Reflective Essay

Below is the accompanying essay I had to write for my folio, I thought it might be fun to put up, for those who are interested as it shows the themes and subjects I was trying discuss in my folio. In hindsight I also think it’s interesting or perhaps even quite telling that I was interested in masculinity and what it is that makes a man a man in-light of my trans awakening.    

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We are living in a world where equality for different minorities are making positive strides forward. As recent as June 2013 same-sex marriage was legalized in England and Wales, the act which now allows couples in a same-sex relationships similar rights afforded to heterosexual couples. Most notably the right to same-sex marriage if the minister of the religion consents to preform the service. There has also been a noted change in the attitude of social generations towards homosexuality; recent research carried out by NatCen has shown a steady decline in the number of people who believe homosexuality is wrong. Falling from over sixty percent in 1983 to below thirty percent in 2012.[1] These findings seemingly suggest that it is becoming more socially acceptable for men and women to be openly gay. Gender equality is also on the rise, with the pay gap between men and women becoming smaller and ‘there are growing numbers of women who earn more and are more employable than their partners, who are more career focused, who have a more secure career, or who enjoy their job more than their partner does.’[2] As a society we are also entering an era where typical gender roles are changing as it is becoming common for both parents to stay in work or for fathers to stay at home to look after their children as appose to the mother. During the mid-1980s just under 50 percent of the british population believed in a separation of male and female roles. With the male taking on paid work while the female stayed at home. Since then there has been a consistence decline in the percentage of people who hold this belief. As of 2012, only 13 per cent of the population still agreed. From this information we are able to ascertain that there has been a sizeable shift in the attitude to stereotypical gender roles within the last 30 years.[3] In the past stereotypical male roles within society have been that of ‘aggressive (or at least assertive), logical, unemotional, independent, dominant, competitive, objective, athletic, active, and, above all, competent.’[4] These are stereotypes which in the past have been reinforced in the media.

One example of this is the classic American Sit-com The Dick Van Dyke Show which ran in the early 1960’s. The show depicts what many would consider an idealised family life. Dick Van Dykes character Rob Petrie has a successful New York career and a happy family life, where he is portrayed as the archetypical man of the house. A man who is in control of his work life, family and household. For whenever he comes home his wife comes to ask him how his day was and whether he would like a rest, while his son greets him with a hug. One of the ways the show exemplifies Rob’s control is when it comes to disciplining his son. His wife Laura is often portrayed as being unable to do this without the help of her husband. However, the traits Dick Van Dyke portrayed in the show are now in more recent times being associated with female characters, and likewise it is now common for men to hold what was once stereotypically female traits. Traits such as being emotional, passive, sensitive, quite, weak and self-critical too name but a few. A more recent American Sit-com which flips these traits is Malcolm in the Middle. In this show it is the mother who is portrayed as the dominate head of the household, who is in control and the main figure when it comes to disciplining their children. While the father in comparison is portrayed as bumbling and child like. Personifying many of the trait which were once associated with women, such as emotional, passive and sensitive. One could argue that because of changing attitudes towards homosexuality and with same-sex couples now being allowed to marry in conjunction with the changing roles of women within society that the stereotypical view of what a man should be and what constitutes typical family life is being challenged. It is this theme which is explored in the accompanying folio. Particularly how men who still judge and base their own masculinity on these older stereotypical roles (such as in the Dick Van Show) react to this challenge. Although this is the overall theme of the three pieces collected in the folio, each shall also be examined individually which an explanation given as to what was trying to be achieved and the literary influences that aided in their creation.

The main inspiration behind Fracture came from the notion that modern man is like a dangerous animal kept in a cage, similar to a lion kept in captivity. That societies notion of how a man should behave is representative of the cage, and the values which we believe a man should hold are domesticating his animalistic instincts, such as aggression and sexual appetite. What Fracture tries to explore is what would happen if the cage was opened and man were let loose; if he was no longer domesticated by societies rules on how a man should behave. This was done by having the main character have a phycological breakdown/mid-life crisis brought on by a reflection of the man he had become. The main character is man who always expected his life to be like that of Rob Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show, but wakes up one morning to realise that it is in fact far from it. The violent opening of the piece where the main character repeatedly bangs his head against a mirror is representative of the lion breaking out its cage, and attacking what it perceives as being weaker than itself. The broken mirror itself also becomes a metaphor for his physic, which is something the structure of the text tried to represent. The piece is broken into many paragraphs of varying length, with some being only seven words long. The reason behind this was that each paragraph regardless of length would represent a shard of the broken mirror and a different piece of the story. The main influence behind presenting the text in this way was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. One of the things which this novel does is present text in a way that reflects what is happening in the narrative. Sections of the novel revolve around the exploration a house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. This house can seemingly grow, shrink and change it’s inward shape on its own volition. One of the ways this change is represented is with the layout of the text on the page, for example at one point when a character is exploring a corridor it begins to shrink. The layout of the text reflects this by using less space on the page, so as the corridor gets smaller each page has a smaller amount of text.[5] The overall effect of this is that the novel become a representation of the house. So as in House of Leaves where the novel is a representation of the house, the structure of the text in Fracture is supposed to represent the broken mirror and the main character’s broken physic. Throughout Fracture minimal description is given to the main characters’s location or of the people around him, this again was designed as a way reinforce the idea that the broken mirror represents different parts of the story. This was intended to put across the idea that even if one where to put the mirror back together, that pieces would be missing. That you would never be able to get a complete image of the events, they would always be distorted through the physic of the main character’s first person narration. Fracture tried to portray the main character as a man who had given way of the rational and given in to his animalistic urges coupled with an outdated chauvinistic belief as to how a man behaves. Such as his treatment of women, for example ‘Now I just sit at my desk and watch the smug little bastard who will one day be my boss stare at her tits every time she walks past. She sees him when he does it. She likes it.’ This shows the outdated belief the women like being objectified. This, like the main character’s interaction with the secretary and the bar man was an attempt to hark back to the theme of animalistic instincts. The bar man was used as a counter point to show the conflict between what could how be considered the new alpha male or domesticated man. The interaction between the bar man and the main character was to show the challenge to mans old stereotypical role, verses what would now be considered the appropriate action. The idea being that when the main character backs down to bar man that it represents the control of the new alpha male or the more contemporary belief of what constitutes masculinity. The bar man is the personification of the challenge on mans old stereotypical role.

While Fracture could be considered an extreme reaction to this challenge, Polystyrene approaches the subject in a much more reflective way. In this piece the reader is presented with a grown man reflecting on the final days before his parents separation in the late 1980s. What Polystyrene tries to address is the move away for the idealised family life put forth in the Dick Van Dyke Show, to the realistic view the not every family is perfect nor does every marriage last. Which Information procured by the Marriage Foundation confirms as it shows that from the 1960s divorce increased rapidly until peaking in 1993.[6]To a certain extent Polystyrene, like Malcolm in the Middle flips the traits normally associated with each gender. For male and female characters within the piece show traits that are associated with both genders. Take for instance the female characters, they are portrayed as being in control, assertive, aggressive, logical and independent; which are stereotypically male traits. While also being emotional and sensitive. For example when Katy’s mother follows her out of the cabin, she is in the lead and carrying her daughters coat, which shows the logical and tells her husband ‘For God sake I’ll go get her, you just stay with him.’ This again shows the logical, but also her control and assertiveness by telling her husband to stay behind to look after their son. Likewise Katy also exhibits traits associated from both genders, such as independence, aggression, emotional. she shows independence when she storms out of the cabin, aggression when attacking her father and of course emotional when crying, with the implication being that her actions are a result of her anger at her fathers affair and the fear that he might leave. Again with the narrator both sets of traits are in play; such as passive, quite and being self critical. Passive in the sense that he only has a vague understanding of the events that are going on around him and for the most part doesn’t interact with them. Opting instead to play in the snow and because his parents are trying to protect him from what is happening by not fighting when he is present. The reader gets to see the characters self critical side, when his older self reflects that his ‘concern didn’t go to Katy, but to [him]self.’

The main literary influence behind Polystyrene come from the graphic novels, Violent Cases and The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (Mr Punch) both written by Neil Gaiman. Although these graphic novels at times are more surreal than Polystyrene, both share common themes. Mainly that of an adult narrator reflecting on his childhood, a child’s inability to understand the adult world and how our memory may not always be truthful. One of the key aspects in Violent Cases is the changing appearance of the character known as the Osteopath. The narrator admits that he cannot accurately remember what the Osteopath looked, and that the image of him in his head is based on a combination of what he does remember, his fathers description of him and Humphrey Bogart’s partner in the Maltese Falcon. Similarly in Polystyrene the narrator admits that he only has one clear memory of his father and the events surrounding his father leaving have been influenced by his sister’s experience of the events. in both instances the narrators memories are influenced by other people. A pivotal scene in Mr Punch revolves around the narrator not being able make the connection between what he is seeing and hearing with the events going on around him. The scene in question being when his grandfather and two other men hit a women who the grandfather has gotten pregnant in the stomach. Although the circumstances are very different in Polystyrene the same theme appears. For example, when the narrator misinterprets the meaning of his ‘mother asking, “Do you love her?” and [his] father saying “no” to being a reference to his sister. In both cases the narrators are unable to properly understand what is going on around them resulting from their lack of understanding of the adult world.

The final piece in the folio, To See the World was also influenced by Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases and Mr Punch. Again it is told from the point of view of an adult narrator reflecting on his childhood and shares the theme that adults lie. In Violent Cases this done by keeping the reader in the dark as to whether or not the Osteopath’s story about working for Al Capone is true. Where in To See the World the lie is a scary story the father tells to keep his son from climbing a tree. Although this theme only makes up a small portion of To See the World it is worth noting as it has wider implications; as it is the catalyst for the narrators fascination with the tree. The father’s story makes the tree in to something to be conquered and in turn a representation of masculinity.   This takes us back to the folio’s overall theme, that of changing male roles in society. So if Fracture is an extreme reaction to the this change and Polystyrene is the move away from outdated stereotypical gender roles, then To See the World is intended to represent how the seeds of these outdated roles may be sown. The father by telling the ghost story about the tree gives it a sense of danger and makes it something the narrator fears. This is explored in To See the World by the game the children play at halloween where they have to run up and touch the so-called hunted tree. The narrator fears the reprisals and ridicule he may suffer at the hands of the other children if he is unable to complete the game. The game is intended to represent a type of negative reinforcement that promotes certain stereotypical male traits such as competitiveness and athleticism, while demonising stereotypical female traits such as being emotional and weak. This is again an idea that is further examined when the narrator attempts to climb the tree with Tommy. That section of the story was intended to explore an whole range of different male traits; not just the ones within the narrator by also within Tommy. Tommy’s character was intended to represent the archetypal male within the story, this was done by again giving him stereotypical male traits. For you will note that he is assertive and dominant when it comes to the declaration that they are going to build a tree house. Logical by drawing a crude plan for it and by sourcing the materials they will need to build it. Active because he instigated the plan and helped in the procurement of the materials. It is because of this that Tommy can be seen as the alpha male of the two children. The Narrator on the other hand, by failing to climb the tree, and by his friends playful mocking is left feeling emasculated and tries to regain his masculinity by challenging Tommy or the alpha male in a fight. Tommy’s mocking of the narrator was again intended to be a way of reinforcing stereotypical male traits, which is main idea this piece intended to explore. The intention was that by having the narrator emasculated by mockery and physical inability (not being tall enough to climb the tree) that it only further reinforce the stereotypical traits and again demonise the female ones, when present in a male. What To See the World ultimately tries to explore the social influences behind why a man may judge his own masculinity in a certain way; with the tree acting as a metaphor for that masculinity

Along with the other literary influences what the three pieces collected within the folio try to explore is the changing roles within society between man and woman, and what it is that challenges these roles. This was done by approaching the theme in different ways. In Fracture it was done by having the main character have an extreme reaction against how society believes a man should behave. While also exploring how outdated male traits seen by others in contemporary society. With Polystyrene the approach was to show the effect changing gender roles has on a family, and how both men and women can share the same traits. Finally with To See the World it was to show how stereotypical gender roles can become ingrained in a person psychologically by have it linked to their masculinity.

 

 

 

[1] Alison Park, Rebecca Rhead, Personal Relationships: Changing Attitudes Towards Sex, Marriage and Parenthood, (2013), <http://www.bsa-30.natcen.ac.uk/read-the-report/personal-relationships/homosexuality.aspx> [accessed 19 November 2013] (para. 6 of 15).

[2] Jo Parfitt, A Career in Your Suitcase, (Britain: Summertime Publishing, 1998), p253.

[3] Elizabeth Clery, Jacqueline Scott, Gender Roles: An Incomplete Revolution?, (2013), <http://www.bsa-30.natcen.ac.uk/read-the-report/gender-roles/attitudes-to-gender-roles-change-over-time.aspx> [accessed 19 November 2013] (para. 3 of 13).

[4] Robert Crooks, Karla Baur, Our Sexuality, (Belmont: Cengage, 2011), p135.

[5] Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leves, (Double Day: Britian, 2001), p444-458.

[6] Harry Benson, What is the Divorce Rate?, (February, 2013), <http://www.marriagefoundation.org.uk/Shared/Uploads/Products/5357_MF%20-%20What%20is%20the%20divorce%20rate%20-%20060213.pdf> [accessed 20 November 2013] p2.

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