Friday, 9 December 2016

Meet Professor Joanne Begiato, Head of Brookes School of History, Philosophy and Culture

From eighteenth-century pornography featuring clergymen to what it means to be a hipster today, Joanne talks about her research on the history of emotions and masculinity.

Hi Joanne, what can you tell us about your research?

I research the History of masculinities mostly, and I am interested in how men in the past thought about themselves and constructed their identities.

Why did you choose masculinities as opposed to femininities?

I started off researching the history of gender in the eighteenth century. I was interested in gendered relationships: how men and women interacted with each other. That involved the ways that ideals of femininity and masculinity shaped people’s behaviour.

I was especially interested in marriage and the household, in particular how gender relationships played out in those environments. To be honest, though, once I published my book on how couples coped with conflict, and tackled infidelity and domestic violence, I got distracted away from femininities because there was less work on masculinities! I think people had tended to assume that all men are the same. They ignored the impact of things like social class, different professions, levels of wealth, levels of education, and not least things like race and ethnicity (a bit like they’ve done about women at various times!).

So I started to look at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century men as husbands and fathers - how did their personal lives shape them? I did a lot of work on the way that you can’t assume that men in the past were distant fathers. For example, it was really important in the eighteenth century for them to be quite hands-on, or what was known as ‘tender fathers’. That got me interested in how men were expected to express or channel certain kinds of emotions and feelings. This has developed over the last couple of years into a much more specific interest in emotions and how they influence people’s behaviour in the past.

What are the highlights of doing your research?

I get to do lots of fun things, not least because I tend to think about the changing fashions in men’s bodies! There are two ideals of masculinity based on classical standards of beauty. One is the young and slender male form and the other one is the ‘herculean’ form. It is interesting how these both come in and out of fashion! A recent article that I published analysed the ways in which there are different ways in which masculine deportment was portrayed. Deportment is the way that you stand, and how you present yourself to society. If you’re an elite man in the eighteenth century, for example, there might be more emphasis on being graceful, though still strong. But then by the later nineteenth century, as a result of different cultural, political, and imperial influences, you start to get more emphasis on muscularity and being hefty. All this influenced who was thought to be manly and since British national identity was often linked to the strength of British men, it could have national importance.

Do you compare history to modern day ideals of manliness?

Yes, and I think it is important to do that! For starters, it really helps people to understand the ways in which societies, and what is considered appropriate behaviour, changes over time. For example, when I teach, I try to get students to think about the ways that ideals about men’s bodies have changed, and I get them to do this by looking at changing fashions for beards. The last few years have seen resurgence in fashion for men to have beards - the “hipster” stereotype. I get my students to think about what this means because it helps them understand other times – like the mid nineteenth century -when beards became a marker of manliness following something of a crisis of masculinity. So I ask - why does the hipster have to have a beard and why is it seen as so important? Why does the “hipster” stereotype with beard and plaid shirt look so outdoorsy and rugged? Does it relate to feeling manly in a world that is now very technology based and where many men no longer do hands-on labour? Students really enjoy these sessions and it helps them relate gender to bigger social and cultural phenomena.

What do people think about your research?

People have been really interested in my work. One aspect that has drawn a lot of attention recently is a book that I am co-writing with Professor William Gibson called Sex and the Church: Religion Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution, The eighteenth century was an age of the first sexual revolution, when there was lot more discussion of morality, extramarital sex, pornography and same-sex relationships. We show that, perhaps surprisingly, the Church’s attitudes to sex and sexuality were at the core of society’s reactions to the first sexual revolution.

For example, we talk about the way that clergymen were often the subject of erotic prints in the late eighteenth century. Pornography is an interesting genre as it hadn’t really formed at that time. If you take its definition now it would be seen as something that’s intended to stimulate the reader or viewer specifically for sexual purposes. However pornography was used in a variety of ways in the eighteenth century, as a way to undermine authority figures and to attack the establishment. Pornography of this time included erotic prints containing very explicit images of clergymen and it’s clear that this was done to be anti-clerical - as way of mocking authority figures and attacking the Church.

People find it quite easy to engage with these aspects of my research!

Sometimes there is a risk that people think I’m driven by what is perhaps an unusual interest around men and sex. But it’s an important part of history because things like gender, emotions, and sex give you an insight into authority and power in the past and how societies and people’s lives were dominated by what we might consider very personal dimensions in our lives.