a bad thing?

This article has started me on so many trains of thought, that conclusions are partial and premature. I have found the themes interrelated and interwoven like a particularly complicated braid. It is hard to know where to start and where to finish.


One of the main changes over the decade seems to have been about the primary importance of reading in imaginative engagement versus TV, film and other media. It isn’t that reading is not happening, rather that other media are in the ascendant for the moment.


I’m pleased to say, however, that one of my sons, who tells me he still reads a great deal, actually wanted to talk about the book he was reading, coincidentally ‘War and Peace’ (Tolstoy 1869). He reported that, in conversation with a female Russian colleague, he had learned that of course everyone reads this novel at school in Russia, and of course it is anticipated that the boys will focus on the war bits, which they love, and of course the girls all focus on the peace, which they love. The novel seems almost to have been structured with this in mind. He had also been reading ‘50 Sheds of Grey’(2012), a novel written with mature male preoccupations in mind, the antidote, apparently, to that other novel, which is said to have been mostly consumed by women.


So the question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ hardly seems to arise. We are more open than ever before to information and communication, whether we like it or not. We have more uncertainty than ever before about the right ways to construct our personal identities, be they masculine, feminine or something else entirely. Myriad influences are constantly available and, in some cases, thrust upon us. Change is fast and sometimes furious, and to add to it all, we are living through a time of great material and financial uncertainty.


Epilogue: back to the family

When I was well into my qualifying training in Family Therapy, around 1990, someone raised the question of personal experience of family therapy: shouldn’t we all be bringing our families to therapy?


Since my personal view was that a ‘them and us’ mentality was not only mistaken but actually hostile to the spirit of a systemic view I said: ‘Certainly. Sign us up!’

Needless to say, the story was a little different when I put the idea to my nearest and dearest, and we never did present ourselves, even for one session of family therapy.


Since then, I have persisted in trying to involve my family in systemic enquiry in various forms. Sometimes they have agreed and sometimes, well, they just aren’t to be found at the right moment! 2003 must have been a good year as my three sons, their friend and my husband agreed that a conversation we had about reading and masculinity could be written up and published in Context.


Imagine the excitement when the idea was floated of re-visiting the article ten years on! The exercise is firmly rooted in the local experiences of particular individuals in the contexts of their lives, both immediate and wider. The last article has turned out to be an evocative marker of where we were in 2003 and it has been a pleasure to sample the waters we are navigating in 2013.Thanks are therefore due to all who took part, for their generosity and enthusiasm for yet another of my projects!






Denzin, N. (1998) ‘The Art and Politics of Interpretation.’ In Denzin and Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research Paperback Edition: Volume 3 Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.

Grey,C.T.(2012) Fifty Sheds of Grey: a Parody: Erotica for the not-too-modern male. Boxtree.


Hartley, L.P, (1953/2004) The Go – Between. England: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Classics.


Stonewall (2010) Unseen on Screen


Tolstoy, L. (1869/2001) War and Peace. Ware: Wordsworth Classics.




Liz Burns