Lads. Fellas. Brothers. Men. Put down that six pack of beer. Throw away that football. Lock up those assault weapons. Feminists are here to help. Yes, it might have looked like some of them were hostile to the male sex but they really care for us, and they feel our pain, and they want us to change.
“Patriarchy,” we are told, “Hurts men and boys, too.” According to the influential feminist writer bell hooks, in her book The will in her change:
Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.
That word is already embedded in the term “masculinity” if you pronounce it like an ageing English gentleman but that is an aside. The author Tim Winton makes a similar argument in his recent essay on what is known as “toxic masculinity”:
…when they’re feral creatures, kids are reservoirs of tenderness and empathy. But some do turn into savages. And sadly most of those are boys. They’re trained into it.
Really? Boys can be tender, and empathetic, and their violent tendencies can be exacerbated by abuse and neglect, but the idea that “feral creatures” must be trained into being “savage” is absurd. Children, and especially male children, have innate aggressive tendencies and must be trained not to express them in too violent ways.
I doubt that many children had more pacifistic parents than mine and yet video evidence records my youthful self punching my best friend in the side of the head. My mum and dad worked not to expose me to excessive violence yet it was a constant battle with my warlike ways. Mum was delighted when I bought the video game Worms, imagining that it involved a lot of peaceful burrowing in the drilosphere, and was disappointed to be told that Worms was a surreal display of aggressive annelids armed to the tails with guns.
Of course, as much as gender has natural roots its growth has societal influences, and it would be ludicrous to claim that there are no pernicious pressures on male development. “Pickup” culture, for example, harms women who are exploited and abused and it also harms men. A study by Y. Joel Wong and others from Indiana University Bloomington found that attempts to conform to a “playboy” model of masculinity were unfavourably associated with mental health. (This finding, of course, would not surprise or discomfort conservatives.)
This study was reported as proving that “toxic masculinity…hurts men”. In fact, Wong disagreed concluded that researchers should “disaggregate the generic construct of conformity to masculine norms and…focus instead on specific dimensions of masculine norms.” We can debate the possible implications of this but one thing it discredits is sweeping negative conceptions of masculinity. I wish Winton had read it before writing:
Can we wean boys off machismo and misogyny? Will they ever relinquish the race, the game, the fight, and join the dance? I hope so.
One can be too competitive, of course. This enables zero-sum bias, conflict and narrow-mindedness. Yet what is wrong in essence with racing and playing games? Introverted or uninterested boys should not have to join in, of course, but sports-mad and war gaming boys should not feel compelled to dance, write poems and sing. One cannot shake the sense that progressives extrapolate from boyish pursuits like football and wrestling to international trade and international war, and imagine that if boys are taught to dance, and cry, and love they will grow up to help build an egalitarian world. It is socialism through the school yard.
Men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Women attempt suicide at higher rates than men but their attempts are considerably less effective. A factor many people think has underpinned the difference is the greater male tendency towards stoicism. Men are less inclined towards expressing their emotions, it is claimed, and so so their feelings build up and explode in self-destruction, often exacerbated by drugs and alcohol.
There is evidence that emotional suppression contributes to suicide risk. This is a real concern. Yet sweeping assertions that “real men cry” and “men need to learn to cry” strike me as superficial. First, there are other reasons why men commit suicide at greater rates than women. Men are likelier to use more effective methods like firearms or hanging. Men are likelier to have autism, which, tragically, and I hope preventably, entails a higher risk of suicide. Second, I wonder if stoicism can be balanced with expressiveness; if we can foster an ethic of endurance that encompasses the need to express one’s fears and frustrations to loved ones.
Life is hard. In all likelihood it is going to get harder. There is value in tolerating hardship even if we must accept that many people have too much to bear and none of us can do so without some assistance. We must help to foster strong relationships, familial and fraternal, which have weakened in a fragmentary age. We must offer opportunities for fulfilment. We must, yes, remind ourselves that no man is an island. But this can be done without a radical restructuring of masculine norms. The existence of bigorexia, a real problem for men, does not mean going to the gym is unhealthy.
It is far from unrealistic to imagine parents and educators imposing heavy-handedly “sensitive” new norms on boys. The New York Times reported that “many of Sweden’s government-funded preschools are doing what they can to deconstruct…gender differences.”At some preschools:
Boys and girls…were separated for part of the day and coached in traits associated with the other gender. Boys massaged each other’s feet. Girls were led in barefoot walks in the snow, and told to throw open the window and scream.
Boys, and men, need guidance and support, for our own sake and for the sake of those around us, but we should not leave the task to people whose unashamed and, indeed, enthusiastic bias is towards problematisation. It is a caring, compassionate and empathetic exercise in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.