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
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
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