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Men in the age of feminism

By Peter West - posted Friday, 22 October 2010


The territory for men has become more uncertain than it was. In western societies as recently as the 1960s, gender roles were set very hard. Men's lives were oriented around work. Traditional tough masculinity - we could call it traditional masculinity - was complemented by domesticated, "caring" femininity. Accordingly, in the words of interviewees, "boys worked outside, girls worked inside".

Before the 1960s most women worked at home (though there was a brief period during World War II when women had to work in the factories and fields.) The house was their domain. Theirs was an internal life. That changed significantly in the late 1960s as part of a major revolution in gender.

Feminism has produced a revolution in attitudes and writing about women. But it is impossible to change patterns and attitudes relating to one sex without influencing the other. One unfortunate by-product of feminism has been the proliferation of negative attitudes towards men.  People talk of "the opposite sex" as if one sex was somehow opposed to, or completely different from, the other. Public discourse often refers to "the other side's troops" and similar, suggesting a wholesale gender war. Thus, while in earlier times, men and women were seen as complementary, men are now seen as redundant. Representations of men in the media are overwhelmingly negative, "something dangerous to be contained, attacked, denigrated or ridiculed, little else" . While it is unacceptable to portray women negatively, it is acceptable to trivialise or ridicule men. Macnamara's analysis of an enormous range of TV shows and print media shows a systematic and relentless bias against men. In sum "men in contemporary western societies are presented with a misandric world that devalues, marginalizes, demonises, objectifies and attempts to change them."

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In a recent ad for ice-cream, a pile of men look at a pretty girl. Their wives and girlfriends smack them across the head. Is it OK to hit people now? Sure, as long as they are men.

Academic discourse seems to take it for granted that men are privileged. But can all men be privileged? In every class of every society? What about all the men who die in dangerous occupations like mining? And  it's argued that women are victims. Is this true of all women? It is extremely difficult to publish or advocate non-feminist views within Australian universities. In many aspects of progressive and educated opinion, pro-feminist views are taken for granted. To challenge them is heresy. Part of that discourse is a negative view of males.

And progressive thinking (so-called) has led to suspicion of boys as potentially violent, preoccupied with sex and hostile to women and girls. We have cases both in Australia and North America of boys publicly shamed because of some alleged incident involving touching a girl. However complicated the circumstances, these cases worry many boys and educators and make them wary of involvement with women and girls. And of course I do not approve of males who are violent or harass girls in class.

Thus as we've seen, we live in a feminist age. What males regard as normal and acceptable - a bit of pushing, perhaps, in a playground or childcare centre - is unacceptable and condemned as bad. Masculine behaviour is measured with a feminine ruler. But as Garrison Keillor, the American humourist, said, men can never be feminists. Millions have tried, and nobody did better than C plus.

There is some resistance to feminism. There are some spokesmen for men who are very enthusiastic, but a bit worrying in their simple-minded defence of all men on all occasions.  Others, like Steve Biddulph, are strongly positive towards women.

There is a return, in some ways, to hard, acceptably tough masculinity, especially among those who might feel weak or vulnerable.  There has been an enormous resurgence in physical fitness. The gym is part of a weekly routine for many Australians. Boxing and kickboxing flourish in many forms among both men and women. Bodybuilding is massive and has enormous power among boys who idolize Schwarzenegger and his followers. When I watched "New Moon" recently I was surprised to see in Taylor Lautner a muscular 17 year old. He is much more muscular than the high school students I have encountered. The popularity of this movie and posters for it give me some anxiety about what young men think that society wants them to be: Brawn before brain, apparently.

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Recently, too, there have been challenges by Men's Health Australia to one-sided, publicly-funded campaigns against violence in relationships that claim that relationship violence is only perpetrated by males against females. The South Australian Ombudsman heard complaints that there were ten major errors of fact in statistics which justified the campaign. He upheld seven of them and said there were other errors as well which cast doubt on two other matters. There are also moves towards giving more support for sufferers from prostate cancer. My point is that matters of sex (or if you like, gender) have become hotly disputed.

And men are cautious. "You're always on your guard when you're a man", a young man told me when I interviewed men growing up in Penrith, NSW.

When asked recently to write a commentary on feminism, this researcher said "No, thanks". Just like most men, he is aware that there is still a very large gender divide. Look for instance at a list of favourite TV programs: there is usually a marked difference between what men and women want to watch. Or look at the research done at Queen Mary College in the UK on "the novel that changed my life". Men's favourite life-changing novels are very different from those listed by women. Men nominated Catch 22 or To Kill a Mockingbird. Women presented a list that ranged from Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights. These days it would include  Wolf Hall and Eat, Pray, Love. The gender divide is hard to assess objectively, for we all have our own interest in supporting our own sex. Our sex (or gender, if you like) is part of our identity. Perhaps this is why arguments about gender are so vehement and arouse such passion. There are different points of view. Why should one side be always validated and other views ridiculed?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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