One of the signs that feminism might be getting traction in places it hasn’t before is the rise of the idea of a men’s movement that advocates for ‘men’s rights.’ It’s a strange and sad idea as we shall see, but often not well understood or acknowledged.
A piece in Slate described the men’s movement like this:
The oft-derided ‘men’s movement’ took this approach in its efforts to free men from the burdens imposed on them by unrealistic expectations. Growing out of feminism, the movement acknowledged that men had disproportionate and unjust levels of power but insisted this was not the unalloyed advantage it might appear to be. Men suffered from gender inequality, too, and faced a whole added level of stress born of the internalized belief that they must adhere to certain roles, especially those of breadwinner and protector, which discouraged them from expressing vulnerabilities, fears, and emotional needs.
I’m not sure that the idea of men’s rights is as derided as it should be and I’m definitely clear that it’s not some kind of outgrowth of feminism. ‘Men’s rights’ – or more specifically heterosexual men’s rights – seems like a cover story for a whole lot of agendas and ideas, and more significantly male hysterias.
There is no ‘movement’ as such either, but there is definitely a kind of pressure and a vague coherence around certain right-wing ideas being facilitated by different men’s groups. They can often take the form of a sort of complaint against feminism twinned with a feeling of being cheated out of something. But what is often intriguing about the various formulations of men’s rights are their interpretations and positioning of feminism, which I’ll come to in a minute.
The feminist critic Juliet Mitchell pretty much rewrote the history of hysteria in her book Mad Men and Medusas. Mitchell argued that hysteria is both a manifestation of something traumatically unspeakable trying to make itself known, and an attempt to speak to power – or, to use Mitchell’s words, hysteria is ‘the deployment of weakness as power’. Mitchell pointed out that hysteria disappeared from popular discourse and psychological understandings during the First World War as soon as it became understood that men could be hysteric as well as women. In other words, if hysteria could no longer be safely described as a feminine condition, then it followed that masculinity might have a long and unwritten history of hysterias.
Which needed to be immediately forgotten.
So if we think of the men’s movement as a kind of hysteria, what could be trying to be spoken and what is its relation to power? And what could be its unspeakable cause?
The gendering of boys under capitalism takes a very different form to that of girls. Boys are defined by what they are not, by an Other, by both the absence and the presence of something. And the thing that occupies that liminal space of absence and presence is the feminine. The worst insult that boys and men can use with each other is ‘girl’. Or variations thereof. No girl is going to be much bothered by being called a boy. The term ‘tomboy’ doesn’t cut it, and there is no equivalent like ‘tomgirl.’
Boys don’t … wear dresses, put on makeup, play with dolls, do ballet, collect Barbies, share clothes, cry, kiss their friends and so on. Whether girls choose to do these things or not – or are told or not told to do them – the terms are generally how girls are described. They describe to a boy of what a boy must not become. That’s why it’s intriguing that so many male sports, where depictions of an uber-masculinity are so rampant, have such an air of the homo-erotic about them.
The identity of girls is at least partly shaped by both the male gaze – the male gazing at the monstrous, incomprehensible, threatening feminine – and by imperatives that attempt to position themselves outside a women’s control: you have a uterus, therefore you must have babies. It’s as if definitions of femininity are too full and carry too much weight, and definitions of masculinity are too empty and carry too little.
If male hysteria about women is about terror of women, then perhaps what is trying to speak to power is the male sense of the fragility of masculinity, of masculinity’s precariousness.
At any rate the interpretations of feminism that the various voices of the men’s movement promote can more or less be grouped under the following headings:
1. Feminism is mostly about women attaining ‘equality.’
2. Feminism hasn’t tried to create any understandings of masculinity.
3. Feminism can be used to suppress masculine experience.
4. Feminism is for women.
Hysterically, one can see these as part of the men’s movement’s attempted claiming of feminism, of a new colonisation of feminine experience, a kind of clunky process of definition that reveals agendas of control and grievance.
The assumptions are dumb enough, but in their dead monolithic shadow comes creeping a whole lot of other somewhat sinister and more weirdly decorated and popularly disseminated ideas: that the judicial system is biased in favour of women, that violence against men by women in the domestic sphere is as big a problem as male violence against women, that schools prioritise girls learning over that of boys, that cultural understandings have shifted toward a preference for women’s voices and that the ‘pendulum has swung too far’ and it’s now men who are discriminated against.
It can be difficult, for men at least, to remember how endemic misogyny is. After all masculinity still undeniably confers certain advantages. Over a lifespan, a man will earn more than a woman, rise higher in his career, do less housework, less child care and won’t have to iron his own shirts. These differences hold right across class. Inhabiting notions of contemporary neocapitalist masculinity has many stresses and problems, and might explain why men’s mental health is in the toilet. But that is not the fault of feminism. It’s the fault of patriarchy, just as the financial crises with which global capitalism is riven are creations of capitalism.
One of the dead giveaways of the men’s movement is that it instinctively refines feminism’s critiques of masculinity as an attack on men.
In a terrific post on violence against women, Rebecca Solnit argued that a woman is raped in the US every minute, and I’d guess that she’s not far wrong in her estimate. The only surprise in the continual underestimation of violence against women is how much men continue to underestimate it.
An English woman, Frances Andrade, killed herself in February after being grilled by a prosecutor in the trial of her music teacher who she said raped her when she was 18. Andrade said that after the prosecution’s interrogation she felt she had ‘been raped again’. These were also the words of a Scottish teenager, Lindsay Armstrong, who killed herself last month after taking her stand in court, during the trial of her rapist, a younger boy. During Armstrong’s testimony, she had been made to hold up her g-string in court. After Andrade’s death the magistrate made a special point of stating that the prosecutor had behaved in ‘a proper’ manner.’
This kind of denial of masculine responsibility says a lot about the failure to understand what rape is, and how it is experienced and how misogyny works. What is deemed ‘proper’ might actually be cruel, stupid, callous and institutionally complicit in misogynist practices.
The austerity measures sweeping Europe are affecting women much more harshly than they are men. Political leaders are nearly always male, our feted cultural heroes are male, and the ones that aren’t are often forced to subscribe to patriarchal ideas and structures, or rejected if they don’t. That is why so many publicly successful women deny they are feminists.
Contemporary masculinity is a non-sustainable idea crashing and burning in spectacular fashion and taking the entire planet with it. Trying to reinvent it as a liberal ‘men’s movement’ seems like the desperate action of a defeated horde, a bit like BP going green or Rupert Murdoch agreeing that the Sun’s Page Three girls can wear clothes now.
Men taking responsibility for the redefinition of a toxic masculinity is not the same as seeking ‘empowerment’. It’s the abusive man’s last stand to say, ‘I have problems too’. Yes, it is often true that men have problems but beside the point. It’s beside the point because as long as the blaming of women continues, and unfairness or discrimination is claimed, the narcissistic circle of self-justification will grind on and on. When it comes to family violence, men generally greatly underestimate their own abusive behaviours and women wildly overestimate theirs.
I was surprised to discover that there is in fact an actual ‘International Men’s Day’. The IMD website describes IMD as ‘an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care while highlighting the discrimination against them’.
This seems very weaselly and problematic language to me, with alarm bells going off like mad for the final six words of the sentence.
The following sentences, a few paras down from the above, are even stranger:
The ability to sacrifice your needs on behalf of others is fundamental to manhood, as is honour. Manhood rites of passage the world over recognise the importance of sacrifice in the development of Manhood. Men make sacrifices everyday in their place of work, in their role as husbands and fathers, for their families, for their friends, for their communities and for their nation.
Is it just me, or does that read like something Kaiser Wilhelm II could have written?
‘Manhood, children’ says Joanna Russ in her famous science-fiction novel The Female Man, ‘is not reached by courage or short hair or insensibility … Manhood, children, … is Manhood.’
Having long been defined as the default definition of what it means to be human, masculinity has been thrown open to itself by its confrontation with feminism. Scrabbling for an identity that seeks both to accommodate the radical changes feminism has wrought while refusing to yield its entrenched attitude of sovereign power, masculinity can only come up with lame and pitiable pleas for the acknowledgment of its great sacrifices on behalf of women and children, an acknowledgment that nonetheless has coded within it an extortionate demand.
Personally, I think a more useful ‘Men’s Day’ comes in the form of White Ribbon Day, where men are invited to make a commitment neither to engage in violence, or stand by where violence against women is concerned. And while the presentation of the White Ribbon Day Pledge is a bit blokey and square-jawedly matey, and I’m not particularly excited by the idea that David Koch ‘has my back’, men making public commitments together about their collective responsibility for preventing violence against women is an idea whose has come.
Why does the men’s movement appear to be getting more appeal now? Juliet Mitchell reckons that between the original trauma and the hysteria there is always a time lag, and I’m inclined to agree with her. If that’s the case, the shock that masculinity experienced with second wave feminism and the approach of the freed and monstrous Other is only now starting to register. It’s annoying and something of a drag, but maybe explains why the men’s movement feels so very 1970s.
But really as far as the men’s movement goes, putting one’s energy into identifying discrimination against males, might meet male needs for grievance and a coherent, less frightening identity, but it seems like wasted energy to me. In fact, I’d like to draw the attention of the advocates of men’s rights to the fact that there has been a movement around for well over a century that has sought to helpfully and radically question and redefine masculinity.
It’s called feminism.