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Sven Vitse

Sven Vitse

NIAS Individual ellow

Project title

Images of masculinity in modern Dutch fiction. A computational approach

Research question

The project aims to develop a computational approach to study images of masculinity in modern Dutch fiction. To what extent does the representation of male characters interact with the history of feminist movements? How can a computational method be developed to analyze these representations?

Project description

‘The new men who try so hard, who do not want to be domineering, who can wait, dare to be gentle and cry’. Anja Meulenbelt’s autofictional novel De schaamte voorbij (1976) paints a vivid picture of Dutch second-wave feminist activism. In the margins of that picture Meulenbelt portrays the ‘new men’ who sympathize with the movement yet fail to keep up with its revolutionary speed. The shame is over is a prime example of the ‘praise and blame’ function Stephen Greenblatt ascribes to literature: the novel depicts and evaluates a wide spectrum of male characters, behaviour and attitudes, observed from the perspective of a feminist protagonist. This project aims to develop a computational method to study images of masculinity in a large corpus of Dutch novels from the 19th century up to the present. It examines literary representations and evaluations of masculinity, through a data-driven analysis of male characters in Dutch novels by both male and female writers.

Images of masculinity abound in literature and culture. Dutch 21st century fiction self-consciously reflects concerns in public discourse about traditional conceptions of masculinity, spurred by a new wave of feminist and minority activism and by the electoral success in recent years of populist and masculinist politics. However, images of masculinity have been constructed and challenged by literature throughout history. From its inception the novel has been used to explore how intimate and familial experience interacts with society, ideology and language. Fiction negotiates society’s anxieties and feeds back into culture, shaping individuals’ and society’s images of self and other.

This research project belongs to the field of masculinity studies, a subfield of gender studies that focuses on the privileged masculine position, which until recently was rarely examined. Masculinity studies is an interdisciplinary field, including sociological, political and cultural research. In recent years masculinity studies has also entered the field of cultural and literary scholarship. This project intervenes in a debate between two conflicting theories in masculinity studies. The hegemonic masculinity theory, initiated by pioneering scholar R.W. Connell, claims that whereas in every society various types of masculinity are available only one type is socially and culturally dominant (hegemonic). Others types of masculinity are relegated to a subordinate, a complicit or a marginal position. As an alternative to Connell’s theory Eric Anderson introduced the inclusive masculinity theory. This theory holds that hegemonic masculinity theory is valid in societies with strong homophobia. However, as homophobia recedes, the hierarchical relationship between various types of masculinity also fades and more inclusive, less heteronormative types of masculinity are gaining in visibility and legitimacy.

The project’s overall research question derives from this debate. To what extent do conceptions of masculinity in modern Dutch literature from the 19th century onwards develop from a hegemonic into a more inclusive model? The first sub-question concerns the intersections between literary images of masculinity and the history of feminist movements in the Netherlands. The first, second and third wave will provide the historical benchmarks for this project, guided by the hypothesis that the questioning of the masculine gender role has been prompted by developments in the feminist movement. To what extent do literary images of masculinity correspond to or intersect with historical developments in feminist movements?

The second sub-question is of a methodological nature: How can a computational, data-driven method for automated analysis of the depiction and evaluation of male characters in novels be developed and tested? This project aims to develop a model for automated analysis of literary representations of masculinity in Dutch fiction from the 19th century until the present. A model will be trained which automatically detects sentences attributing qualities to male characters and which classifies these characterizing sentences based on the type of quality which is attributed to the character.