I am not in the habit of writing about the same subject twice in a row but after my Sunday post last week on masculinity and the way the media (mis)represents it sometimes, I am coming back today to the same issue. This was prompted by an article I read last week by author and co-founder of Fathers Direct, Jack O'Sullivan.
O’Sullivan’s column focused on the dearth of male voices talking about men and the reasons for it. He is right in a way. Why aren’t George Monbiot, Simon Jenkins, Jonathan Freedland and Martin Kettle joining the debate on masculinity? As Mr O’Sullivan states, “Men's absence from the debate has dramatic consequences, making it overwhelmingly negative.” This negativity trickles through to the next generation and thus the cycle continues. What is more, this unhelpful approach is conducive to a stereotypical view of the male of the species. Women have no qualms about addressing difficult issues. And men? We clam up apparently.
And yet, reality is so different. As O’Sullivan writes, this “debate with genuine male participation and leadership aspirational and authentically male agenda would be much welcome. “The centrepiece would be today's extraordinary transformation of masculinity. A huge transition is taking place in all our lives, as we redefine our relationships with women, with our children, with work, with our sexuality. History may judge it to be a faster and more profound change even than the developments in women's lives.” I loved that last paragraph. The key word is “transition”. We’re not the cavemen of yesteryear. Yes, it’s true that the recent stories about teenage girls’ abuse, rape and misogyny have reinforced the view that certain men are not to be trusted. But we are also the ones demanding a more flexible paternal leave, equal rights for women and recognition of the importance of fathers/male carers in children’s lives. The problem is that our voices are rarely heard.
Jack answers this conundrum brilliantly. According to him we, like women, have taken a long time to escape the confines of our gender. Whether it is in our relationships with women – amorous or not – and/or with other men – gay or straight – we are evolving. The 21st century Responsible Dad came out of this mix, even though his habitat was mainly urban. These are achievements to celebrate, but we don’t seem to be too good at doing it.
Where I believe Mr O’Sullivan is somewhat misguided is when he pits this lack of awareness of men’s position in contemporary Britain against feminism. In his own words, “feminism has reinforced rather than challenged – or even acknowledged – matriarchy.” Two points I would like to make on that statement. The first one is that feminism was a reaction rather than an action. It was a way for women to fight for the rights they had been denied ever since the Greeks invented democracy and excluded them and slaves from it. Without feminism the right to vote, for instance, would not have been won. So, when male voices are drowned by female commentators, is not because of feminism, it is because of the woman behind the opinion. Laurie Penny and Julie Bindel are an extension of the women's liberation movement. Martin Kettle et al lack that urgency because they - we - live in a male-dominated world.
The second point concerns the absence of men writing and talking about male issues. It might be the case that journalists, intellectuals, authors inter alia, don’t think these topics are important enough to even address them. This is partly because of a misconception that matters to do with family, feelings and emotions (relationships and children’s upbringing come to mine) belong solely in the province of women, whilst men are left to deal with the Big Issue(s). In a way this situation mirrors literature. How many times have I not heard critics deride women’s books as just a compendium of emotions and feelings? Shout out James Joyce and modernism will follow straight after like a playful dog up to get the ball its owner holds in his hand. Scream “The Great American Novel” and see how Herman Melville and Scott Fitzgerald come to blows over a place in the queue. What about female writers, though? Oh, they are OK, but they can only write about feelings and stuff, you know, “wimmin things”. I think that Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Hilary Mantel would have something to say about that. But the misconception remains, men deal with the grand theme, women are better at chick-lit.
That’s the reason why Simon Jenkins (usually critical of Britain’s foreign policy), George Monbiot (the UK's foremost champion and defender of the environment) and Martin Kettle (wrong about the future of British dance) can’t bring themselves to write about masculinity per se, its place in modern society, its changes and challenges. They are all too busy addressing the “important” issues such as terrorism, climate change and Nick Clegg’s role in the coalition. Until they and the rest of the male commentariat realise that they have as much of a stake in raising awareness of what Jack O’Sullivan calls a revolution in masculinity as everyone else, the only debate about men will continue to be led by women. And that doesn’t help either party.
Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 29th May at 11:59pm (GMT)