How do Rob Fleming’s romantic endeavours reflect the crisis of masculinity in nineties Britain? – An Essay

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Introduction

It is a truism, that at around the turn of the century there appeared to be something of a crisis of masculinity in Britain, such claims were ‘seemingly ubiquitous in nineties British culture’.[1] This essay will endeavour to unpick what is meant by that term, and consider it in relation to Nick Hornby’s lad lit text, High Fidelity (1995). Historically, masculinity tends to be read as being in crisis. Indeed, many scholars, including Kimmel, Edwards, and Connell have written on the subject of why this might be, and what it might mean. Hitherto, there has been no consensus as to an agreed definition. Some of the reasons for the conjecture are related to the inability to pinpoint precisely what is meant by both the terms masculinity, and crisis. At the time of writing, it was becoming apparent as a direct result of continued masculinity studies, that there was a plurality of masculinity and this was beginning to be represented across media. This essay can point to the hegemonic, red-neck, no nonsense, violent persona of Stone Cold Steve Austin on WWE programming; and the metrosexual Liverpool footballers of the period who rejected lad culture and were declared, ‘Spice Boys’ for being sharp dressers and wearing trendsetting haircuts as two divergences. Indeed, as academic research has advanced, constructs of masculinity have diversified. Therefore, it has proven especially difficult for scholars and academics to identify solely masculine traits. However, it is also true that men often define themselves by a number of external factors, and it is perhaps how they measure up in these which determines any potential feeling of crisis. Yet, it is also true that there is no fixed state of masculinity, even within a given setting or context. Furthermore, what constitutes crisis is open to debate. Indeed, there are those that believe what is not broken cannot be fixed. However, the emerging understanding gave cause to the interpellation of masculinity, consider the dissimilitude between the new man, the new lad, and the post-feminist man among others. Tim Edwards writes that, ‘the concept of crisis is used to incorporate a sense of panic or anxiety that on the one hand has already happened or on the other might happen, and is applied equally to masculinity as a concept or to the experiences of men themselves’.[2] This essay recognises that studies of masculinity only really emerged in the 1970s, through academic research pioneered by Raewyn Connell whose work built on the Gramscian term hegemony, and began to focus on men, partly in response to the already established waves of feminist study.

It is difficult to separate waves of feminism, from masculinity studies. Indeed, many feminine scholars argue that, ‘the study of masculinity would not have developed without feminism’s direct contributions’.[3] Further, Cristina Chifane identifies the ‘equality demands’ of first wave feminists; and the ‘consciousness-raising, identity and gender hierarchy issues’ foregrounded by second wave feminists as being the main contributing factors to the materialisation of New Man.[4]

Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity is today ‘widely regarded as having an unparalleled influence on studies of men’s lives’.[5] The foundations laid by Connell gave rise to additional research that explored the myriad facets of masculinity that had hitherto been neglected. Indeed, Roberts explains how Connell’s work allowed for considerations of the ‘negative components of masculinity, the existence of a plurality of masculinity’, and ‘the ways that men are hierarchically stratified within society’.[6] Importantly, it should be recognised that Connell rejected previous studies of masculinity, locating a ‘theory of power’ which would account for the ways in which genders interacted and how the masculine would come to dominate society.[7] It is worth identifying what is meant by the term hegemonic masculinity. Ben Barry, citing Benyon (2002), writes that ‘men are not genetically comprised of masculinity but they are acculturated into this gender category and its social codes’.[8] Barry continues, describing the hegemonic masculinity to which Western men conform as the, ‘normative standards against which men scrutinize themselves’.[9] These standards are expressed through myriad discourses including, appearance, affects, sexuality, behaviours, and occupations. Putting it simply, masculine hegemony can be viewed as normative behaviours which perpetuate masculine dominance, and reinforce the hierarchical structures of patriarchy which elevated figures like John Wayne, Tyler Durden, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This essay argues that masculinity is in of itself, in crisis. That is to say, that the many deviations from traditional ideas of hegemonic masculinity that emerged during the latter twentieth century and early twenty first century, the pluralities, prove that masculinity is no one fixed construction. In High Fidelity, Rob Fleming’s own masculinity is in a state of flux, and this is perhaps best represented by his treatment of women as romantic partners. Towards the end of the twentieth century Michael Kimmel argued that, ‘That men today are “confused” about what it means to be a “real man”—that masculinity is in “crisis”—has become a cultural common-place, staring out at us from every magazine rack and television talk show in the country’.[10] Kimmel was writing at a time when our understandings of masculinity where deepening through research into men and masculine studies. Of interest here is the ways in which men were becoming confused by how to perform the role of the man, ought they align themselves with the traditional breadwinning head of the family, or alternatively be more attentive to their emotional needs and those of those around them? This essay contends that as understanding deepened, constructs of masculinity broadened. Nick Hornby’s text was written against this changing landscape, and the character of Rob Fleming can be read as the personification of this fluidity.

Masculinity Crisis in High Fidelity

Tim Edwards suggests that there are two ways of examining this crisis of masculinity, from without, and from within. From ‘without’ refers to ‘documented concerns relating to the position of men within such institutions as the family, education and work’.[11] Exploring this further, this way of looking at the crisis of masculinity is concerned with the loss, or imagined loss of power, privilege, and status that men previously held in their positions within these structures. Edwards continues, suggesting that the perspective from within is centred on a ‘perceived shift in men’s experiences of their position as men, their maleness, and what it means’.[12] This second perspective is most often related to a sense of ‘meaningless or uncertainty’ and as such is something that can be experienced by all manner of men, regardless of their familial or professional status, or indeed their level of education. This is a perspective that was perhaps heightened by the increasingly liberated women of the time, who were encroaching on the historically male dominated workplace arena, and the shift in the family structure. For example, one can point to the career of Rob Fleming’s partner Laura in Hornby’s text, as it is she who has the successful, high-flying career. Men like Rob were perhaps left feeling emasculated by women who were beginning to feel more responsible for their own life and careers. According to Edwards it is this sense of lacking in power, either from within, or without that informs the entire masculinity in crisis thesis. Hornby’s protagonist’s love life is of particular interest in this regard, as are what the character’s romantic relationships say about his masculinity.

High Fidelity is a novel about a man at a crossroads, who finds that he needs to make a change to continue with his life, to achieve greater success and happiness. Rob Fleming is presented as a chronically single, self-absorbed, and non-committal man. The crisis for Rob is brought about by the breakdown of his relationship with his most recent partner, Laura. The text is split into two parts entitled ‘Then’ and ‘Now’, and these two parts serve to highlight the change in the character. Moreover, they could be said to represent Freytag’s Pyramid, where the crisis, or point of climax in the narrative serves as a metaphor for that experienced by wider society. It is important to examine just what it is that separates ‘then’ from ‘now’ for Rob, and more broadly how this reflects the crisis of masculinity that was sweeping Britain at the time of writing. Chifane argues that Fleming is a representative of a ‘transition process generated by the successive waves of feminist movements, in a perpetual struggle to define and distinguish among various gender roles, be them normatively ascribed or willingly assumed’.[13]

Seemingly, the protagonist’s own crisis of masculinity is not related to matters of the heart alone. In this extract, Rob gives the reader reason to believe that he is unhappy with his work, and his education, which is in itself another indicator of how men may measure their masculinity, ‘Here’s how not to plan a career: a) split up with girlfriend; b) junk college; c) go to work in record shop; d) stay in record shops for rest of life’.[14] This furthers Edwards argument that ‘work has often stood as the most fundamental foundation of masculine identity’.[15] Indeed, it is no coincidence that the record shop in which Rob works, is owned and run by three men, who each have a deep knowledge of cult, and popular music, which is evidenced by the specific listing of records. The men’s knowledge and understanding of music and their employment are clear markers of their own individual masculinities, and although they share commonalities, these are quite different. Consider the following extract:

‘We’re messing around at work, the three of us, getting ready to go home and rubbishing each other’s best side one track ones of all time (mine: ‘Janie Jones’, The Clash, from The Clash; ‘Thunder Road’, Bruce Springsteen, from Born to Run; ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nirvana, from Nevermind; ‘Let’s Get It On’, Marvin Gaye, from Let’s Get It On; ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’, Gram Parsons, from Grievous Angel. Barry: “Couldn’t you make it any more obvious than that? What about the Beatles? What about the Rolling Stones? What about the fucking… fucking… Beethoven? Track One side one of the Fifth Symphony? You shouldn’t be allowed to run a record shop?”’[16]

Taking this further, this essay argues that the record shop which Rob owns serves to represent his manhood, and his collection is akin to a miniature empire. More, the twelve-inch vinyl records themselves, could be said to represent a phallus of sorts, which Rob and his male colleagues are able to wave about. That Rob is unfulfilled by his work goes some way to heightening the idea of crisis in the novel. This particular aspect of the novel is foregrounded when Laura, without Rob’s permission, arranges for him to go back to his DJing roots, to host an event for more mature disco goers. In this way, Rob’s crisis of masculinity, in relation to work, or what Edwards would say is a pressure from without, is inextricably linked to his romantic relationship. The point here is that Hornby’s protagonist does appear to represent the crisis of masculinity of nineties Britain, but these incidents that are related to work, education, and fatherhood, are amplified by interactions with the text’s female characters. A similar point can be made about Rob’s relationship with his education. Consider this self-reflection, ‘Charlie was out of my class: too pretty, too smart, too witty, too much. What am I? Average. A middleweight. Not the brightest bloke in the world, but certainly not the dimmest’.[17] Rob surveys his masculinity with reference his work, and his education, and on each occasion he does so as a result of interactions with his girlfriends. Further, the boxing reference here should not be ignored, physical and sporting prowess are markers of Connell’s hegemonic masculinity. Undoubtedly, these reflections are brought about by his relationships with women. Seemingly, in this text at least, the crisis of masculinity is inextricably linked to romantic endeavours.

Importantly, from the outset of this text, Rob Fleming is on a journey of self-reflection, instigated by a split-up with his most recent partner Laura,

‘I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering.’[18]

From this opening, we learn that Rob is emotionally unstable, insecure, that he holds grudges, is immature, and is deeply affected by his romantic relationships. More than this, Rob goes as far as to say that, ‘all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one’, and it is perhaps this competitive streak which Rob displays here that reveals something about the man he is.[19] If we are reading this text as an example of a text written against the backdrop of masculinity in crisis, it is immediately evident that for a man like Rob, what will impact most on his own perception of his masculinity is his success in relationships, Hornby has foregrounded this aspect, and everything else that serves to exemplify the landscape at that time will come second to this.

Throughout Hornby’s text there are several reasons why the reader may believe Rob to be trapped in a cycle of depression, or destructive behaviour. Indeed, the character’s latest break-up with his most recent partner causes him to not just compile a list of his top five split-ups, but rather as the impact of this breakdown in relations deepens, his mood spirals, and he becomes impulsive and unreasonable. This essay points again to the novel’s opening where Rob suggests that this split-up would struggle to make the top ten of his most difficult splits, before shifting the reader’s attention to other moment’s within the text, such as when Rob finds out that Laura has taken up with a former neighbour of theirs. Indeed, it is true that the character is concerned that his now ex-partner’s new lover is better in bed than him. Undoubtedly, the character sees this as an attack upon his masculinity. Further, as the character reengages with the women of his past, his sexual history with each of them is foregrounded, whether that be for example: his rejection by Alison Ashworth, after just six hours in favour of Kevin Bannister; or his rejection by Charlie Nicholson for the more exotic and worldly Marco. The character reports how he has repeatedly found himself pushed towards despair by the breakdown of his relationships, and it is only when he begins to reconnect with his ex-partners and establish the truth of their breakups that his mood improves. Upon learning that Alison married Kevin, and realising that it was he, not Penny Hardwick that ended their affair, because Penny would not give in to his sexual advances, Rob begins to experience a catharsis. Thus, the implication is that if Rob can free himself of the pressures of romantic relationships, he can find a route out of his destructive behaviour.

It is worth examining whether the character benefits from his gender role. Without doubt the character is enduring an internal struggle, brought about by his break-up with his latest partner Laura. However, at first Rob is not overtly affected. Indeed, the character is keen to point out that life will continue much the same, he will continue to go to work, and he even goes on to meet a new romantic partner. The character is able to maintain his home without any financial struggle. By comparison, Laura loses her home, and even her father after she instigated the break-up with Rob. It could be argued that as a woman, she is punished for leaving Rob, for upsetting the dynamic. However, we also know that Rob is deeply unsatisfied by his life, and this is only advanced through his employment, ‘What came first, the music or the misery?’[20] Indeed he compares his own position in society to those buried alive in Pompeii, ‘I’m stuck in this pose, this shop-managing pose, for ever […] I have to go through life grimacing in this horrible way’.[21] While it is true that Rob is semi-successful, (we should recognise that he is fortunate to hold one of his all-time top five dream jobs), it would also seem that he is troubled, ‘I’m patently not a grown-up man in a grown-up job’.[22] However, it requires the break-down of a romantic relationship, his self-reflection, and unpacking of the reasons for and ways in which his previous relationships have broken down. It is only through this introspection that Rob is able to find solace, and potentially recover. That Rob is able to still succeed, to land one of his dream jobs in spite of his lack of maturity would suggest that he does benefit from his gender role. However, conversely, it is reasonable to suggest that only by going through a process of change, of development, from ‘then’ to ‘now’, can Rob become more contented and ready to settle down in a romantic relationship. Indeed, Rob’s real epiphany comes when he finally realises that he needs to address his lack of commitment in order to see him begin his new life, he needs to overcome his fear of marriage, ‘I mean, he’s married, which is a scary thing’.[23] Much like the way that feminine studies impacted upon masculinity studies at the time of writing, the character owes a debt to the women in his life for instigating this change and helping him through it.  

If we recognise and accept that Rob changes throughout the novel, it follows that this character could have been drawn to represent the changing face of masculinity at the time of writing. Further, this character’s own anxieties, struggles, and foibles could be seen to represent the apparent crisis of masculinity against which this text was written. This text serves to highlight the importance of Hornby as a writer of the male experience during this period in history. Indeed, much of Hornby’s oeuvre deals with the subject of masculinity on some level and the crisis of masculinity during the period. While Rob is able to offer commitment to Laura at the end of the novel, he is comfortable enough to continue when she rejects it. Seemingly Rob and Laura feel secure in who they are and in this way Hornby’s text gives us hope that the future need not be bleak.


Bibliography

Ben Barry, ‘The Toxic Lining of men’s fashion consumption: The omnipresent force of hegemonic masculinity’, Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, Vol. 2: No. 2 (2015), (pp. 143-161).

Ashley M Brown and Khaled J. Ismail, ‘Feminist Theorizing of Men and Masculinity: Applying Feminist Perspectives to Advance College Men and Masculinities Praxis’, Thresholds, Vol. 42: 1, (2019), (pp. 17-35)

Cristina Chifane, ‘”How Cool Was Will Freeman?”: From the New Lad to the Postfeminist Man in High Fidelity and About a Boy’, HyperCultura, 8, (2019), (pp. 1-12).

Tim Edwards, Cultures of Masculinity, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).

Sarah Godfrey, ‘Nowhere Men: Representations of Masculinity in Nineties British Cinema’ (doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia, 2010).

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, (London: Penguin, 1995).

Michael Kimmel, ‘The “Crisis” of Masculinity in Seventeenth-Century England’, in Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present ed. by Horlacher (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), (pp. 89-108).

Steven Roberts, ‘Introduction: Masculinities in Crisis? Opening the Debate’, in Debating Modern Masculinities: Change, Continuity, Crisis? ed. by Roberts (London, Palgrave Pivot, 2014), (pp. 1-16).


[1] Sarah Godfrey, ‘Nowhere Men: Representations of Masculinity in Nineties British Cinema’ (doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia, 2010), (p. 10).

[2] Tim Edwards, Cultures of Masculinity, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), (p. 6).

[3] Ashley M Brown and Khaled J. Ismail, ‘Feminist Theorizing of Men and Masculinity: Applying Feminist Perspectives to Advance College Men and Masculinities Praxis’, Thresholds, Vol. 42: 1, (2019), (p. 18).

[4] Cristina Chifane, ‘”How Cool Was Will Freeman?”: From the New Lad to the Postfeminist Man in High Fidelity and About a Boy’, HyperCultura, 8, (2019), (p. 3).

[5] Steven Roberts, ‘Introduction: Masculinities in Crisis? Opening the Debate’, in Debating Modern Masculinities: Change, Continuity, Crisis? ed. by Roberts (London, Palgrave Pivot, 2014), (p. 2).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ben Barry, ‘The Toxic Lining of men’s fashion consumption: The omnipresent force of hegemonic masculinity’, Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, Vol. 2: No. 2 (2015), (p. 145).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Michael Kimmel, ‘The “Crisis” of Masculinity in Seventeenth-Century England’, in Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present ed. by Horlacher (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), (p. 89).

[11] Tim Edwards, (p. 6).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cristina Chifane, (pp. 1-2).

[14] Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, (London: Penguin, 1995), (p. 19).

[15] Ibid. (p. 7).

[16] Nick Hornby, (p. 114).

[17] Ibid. (p. 21).

[18] Ibid. (p. 1).

[19] Ibid. (p. 6).

[20] Ibid. (p 18).

[21] Ibid. (p. 19).

[22] Ibid. (p. 129).

[23] Ibid.

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