Diane Abbott MP spoke earlier this month of a 'crisis of masculinity', prompting a sudden flurry of media interviews with men from across the board claiming the opposite. However, many commentators have agreed that men do have issues, that the modern world creates certain pressures that affect their psyche, health, behavior, interpersonal relationships, emotional development, and well-being. GQ Magazine has questioned Diane Abbott's speech, saying that she is 'barking up the wrong trouser leg', while simultaneously acknowledging that 'men have their problems'. This analysis and the debate it has prompted is extremely important; the dominant ideal of masculinity is certainly a distinct, prescriptive and harmful stereotype.
However, the debate is far wider than simply the needs of men in relation to a 'crisis in masculinity'. The truth is that men, through socially defined 'masculinity', have always enjoyed a privileged relationship with social and economic power. Through history, the idea of 'manhood' has been centred in physical strength, toughness, earning, providing, and dominating, creating a paradigm in which we have been collectively socialised to the idea of 'masculinity' within every faculty of our psyche. Men's image defines God, their perspectives and concerns define scholarship, their lifestyles define workplace conditions and successful career paths, their physiology defines sports, their presence historically as 'provider' defines family. Thus, while the stereotype can be prescriptive and harmful, we have to acknowledge the power it has always conveyed, and we must ask who really bears the brunt of 'masculinity'?
In fact 'masculinity' can only be understood through a binary lens. It is predicated in opposition to the concept of 'femininity'; without women and children to provide for and to dominate, how can masculinity be embodied? More specifically, the maintenance of the ideal of 'masculinity' has required that women play an inferior role; domestic, passive and economically dependent. Indeed, men's superiority to women is the tenet of the world's main monotheisms, the historical foundation of so many our societies. The same GQ article went on to argue that 'we could do with a bit more machismo - we could do with more men who are protective of women and children', reasserting men into the role of 'protector' and women in the powerless position of 'protected'.
Thus, while 'masculinity' has been narrowly defined throughout history, its definition has been interlinked with unprecedented power vis-à-vis the subordination of women, so the framing of a debate around 'manhood' is incomplete without an analysis of gender relations and the polarisation of 'masculinity' in opposition to 'femininity'.
While 'masculinity' remains central to our cultural identity, the last 100 years has seen unprecedented gains in the emancipation of women. 1928 saw the closely guarded male privilege of suffrage extended to women, women entered the workforce - a previously exclusively male space - as the World War's dictated the need for female workers, cultural movements of the 1960's and 70's saw women's sexual liberation, and we are seeing women making steps toward cultural and economic parity in current times. Gender roles have shifted, but where does this leave 'masculinity'? In the absence of women occupying a traditional role, 'masculinity' can no longer be defined through the stereotyped male-female dichotomy. Thus there has emerged a distinct gap between the highly normative ideals of men as 'provider' and 'protector' and a progressive society which has seen gender roles shift beyond recognition within two or three generations. Our generation is in unchartered territory; we are what Diane Abbott described as a 'transitional generation', one that must attempt to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between expectation and reality; the 'crisis in masculinity'.
The direct response to this crisis has been the emergence of hyper-masculinity. Concurrent with, and just as strong as progressive ideology, runs a desperate nostalgia, clinging to the vestiges of gender stereotypes, longed for because of its historical bestowal of power and status. True to form, the manifestations of hyper-masculinity centre around the binary relationship of men to women, which we can see in the extreme objectification of women, and the pornification of our culture. The way in which hyper-masculinity objectifies women has created a demand for the opposite; hyper-femininity. In response it has bred an excessive sexualisation of women and girls and the obsessive pursuit of the aesthetics of extreme 'femininity'. Many women embody hyper-femininity as a reaction to demand, and as a reflection of a hyper-sexualised media, however the reality is that hyper-femininity disempowers women, relegating them to sexual objects, degrading them and limiting their potential.
Ultimately, when women are valued less, viewed as objects, and particularly as sexual objects, the outcome is violence against women. Violence and sexual domination have long been used to reproduce the paradigm of male privilege, and despite our great leaps forward we see instances of male violence against women on a pandemic scale. Our media is full of cases of abuse, rape, kidnapping, grooming, exploitation, child abuse... the list goes on. Indeed, we have seen during the recession, when men's jobs and thus their role as 'provider' is either threatened or lost, a 17% increase in domestic violence.
Unfortunately, hyper-masculine behaviour is being increasingly normalised and goes unexamined, reproducing traditional patterns of power, threatening to roll back advances in women's rights, and consistently making further gains difficult to achieve. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of men do genuinely care about the issues, but are still to a greater or lesser extent conditioned to 'masculinity'. Violence against women is seen as specific to individual perpetrators, rather than recognised as an institutional and systemic problem, and therefore instances of hyper-masculinity in day-to-day lives are unquestioned.
Catharine MacKinnon, the American feminist activist, said that 'masculinity defines men, rather than the reverse'; with this truth in mind it is absolutely crucial that men engage in discussions of 'masculinity', its definition and its interaction with women and the construction of 'femininity'. The onus is on men to create a paradigm shift, to question and challenge each other in order to break the collective socialised acceptance of 'masculinity'. Without this debate, silence is a form of consent and complicity; men are part of the problem and they are also the solution. I would suggest that there is no place for gender stereotypes based in biological difference, that gender is fluid and certainly that power can no longer be bound to 'masculinity' if we wish to address the epidemic gender based issues we face. In other countries, male movements and organisations are springing up to challenge and deconstruct patriarchal norms, such as the Colectivo de Varones Antipatriarchales in Argentina and Mentors in Violence Prevention in the US, the success and spread of these is crucial to the reconstruction and redefinition of gender relations.
Of course, the government must also play its role in seeing through its gender equality commitments. Engaging in debate about 'masculinity' as Diane Abbott has is an important step, but economic, education, employment, equality and welfare policies must reflect a desire to further women's equality. Ms Abbott pointed to school, families and fathers to talk to their sons about 'manhood' and help them to explore less narrow versions of masculinity. However, the traditional nuclear is in decline and cannot be expected to tackle this widespread ingrained issue; it is an individualist solution to a structural issue. Families cannot change the school curriculum, monitor access to porn, challenge media representations of women, instigate gender pay audits, put in place affordable childcare...these are the responsibilities of government. The debate has started, but must now gain momentum, become mainstream and widespread, and be backed by government policy.
Head of Communications
Women’s Resource Centre