Stony Brook University welcomed Dr. Sandro Bellassai, author and professor of Gender Studies and European History at the University of Bologna in Italy, to present his seminar, “The Disappearance of the Invisible Man,” on Sept. 18.
Bellassai’s seminar, part of a series for the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at the university, packed a small conference room in the Social and Behavioral Sciences building with around 45 people to hear his presentation on virilism. Bellassai defined this as a “religion of true manhood” — or those traits and acts that history has associated with men — and its change and impact on Italian society over the last 140 years.
“The broad framework is that of a historical transition in the late 20th century,” Bellassai said. “It is the decline of the heterosexual man’s indisputable superiority.”
Bellassai also focused his discussion on the concept of gender invisibility; he said that as a result of their power, men were considered the “neutral and universal” human subject. The physiological and societal differences between individual men were never exposed nor discussed the way those between women were. The male gender was rendered invulnerable to social critique through the suppression of women.
The seminar discussed the effect of female voices on male power starting with the Belle Époque period, a time of European peace and innovation, in the late 19th century. This is when the concept that men were superior to women started to lose its legitimacy as women began to voice more criticism of men.
In Italy, virilism’s core values resurged in Italian men during the nationalist reign of Benito Mussolini in the early 20th century, which led to the main focus of the seminar: the male emergence from invisibility in recent decades.
“Most importantly, the traditional male gender’s prerogative to assert itself as a neutral and universal subject comes to a gradual erosion,” Bellassai said. “Masculinity then appears out of its invisibility.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists and homosexuals seemed to go “on the offensive” against the “triumphant straight man,” he explained.
The emergence of sexualization in advertising was one of the last social changes to erode male invisibility, Bellassai said.
“In the media languages, this also took the form of a decline in the invisibility of men as men, therefore exposing an iconographic and political nudity of the male gender,” he said.
He pointed to shirtless pictures in magazines as examples of the sexualization of the male gender.
It’s this exposure, Bellassai said, that gives way to the rise of the power of female judgment, exposing men to the “painful sensation of gender vulnerability.” He exemplifies the 1997 comedy “The Full Monty” as an analysis of society’s “political denudement” of the status of men. The film sexualizes men, physically exposing them the same way women have been throughout history, giving way to an equal playing field.
“If men are in the spotlight just as gendered human beings, as a consequence, the male gender is lowered to the rank of only one among the several subjects of humanity,” Bellassai said.
The seminar ended with a question and answer session with Bellassai, where an active discussion erupted with students and staff discussing the themes of the presentation.
Ren Zheng, an undergraduate present at the seminar, was fascinated by the seminar’s core concept of virilism.
“I was most intrigued about how the virilism of men, or the loss of it, affected the political climate of other countries, and how the political leaders think and how it affected their actions,” Zheng said.
Emily Cioppa, a freshman majoring in biology, was also compelled by the discussion about virilism in a different way than Zheng. She connected Bellassai’s ideas to the current American gender political climate.
“The idea that virilism is currently dead but not buried is really interesting,” Cioppa said. “Even though we are seeing a lot of progress being made by feminism, there is still this natural rebound that results in men feeling like their own position is being attacked. I feel that it’s turned a lot of men off to the idea that equality is a good thing.”
Bellassai said that if there’s one idea that Stony Brook University should take out of his seminar, it would be the willingness of men to study their gender history.
“Understanding this doesn’t mean to become weaker or more similar to women or not being a man,” Bellassai said. “This is a step towards understanding that [men] are a gender with thousands of consequences. It’s a step towards our freedom, it is not a loss.”