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Is masculinity really in crisis?

By Peter West - posted Monday, 2 October 2006

Is masculinity in crisis?

Mark Latham (author and former Australian Labor Party leader) has got many people talking again with a new book. The old-fashioned Australian bloke has disappeared, he says. And apparently he has been replaced  by “nervous wrecks, metrosexual knobs and toss-bags”.

Has masculinity changed across the western world- and especially in Australia? What are the big issues that men deal with today? And how has life  changed for men in the past 60 years or so?


When I did research on Australian men in the period 1930 to 1970, I found that men and women lived in different spheres. A man’s life was about performing ( at work), protecting (taking care of the family) and  providing (was there enough food on the table?) Men worked all week; and  for working men, for most of the century, it was a six-day week. On Sunday they went to church, had a bet, had a drink or played sport. Sport meant playing the kind of football played in your home State. And cricket, with a swim on a hot day. There weren’t many choices for men, really. Men were looked up to -  as fathers, husbands and workers. Being a man was something people respected.  ‘ A man’s life was work’, one of my interviewees said. ‘And a bit of sex was his hobby’.

Women lived almost in another world. Girls studied crafts to help them manage a home, though wealthier families paid for  piano lessons, deportment and studies of classical literature. Most women’s lives were marked out by the husbands they married and  the children they had. Every father was afraid that his  daughter might marry a man who gambled his money away or became a drunkard. Once she was married, that was usually the end of the matter.

Men of these generation were too often monosyllabic, and not given to emotional display. Let’s not pretend they were wonderful to live with.  ‘It would have been great to get a hug from Dad’, one of my interviewees said. Sadly, the dad died before this happened.

It’s very difficult thinking about these patterns unemotionally. All of us have strong feelings about gender, because all of us are affected by the way we live with other men and women.  The fact is that with the arrival of feminism, the way we lived changed dramatically in a hundred different ways.

Thus men - and women - live now in an age in which their whole way of living has been largely redefined. Dad would usually give his son guidance about getting on in the world, finding a girl that suited him, and a score of other things. What our dads said was based on  years of experience. We found this out the hard way. But men like me had dads who lived under the old rules. Our dads ( while they were alive) couldn’t provide the guidance that would help us survive the changed rules. Men today do face a number of important issues. Here are some of them. Let’s talk just about men for a moment; we’ll get to women presently.

  1. Work is still a major issue for men. “What do you do?” is still an oft-asked question. Men who don’t work have found a number of ways of answering this: “I’m between jobs’; “I’m looking for a new job”; “I’m seeing if I like being a…”. Many of  us look at men with suspicion if they don’t work.
  2. Being healthy is a big challenge. Everyone seems to be telling us to eat better, trim down, work out more. Visiting the gym is a challenge for many of us on the dark side of 40. Everyone else is trim, taut, terrific, wearing stuff that show off amazing abs and strong legs. That’s just the women: the men are far worse. [You’ll notice that I use humour as a defence mechanism here, as looking in the mirror is a challenge for many of us!]  Many  a guy gets sick of being nagged and confronted and wants to just sit and have a beer or a smoke or a pie with people who accept him as he is.
  3. Many men are lonely. We hide it in a hundred different ways. Often it comes out as anger; because there are  not many approved emotions for men, unless they are around sport. It’s OK to shed tears for your team, apparently. Faced with tension and stress, many men seek refuge in sex. And men boast of their successes; “we shagged all night”; “She gave me a wink” and so on. Gay and straight men alike are tempted to collect trophies. It seems to me that these behaviours reveal men who need reassurance. There’s not a lot of that these days; perhaps there never was. Many men do live alone, or have domestic animals for comfort uncomplicated by arguments.
  4. Men struggle in their relationships. One of these is generational. Those of us in our fifties or thereabouts often have parents in their 80s or 90s who require a lot of care, attention and time. We can also have children at any age from 8 to 38, who look to us for many things: attention, support of many kinds, understanding. Who looks after me, we wonder? Many married men struggle to express their own needs, living as they do with women who are more verbally fluent. And women have feminism as a body of opinion that supports them and encourages them to state their needs.  Men have little, apart from the silly stuff about men in the media.
  5. Men struggle to have real friends who support and encourage them. We are raised as men to state our opinions, rather than to listen to  and support others. We are raised to go out and do battle against the enemy, whoever he is.  And it’s usually a HE. Men have to learn to trust others, to learn what to disclose about themselves. We always think Italian or Greek or Arabic men have more friends than we Anglo- Australians, but I wonder if this is true.

I am not sure that all these issues apply equally to all men. We do have more diversity now than we did in 1950 and even 1970. I confess that I can’t possibly cover all the complexities of culture, religion and class. And though we as men have many issues that unite us, there are many, too, that divide us.

Perhaps women readers would like to reflect on all this and consider how many of the  men’s issues I have listed are issues for them, too.  It’s unhelpful to be always contrasting men’s and women’s needs. They may be largely similar. Like many of the men I  have interviewed, I  would not wish to define women or  limit their options.

Men and women each have private lives, but their choices are different. Leaving the gym yesterday, I overheard a snatch of conversation. “I can see that you’re pregnant”, a guy said to a young woman. “Are you going to keep it?” Like any decent person, I kept on walking. But right there are issues men will never have to face: having a baby or staying at work, when to put the new baby into childcare, and whether to maintain the relationship with the father. Right there is a key difference between the sexes. We say sometimes, the opposite sex; and the phrase contains a world of thinking in contrasts.

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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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