What does it mean to be a man? What is today’s masculine paradigm? Is it the Govenator, that steroid hewn fusion of marketing mythology? Is it Alan Partridge or David Brent, swollen, broken half men, wracked with narcissistic self loathing? Is it Don Draper, the illusion of a confident misogynist? Perhaps it’s the midget machismo of Shia Di Caprio, or the outlaw effeminacy of Orlando Depp? These stereotyped caricatures of heroism and vanity – the bad boy, the androgynous pretty boy, the distinguished gray, exemplify just how vacuous and illusory manhood has become. For this generation of men, brought up by lone mothers or distant humbled beta males – crude wrecks at the weekend, inadequate serfs on the 9 to 5 – there are no role models. ‘We’re a generation of men raised by women’, Tyler Durden, Chuck Palahniuk’s homoerotic street brawler tells us from his grungy bathtub, as he unwinds from another futile bout of self destructive violence. Heroism, that noble ideal, has been prostituted to a seduction fantasy – fireman, soldier, cowboy, cop. Her knights in shining armour. His village people. Rationality, moral and emotional strength, the courage to make the unpopular choice – be it conscientious objection, the rejection of fatuous consumption, or political idealism, whatever its colour – have become hollow jokes, sneered at in sitcoms, derogated as dangerous, radical, absurd, by a contemptuous news media.
So what are men to do? How are we 30 year old boy-children, sloppily shaped with moulds, infantalised and co-dependent, product soaked, molly coddled, over educated and under taught bros, to grow up? Should we run off to the woods, strip down to our hairless chests and compare our screams? Appropriate expression of pained frustration though it might be, roaring’s just another symptom. Should we hunch our shoulders, curse our bosses, hit the bottle and our women, like our fathers fathers? Should we submerge into Men’s Health, Ken doll paragons on low-carb diets, with perfect abs and teeth and matching Abercrombie belts and shoes? Is there a way we can redefine what it means to be a man, while still remaining men? Not a marketing demo, or an urban tribe, or a social problem, or a suicide statistic, or an empty suit, or an ‘edgy’ creative, or a food/sex/games/sports junky, but a fucking man. Is there?
Masculinism sounds like a disease, one of those chromosomal problems where a hairy clitoris and two tiny, half descended external uteri, doom a lady to a lifetime of bedroom humiliation. That or the right wing, woman hating, worship of a past that never existed. A time when men were men, and women were obedient, subtly perfumed fraulein. Let’s be honest here – as far as gender roles went, the past fucking sucked. Patriarchy might have kept men from becoming self loathing, cathode tanned nincompoops, but it tied men and women into permanent loveless relationships. It froze smart, talented ladies out of contention in the arts and sciences. It raised emotionally dependent, sexually constipated women, and uncommunicative, exploitative, and sexually incontinent men. Perhaps the sexual revolution has leached gigalitres of androgynist birth control hormones into the water system, turning us each into infertile ladyboy Jesuses; but it has provided men and women with the opportunity to be honest. Honest about our desires, our disgusts, our orientations. It has leant us the opportunity to uncover our kinks, and to lay aside the judeo-christian baggage that made us loath our purest instincts.
So, there’s no going back – no desirable BMP ruled nouveau 1950s, of flying cars and wiggle dresses – no social order at the expense of institutional prejudice and exploitation. In it’s place, for men – confused by the choices and demands of our corporate dystopia, there is another alternative. Progressive masculinism, the awkwardly entitled, rarely articulate counterpoint to feminism. An ideology that accepts the reality of gender differentiation, without imposing gender dysphoria. An ideology that must begin with an acknowledgement of the progress made in gender relations, and the laudable goals of contemporary feminism: To list but a few – Wage Equality, the ending of Female Genital Mutilation, the acceptance of the rights of transgendered and gay people, an end to the Islamic world’s cloistration and control of women, a condemnation of media promoted unhealthy and unobtainable body images, and free universal access to sexual heath information, contraception and abortion.
These goals and achievements exist not in opposition, but as harmonic counterpoint to the equally audible goals of progressive masculinism. Goals like – gender equality in parenting and adoption rights, the elimination of divorce dowry (also known as alimony), an opposition to the media’s fetishistic and pejorative depiction of masculinity and male ageing, the reduction of violence against young men (by far the most frequent victims of violent assault and murder), a solution to the silent crisis of male suicide, the treatment of male incarceration as an opportunity for reform rather than punishment, the elimination of male rape, the creation of ‘wellness’ facilities to provide free information, testing and treatment for male illnesses (men die younger, and of treatable ’embarrassing’ conditions like prostate cancer), legal protections from proven false claims of violence, rape and paternity, active discursive participatory education which better addresses the learning styles of boys, an end to male genital mutilation (euphemised as ‘circumcision’), and the acceptance of innateness and healthiness of the varied manifestations of the male sexual drive – as no more inherently immoral or selfish than the desire to pair bond or bear children.
Some of these ideas may seem radical – yet in truth they are no more radical than the ideals of the 60’s feminists, or of turn of the century suffragettes. Less so in fact, since our society for all it’s flaws, only passively prohibits the open debate of gender roles and sexual identity. These goals reflect a need to move beyond the redress of patriarchy, to the beginnings of a gender equality; rooted not in notions of socially constructed genders, but innate and healthy sexual differences.
The alternative to a collective reexaminination and reconceptualisation of the rights and responsibilities of both men and women is the status quo. Emasculated manhood, fetishised femininity, and reparative positive discrimination. A men’s movement is needed – not to burn y-fronts in place of bras, not to re-chain women back to a reproductive cycle that left their brains untended at 14, and their bodies old at 40; but to bring into the light of day the realities and challenges of male life. To admit male pain, without excusing male cowardice, to accept male desires without condemnation or indulgence. To enshrine for both genders the legal protections and social enablements that have finally, and not without a terrible fight, emerged (in the developed West) for women.
We can start by picking better male role models. Scientists not sportsmen, wanderers not warriors, artists not salemen. We need to provide boys with opportunities to learn about men worthy of their respect. We need to provide men with the opportunity to earn the self respect we so desperately lack. We need to eulogise men who encapsulate the positive elements of masculinity – curiosity, energy, honesty, bravery, ingenuity, artistry, invention, competition; and surmount our capacity as men for indolence, gluttony, destructive violence, hubris and corruption. We boys need heroes.