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Masculinity and Race in Victorian Britain

Info: 2832 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 9th Nov 2021 in History

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British men in the Victorian Britain wanted to create a kind of masculinity which would serve as the embodiment of national values.  The expressions of masculinity and nationalism amid this age of “high imperialism” were imposing and aggressive.  During this era, marginalized groups, for example, workers and women, called for more political rights and challenged the middle class male. Men carried hidden fears driving gendered ideals, they backed a basis of national superiority, in which the civilized and domesticated man existed beside the masculine explorer in the nation’s misleading landscape.[1]  Men frequently ostracized individuals such as women and individuals of a different race. 

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During the period between 1830 and 1880, the idea that women were the weaker sex, became common in nearly all classes, women were classed as being either naturally self-restrained, maternal, and domestic.[2] Masculinity, sexuality, marriage and race started to change radically during the 1880s. Eugenics changed the implication of marriage and masculinity from a spiritual to a reproductive union which hinged on heterosexual fertility, promoting ‘racial purity’.[3] “Queen Victoria became an icon of the late 19th Century middle class femininity and domesticity”.[4] This meant that women would not engage in the public sphere, as they would keep to their domestic spaces defining men as the superior gender with the most significant role in society. This was also extremely prevalent for marriage in the Victorian era. This was extremely idealised. The expectation was to find a suitable partner that conformed to societies desires. The ideal for a woman was to keep to their domestic spheres whilst they support their husbands that participate in the public sphere. Women possessed no freedom in a marriage, they were pressured by men to perform in a perfect manner as society states.[5] Once married a woman could not divorce her husband; The Matrimonial causes act of 1857[6] meant that the husband was the only individual that had the right to divorce. The wealth of the woman was also automatically given to the husband due to the 1882 Married Property Act[7]. This would have resulted in the husband essentially owning his wife as one of his possessions, further highlighting the superiority of the male gender.

However, these dishonourable behaviours became the hidden norm in society as prostitution became an increasingly popular source for income for women.  Although this was known to be common for upper class men to partake, this particular subject was never part of discussion until it was confronted by an extremely unconventional painting, exhibited in Paris, Manet’s Olympia.[8] Many spectators found the piece shocking “Manet didn't merely expose the prostitute to the eyes of the world, he had the audacity to worship her.”[9] This idea confronted the ‘civilised’ male by exposing the activities in which isn’t disused in everyday society. This could also suggest the idea of female empowerment as this exposure displays the sexual freedom of woman combined with the disparaging of masculinity. This act of rebellion to the male gender could suggest to be one of the initial threats to masculinity and their superiority.

In the 1899 Boer War[10], a large number of volunteers, mainly from lower class, were considered not to be physically fit for military service. As Major General Frederick Maurice stated that just 20 per cent of those who volunteered remained as effective soldiers, a situation he saw as disastrous and appalling.[11] “Many believed that the British army was not powerful enough. If there was difficulty recruiting for a small-scale war, then it would be even more difficult to enlist a large number of able soldiers for a large-scale war.”[12] Because the populations health was clearly impacted the rise of the British Empire, women were being made to produce better and superior individuals suggesting that this was creating a race in itself. “The main question was whether or not an Empire could be relevant if it did not breed and sustain in the fullest and truest logic of the term an Imperial race.”[13] Therefore, race was very crucial to the construction of masculinity during the Victorian era.

The relationship between race and masculinity is also evident on how English men expressed themselves in relation to other men. They regularly articulated their reservations on immorality relative to the men of the other races.  The inconsistencies featured within the romanticized meanings of masculinity turned out to be rather more obvious when considered within the limits of the interactions between males.[14] Middle class English men tried to fight the crises of identity by forming derogatory gendered expressions, activities with significant social and political implications, onto men of other races.  For example, middle class white men supported masculinity by constructing images of a racial ‘other’. For example, they did this by using both sexual and racial prejudices to criticise the inappropriate behavior of an Anglo man.  From different perspectives, masculinity became an idea which could break easily.  Men noticed the capability as well as the tendency of men to disregard gender identity boundaries.  Men similarly depended on tropes of incursion to show the corruption of masculinity.  Immorality created this idea of corrupted masculinity, as men felt they had to follow how all men act in society, to push a civilized male into dishonourable behaviours.[15] The uncertain positions of masculinity, as well as the threats to masculinity, added an element of fear to English male discussions.

Similarly, the relationship between masculinity and race is also evident in how the British depicted the Indian male. Although such representation of the Indian male depended on the ideas of primitive bestiality, British men overlooked the apparently inoffensive acceptance of the traits of an Anglo man by a growing middle class in Indian.  The indiscretions of predominant racial and gender ideals that were performed by foreign or Anglo males, disturbed the middle class English men.  “Expressing negative descriptions of masculinity, or even what wasn’t, English males subliminally challenged what actually constituted an ideal masculinity, exposing the great instability characteristic in the meanings or descriptions of masculinity.”[16]  In order to keep their superiority in their own gender and race, English males continually mocked English educated Indians as effeminate. According to Susanne Scholz and Nicola Dropmann, there was an increasingly high threat of mimicry, which as it reveals the colonial discourse’s uncertainty similarly disrupting its very authority. The English male’s masculinity relied much on a universal adoption of its individuality.[17]  This was at the stage where Britain’s colonial rule was under threat, highlighted by the introduction of the ‘Grand Tour’[18] as young males gained the opportunity to explore Italy with many individuals recognising the fall of the concept of Empire internationally.[19] For instance, it is clear that if Indians could govern themselves in a civilized way, there would be no purpose for the presence of Britain in India. This meant that in order to retain this colonial rule, the English male would have believed that by ostracising the ‘others’ they could demonstrate the significance of Britain’s colonial rule whilst cementing their overall superiority in society, using this idea of mocking as a strategy to conceal the fear of the reality of the falling Empire.

Overall, Victorian middle class English males defined, filtered and policed the world around them as an attempt to secure a civilized model of masculinity. Men organized social separations and the “others” rebellious elements in order to tactically safeguard masculinity. In spite of these attempts at creating clear divisions in races, the prevailing masculine values instilled conflicting elements.  Supported by a self-assured presentation, as shown by expansive tropes of invasion and dislocation, English males struggled to find civilized masculinity. The advance of the Victorian conventional gender roles was narrowly associated with the major socioeconomic change that had been witnessed in Britain ever since the 19th century. The changes were as a result of the long industrialization process and the associated development of a consumer economy which influenced the growth of the prevailing English middle-class value systems. But most importantly, the philosophical beliefs of Victorian era showed themselves in racial discourses, which influences and reinforced the creation of masculinity and femininity.

Bibliography

Griffin, Ben. "The domestic ideology of Victorian patriarchy." The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain (n.d.), 37-64.

Kitzan, Laurence. Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire: the Rose-Colored Vision. Westport (Conn.): Greenwood Press, 2001, 15.

Lorimer, Douglas. "Rethinking Victorian racism." Science, race relations and resistance, 2013, 2-14.

Louttit, Chris. "Working- Class Masculinity and the Victorian Novel." The Victorian Novel and Masculinity, 2015, 31-50.

Schneider, Ralf. "The Invisible Center: Conceptions of Masculinity in Victorian Fiction—Realist, Crime, Detective, and Gothic." Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, 2011, 147-168.

Scholz, Susanne, and Nicola Dropmann. "The Props of Masculinity in Late Victorian Adventure Fiction." Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, 2011, 169-186.

Streets, Heather. Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Tosh, John, and John. Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family, and Empire. London: Pearson Education, 2005.

Websites

Appell, Felicia. “Victorian Ideals: The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships.” Accessed December 13, 2019. https://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue18/appell.htm.

Bernheimer, Charles. “Manets Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal.” Poetics Today10, no. 2 (1989): 255. https://doi.org/10.2307/1773024.

“Divided Society.” BBC News. BBC. Accessed December 13, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zmgxsbk/revision/7.

Evans, Richard J. “The Victorians: Empire and Race.” Accessed December 13, 2019. https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-empire-and-race.

“History - Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.” BBC. BBC. Accessed December 13, 2019. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_01.shtml.

Simkin, John. Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational. Accessed December 13, 2019. https://spartacus-educational.com/Wmarriage.htm.

Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “Manet's ‘Olympia.’” Salon. Salon.com. Accessed December 13, 2019. https://www.salon.com/2002/05/13/olympia_2/.

Victorian Ideals. Accessed December 13, 2019. https://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue18/appell.htm.


[1] Ben Griffin, "The domestic ideology of Victorian patriarchy," The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain (n.d.)

[2]Ralf Schneider, "The Invisible Center: Conceptions of Masculinity in Victorian Fiction—Realist, Crime, Detective, and Gothic," Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, 2011

[3] Susanne Scholz and Nicola Dropmann, "The Props of Masculinity in Late Victorian Adventure Fiction," Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, 2011.

[4] “History - Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain,” BBC (BBC), accessed December 13, 2019, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_01.shtml

[5] Felicia Appell, “Victorian Ideals: The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships,” accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue18/appell.htm

[6] John Simkin, Spartacus Educational (Spartacus Educational), accessed December 13, 2019, https://spartacus-educational.com/Wmarriage.htm)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Charles Bernheimer, “Manets Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal,” Poetics Today 10, no. 2 (1989): p. 255

[9] Mary Elizabeth Williams, “Manet's ‘Olympia,’” Salon (Salon.com), accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.salon.com/2002/05/13/olympia_2/

[10] “Divided Society,” BBC News (BBC), accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zmgxsbk/revision/7)

[11] Ralf Schneider, "The Invisible Center: Conceptions of Masculinity in Victorian Fiction—Realist, Crime, Detective, and Gothic," Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, 2011

[12] “Divided Society,” BBC News (BBC), accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zmgxsbk/revision/7)

[13] John Tosh and John, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family, and Empire (London: Pearson Education, 2005)

[14] Douglas Lorimer, "Rethinking Victorian racism," Science, race relations and resistance, 2013.

[15] Ben Griffin, "The domestic ideology of Victorian patriarchy," The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain (n.d.)

[16] Chris Louttit, "Working- Class Masculinity and the Victorian Novel," The Victorian Novel and Masculinity, 2015.

[17] Heather Streets, Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004)

[18] Laurence Kitzan, Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire: the Rose-Colored Vision (Westport (Conn.): Greenwood Press, 2001)

[19] Richard J Evans, “The Victorians: Empire and Race,” accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-empire-and-race)

 

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