The discursive construction of masculinity and health: a multi-layered explication of men and women's complicity with hegemonic masculinity

Seymour-Smith, Sarah Elizabeth (2004). The discursive construction of masculinity and health: a multi-layered explication of men and women's complicity with hegemonic masculinity. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis presents a discourse analysis of the ways in which serious illness threatens masculine identity. The data corpus consists primarily of illness narratives of eighteen men and thirteen women who had experienced testicular, prostate or breast cancer. In addition forty-seven media accounts, nine interviews with health professionals, eight interviews with couples and three support group interviews were analysed. Women are included for two reasons. First, gender is theorised as relational and thus masculinity is constructed in opposition to femininity. Second, women's accounts provide insights into what is specific about masculinity rather than general to people experiencing serious illness.

Each empirical chapter addresses a particular piece of what can be termed the 'masculinity and health puzzle'. First, using the concept of interpretative repertoires, I argue that media, medical and lay people routinely construct hegemonic masculinity as detrimental to men's health because it prevents men from seeking medical help. However, this construction is only possible because it takes for granted that masculinity needs to be protected and indulged, with men being cajoled into seeking medical help by their female partners. Second, in a narrative analysis, I suggest that typical constructions of gender and health provide culturally sanctioned plot lines, which organise men and women's illness narratives. For instance, women unproblematically construct themselves as 'instinctively' knowing they are ill whereas men's accounts are characterised by an 'uncertainty' about illness behaviour. Men discursively negotiate the 'troubled masculine identities' produced by a focus on illness. Third, a fine-grained analysis of couples' co-constructed illness narratives shows the complexity of identity performance by demonstrating how women are complicit with hegemonic masculinity. Finally, the notion of complicity is further examined by discussing how being a member of an illness support group 'troubles' men's identities. The findings of the thesis as a whole demonstrate that the subject positions available to this group of men and women are limiting so that both men and women's individual narrative accounts and co-produced stories serve to sustain rather than subvert hegemonic masculinity.

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