There’s an unusually well-balanced feature about the politics and practice of masculinity in the Independent today by Oliver Bennett. Most writing on men’s issues and masculinities takes either an individualist or a political approach. Bennett’s piece is smart enough to recognise that the issues are connected & inseparable.
The article put me in mind of something I wrote a few weeks ago, when I was speaking on a panel at the ESRC academic conference on masculinities & was asked to introduce myself with a few words to set out where I was coming from. What follows is a (hopefully) readable edit of the notes I made for that address.
When it comes to writing the socio-political history of 2017, I think we can safely assume that masculinity will be filed among the villains, implicated in everything from sexual abuse and harassment scandals to the rise of the alt-right, from the mass murder of spree shooters and terrorists to child abuse or the mundane malice of internet trolls.
And masculinity is not just held responsible for harm to others. Our bookshelves groan with the weight of testimony against masculinity, as writers, actors, comedians, artists, musicians all line up to become witnesses for the prosecution. Yes, the biggest victims of masculinity are often men themselves – emotionally stunted, isolated, lonely, self-destructive.
Our masculine norms can be – and often are – rightly blamed for contributing to the horrific male suicide rates, alcoholism and addiction, our poor physical and mental health, and so on and so on. Never mind what we are doing to others, why are we doing this to ourselves?
I don’t particularly disagree with the prevailing consensus of those debates. And yet, for me, something very important is missing from the conversation, and it is this:
The prescriptions that we hear today, from the Grayson Perrys and the Robert Webbs, from the endless Guardian thinkpieces goes something like this: The problem here is men, and the solution is for men to heal, for men to change.
But there’s a problem. Masculinity is not an individual ailment – it is a political construction.
This narrative around healing and change is an atomised, individualist solution to a structural, societal, political problem. Men are as we are because at a profound level this is how society wants us to be. That is how hegemony works. While well-meaning liberals urge us to step out of the man box, pretty much all of the structural forces of society are shoving us back in and nailing down the lid.
Now there’s a big ideological point there, an analysis that has come down from Engels and Antonio Gramsci. Our cultural norms of masculinity evolved to serve economic interests in the post-industrial society. In the words of the feminist philosopher Nina Power, the personal is not political, it is always entirely economic.
But it is not just the big picture. Our masculinity today is also shaped by countless small policy decisions, on everything from work, family and fatherhood to housing, health and criminal justice. Let me focus on the detail, how 21st century man is a product of 21st century political decisions, by way of a few examples.
As I am here in a university, let me begin with a familiar problem. Boys and men in the 21st century are falling behind academically at a quite spectacular rate.
If current trends were to continue, a boy born in 2017 will be 75% less likely to attend university than his sister. As many experts have noted, this has calamitous implications for society, for our economy and for the individual men of the 21st century.
Given the extensive – and very welcome – efforts to get girls into STEM and other subjects where they are under-represented, we might ask how many initiatives, how many programmes the Department of Education has funded specifically aimed at addressing boys’ academic underperformance? The answer, is zero. None. Not one.
Girls are assumed to be in need of practical help, support, encouragement. Boys are left to fend for themselves or effectively told it’s their own fault for playing too many video games. That is not toxic masculinity. That is toxic patriarchy – the expectation that men should be self-reliant, powerful, independent at all times.
At the heart of the movement to reform masculinity is the idea that men need to be more caring, more sensitive, more nurturing as fathers and friends.
There is no doubt that we need more male role models in those areas, it would surely help if we had vastly more men working in childcare, nursing, primary teaching and other caring professions.
There can be little doubt that machismo and male gender norms make a huge barrier to that ambition. Here is an area where political decisions could make an enormous difference – this is precisely the other side of the coin to the numerous initiatives aimed at getting more girls into STEM.
And yet not only does the government do nothing to encourage men into those professions, when the topic was raised last year Andrea Leadsom – now Leader of the House of Commons – said it is not “sensible” to employ men as child carers because they might be paedophiles. That is not toxic masculinity. That is toxic politics.
One of the more welcome developments in the field of gender politics in recent decades has been the belated acknowledgement of the unique issues faced by male survivors of sexual, domestic and intimate violence and abuse. The very existence of male survivors challenges the norms of hegemonic masculinity – men are supposed to be the perpetrators, not the victims.
And at a political level, when the government funds projects to support male survivors, when the government, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service collects statistics on sexual abuse of men and boys, they do so within a strategy that is called Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls.
As far as our authorities are concerned, male survivors of intimate and sexual violence are categorised as an awkward subset of Women and Girls. That is not toxic masculinity, that is toxic patriarchy woven into the very fabric of government.
There are endless other examples but I must leave you with one thought to carry away. All the issues you hear about around masculinity, however personal they may appear, are on some level political.
Whatever solutions we come up with must also be political. What I would ask of you today is that wherever there is a suggestion that men should in some way change, ask yourself what we can do as a society to enable that, to encourage that.
Because yes, men do need to change, but will not and can not do that unless and until society changes with us.