Is masculinity really in crisis?

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In 2009, I was teaching in a sixth-form college in south-west London. One of my students came to me one day and said “Miss, I’m a feminist”. I was a little taken aback, but pleased at this statement. I also caught myself wondering: Does she know what it means?

Sometimes, I am not sure myself what it means to be a feminist. I know what it means to me: that women have equal rights to men, but according to their individual needs. This last adjunct seems to me to be often overlooked by society. I experienced an example of this on the Overground a few months back. I had met some acquaintances and was deep in conversation with them, until it came to the attention of the carriage that a man was arguing with a pregnant woman, to whom it seemed he had just given his seat. What became clear was that although he had given up his seat, he had done so extremely reluctantly. He was invoking equal rights, and haranguing the pregnant lady, who looked far too ill to really defend herself. So, after listening to him for a while (it was impossible not to) and waiting for someone else to step in, I said “Excuse me”. He turned towards me. I pointed to the sign above the seat and said “Do you see that sign? That is a priority seat, which is reserved for people with children, the elderly, disabled people and women who are pregnant. You are none of those, so if someone fits into those categories, no matter what, you are obliged to vacate your seat.” He then said sneeringly “But what if I were disabled?” I looked at him askance, and he said no more. (Just to set your mind at ease dear reader, he clearly was not. And a few minutes later I gave up my non-priority seat to another pregnant woman. I don’t only talk the talk).

There have been a number of articles this week about masculinity in crisis. To me, this is a non-issue. A very clever one, politically for Diane Abbott and the Labour party to have raised – but a non-issue nonetheless. The real issue here is that men are finally starting to be held accountable for their bad behaviour (as a gender) to the present day – and they don’t like it. It is akin to children throwing their toys out of the pram, because they are asked to share them. What infuriates me, as a feminist, in the absence equality between the sexes as of yet, that this is being raised as an issue at all.

Certainly, men as a gender have to re-assess their position in light of historical patriarchal power. That goes without saying. But in my view – they’ve had the opportunity to do this since the Suffragettes. It should hardly come as a surprise to men living in 2013 that treating women equally in society according to women’s individual needs is the right thing to do. No one would argue (I would hope) in this day and age that treating people of colour equally is the right thing to do. Or the LGBT community. Or disabled people. Or (and this is UK specific) Irish people. So why is there this blind spot when it comes to the treatment of women, who make up at least 50% of the population?

If there is a crisis of masculinity happening in the UK, that crisis would be better spent addressing the patriarchal wrongs the male gender have and continue to inflict on women. As a woman, I could give that crisis more credence if women didn’t still earn 13p less for every £1 a man earns. I could give that crisis more credence if rape and sexual abuse (of which women are the main victims) was not so often failed by the criminal justice system – something like a paltry 1% of rapists are convicted, which adds to the sense of male entitlement. I could give that that crisis credence if we didn’t only have barely 23% women MPs in the UK Parliament and 4% female CEOs in the FTSE 100. In the UK, women are still forced to choose between returning to work and the costs of childcare – in a women-friendly world, employers would be forced to provide childcare. In my profession, I have known performers who have brought their children to rehearsal to make a point – but they were well-recognised enough that they could get away with that. Not every woman has that privilege.

This is also not to say that women’s advancement in society (or lack thereof) is because of men. Women also collude in that lack of advancement by not demanding what is right for their gender as a whole, or having some sense of misplaced guilt. For example, I know many women who are absolutely against quotas. While I respect their right to disagree with me, I believe quotas are temporarily the way forward, and have been proven to work in countries like Norway (incidentally the quota there was introduced by Ansgar Gabrielsen, a male Conservative trade and industry minister). We can also see from countries like the US, where affirmative action was introduced in the 1960s, that it is necessary: although a black president has been voted in twice (and how unthinkable would that have been 50 years ago), racial equality still has a long way to go there – how much longer would things have taken to change somewhat WITHOUT affirmative action is the real question?

I am also not saying that women with equal power and rights would behave any better than men. In fact, I suspect they would not. But that does not mean that they should not be given an equal chance to behave well or badly. Until then, it is hypothetical.

For feminism to make real progress, it needs men to realise that it benefits them as well. Perhaps that would lessen the “crisis” of masculinity somewhat; but it seems to me that men do not recognise the potential positive effects for their gender. With equal rights comes equal responsibility, and that can only be a good thing. And it can work. In my own life, my mother was the main breadwinner, and my father was a house husband, at a time when “latte papas” had not even been conceived as a concept (mainly because “latte” was still a word in Italian meaning “milk”). And it worked, because in spite of their gender, they were temperamentally suited to their roles – and would have been deeply unhappy had the roles been reversed. When we humans stop giving in to the brainwashing that society inflicts on us to keep us in line, and start living our individual lives from our own personal needs: intellectual, emotional, biological and spiritual is when the fight for female equality will be over. Until then, it is incumbent on every person, if they regard themselves as a person of integrity, to insist that the real issue du jour is that in 2013, women are still having to argue the point of feminism.

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5 responses »

  1. I absolutely agree that Feminism is about ‘women having equal rights to men, but according to their individual needs’. It frustrates me when people try and equate “men and women are equal” with “men and women are the same”. I don’t mean that women are innately feminine and men are innately masculine, because I think gender is a different issue altogether, but just that there are some fundamental differences in terms of biological and physical needs that can’t be dismissed by ‘But, equality’.

  2. Once, in a university setting, I voted against the creation of a “Women’s Officer” on the graduate student committee because, as a woman, I found it patronising and equal to a “Teacher! He hit me!” refuge. Instead, I would have felt more comfortable with an “Equal Opportunities Officer”. Needless to say, several fellow-women stopped saying hello to me.

    You raise a very good point, and one that, sadly, only recently, have I begun to consider. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but I have suddenly started noticing an increasing level of misogyny around. Last summer, there was an article in The Guardian, about the rise of misogynist jokes in stand-up comedy. Mind, it is very subtle, but there, nonetheless.

    The fact remains that, male actors, newsreaders and politicians still seem to have a longer shelf life than their female counterparts.

    • Well, my type of feminism is the type where even if we disagree with each other (and there are almost as many opinions in feminism as there are women) we respect each other’s right to hold that opinion. I have always been of the opinion that quotas, affirmative action etc is a necessary temporary measure – because it is highly unlikely that any ruling class will easily give up their power.
      What you are noticing is a backlash against feminism by some men and women who do not want things to change. They are comfortable in their privilege and do not perceive that it is the right thing to do. A lot of these people are people who on the other hand would probably be horrified if you said to them that on that basis gay people would not have gained equality, for example. But somehow it is alright to inflict an unequal playing field on women….
      It is true about men in the arts and media – but women also need to take responsibility and create great opportunities for themselves and other women. I’m in the process of creating my own performing opportunities – and it is hard work. That’s in addition to all the other things I am doing – but it must be done. If after that I have the opportunity to create work for other women, I will do so. In the same way, women in business/government must mentor their younger counterparts. But there is a change – if you look at great programmes like Scott and Bailey which has great female characters over 40/50 and is written by a woman – it is clear what the model must be in order for things to change. Carpe diem! xx

  3. By lynn
    How Do we create more Respect and Care for Women?
    I hear many mothers hoping to create more care and respect for women today. This is really quite complex given the many points of interaction given young Males today. Beginning with the parents: could the right way to help create respect and care be to use strong commanding instructions and even punishment for young boys not showing sufficient care and respect for women during various interactions? Should parents in an effort to make boys strong continue to make distinctions in treatment in terms of words, tone, actions, voice stress to boys not given the Female children in the family? Should teachers continually attempt to express differences in achievement in terms of the myth of genetics using terms such as natural ability, work harder, or naturally gifted? Note, this is more prominently favoring Females today. Are we teaching young male children to think of themselves as less capable today?
    As for teachers: should teachers continue to hold a stereotypic voice and action for boys and a very different type of voice and action for girls in terms of instructions, commands, discipline, etc? When teachers are trying to teach such understandings to their Male students, are they using the more accepted, commanding, demanding words, tones, inflections to help make the message more strongly accepted? When teachers are speaking in terms of ability, should they continue to show preference by some presumed ability, incidentally now more greatly favoring girls? As for the Male child’s peers: are those boys and girls using more stereotypic view of treatment of Males and Females as modeled to them by their parents, teachers and other peers?
    As for the media: should the media continue to use more Female lead characters that often stretch their presence of authority in various words, tones, and actions over other Male actors to help grab and maintain greater viewer (usually a more Female Friendly) audience? Should the myth of genetics that features terms such as simply hard work, intelligence, natural gifts, continually be used to justify both differences in achievement/power and also differential treatment of those presumed to be of some lesser status?
    I feel such presently accepted treatments and conditioning of Male children is working opposite to the needs parents are trying to achieve for their Male children today. Could the more correct avenue be to begin treating Male children with the same kind, stable, verbal interaction, and care, they are presently giving their Female children? Could parents begin to not make force, power, and over use of authority the norm in their treatment but rather a more supportive, tolerant, even more affectionate use of attention, care, and interaction along with their various instructions? I feel such modeling of kind, stable, respectful treatment will create more of such behavior in younger Male children today.
    Could teachers, who are more prominently Female today, begin using more kind, stable, verbal and behavioral interaction with their Male students to also do their part to model more of this character to their Male students? Could those Male students in turn have more care for education and also as a bonus, show more respect and care for girls and women in general? Could teachers begin removing the horrible teachings of genetics from our schools and begin showing how differential treatment by gender, race, and other supposed handicaps hurt all of us and have, as a result, has created differences in achievement by race, gender, and some presumed disabilities? I feel such educational changes should reach out not just to the students, both boys and girls, but also to their parents as well, for those parents are still very much still focusing on very differential treatment in their raising of boys and girls.
    I feel differential treatment, the myth of genetics and a tremendous lack of understanding of how differential environmental influences and yes, differential treatment by gender, is greatly determining achievement in school and success in the work place in the information age. I believe the increased feelings of superiority of girls, insinuated by parents, teachers, peers, and the media has created an increasing negative synergy or climate of superiority for girls and women in general that has created increasing more toxic environment for boys and later, men. I feel boys under the more continuous, aggressive, less tolerant, more demanding rules and treatment are being modeled to be more defensive, more aggressive, less tolerant, and more fearful of girls and later women who are using the more kind treatment by society to move ahead of them in the information age. I feel society has a choice, it can begin as a collective body to create a more kind, stable, caring environment for all, or it can continue to maintain its very equal treatment by gender. I feel such present treatments of Male and Female children will drive more deeply and more firmly the growing gulf between men and women today. Who knows when a critical point in terms of the present power struggle will be reached? I feel unless there is a change in treatment, male children and later men, will continue fall out and be a woeful burden upon society.

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