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Key to the midway : masculinity at work in a Western Canadian carnival Angus, Fiona

Abstract

Arising out of an intensive participant-observation research project in which the researcher travelled with a Western Canadian carnival for several months in 1996, working and living as a carnival employee, this ethnographic study1 of workers in the carnival explores the intersection of gender, race, and social class that provides a work force who willingly undertake jobs that are characterized by hardship and exploitation. The subjective understandings of the workers towards their work and living conditions underscore the salience of gender (particularly protest masculinity) and social class (lower tier of the working class) and illuminate the finding that, far from seeing themselves as oppressed, the workers celebrate their work and the physical toll that it takes on their bodies. The carnival is male-dominated, and the social construction of masculinity combines with the heavy physical demands of most of the carnival jobs to produce a work environment with conditions that defy common-sense understandings of safety and endurance, but which the male workers, through their adherence to masculinist ideals of strength and heroism, use to express their glorification of heavy, physical labour. The research also demonstrates how racialization processes outside the carnival predispose male Aboriginal and Metis workers to seek and find employment in the carnival, and that, despite the dominance of White owners and workers, no evidence of discriminatory labour or social practices was located within the carnival culture itself. Also examined is the issue of mental labour in a working-class environment, not from the traditional standpoint found in most academic discussions of the mental-manual oppositional dichotomy, but from the perspective of the practitioners themselves in the carnival's games, where the use of interpersonal skills is critical to their financial and social success. Despite the relatively few women in the carnival, their presence serves to validate one of the key tenets of protest masculinity — the norm of heterosexuality. Most of the young women in the carnival practice "emphasized femininity", a kind of femininity constructed in relation to masculinity, and designed to attract the eyes and bodies of men. This thesis examines some key concepts in protest masculinity and emphasized femininity, such as violence, mental and manual labour, and social activities, blending in issues of gender, racialization and social class, to add to the growing literature on working class cultures.

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