Men, masculinities and wildfire: embodied resistance and rupture



Publication Details

Eriksen, C. & Waitt , G. (2016). Men, masculinities and wildfire: embodied resistance and rupture. In E. Enarson & B. Pease (Eds.), Men, Masculinities and Disaster (pp. 69-80). Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.


This chapter investigates narratives about men who manage wildfire in Australia. It builds on the growing body of work that presents firefighting as a gendered and spatially differentiated activity in Australia and North America (Enarson, 1984; Childs et al. , 2004; Yarnal et al. , 2004; Childs, 2006; Desmond, 2007; Maleta, 2009; Pacholok; 2009, 2013; Eriksen, 2014). This work argues that the privileged subject of the wildland firefighter is cast by discourses of (predominantly white) masculinities that position the bodies of men on the frontlines of fire as heroic, capable, physically strong and rational. The everyday narrative and performance of a place-based firefighting masculinity are so ingrained that they result in conscious and subconscious avoidance of appearances or allegations that align bodies with dominant understandings of femininity. Hence, the workplace and subject of the wildland firefighter is seemingly stabilized through the performance of a firefighting masculinity that includes the display of a masculine swagger, crude language and sharing stories of firefighting or heterosexual conquests. The performance of a place-based firefighting masculinity trades on ageism, sexism and homophobia that dispute the worth of the bodies of women and other types of male firefighters (e.g. see Pacholok [2009, 2013] on contesting masculinities between structural and wildland firefighters). Such gendered practices are the focus of affirmative action and broader workplace policy concerns around the role of women and ethnic diversity within wildland firefighting and disaster management. The competencies of people who do not conform to the dominant gender norms are hidden behind bravado and cultural expectations that favor white, heterosexual men. We employ a narrative approach to explore "being" and "becoming" a man within the context of wildland firefighting for the New South Wales (NSW) National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The theoretical lens threads the "spatial imperative of subjectivity" (Probyn, 2003, p. 290), with performativity (Butler, 1993) and the notion of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 2005). This theoretical approach enables us to think of how dominant discursive "regulatory fictions" of a wildland firefighting masculinity are either ruptured or made resilient through a repetitive set of acts and sayings that are always spatially situated (Butler, 2010). The chapter therefore takes a step back from thinking of gender as fixed and prescribed by biology. Instead, bodies become gendered through "doings," including sayings, and are therefore open to change. We conceive of fire management as a medium through which people get to know themselves and build relationships with others, rather than working within preconfigured social categories of gender that are expressed through firefighting. This requires us to think critically about how fire management may bring into existence particular gendered ways of being and becoming in particular contexts. We argue that important insights of "being" and "becoming" a man are offered by exploring the contingencies of the material, social and cultural forces that form firefighting bodies and spaces as "events." In examining how gender emerges as particular events, we argue that the doing and undoing of the gendered lives of firefighters involves all persons in negotiating the hegemonic discursive regulator fictions of a firefighting masculinity. We present insights from men and women who manage wildfire to explore the following two related questions: How do individuals whose paid job description includes managing wildfire become men? How are individuals rupturing dominant norms of "being" and "becoming" a man who manages wildfire?

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