Shame, Masculinity and Desire of Belonging

Reading Contemporary Male Writers

by Aneta Stępień (Author)
Monographs XII, 294 Pages


This study considers male shame in contemporary writing by men, examining why shame is often considered a female emotion and therefore denied in men. The author’s comparative approach to the private experience of shame in novels by Hanif Kureishi, Philip Roth and Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki demonstrates the extent to which shame conditions male behaviour, protecting the powerful hierarchies existing between different kinds of masculinities. Using different conceptual analyses, the author exposes the damaging nature of the culturally sanctioned demand that men be «real men», which is often simply a call for violence. The book also examines shame more broadly as a means of social control, whether of women in patriarchal cultures or of people of different ethnic, sexual and class identities. Treating shame as both an individual and a social emotion, the author draws on perspectives from scholarship on shame in postcolonial, gender and feminist studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Why Male Shame?
  • Chapter 2: Social and Historical Conditions of Shame
  • Chapter 3: Exposing and Uncovering Shame in Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy
  • Chapter 4: The Shame of Being a Man in Philip Roth’s Everyman and Portnoy’s Complaint
  • Chapter 5: Shame and Degradation in Raz. Dwa. Trzy
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion and Implications for Practice
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← vi | vii →

Preface and Acknowledgments

When I shared with my male friends that I was working on a book about male shame, as a response I often heard: ‘Do men have any shame?’ Some offered to become research subjects, which made me think they must have stories they would like to share but, perhaps, they were never given a chance to share them. These two reactions are very symptomatic of what I found in the novels of Philip Roth, Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki and Hanif Kureishi. At first sight, the behaviour of the fictional characters in those texts seems shameless; they have ‘no shame’ in revealing the most intimate details about their bodies and sexual lives. Yet, after going deeper into the stories, a different narrative emerges. It occurs the characters are not so much shameless as they are trying to be perceived as such. At the forefront of these fictional narratives is shame, which relates to the pressures created by a pervasive ideal of masculinity constructed from the specific racial, class, ethnic and national positions of these characters. Because of that, this book, although dedicated to analysis of shame in fictional narratives, draws from a cross section of different fields, namely literary, gender, social and sociological research and postcolonial theory, to untangle the complex meaning of shame. The theoretical research on shame, e.g. Donald Nathanson’s The Many Faces of Shame, Elspeth Probyn’s Blush: Faces of Shame or Leon Wurmser’s The Mask of Shame, demonstrates that shame is concealed in various guises, with shamelessness, rage, violence or depression, being common masks of shame. However, the main question that drove my investigation of the narratives of the male protagonists is why men, much more than women, have to hide or mask their shame. Why is shame in men shameful?

Historically, and still in evidence in many cultures and subcultures today, shame in men appears mainly in the context of men doing shaming. Men have been shamers as colonisers and soldiers when they exert power over others, when they conquer, dominate and violate women, children and nations. Men, as religious leaders, heads of nations, fathers and ← vii | viii → husbands, for centuries have dictated the rules of women’s appropriate conduct, ways of dressing, speaking and looking, shaming those behaviours which transgress the boundaries of imposed appropriateness. Men even try to shame feminism, by suggesting that feminism, through exposing the harmful patriarchal practices, shames men. Feminism, not the violent global conflicts and crises of rapidly transforming societies, is blamed for men’s anxieties and their insecurity about their roles in contemporary society, a phenomenon, which has been labelled the masculinity crisis. Feminism is seen as ‘feminising’ men, something which American men in particular appear terrified of, as shown in alarming titles in the American press, such as ‘The Feminization of America Accelerates as Universities Shame Men for Being Men’ (2015). Naturally, many women subscribe to these patriarchal narratives and they join in in shaming others. Women can also be attracted to violence and support or even encourage such behaviour. As I complete this book, many young European women are joining Daesh to become the bride of the ‘heroic fighter’, who can simply be described as a murderer who enjoys violence. We need to start speaking more about men being shamed and ashamed, though, as this is one of the main reasons why men become violent in the first place. There is a direct relationship between violence and shame. Societies’ acceptance of violence boils down to very narrow expectations of what men should be like and how they should act.

Men who do not conform to the dominant ideas of masculinity, such as gay, bisexual and transgender men, experience shaming. Together with ethnic masculinity, these male subjectivities are prevented from becoming legitimate forms of manliness. Socialising into a dominant form of manliness starts at an early age through stigmatisation via the commonly accepted forms of shaming; they are so ingrained in our social interactions, we hardly notice them. This shaming of ‘unacceptable’ behaviours in boys manifests itself in the calls addressed at men and young boys: ‘don’t be a girl’, ‘don’t be so gay’, ‘don’t be such a pussy’; all these suggest that proximity to women or association with femininity is something undesirable. This labelling of other men as gay or a woman implies an essentialist approach to both femininity and homosexuality, which prevents reflection or questioning about what is feminine, or what is gay, and, most importantly, why are these to be feared in men. The prevalence of these ideas in our Western ← viii | ix → culture is proof that at the foundation of our societies are misogyny and homophobia. This conclusion emerges from the studies of Michael Kimmel, Paweł Leszkowicz and Steve Connor, who, among others, demonstrate that misogyny and homophobia are the foundations of traditional, dominant (and dominating), forms of masculinity, which are culturally exalted.

Our approaches and understanding of what shame is and what it does are also gendered, a subject, which so far has received very little attention, although it seems to have crucial consequences for how the dominant gender conceptions are sustained and reproduced. Whereas female shame has been recognised and interpreted from numerous perspectives in dedicated studies by, for instance, Brooks Bouson or Susan Bordo, there is a silence or a gap about male shame in research that this book intends to begin to fill. Apart from some consideration given to shame in gay and black masculinity, such as in David Halperin and Valerie Traub’s excellent book Gay Shame, or Kathryn Stockton’s Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where ‘Black’ Meets ‘Queer’, shame relating to heterosexual, white masculinity gets mentioned only sporadically in psychological, sociological, anthropological and cultural studies on shame. Freud’s indication that shame is a predominantly female emotion provoked a neglect of the subject within the psychological and psychoanalytical studies for decades to come. This issue was brought to light by Helen Block Lewis, who introduced the more universal understanding of shame as one of the basic emotions regulating social interactions. Many studies have wrongly assumed shame in men and women differ, yet, as Andrew Morrison notices, there are no differences in the content of what causes shame in men and women. In fact, as Steven Connor argues ‘shame has no definite causes’, by which he points out that shame relates to our individual aspirations; the reason why I feel shame may be ridiculous to someone else, yet it reveals what is important to me. Morrison also writes that the process of thinking about shame and its causes seems more familiar to women that to men, stressing this is the result of the socialisation into gender roles. Although the examples of what causes shame in men and women can be very similar, men have been discouraged to speak or acknowledge their emotions through their socialisation into male gender. Because of that, shame in men appears usually in masked form and thus requires more inquisitive methods of investigating it. ← ix | x →

In the texts selected for this study of male shame, the behaviour of the main characters suggests they are misogynist, sometimes abusive and violent; they seem to be driven by the need to degrade women and show off their sexual conquests; they generally appear obsessed with sex. But what is the point of this? Why create characters that are repulsive and likely to be condemned? Kureishi’s Intimacy, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s Raz. Dwa. Trzy are ‘ugly literature’. At times they are unpleasant to read as they feature scenes to which the reader most likely reacts with negative emotions, such as disgust. As this book demonstrates, this appears to be a suitable narrative aesthetic for shame, which otherwise may be difficult to discern in fiction since shame does not have obvious forms of expression. To be discerned, shame needs a high level of exposure of private, intimate matters and for that reason the confessional style becomes the most effective way to manifest the emotion. This style also enables the writers to control how much they will show, and this control of the exposure can balance the vulnerability implied in revealing the intimate secrets, even if they are only the secrets of the fictional characters they create. As is shown from my inclusion of the reviews of the texts in question, the male confessions about the vulnerable and emotional aspects of their lives can be criticised or dismissed as narcissistic, as ‘too much to take’ or as making a caricature of a man. Such approaches express the gendered treatment of shame discussed above.

In September 2016, The Guardian published Owen Jones’s article ‘Not All Men Commit Abuse Against Women. But All Must Condemn It’, with figures showing that male violence in the UK is on the rise, with the recommendation that men must speak openly against it. Jones calls for men to speak out about their emotional lives, which is the only way towards more inclusive forms of masculinity and to eliminate violence. The question is: are we ready to listen to how men feel? The change should not only be about men’s efforts to open up, but more generally our preconceptions about masculinity and femininity should be more reflexive. After all, confessing to shame, and other emotions that mask it, has the potential to challenge the normative pattern of being manly. It is not to remove shame overall but acknowledge its mechanism and its sources. Once revealed, shame requires us to consider our relationship with others, reposition ← x | xi → ourselves, even remove ourselves from the position of power and allow weakness. This can lead us to begin questioning by whose values something is shameful, a question Kureishi, Roth and Klimko-Dobrzaniecki engage with in their texts.

This book began as a PhD thesis in the Department of English at the University of Surrey, which was possible thanks to a joint scholarship from the Polish Ministry of Higher Education and Science and the University of Surrey. I want to express my gratitude to both these institutions for granting me the opportunity to develop my project. Also, I want to thank Professor Peter Barta, who decided to offer me the place in Surrey and believed in the potential of this research idea from the start. This book would have never materialised without the help of Paul Vlitos and Churnjeet Mahn, my supervisor team, who patiently went through the obscure, sometimes meandering thoughts and ideas I had, guiding me with their feedback towards a greater clarity of expression. I am very grateful to them for the time they dedicated to reading my submissions and their encouraging manner throughout the whole process. I want to give special thanks to Professor Bran Nicol, also from the University of Surrey, for his critical, yet encouraging feedback on how to improve the book. His comments were extremely helpful and I want to acknowledge his contribution to the improvement of this book’s content and structure.

I am extremely grateful and indebted to Richard Bale and Andrew Pringle, my two best friends and confessors, for their readings of the book’s drafts. It was important to get their male perspective and I tried to address most of their comments. Our intellectual discussions about what it means to be a man (and a woman) today have been truly thought-provoking and inspiring.

Special words of thanks to Lei Wu, who responded enthusiastically to my request for a modern rendering of Adam from the Masaccio’s Early Renaissance fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Our discussion of what is the most accurate representation of the facial expression of shame showed how different the individual sense of shame can be.

I also want to thank the Peter Lang team, especially Alessandra Anzani, Hannah Godfrey and Emma Clarke, for their fantastic work. They were ← xi | xii → extremely helpful and friendly, making the process of preparing the book quite pleasant. I appreciate their efficiency and dedication.

I want to express my gratitude to the loving, courageous and incredibly dedicated women in my family, my mother Barbara Stępień, my sister Beata Sydor, my sister-in-law Mariola Stępień, my cousin Marta Piekarska and my aunts, Ania and Mirka. Their continuous support has underpinned my strength, both in my private life and in my academic endeavours. I also want to thank my other mothers, who, in different ways, nurtured me: my Surrey mother, Anne Irving, and my Glasgow mother, Elwira Grossman, without whom my academic journey would never have begun. I thank these women for their heartfelt engagement, care and support. I also keep the memory of my father who encouraged me to go into the world and get it.

Last but not least, I want to thank my friends, So Young, for always believing in me, Stephen for his designer’s tips and having a laugh when it was most needed, and my other friends Alex, Przemek and Michał, for their encouragement and enthusiasm for my intellectual projects.

← xii | 1 →


Introduction: Why Male Shame?

‘The color, the place, the history of bodies all come alive in shame.’1

In Leszek Kołakowski’s philosophical parable ‘The Tale of Great Shame’, Rio, a soldier, during his military service begins to feel ashamed when he cannot remember either the eye or the hair colour of his beloved Muria.2 Rio is about to write to Muria asking her for help but he fears that admitting his failure will cause even greater shame. His shame of forgetting this small detail is so great that the soldier begins to shrink, in the end reaching the size of a man’s finger. Before long, Rio is jailed and, because of his diminished size, he is placed in a food can. The judge sentences him to ‘fading away from shame’ explaining that he broke the army code, which states that a soldier ‘may not be ashamed, because he might shrink and thereby diminish his fighting ability’.3 This tale illustrates how shame conditions masculinity; because shame is an emotion considered to be emasculating, it must be concealed whereas admitting shame can trigger even greater shame in men. Shame, in the story about Rio, expressed metaphorically as shrinking, makes men vulnerable and, thus, diminishes them in the eyes of others. This is because strength, not weakness, has traditionally been ← 1 | 2 → attached to masculinity. In addition to insights on the private dimension of shame, the story reflects on shame used for the purpose of introducing discipline. More specifically, it presents us with the army context, a space marked by almost blind subordination of the soldiers to their commanders, where, significantly, shaming becomes a powerful tool of punishment, on the one hand, while it also appears a restricted emotion because of its power to weaken the fighting ability; in other words, shame may make soldiers less violent or even soften them. Kołakowski’s story tells us something about the experience of shame, not only in soldiers, but that shame is a threatening emotion in men. Although not always a negative emotion, as shown for instance in a number of social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s – the Women’s Liberation Movement, Black in Beautiful, the Gay Liberation Movement – that emerged from humiliation and shame into pride, shame in men becomes toxic and this has to do with gender dynamics and a perception of shame as a predominantly female emotion, a subject I discuss in more depth in the next chapter.

This book, a snapshot of contemporary fiction by Hanif Kureishi, Philip Roth, and Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, focuses on the expressions of shame in men, and the ways the discourses of race, class, nationalism and gender fuel the feeling of shame in the characters. The analysis of Kureishi’s Intimacy (1998), Roth’s Everyman (2006) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), and Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s Raz. Dwa. Trzy [One. Two. Three] (2007) and Bornholm, Bornholm (2011) focuses on instances where the characters’ sense of being manly clashes with the dominant ideal of masculinity valid for their respective national contexts, resulting in the feeling of shame. The kind of shame discussed in relation to these texts arises from the perception of the characters that they fail to measure up to this ideal. The notions of dominant, hegemonic or patriarchal masculinity, throughout this book, are used interchangeably as opposed to marginalised or peripheral masculinity, for these terms reflect the relation of power existing between different male subjectivities: the idea of hegemonic masculinity denotes being in a position to dictate the terms by which masculinity can be attained.4 The authors presented in this book make ← 2 | 3 → shame the primary emotion with which they engage, having the characters confess the feeling of shame ‘in front of the readers’, thus writing against the tendency of disclosing it. In their male protagonists, shame frequently appears in psychosomatic symptoms, such as a sensation of shrinking, paralysis or a heat sensation; that is, their bodies become the site of shame.5 On the other hand, the body of the protagonists frequently is a source of shame, in particular, when it fails to express virility. The instances when the characters describe a failure of erection, illness or their body appearing soft and effeminate, that is, exposing features traditionally considered feminine qualities, are all indicated as emasculating experiences and thus, a source of great shame for the characters. As is apparent from the above examples, these characters’ shame predominantly relates to their sense of being manly or more precisely, to their failure to measure up to what they perceive as the masculine ideal. Jay, a middle-aged protagonist in Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy, struggles to find a place for himself within his family home and asks: ‘what men are for? Do they serve any useful function these days?’ suggesting directionlessness and confusion about what it means to be a man in contemporary British society.6 This questioning leads Jay to abandon his comfortable, middle-class lifestyle and his partner, in front of whom he feels a failure. Similar preoccupations about men’s role in American society are expressed in Philip Roth’s Everyman, studied in comparison to the 1969 novel of the writer, Portnoy’s Complaint. Both novels focus on the male body, as expressing, or failing to express virility and, thus, becoming a source of shame for the male protagonists as expressed in Alex Portnoy’s exclamation ‘Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong!’7 The unmanly body features in Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s novel Raz. Dwa. Trzy. The writer provides a perspective of three teenage ← 3 | 4 → characters and their struggles to become ideal men as they oppose different forms of emasculation and shaming brought about by their parents, the community and the communist regime.


XII, 294
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
gender and emotion hegemonic and marginalised masculinity collective and individual shame in literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 294 pp.

Biographical notes

Aneta Stępień (Author)

Aneta Stępień holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Surrey. She coordinates Polish Studies in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where she teaches Polish culture and literature, East Central European Studes and gender. She is also working on a research project about the Yiddish modernist writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.


Title: Shame, Masculinity and Desire of Belonging