Sleepless Masculinity

By Laura Vivanco on

Wakefulness as a measure of masculinity is a facet of the history of gender in America that has received no attention at all. Recent gender studies have pursued many facets of male experience and identity, often fixing on dramatic expressions such as extreme muscularity and myriad forms of aggression. But mundane manly stamina, as displayed by persevering through long days or nights on the job, has thus far gained little notice. Fulfilling the familiar male breadwinner role entailed a daily dedication to struggle to maintain consciousness as a basic test of strength. For many American men, winning bread meant losing sleep. (Derickson x)

Now that I think about it, I'm fairly sure that one can find sleeplessness as a marker of masculinity in romance novels too because I have a feeling there are quite a lot of heroes who sleep relatively little. I'll certainly be trying to spot examples in the future. What about Edward, in Twilight, who famously spends a lot of time watching Bella sleep? Of course, he's an immortal vampire. For mortals, as Derickson notes,

Although not as self-evident as the link between somnolence and accidents, the role of sleep loss in producing chronic disease has been established by researchers for numerous disorders. These include ulcers and other gastrointestinal ailments, depression and other psychiatric conditions, heart attacks and other forms of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and other metabolic disturbances. Some evidence links short sleep to elevated rates of cancer. (xii)

Romance novels can reflect concerns about overwork/lack of sleep too: there are heroines who're concerned about heroes who seem tired and overworked.

I can also recall scenes in which a heroine thinks that her hero looks touchingly vulnerable and boyish when he's asleep. Those scenes would seem to affirm the association between sleeplessness and masculinity, but in a way which perhaps suggests that where there is love, there is no need for constant masculine vigilance. I'm reminded of the story of Samson:

One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.”

But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah. The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels[a] of silver.”  [...]

she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16, NIV)

Samson and Delilah

Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: U of Pennsylvania P, 2014.

Image of "Samson and Dalila" by Francesco Morone via Wikimedia Commons.

OMG yes! This is fascinating.  I agree that insomnia is a popular hero trait in romance. I feel like it often goes along with rakishness to make the rakishness sympathetic--he parties/sleeps around/etc. because he literally CAN'T just go home and go to bed. Suddenly behavior that could be threatening to the heroine is actually a sign of vulnerability. One variant I particularly love myself is the hero who can only fall asleep if there is someone in the bed with him. Tessa Dare's A Week to Be Wicked was a great example.

As a result of my reading preferences I tend to avoid obviously rakish heroes so I'm not sure I've come across this scenario. I wonder, is the insomniac rake often unable to sleep because he feels guilty? Romance heroes, as Jayne Ann Krentz pointed out in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, sometimes have elements of the villain about them and there's definitely a cultural association between sleeplessness and guilt e.g.

MACBETH Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep,Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,Chief nourisher in life's feast,--

LADY MACBETH What do you mean?

MACBETH Still it cried 'Sleep no more!' to all the house:'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore CawdorShall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.'


So is this kind of hero deliberately avoiding sleep because it'll bring back bad memories/nightmares? It would follow that if normal sleep is an indication of human weakness (and therefore something a manly man would want to need less of), then a sleep which scares/re-traumatises would be even worse. It would make him feel really lacking in control/power over his mind and body.

By contrast, though, I have come across a sleepless heroine with PTSD who often stayed awake to avoid nightmares, but she didn't become a rake. She just stayed at home and tried to keep herself occupied. Obviously that's not a statistically significant sample but it does make me wonder if the rakishness is a hyper-masculine response to feeling emasculated by nightmares.

I'm going to get as excited as Rose above about this idea. I think it's a particular romance convention that has gone unnoticed, but is definitely a measure of masculinity. How many times, whether there's been love-making or not, does the heroine wake up to find the hero already up and about and having made coffee because it's just one more way of establishing his prowess?

I think it's also a particularly important convention in romantic suspense narratives where uber-masculine heroes, who are in the process of both protecting the heroine and fighting off bad guys, go for days with little or no sleep ... and yet, part of their uber-ness is their continued ability to be vigilant, possess mental acuity, as well as physical strength and sharp reflexes.

Yes! Great examples. So in the coffee-making one, he's strong and in charge (because he's active = masculine) plus he's not tired out despite the vigorous physical activity they probably engaged in at repeated intervals throughout the night (which is a less subtle measure of masculinity in romance).

I've not read so much romantic suspense but re the "protecting the heroine and fighting off bad guys, go[ing] for days with little or no sleep" there's a bit of that scenario towards the end of Georgette Heyer's The Masqueraders and what possibly makes it particularly interesting in the context of this discussion is that the hero is repeatedly assumed to be a "sleepy gentleman" (i.e. not quick-witted or dashing and, perhaps, somewhat lacking in masculine drive) while the heroine, disguised as a man, is trying to seem very masculine. By the end of the novel, however, she's going to be returned to a feminine role. This involves him rescuing her, him kissing her (thus introducing her to passion) and her falling asleep (once they've reached a place of relative safety):

Sir Anthony led the horses to the door. 'Oh, you must always be thinking you had the ordering of this!' he said teasingly, and went out.

When he brought the horses back her eyes were closed, and she had a hand slipped under her cheek. Sir Anthony took off his greatcoat, and went down on his knee to lay it gently over her. She did not stir. For a moment he stayed, looking down at her, then he rose, and went soft-footed to the door, and paced slowly up and down in the moonlight. Inside the barn the horses munched steadily at the armful of hay he had given them. There was silence over the fields; the world slept, but Sir Anthony Fanshawe stayed wakeful, guarding his lady's rest.

 The heroine of Heyer's Simon the Coldheart also takes on a masculine disguise and has to be rescued:

He shifted her a little, so that she lay cradled in his left arm, held in an unyielding grip. Her late labours, the terror she had passed through, and the hardships she had endured during these last five days all told on her. While danger threatened and she had to take command of her emprise she bore up, shaking off fatigue, but now that Simon had come and swept all before him, the need for strength and watchfulness was gone. She lay limp in his arms, half-conscious, knowing herself safe at last. Too tired to realise - or, if she did realise, to care - that Simon was her hated foe, she nestled close against his hard armour, clutching his cloak with a little sigh of relief. Simon looked down at her, and saw that her eyes were shut.

Later she assures him that she still hates him and he replies:

'Thou hast assured me of they hatred many a time, and of thine undying lust for vengeance. And yet ... Thou didst lie in mine arms once, content to be there, and it was not hate that prompted thee to feel thyself safe, and to sleep with thy head on my breast.'

'You taunt me with that? I was weary, and beside myself with fear and - and everything!'

'Nay, I do not taunt thee. The memory of that ride is precious to me.'

He seems to have intuited that sleeping with someone implies trust and love, even though she still denies this. And of course, her being the one sleeping while he remains awake and protective reaffirms his masculinity and allows her to relinquish her pseudo-masculinity.

Ros (not verified)

Tuesday, 23 December, 2014

My very favourite scene in Gaudy Night is when Peter falls asleep in the punt. It says so much about them both and it completely alters their relationship. Sleep makes him vulnerable, more ordinary, more human.

I've read some of the books in the series, but not that one. Peter's a very cerebral person, to the point where at times he seems to be all reason/brain, and as a detective, his brain is also the equivalent of a weapon in a fight against crime (and there's a sense of intellectual jousting with Harriet) so I can see how turning off his brain would make him both more vulnerable and more human.

Kay - Yes! I love you linking the whole "hero watches while heroine sleeps" trope to this. Part of the appeal of that sort of thing for me is that wow, it would be really nice if I woke up to a lovely beverage or breakfast made for me by a sexy man! It would be really nice if there was someone to protect me if there was danger! And then this sort of wish fulfillment gets linked to masculinity because the main consumers of romance are women, who are having the fantasy of being taken care of and not having to make their own coffee, and putting the other half of that fantasy on the hero.

But at the same time it's linking masculinity to not being HUMAN, because the core of this particular type of wish fulfillment is getting to have all the needs and be totally vulnerable and basically be a messy human and be loved for that...meanwhile all the slack is being picked up by the imaginary partner who is totally self-sufficient and makes no demands. So even though it seems like it's puffing men up and making them super cool, in some ways it's the classic housewife "dinner on the table when I get home from work" fantasy in reverse.

I should add that I am NOT trying to say that romances are "sexist against men" or some crap because of this. It's just interesting to see what happens when wish fulfillment and weird societal gender stuff get smooshed.

I didn't think you were saying that at all! And I loved this "wish fulfillment and weird societal gender stuff getting smooshed" ... waggles eyebrows, "smooshed" is so much a part of romance in so many ways. I don't think romance is "sexist against men" either, but I do think that romance sets up, especially in conventional romantic suspense, physical and mental demands on the hero that are difficult to live up to. But hey, it's our fantasy and we'll have the hero stay up while the heroine sleeps if we want to ...

Moreover, I also think that, as far as fantasy goes, night-time and sleep are a particularly vulnerable time for women, especially single women, so having someone there to deflect the night terrors is also an aspect of the fantasy. I also think that staying up, being there, protective and coffee-making all at once, reinforces the image of the hero expressing his love and care through gesture ... especiallly initially in the narrative, when words and feelings are less likely to be part of his characterization. The silence of masculine love is so interesting to me. Have you read one of the poems that never fails to move me and make me weepy, Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays"? About his father waking up in the cold and banking the fires and polishing the family's shoes? The father never spoke his love, but he acted it ... and Hayden acknowledges "love's austere and lonely offices" that are never voiced, but evident nonetheless.

Eric Selinger (not verified)

Monday, 29 December, 2014

Miss Bates, you give me the shivers.  I logged on this morning precisely in order to mention "Those Winter Sundays" to Laura, and you've posted about it already!  I've taught the poem for a couple of decades now, and I think it speaks volumes about a particular version of masculinity--or, rather, about a couple of versions, since the poem hinges on a son's rethinking what the father's actions (and silences) meant.  

If you don't know the poem, Laura, it's available in a clean copy via the Poetry Foundation, with a few annotations, here:  Sadly, the annotations don't include a note for "chronic," but the difference between the father-and-son story of Chronos and Zeus and the Father-and-Son story central to Christianity is pretty important to the poem.  

("He watching over Israel slumbers not, nor sleeps":  more sleepless masculinity!)


That poem makes me think of a "speachless" as well as "sleepless" masculinity: the "strong, silent" kind.

I wonder how/if this fits with the idea some people have about romance writing: "show don't tell." Obviously, words which aren't backed up by action are hollow, but actions are open to a variety of interpretations and (as that poem demonstrates) can also be overlooked. So I think you need both, but it's interesting to think about why some characters might be averse to speaking/find it difficult to express their feelings.

Yes--in the poem, that's certainly the father's version of masculinity, although perhaps not the son's, in the end.  

The notion that an author should "show, don't tell" dates back to modernism--I've actually heard it attributed to Henry James, which shocks me (he's quite the teller), but it corresponds with the presentational aesthetics of Imagism and of Hemingway's prose, and that, I think, is when it really takes off.  A "masculine" aesthetic, according to some of those early modernist authors, anyway.

If you grow up on pop songs and Broadway musicals, as I did, the notion that men don't use words to express their feelings can seem a bit odd.  Love poetry, too, mostly gives that idea the lie.  I wonder when it emerged as a normative version of masculinity, here in the States?

Karen Lystra, in her book analysing 19th-century US love letters, writes that

The nineteenth-century Victorian experience of love was rooted in the concept of an ideal self. Not fully expressed in public roles, this ideal self was meant to be completely revealed to one person only. Individuals were taught to reserve their truest or best or most worthy expressions for a single beloved.

The feelings and behaviors of love were deeply shaped by the idea that completely unfettered self-revelation should be reserved for intimates and indeed defined intimacy. Thus the essential act of romantic love in nineteenth-century American culture, what gave it meaning and form, was free and open communication of the self to another. Middle-class Victorians encouraged marriages which originated in this view of love.

Romantic love in Victorian America was a complex alignment of idea, behavior, and emotion. Nonetheless the experience of love was anchored in this ideal of an essential self, what we today call a personality, and a closely allied cultural and social divide separating public and private expression. These concepts endured throughout the Victorian period (and persist to some extent today). (7)

That's not a gendered ideal, but ideas about gender might explain why romance heroes tend to be slower to engage in "free and open communication of the self to another." Oh, and I wonder if this also ties in with what Lisa Fletcher has to say about how:

A consideration of the speech act "I love you" in the context of Foucault's "story" of confession and Miller's theory of the "open secret" raises the question of the importance of the dynamics of secrecy and confession in the formation of the heterosexual romantic subject. (42)

I'm very fond of the Lystra book!  It was crucial to my dissertation research, years ago.  If memory serves, she notes that the expectations for romantic confession, self-abnegation, and reassurance by lovers were quite similar for men and women in the 19th century; indeed, it might have been that the onus was particularly on men, although perhaps I'm confusing Lystra's book with Eva Illouz's "Why Love Hurts" here.  (I've read the Illouz much more recently.)  In any case, the emergence of "strong and silent" manhood as normative might have been a bit later.  If I find any sources discussing it, I'll let you know!

I just came across a perfect example of sleepy masculinity which relates very well to the idea that "where there is love, there is no need for constant masculine vigilance". Here, the hero's just fallen asleep in the heroine's sitting room while she was upstairs. He's not in love with her yet, but she's had a crush on him for years:

Her feet bare, Melissa came down the stairs without making a sound. She wasn't trying to sneak around, but when she saw Derek asleep in the chair, she was glad she'd been quiet. There was something special about watching a man sleep. It was a time when he let down his defenses, relaxed. For the first time that day, Derek didn't look tense and on guard. There was even a slight upward curve to his lips. The man was almost smiling. (31, emphasis added)

That's from Maris Soule's Missy's Proposition (New York: Silhouette, 1992).