Conference. At the conference “Urban Masculinities”, students explored the representations of masculinity, gender, race and class in various works of fiction.
We spend most of our lives in cities. Cities are where the vast majority of us work, spend our free time, and do pretty much everything else – modern society relies on cities as its organizing mechanism, the need for thousands and millions of people almost literally stacked upon each other. Though it’s not always apparent, urban spaces shape the way we interact with our everyday
world. This goes beyond basic commodities like how much rent we pay, where we can buy food or go to work. How these spaces are structured contributes a fair amount to our well-being: they also determine who’s able to participate in society – to whom these spaces are accessible and who, through structural means becomes advantaged or disadvantaged.
These often have been represented in literature, film and culture overall. To explore these representations, the student conference “Urban Masculinities” organised by the Department for English and American Studies of the RUB originated as a continuation of the academic conference “Metropolitan Masculinities: Narratives of Gender and Urban Space”, by the Marie Jahoda Center for International Gender Studies. For many of the master-students, this was the first conference they held a presentation in, as the students Colleen Exner and Jonas Kissel explain. In the papers prepared for the conference, they and their fellow students dealt with various aspects of the relation between urban spaces and masculinity, for which the intersection between gender, class and race also plays a big factor.
For example. Colleen Exner examined the late nineteenth-century novel “The Story of a Modern Woman” by Ella Hepworth Dixon. In the novel, set in Victorian London, the protagonist Mary Earl tries to navigate London which is shaped by male upper-class behaviors. A bustling, loud and competitive space often described as confining what are assumed to be feminine traits. Dixon describes London as a space constructed and conquered by men whereas it’s destructive to the female characters or male characters who are not strong enough to survive this “unnatural” environment. Throughout the novel, the female characters fail in achieving their goals and happiness because the social space of the city is geared towards men. Mary Earl, being the only female survivor, learns to adapt to the social hierarchies and behaviors culminating in the finishing lines, encapsulating this view on the city: “Standing alone there on the heights, she made a feint as if to grasp the city spread out before her, but the movement ended in a vain gesture, and the radiance of her face was blotted out as she began to plod homeward in the twilight of the suburban road.” Whether the novel views the city as a space which by nature is more accommodating to masculine behavior or whether it’s because it was created as such is unclear, Colleen says. “I would read it as a criticism of how society and especially men create this city. This is a process of many years and centuries. It’s not like one day, men decided it’s our city now.”