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Manly virtues and masculine vices

John MacInnes asks what's behind the 'crisis' of masculinity

'There is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, height and recent record in sports.' (Stigma, Erving Goffman, 1963, p128)

What were once considered manly virtues have become masculine vices. Strength, courage, independence, heroism in combat, a 'stiff upper lip', sexual initiative - virtues which men used to claim legitimated their dominance of society because they looked after women - have become vices which demonstrate their unfitness for office: aggression, competitiveness, abuse, emotional inarticulacy, sexual obsession, childishness.

Sons attack fathers for being absent from their lives. Partners condemn their man's inability to tell her how he feels. A man touching his own child, let alone somebody else's, is more likely to be suspected of abuse than of being that elusive creature 'a new man'. Employers prefer the superior communication skills, expressiveness and empathy of women, to the obsolete drive, muscles and bloody-mindedness of men. The laddish hedonism of the Loaded generation - sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and football - is deprecated. Young men are directionless, losing out at every turn to their more assured, mature and qualified sisters. There are no positive male role models left. Men Behaving Badly, reassuring us that men are ultimately pathetic, is the definitive nineties sitcom. All this, we are regularly reminded, is the crisis of masculinity.

Two things are remarkable about this crisis of masculinity. The first is that, although people imagine it is new, it has been going on for a very long time. For a couple of centuries men have complained that modern society feminises them because it needs less physical toughness and aggression, and more talking and teamwork. The dubious truth of such arguments (the twentieth century has been the bloodiest of human history) has not stopped initiatives as diverse as the rise of organised sport (including the modern Olympics movement), the boy scouts and 'muscular' Christianity, all aimed at making boys 'manly' again. But what makes the present crisis different is that instead of modern society being condemned for feminising men it is now criticised for not feminising them enough. Men, and the masculinity they embrace, have become the problem rather than the solution.

The second feature is that while everybody seems to know exactly what they are talking about, masculinity itself seems impossible to pin down, as Erving Goffman's perceptive comment - from three decades ago - makes clear. People rarely discuss the men they know and almost never discuss themselves, as opposed to the men they now admit they once were. This is not surprising - as Goffman's comment suggests, no actually existing man could consistently embody masculinity! We are dealing with a stereotype - but one with great cultural resonance.

Not all boys are lost or lads, not all men are boorish abusers, and girl power is not ubiquitous. It would be wrong to dismiss the crisis of masculinity as so much media hot air, however, for it is superficial evidence of a more profound historical change. Today's boys can no longer assume the automatic gamut of privileges over women that their fathers and grandfathers took for granted. Modern industrial market-based societies have, quite unintentionally, fatally weakened men's dominance over women.

To be economically secure women no longer have to marry or cohabit with men, let alone a man chosen by their father. They can divorce and, albeit in poverty, raise children with the support of the state rather than a husband. Women still face discrimination in education and the labour market but it is possible for them to live independently. To varying degrees they can control their reproductive capacities. They can vote. They can expect some minimal protection by the state from male sexual violence. All this does not constitute sexual equality, but it does show that men's dominance is incompatible with the development of individual rights (such as the right to vote, to sell one's labour power, to choose who to live with or to have sex with), to the extent that these rights are also enjoyed by women.

Ironically, men themselves invented the concept of masculinity and the stereotypes which are now seen so negatively.

Three things are crucial to the development of modern societies. One is secularisation: the idea that people construct the societies they live in, rather than living out a destiny laid down by the laws of nature or God. Another is the idea of the free market, in which what is important is what is being bought and sold rather than who is doing the trading (including what sex they happen to be). A third is the idea of equal rights: that your treatment before the law does not depend on your status or who you are.

Although these principles are honoured more in the breach than the observance, they have all had the effect of making it more difficult for men to claim a natural or divinely inspired superiority over women. Liberalism, which started out as a claim among men for equal rights, has been unable to resist the claim to equal rights for women. As Mary Astell put it over 250 years ago, 'If all Men are born Free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?'. Another way of saying this is that capitalism made successful feminist struggle possible.

Because it became more difficult, and ultimately impossible for men to argue that they were naturally superior to women, they developed a new argument: although there were no natural differences that could account for men's power, there were social ones. Men ruled not because they were male but because they were masculine, and this masculinity was a social rather than natural thing: a product of the upbringing men received or the positions they found themselves in. The idea that masculinity existed made sense of a world in which men and women were supposedly formally equal but were in practice patently dramatically unequal.

Ever since, masculinity has been in crisis because men have been unable to show what it comprises (as opposed to producing stereotypes of what it ought to comprise) or what produces it, while feminists have made the obvious point that if masculinity is indeed something social then there is no reason why women cannot be just as masculine as men, or men be made to reform and change their gender.

Masculinity is not something any man actually possesses, any more than any woman has femininity written on her heart. It exists only as a set of ideas or stereotypes which we carry around to make sense of the different roles and places men and women occupy in society. The fact that these stereotypes have become so negative is simply evidence of the success of feminism: the cultural reflection of real, substantial material change. The assertion of sexual difference previously used to legitimate men's superiority is now used to attack it. The crisis of masculinity is only evidence of men's inability to stop progress towards greater equality between the sexes. In this sense it is a crisis we should welcome.

But it is also a crisis we should ignore. Instead of arguing the toss about masculinity we should be asking more practical questions about the equality of the sexes.

One blind alley is the search for either a 'true' or more 'progressive' masculinity. One of the greatest ironies of contemporary Western culture is that at a time when the sex of our bodies has less impact on our lives than ever before, we believe more fervently than ever that sex holds the secret of our identity. We are driven towards the conclusion that, aside from the immediate biological facts of sexual difference (facts which are very relevant to making babies and almost wholly irrelevant to everything else), men and women are the same. The crudest reactions to this are attempts to provide new 'scientific' evidence of sexual difference - for example, through the study of genetics or the analysis of patterns of brain activity - which are hardly different from the 'scientific' evidence produced a century ago that the smaller size of women's brains explained their lower place in society.

There is no gene, or brain pattern, which renders men incapable of ironing, shopping, changing nappies or articulating their emotions, just as there is none which stops women running governments or multinational corporations, flying fighter planes, abusing children or committing murder. It is social structures and processes which explain why women do more of the former and men do more of the latter, and it is just these structures which modern, market-based, democratic societies undermine in ways which are frequently barely visible.

We make increasingly desperate attempts to cling on to the idea of fundamental difference between men and women in an age that every day provides new proof of the myth of men's superiority to women. Similarly, although at first sight it seems progressive and feminist to assert the moral superiority of the feminine - arguing, for example, that women abjure power and competitiveness - in the end this merely inverts the old patriarchal assertion that such a fundamental difference exists, putting the women on top instead of the men.

Instead of chasing the mirage-like image of masculinity, it is surely better to take sexual equality to its logical conclusion and to stop allowing anybody to cite their sex as either a justification or an apology for what they do, especially when they argue that their 'gender identity' is the issue.

John MacInnes is the author of The End of Masculinity: the confusion of sexual genesis and sexual difference in modern society, published by Open University Press


Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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