Ally Fogg provides a powerful metaphor for the traffic life throws at us from different directions.
It’s fair to say that I’ve found the reviews, critiques and comment pieces inspired by Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men rather more thought provoking and educational than the book itself.
One of the first pieces to come out was in The Atlantic, where Chloe Angyal drew comparisons between Rosin’s argument and the lives portrayed in the much-hyped HBO series Girls.
The anecdotal data, the experiential accounts of what it’s like to be a young American woman in this particular cultural moment where women are on top and men are “ending,” suggests that even if the statistics say that they’re winning, young women feel like losers. This year’s critically acclaimed new HBO series Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, takes that experience of floundering and lays it out for all to see. Dunham’s Hannah and her friends, despite their privilege, don’t feel like they’re running the world.
I must confess this made me smile. It inadvertently (I presume) illuminates the irony at the very heart of the notion of privilege. One’s own privilege is, according to the classic metaphor, an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks – invisible not to others but to ourselves. Privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it just feels like a natural state of being, the norm.
I’ve previously explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of The End of Men, and I don’t for a moment believe that women are now the dominant or privileged gender. But it is worth pointing out that if they were, according to feminism or critical theory, this is exactly how it should feel. The girls in Girls don’t feel like they’re running the world but, get this, nor do the vast majority of men. I believe much of the anger directed towards feminism from the angry dudes of the internet boils down to the disconnect between a narrative that tells men they are privileged, and the lives being lived by those guys, which feels largely powerless. They don’t feel privileged, they feel like losers, they’re floundering, they don’t feel like they’re running the world.
In the weeks since Rosin’s book was released, a quite almighty stramash has erupted within British feminist circles. I won’t reiterate the arguments here, but it began with bestselling author and journalist Caitlin Moran and her statement that she ‘couldn’t give a shit’ about the all-white line-up of the cast of Girls. It has since spiralled into an angry, sprawling debate that orbits around issues of privilege and intersectionality.
Of the near-endless articles and blogs thrown up by the debate, the one I liked best was by Stavvers. She offers an analogy for the concept of intersectionality that is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic by a feminist.
One can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.
I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.
I love the vividness of this analogy, but it doesn’t quite fit with how I understand society. I’d like to offer a slight twist that perhaps illustrates a key difference between my gender politics and those of Stavvers and many other feminists.
Stavvers describes her roads in negative terms (not being male, not being white etc) whereas the analogy works better for me if we think in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not. That is all I know.
I’m a white, straight, cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied male. I cannot accurately know what it feels like to be anything else, but I know perfectly well how all those things do or do not impact upon my life. I’d prefer to think of Stavvers’ traffic as all the various pieces of shit, large and small, that life throws our way simply for being who we are. If you’re a black, lesbian, disabled woman, yes, that shit is coming hurtling at you from all sides and however hard you try to avoid it, some of that shit is going to mess you up.
I know what it is like to be a pedestrian on the highway marked ‘white.’ It’s a breeze. The amount of shit-traffic heading my way down that road is all but zero. I could lay out a sleeping bag across the white lines in October, set my alarm clock for Spring and lie down to hibernate, safe in the knowledge that not one single car, truck or bus will squish my toes. Being white is a piece of piss. The same goes for the road marked “straight.” The same goes for being middle-class, able-bodied and cisgendered. All those things are just big old lonesome highways without so much as a trundling tractor to disturb the bliss. I should know, I’ve been walking those roads for 45 years.
Crucially, however, this isn’t exactly how it feels to be male. Not to me, and not to many other men either. Standing in the middle of the road marked ‘male’, I have to dodge loads of shit-traffic. Whizzing by on one side are the gender expectations, the demands to be a stoical, self-sacrificial breadwinner and provider, a sexual conqueror, all that old, stubborn heteronormative and patriarchal bollocks. Whooshing past on the other are the prejudices and assumptions about male aggression or violence, laziness, criminality, domestic and parental incompetence and all the rest. All around are the institutional shit-trucks sent by legal structures, education policies, health services, military traditions and more. Is the road marked ‘male’ busier and more difficult to traverse than the road marked ‘female’? I very much doubt it, but it doesn’t need to be, this is not a competition. If you’re a woman and/or a feminist and you’re reading this and sneering, thinking “that stuff doesn’t sound too difficult to me, what’s your problem?” then congratulations – you’ve just entered the precise, privileged mind-set of every angry anti-feminist MRA dude on the internet. Of course you don’t see it – it’s not your road.
Personally, all that male shit-traffic is pretty easy for me to dodge. I’m not at a busy junction. I don’t have to worry about being caught on the blindside by a juggernaut hurtling down the White Road or the Straight Road, so I’ve mostly found it pretty easy to sidestep all that shit on the Male Highway. But if you’re a boy from a poor background in a poor neighbourhood at a poor school, you’re likely to find one vehicle marked “you’re stupid” racing at you in one direction while another marked “you’re lazy” arrives from the other, and bang, the result is often academic underachievement and a NEET future. If you’re a working class black lad then heaven help you. You’ve got one shit-truck marked “you’re trouble” and another marked “you’re a criminal” and another marked “you’re violent” and bang, unless you’re lucky you are another stop and search statistic or another reluctant conscript into gang culture.
Understanding intersectionality in those terms is very useful for me. It’s a great example of how we can apply feminist thinking to the male experience and male-specific problems. It doesn’t require one to sign up to either a feminist or an anti-feminist agenda and could fit comfortably with either. It gives me a sense of perspective on my own (fairly fortunate) place in society, why the world looks like it does to me, and crucially, why it might look entirely different to others who stand on a different intersection.
So it is useful in understanding where we are, but I think it is also useful in terms of where we would like to be. At a political level, we can ask what it is about our society that is sending so fucking much shit-traffic down some of the different roads – the disabled road, the black road, the Muslim road, the women’s road and, yes, the men’s road too. We can not only ask how we can reorganise society so there is less shit on anyone’s road, we can also constantly ask ourselves whether our behaviour, our deeds or our words and language are sending a bit more unnecessary shit-traffic down someone else’s highway.
As my final word on Rosin’s The End of Men, I’d observe that the book does not describe an improving world. It describes a world where there is more shit-traffic than ever on women’s roads, and more shit-traffic than ever on men’s roads. I wrote previously that the transformation of the workplace and domestic realm was not a victory for feminism but a victory for capitalism, and this is precisely what I meant. If we aspire to a better society, socially and economically, for men and women alike, then counting the vehicles on the various highways of shit might be a very good place to start.