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Mick Hume

Girls and boys

There has been 'a social and economic revolution' in women's lives, Labour frontbencher Harriet Harman told parliament in March. Harman was speaking in a full-scale commons debate on International Women's Day - an event which a few years ago would have been marked only by poorly attended meetings in a few drafty town halls.

It certainly appears that the prevailing values of society have shifted significantly in a feminist direction. Everything from the adoption of non-sexist language to the increased attention paid to rape or sexual harassment seems to indicate that things have changed. As a consequence, what are considered masculine values are definitely out of vogue in the mid-1990s. In the eyes of most commentators, being aggressive, assertive or competitive is now considered unacceptably macho behaviour.

The need to counter 'masculine values' is an underlying theme of many discussions. Even something as seemingly sexless as economic analysis demonstrates the trend. During that March commons debate, the Labour leadership announced its determination to see an end to 'men-only economics'. In the same month, one analysis of the Barings bank crash in the Financial Times blamed the dominant dealing room 'culture' among male financial traders like Nick Leeson, with its 'one simple value system: win or be damned'.

The revolt against 'masculine values' is most evident in the discussion of male violence, now widely portrayed as a growing threat to women, children and civilised society.

The Archbishop of York recently sought to pin the blame for family breakdown on the increasing number of aggressive young men who are seen as not worth marrying. Christina Hardyment of the Daily Telegraph got on her high horse to condemn the 'male aggression' of these 'unskilled, randomly violent...potentially murderous misfits who make the well-meaning mass of good citizens quail' (9 March 1995). The revival of the football hooligan panic has confirmed the worst fears of many such 'good citizens'. The attempt to associate masculinity with violence has now reached the point where some scientists claim that there could even be a genetic link.

The flipside of this process is the sustained attempt to elevate what are seen as 'feminine values', such as sensitivity, consideration, compliance and non-threatening behaviour. Ours is an age when it is considered good for everybody to cry and to seek counselling rather than trying to get on with it; and when the experience of being a woman is often seen as a qualification for occupying the moral high ground on any issue. As reviewer Christopher Dunkley has noted of the new trend in television drama, 'any positive aspect of any female character is credited to the woman's natural virtue, anything negative results one way or another from her relationships with men'.

Since few people want to be seen defending the boorish antics of 'the boys', this is often an easy argument to win. But we do not have to side with the ridiculous Iron Johns of the new 'men's movement' in order to spot some problems here. The attempt to exorcise 'masculine values' in favour of 'feminising' society has dangerous implications - for many men and women alike.

Take, for instance, the way in which influential critics of 'masculine values' now deem it out of order to be aggressive, assertive or offensive to others. That might sound all right to the comfortably off opinion-makers, who do not want their leafy lives disturbed by conflict and unpleasantness. But what about the many others who have to struggle and be pushy to survive? How is being sensitive and compliant going to help them get a decent wage rise from an employer, or deal with the hard-faced social security people? How will nice, non-threatening behaviour feed or clothe their families?

What might seem like a sweeping attack on 'masculine values' is not really aimed at all men. The sort of self-righteous middle class males who are influenced by the features on the Guardian women's page are not counted as men for the purposes of this debate. Instead, the focus always seems to be on the deficiencies of working class men, epitomised either by the football hooligan or the Leeson-style wideboy. Putting on a feminist hat and attacking working class men for their lager-fuelled aggression, sexism, homophobia, racism or greed has become the acceptable way for the genteel citizenry to look down their noses at the plebs in the 1990s.

The promotion of so-called feminine values is often little more than a celebration of the kind of docility, passivity and ability to suffer in silence which have traditionally been demanded of good wives and mothers. For working people trying to get on and improve our lives, embracing such values would mean accepting that we are powerless to change things. And who would benefit most from that? Cynics might say that it is particularly convenient for those running a slump-ridden economy, which cannot provide people with what they need, to promote the notion that we should reject the aggressive, grasping, greedy masculine values of the 1980s.

Never mind the problems of working class men, we are told, the priority now is to improve the status of women in society. Yet the irony is that the implications of running down 'masculine values' are in some ways even worse for the majority of women.

For decades, women have sought to escape from the traditional stereotypes of feminine helplessness, passivity and general 'girliness'. In trying to win equality, they were trying to be more like men - at least in the sense of being more in control of events and more influential in the world. Now, however, women are not only being told to put up with the old crap, but to revel in it. The Oprah-ised media often seems to sanctify women's role as society's passive victims, whether of child sexual abuse, harassment, domestic violence or rape.

Of course, there have been changes in relations between the sexes. But these are less about the elevation of women to equal status with men than the dragging down of many men to the level previously allotted to women.

The much-vaunted 'revolution' in women's working lives is a case in point. The advance of 'flexible' working practices like part-time employment is often pointed to as evidence of women's progress in the jobs market. No doubt there have been improvements for some of the well-heeled women now associated with Tony Blair's New Labour. But women executives are still far more common in coffee adverts than in corporate boardrooms; recent figures suggest women make up just 2.8 per cent of senior managers and 9.8 per cent of all managers in British business. As for the mass of the female workforce, the average wage for a woman worker is now around 40 per cent less than for a man. In March, Tory trade minister Richard Needham even had to admit that Daewoo's women workers in Korea earn more than their counterparts in Britain. Some revolution.

The growth of part-time work has been widely presented as a good thing which allows more women to combine work with childcare. Everybody seems less keen to mention the fact that part-time work means part-time wages, otherwise known as poverty.

What the changes in work practices have achieved is to reduce millions of men to the kind of insecure, poorly paid employment once reserved for women. And the employers can do more than just get away with imposing such 'flexible' working today; they can even sell it as a progressive step towards the 'feminisation' of the workforce.

In practice, the sort of economic equality that is being established today is typ-ified by the proposal to equalise the age at which men and women qualify for a pension in Britain; not by cutting men's retirement age to 60, but by raising women's to 65. At the level of rhetoric, the authorities are generous in their commitments to gender equality. But where hard cash is concerned, they ensure that it is a question of sharing out the misery.

A similar process can now be seen at work in the social and political spheres. Women have long been cast in the role of powerless home-makers with little part to play in deciding major issues. Instead, they have been relegated to more petty obsessions about their families, friends, bodies and health. This always represented a retreat from engaging with wider matters, something which women activists fought hard to overcome. Today, however, more and more men are being shunted into the backwaters of 'feminine' issues. The growing obsession with men's health and diet parallels the removal of working people from the political life of the country. Once the aim was to encourage more women to look beyond a narrow concern with relationships and smear tests, and take an active part in changing society. Now it seems men too are being told to stay home, feel their testicles and fret about fatherhood.

There is a final consequence of the campaign against 'male aggression' which has potentially dangerous consequences for us all. It continually invites the authorities to intervene in our affairs in order to suppress bestial instincts.

There is now a powerful notion that there is something inherent in males that can make them violent. Those who use dubious science to claim a genetic link make this point most explicitly. But even those who blame a poor social environment for 'male aggression' tend to imply that it is an unavoidable trait among certain types of men. These points come close to echoing the old primitivist arguments about the 'natural savagery' of Africans and others. As such, they must invite intervention and repression. After all, if the boys cannot help it, a policeman or 'caring professional' of one sort or another will have to be brought in to curb their aggressive instincts for them.

The focus on 'hardcore hooligans', like those few on display at the football in Dublin, makes many people sympathetic to calls for more controls. But the wider implication of the primitivist-style argument is that all humanity is imperfect, potentially destructive, and in need of firmer regulation and more censorship. Once we allow the authorities to brand people as beasts, who is to say where they will draw the line?

Before you know it, the feminist campaign against 'masculine values' and 'male aggression' has turned into a justification for aggressive interference in the lives of millions of men and women, while we are told to lie back and think of non-penetration.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 78, April 1995

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