Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Masculinity, School, and Self in Sweden and the Netherlands

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Masculinity, School, and Self in Sweden and the Netherlands

Article excerpt

Key Words: masculinity, sexual identity, transsexualism, cultural differences, Sweden, Netherlands

How we render individual experience requires understanding the processes and details of social emergence. We conceptualize this emergence in different ways, but whether we refer to identity, the self, or to subjectivity, what we are grasping is the construction of, and our placement in, the world. Interviews carried out in the winter of 1998 in Sweden and the Netherlands explored whether and how a group of Europeans hold to a concept of (sexual) identity, and to gender, masculinity, and the school as factors in its construction. I requested a general explanation of identity and self-knowledge and asked if these were merely different labels for the same concept, or were distinguishable from each other. Following this were more specific analyses of sexual identity and school experience--referring to curriculum, other students, the social makeup and environment of the schools, and the behaviour and attitude of school personnel. All participants were between 15 and 23, two are heterosexual, and one is a female-to-male transsexual. Seven people will be discussed; their discussions of normalcy and otherness, and of masculinity as one of the boundaries complicating this relation, partially outline the politics of sexuality and sexual identity in their respective societies.

Michael Bach (1993) writes that our narratives of others and "other" reflect how our own selves are established. Especially in Sweden, less overtly in the Netherlands, interviews communicated totemic narratives of masculinity. These narratives are the discursive attire of what Bach calls "the institutionalized masculine" (p. 43). Diana Fuss (1995), focusing on more than masculinity, recommends "identification" as a more auspicious conceptual mine.

I mention Fuss's work because she offers a psychological explanation for the complicatedness of identity, something noted by the interviewees. Also, Fuss suggests identification brings us closer to understanding the volatility of our expressions of identity, a state of affairs also cited in the interviews. Finally, she indicates that our identity vocabulary is inadequate descriptively and prescriptively. We cannot precisely see ourselves as we are, so we would learn more about ourselves by understanding the psychological foundations of our identifications. The interviews analyzed here are not intended to uphold or nullify Fuss's ideas. But they do indicate a range of identity discourse. On one hand, to be seen as somebody who is constantly changing might invite speculation about one's psychological stability, but to be seen as living an imperative that remains unchanged invites questions about one's capacity to grow. Growth gathers together in some kind of alignment, our epistemological and ontological understandings.

By "alignment" I do not mean harmony or unity. I have in mind Probyn's (1993) comments on the self, which she describes as "a mode of holding together the epistemological and the ontological" (p. 4). Self and identity are not synonymous in this view, but they are intimates of each other. One question in my mind as I traveled to Europe was how this holding together played out in daily life, in places supposedly quite unlike Canada.


Often we reduce the differences between and within countries to one cultural "personality." From a distance, Sweden and the Netherlands appear to many Canadians and Americans to be centres of sexual liberation and enlightenment. They assume a casualness about sex and gender in these places. Neither country in this research comes out looking so idyllic; they differ from the afar-romanticized image of them, and from each other as Swedes and Dutch and discrete nationals.

For example, differences were minimal when talking about schools. Discussing whether schools influence students' perceptions and expressions of identity and gender bewilders us. …

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