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Obama and the new manhood

By Don Edgar - posted Tuesday, 4 December 2012


Two photographs that went viral in recent weeks are symbolic of our changing masculinity.

One showed an Aussie male screaming abuse at a female French bus traveler because she wasn't speaking English. The other showed President Barack Obama and his wife hugging one another.

The first was a reminder that angry macho thuggery is still endemic in our society despite years of feminism and rising gender equality. The second struck a chord with thousands of men and women who know that an equal partnership is more fulfilling than one based on power and control.

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In the context of Obama's election victory, it acts as a symbol of change in modern relationships, where the conservative old guard has been exposed for what it is - a pathetic cabal of outmoded white males scrabbling to retain power.

It resonates in the Australian context because we have just witnessed the clearest challenge to male chauvinism in decades in our Prime Minister's 'mysogyny' speech against Tony Abbott, the exposure of Alan Jones as an Emperor with no clothes, and a laying down of the gauntlet to established male power structures in her announcement of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. The three are linked because media bias, sexist taunts and child abuse are based on unequal power and institutionalized inequality. We are at a pivotal point in our social history.

Obama epitomizes a new model of manhood, masculinity forged not as an assertion of power but as an acknowledgement of mutual support and cooperation. He is a man formed not by his own efforts to succeed but from his ability to relate to other people (including his own wife) as equals, a President calling for justice within American society, for the validity of caring for those not as fortunate as ourselves and for true cooperation between political opponents where the social good of all people and the future of the planet are concerned.

It is perhaps drawing too long a bow to suggest this is a tipping point for patriarchy, but it is certainly a tipping point for men confused about their own masculinity and their place in the world.

In most Western countries, male dominance is under retreat and many men are struggling to understand what has happened. In countries such as Russia that process is chaotic; men have been sidelined from family life and retreated into rampant alcoholism, their children 'captured' by grandmothers because they can no longer assert their male authority over wives.

Muslim communities vary widely, some observing Mahommed's injunction to treat wives as equals and care for their children, others still killing women if they dare to seek an education and challenge male authority. In China, over 100 million 'floating men' are either single because there are not enough women to marry or because they've had to move away from their family to find work in the rising urban complexes.

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In Brazil, religious tradition still supports male authority over wives and children but economic change leads them towards closer involvement with their children. And in Scandinavia, years of policies which encourage female workforce participation, quality public provision of child care and greater male-female equality have cut swathes through a traditionally patriarchal culture.

Ironically Australia, with its more secular culture, anti-authoritarian traditions and government policies supporting shared parenting is probably closer to a new form of masculinity than others where more rigid roles hold sway. We're not all footy thugs after all.

The emergence of a new masculinity has come slowly, has many causes and is still incomplete, but we seem to be reaching a stage where men themselves are demanding liberation from the old macho mode.

Driven by the triumph of market economics and its mantra of growth, women were encouraged to study, earn a second income (which morphed into a form of individual economic power they had not enjoyed before) and negotiate a new sharing arrangement within the family.

Women's liberation articulated for many what they knew was wrong with the status quo. Their share of child care and housework is still larger than men's, but much of the child care has been outsourced and much of the housework redefined as unnecessary. Their male partners now do, on average, spend more time with their children (with very positive effects) and contribute more to household tasks such as cooking and cleaning.

The traditional image of a working man expecting his dinner on the table, then a pair of slippers and pipe while she does the dishes is totally outmoded.

Because of prolonged education and (most significantly) because of the contraceptive pill – the most central factor of all in the shift from male dominance – marriage and having a family have taken on new meaning. Sex outside marriage is no longer stigmatized as it once was, women can choose not to marry and certainly choose to delay child-bearing until they have established a 'career' and experienced life as an independent adult.

So men who want to marry and have children have to negotiate in ways unknown in former times.

Children are a deliberate choice, fewer in number and more precious to both father and mother.

Women demand a new style of intimacy, one based on more open communication, on mutual self-disclosure and shared decision-making; they won't accept the silent assertion of dominance and assumed superiority. They expect more, many men are struggling to oblige and more of them succeed. Their best mate becomes a sharing partner, most often a woman, not one of the blokes at the pub.

The struggle remains because our traditional institutions of patriarchal churches, segregated schools, macho sports, a male-organised workplace culture and media outlets that fail to read social change continue to instill in boys a belief in their inherent superiority and right to be in charge.

The media inevitably reflect and extend the decline of patriarchy, in their search for an audience, as TV programs change from 'Father knows best' to 'The Modern family' and the dysfunctionality of the old sexism is exposed in such programs as 'Mad Men', 'The Sopranos' and 'Breaking Bad'. And new technology - the Internet, Facebook, Twitter etc - expose men as never before to ideas outside their own male network.

The fact that women can be and are leaders – our Prime Minister, CEOs of major banks, school principals, the Governor-General and others – is important, but in my view the most potent force for change comes from within the modern family and its pragmatic renegotiation of traditional roles. The macho male has to face there the reality that his wife has skills, can earn a living, child care and housework have to be managed in a different way and he can't get away with being a selfish, domineering slob.

And surprise, surprise, the men who accept this new sharing partnership model for living find it more satisfying than the old way. They no longer have to be perfect and in control of everything, they no longer have to prove their 'masculinity' in ways they were uncomfortable with in any case, their sex lives are more fulfilling because it is based on a shared understanding of needs, their wives are more 'interesting' and of more assistance in sorting out everyday problems. All hail to the new masculinity.

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About the Author

Dr Don Edgar was founding Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and is a member of the Victorian Children’s Council. His latest book, co-authored with Dr Patricia Edgar, is The New Child: in search of smarter grown-ups. See www.patriciaedgaranddonedgar.com.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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