The Masculinity Problem
Whichever your point of view, there is a “masculinity problem.”
Take the binary of men’s rights activists and feminists. Men’s rights activists will often say there is a problem with masculinity because it is under attack from various quarters. Feminists will often say there is a problem with masculinity because it results in the systemic and personal oppression of women. Whichever your point of view, the way masculinity is handled in society needs to change.
To put my cards on the table, I fall largely on the feminist side of the supposed divide, but I have a problem with the way the need to change masculinity is often framed. Certainly, I agree that masculinity needs to be changed: But what is the best way to do it?
In feminist discussion there is often an appeal made to the need to change masculinity in order to achieve gender equality. The argument goes that if we can stop masculinity being so pathological, then women’s problems such as domestic and sexual violence, lower pay and generally being considered second-class citizens will be resolved. There are a lot of very important initiatives aimed at men (such as White Ribbon) that follow this line of thought, and I wholeheartedly support them.
But herein lies another problem: These initiatives have a goal centered on “women’s problems” rather than what many men are thinking about, which is “men’s problems.” Now there is a very sound ethical case for “women’s problems” to be considered very much “men’s problems” because we are all people and all men have an ethical duty not to mobilize power in a way that oppresses women.
But I’m telling you that a lot of men do not see it that way. When they see “women’s issues” they turn off because they’re thinking about “men’s issues.” Indeed, they probably do not see those references to “women’s issues” in the first place because they’re buried in the women’s pages of an online magazine or the She supplement of the weekend newspaper.
So, if we want to change masculinity, how do we go about doing it? While all those initiatives framing masculinity in the context of gender equality need to continue, they should also be complemented by initiatives framing the need to change men as an explicit men’s issue.
Now this is not some appeal to “what about the menz.” Rather, it’s about looking at the same set of issues as feminists, but from a different direction.
For example, the stereotype of men being tough is a men’s issue, as it regulates how men are supposed to be with one another and how they construct their sense of self. Violence is a men’s issue, as it is men who are both the perpetrators and victims of most violence. Being a good partner or father is a men’s issue, because it speaks to how men present themselves to their loved ones. And so it goes on.
Most of the problematic aspects about masculinity that are identified by feminists as being the cause of women’s problems are in fact firstly men’s problems. Our pivot on changing masculinity looks at those same aspects but appeals instead to the self-interest of men. Do you really want to be regulated as a man? Do you really want to live in a culture of violence? Do you really want to have fragmented relationships with your loved ones?
Same problematic aspects, but now men’s issues. And you might note that if we can get men thinking about those issues on a scale of statistical significance then the net effect will almost certainly result in the mitigation of women’s issues (because they’re the same thing!). Further still, that sense of self-awareness can then expand to include much broader issues such as how masculinity impacts global economics, the environment and pretty much anything else you care to think about.
The False Binary
There’s also another bonus of this pivot. In the first sentence I referred to the binary of men’s rights activists and feminists, but this is false. Our pivot that centralizes men’s issues in a way that solves both men’s and women’s issues (again, as a complement to and not a replacement of existing gender equality initiatives) takes some of the heat out of this unnecessarily adversarial relationship.
Certainly, there are some men’s rights activists out there who have some really unsavory attitudes towards women. Certainly, there are some feminists out there who have some really unsavory attitudes towards men. But men’s rights activists: did you know that there are plenty of feminists out there who really care about men as well as women? And feminists: did you know that there are plenty of men’s rights activists out there who really care about women as well as men? Who would have thought? I didn’t until I spoke to them.
There’s so much wasted energy in the men’s rights versus feminism debate given there is a surprising commonality at the heart of these alleged opposites: How do we live well as men and women? How do we build a world in which the needs of certain groups of people are not overlooked? Discuss.
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Photo: Flickr/Rolands Lakis