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Gender Dis-Ease: Representations of Masculine Hysteria in Narratives of Sexual Trauma



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My dissertation addresses the conflicts of masculine subjectivity evident in narratives of sexual trauma, including Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, Neil Gaiman’s graphic story “Calliope,” Ian McEwan’s short story “Homemade,” Chang-rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life, J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, and Kimberly Peirce’s film Boys Don’t Cry. I argue that in these narratives patriarchal culture is represented as toxic, producing a pathological form of masculinity that is founded on violent repudiation of female and feminized Others. For men and boys, the disavowal of masculine fears and anxieties, as well as the collective shame and silencing of feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, all contribute to social conditions that produce a hostile, destructive, and violent masculinity. Hysteria or what I call “gender dis-ease” offers an apt model to illustrate the effect that this configuration of masculinity has on both the mind and body of the afflicted subjects. The historical context of war trauma reveals the construction of hysteria as a state of masculinity that is feared and abject in its connotations of vulnerability, effeminacy and homosexuality. In this sense, those men who occupy a hysterical position are seen as a threat to the constitution of patriarchal masculinity. Indeed, the repudiation of male hysteria can be seen as the foundation of hegemonic masculine subjectivity. When situated within the theories of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jonathan Dollimore, and Michael S. Kimmel, the male hysteric can be seen as a subject that destabilizes masculinity in such a way that it reveals its careful construction as a fixed and static category as well as its function to maintain social stability through heterosexism, homophobia, and misogyny. Patriarchal culture has produced traumatic conditions, such that those who are vulnerable or marked as “Other” than the norm are targeted with abuse and violence. The violence perpetuated and expressed in patriarchal culture targets all those who appear vulnerable and weak. This includes individuals who do not conform or fit into the narrow constraints of the binary structures of gender and sexuality. The narratives that I have included in my discussion exemplify how contemporary authors and filmmakers are representing masculinity in ways that defy or challenge hegemonic constructions of gender. In Section One of my discussion, I look at contemporary Gothic narratives that focus on male violators, narratives by Süskind, Gaiman and McEwan. Each of these authors explores the psychodynamics of male violators to illustrate how it is often the normative qualities of hegemonic masculinity, such as ambition and entitlement, that become malevolent forces, leading “normal” men to do monstrous acts of sadistic violence. In Section Two, I continue my examination of male violators, yet shift my focus to the journey of redemption undertaken by men who have committed sexual violence. The male protagonists in narratives by Lee and Coetzee have been complicit in supporting patriarchal power structures, yet are represented as suffering post-traumatic shame and regret for their actions. In Section Three, I look at representations of male or male-identified victims of sexual violence in Findley’s The Wars and Peirce’s film Boys Don’t Cry. Both Findley and Peirce represent the anguish and struggle of being different within a patriarchal system that disavows and victimizes dissident subjectivities. Ultimately, by reading gender dis-ease or hysteria within these narratives, I am attempting to show how contemporary literature and film challenge patriarchal constraints and power inequalities, while also promoting alternative masculinities.



Hysteria, Masculinities, Contemporary Literature, Violence



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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