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Home arrow Sociology arrow Feeling Gender: A Generational and Psychosocial Approach
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The Changing Psychological World of the Men

Fathers and Sons

As we have seen, the main pattern of relationships between fathers and sons has changed from a filial, admiring relationship in the oldest generation, to a bland, sometimes ironic but rarely directly conflictual relationship in the middle generation, and to a more mutual admiring relationship in the youngest generation.

It is not difficult to see in this a connection to the social status and the presence of the father in the son’s life. The fathers of the oldest and the youngest generations were clearly more present in their sons’ lives, but in the oldest generation this was combined with a more pronounced generational hierarchy between parents and children, and also with a more direct experience of the father’s authority and hard physical work to provide for the family. An interesting effect of this change is the tendency of more centrifugal identifications (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 206) in the youngest generation, where the father resembles you instead of you resembling your father.

The bland relationship with the father in the middle generation is correspondingly related to the more distant father in the breadwinner/carer family, but may also have been amplified in this sample of socially mobile sons: the father is not only absent, he also represents an outdated masculinity. There are few signs of phallic phantasies—superman fantasies— connected to the absent father among men in this generation, but the idea of masculinity is diffuse and this may be connected to their childhood experiences of distant fathers. The sons of this generation criticise their fathers for being unavailable and for being what Holter and Aarseth (1993: 51) have termed ‘emotionally handicapped’. Those who had more present fathers are not impressed by their fathers’ emotional competence either, but here the critique is mixed with a positive identification with their masculine assets.

It is only in the oldest generation that the father emerges as a powerful figure who one may not be able to match. Competition and possibility for humiliation are connected much more clearly to the same-sex relationship for men in the oldest generation than in the two younger ones. Nancy Chodorow (2012) suggests a special Achilles complex’ between fathers and sons—where the son feels humiliated by the father’s power and privileges and therefore comes to fear passivity. Seen from this perspective, some of the critique we hear from the sons about fathers letting their wives work too hard might be interpreted as a projective identification related to their own fear of being let down by their fathers.

Yet, it is not a punitive father that emerges in the oldest generation, but an admirable one with positive social qualities, like having something, being something or doing something—he is, as several of our older informants described him, ‘the jack of all trades’, and this makes the sons proud. What Jessica Benjamin describes as the identificatory love for the father (1995: 57) shines through for these informants, whereas it is absent among the few who had more socially withdrawn fathers. In the middle generation the bland relationship with the father makes him unfit as either a strong or a threatening figure. This implies that the threat of the Achilles complex is more or less gone. However, the sons are also left to construct for themselves what it means to be a man, and some of them appear quite obsessed with this question in the interviews.

In the youngest generation the sons seem to incorporate the fathers’ strengths and qualities into their own identities. The relational basis of this incorporation seems to be more caring fathers; however, this dimension of care is not explicitly mentioned. Actually, most of the boys had wanted their fathers to be even more present, and they also see them as less emotionally competent than their mothers (see also Brannen 2015, who finds that men want their fathers to have been more present, no matter how much he actually was present). It appears that a caring parent, regardless of what sex, tends to become someone taken for granted, the invisible background of one’s own unreflected wellbeing. The fathers of the youngest generation are described more as doers than as talkers, but the many doings of father and son seem to have established a safe emotional attachment, and against this background the sons emphasise and identify with their fathers’ ‘masculine’ virtues, like being knowledgeable, competent and physically fit. The middle-class fathers in our sample may not be the jack of all trades as the old working-class fathers were, but they nevertheless embody some of the modern masculine qualities that the sons consider to be important. There is less emphasis on the father’s work, career, status and possessions than there was in the oldest generation; rather, it is the personalised masculine virtues he embodies for his son that seem to give the sons a secure subjective sense of being male. It is the playful, creative and physically courageous masculinity they identify with. This masculine identity is seldom constructed as complementary to femininity. In fact, this is only seen in a few of the stories of the workingclass boys, who, being located in the middle-class and girl-dominated sphere of academic high school, may have an unconscious wish to defend their fathers’ status by denigrating feminine activities. The predominant pattern, however, is that the positive identification with their fathers’ masculinity does not exclude identifications with more ‘feminine’ values and activities. It is a question to what extent they gender these qualities at all: what it means to be a man may include all sorts of qualities regardsless of whether they have been culturally associated with masculinity or femininity earlier. It resembles what Lynne Layton describes thus: ‘The capacity to enjoy being a man without repudiating identifications with women seems to lead to something new, something that is not dominant in the culture and that the term androgyny does not quite capture’ (1998: 189). Masculine gender identity in this generation, especially among middle-class boys, is rather connected to the feeling of being unique and unpredictable than to a specific cultural content.

 
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