A man’s world?

When I was a lecturer in the 1980s, a friend of mine (also an academic) got very involved in a men’s group. I had never come across this kind of thing before and was intrigued, but in no way attracted to the concept. As far as I could see, they met and exchanged views on how men were not listened to any more, were unappreciated and lacked self-esteem. As far as I could make out this colleague got increasingly self-absorbed and even aggressive when he came back from these meetings. Well, maybe it was just the way I saw it, maybe it wasn’t really like that.

That was in the 1980s, and a little later the whole thing really took off. Now I read that the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) recently organised their first ‘Men’s Week’, with a programme that covered ‘different aspects of male issues, covering physical, emotional and societal topics relating to men.’

I can easily see that there are lots of things that men should explore that relate to ‘maleness’. These might include men’s health issues (which are often neglected), or a reconsideration of male stereotypes, or an assessment of male under-achievement in education. And yet I am always uneasy about such an approach. I am uneasy about men being persuaded that they suffer a gender disadvantage, whatever the context might be. I am uneasy about men seeing themselves as a group set apart from women.

Maybe I’m all wrong about this, because I certainly see that society may face serious problems because of the disaffection of many young males today. But I have seen too many men who, after being exposed to such discussions, appear to come away believing that men are now the ‘suffering sex’ (as one put it to me recently). In a world where leadership in politics, business and indeed academic life is still dominated by men we must face reality, and not turn it upside down.

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16 Comments on “A man’s world?”

  1. tori Says:

    I’m a Feminist & Black Studies major at UCSB, Men’s Week at my campus organized around male issues: Penis Size, “Coming Out” and their societal privileges. I think the last part was extremely emphasized to let men realize they have certain societal privileges over women, especially white heterosexual men. However, it still dealt with only the gender binary (which is a big problem), but it was great to see a recognition that men have their issues as well, unique to their gender, especially for cisgender men. Societal constructions of gender affect all genders in unique ways, create constraining expectations.

  2. Vincent Says:

    In the States the majority of the prison population is made up of such men. But this has nothing to do directly with women other than having given birth to them. In Ireland and the UK the same population is made up of those that should properly be under a doctor. And in the past should have been trained to read and write.
    God help us though if this issue can be intellectualized like feminism for note the shift in France from the Communist party to the National Front. In this current climate it wouldn’t take much.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    This makes me think of the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ a hotly debated topic in academic circles and in the media for quite a few years. Often used as a lazy label to explain the multiplicity of issues which charcterize the ‘status’ of men in 21st century, it certanly deserves close attention. As far as the academic debate is concerned, cultural studies and gender studies in particular have been quick to react. Crudely put three main views have been considered:
    the first sees masculinity as intrinsically pathological, the second speaks of elegiac accounts of the defeat of the male sex, and of the passing of masculine pride, the last, more sceptical analyses, call into question the assumptions that lie behind the perceived crisis in masculinity. Feminist accounts, in particular reject the basic assumption that masculinity is in crisis, pointing to evidence that men continue to command disproportionate authority, wealth and power.
    Men’s studies is certainly a worthy field of investigation and intellectual pursuit (in more ways than one) still, to my mind, there is no need for a new academic discipline to do just that, scholars in particular men’s scholars might consider to work within the already established field of gender studies which, far from being the exclusive prerogative of men, is “an investigation of the ways that all reading and writing, by men as well as by women, is marked by gender.” (Showalter) In other words, masculinity, too, is a gender and therefore men as well as women have undergone historical and cultural processes of gender formation that distribute power and privilege unevenly.

    As far as popular culture and the media sphere is concerned, the movie The Full Monty, was among the first to explicitly draw an analogy between male inadequacy consequent on the loss of a job and male anxiety concerning genital potency, thus hinting at the impact that changing working patterns have on the male psyche and behaviour. The centrality of work in a man’s life is key here, as Carl Jung famously observed in 1912 ‘the libido of American men is focused almost entirely on his business’
    while the private sphere is left to their women (one wonders how different matters are today) what is sure is that the more assertive woman of the late 20th/early 21st century has put this ‘segregated model of society’ (the masculine public sphere as opposed to the feminine private one) at least into question. Men so the argument goes, have been forced to come out of the emotional closet having ridiculed women’s supposed emotionality for centuries.
    I think that given the extent to which control is for many men the defining mark of their masculinity, any threat of being out of control still challenges the very essence of what being a male is all about, hence the difficulty, for some, of being sexual men in a dynamic relationship with a woman in the post-feminist world of gender equality.
    What might be worth remembering though is that women themselves have not reached a full understanding of what to be a woman really means in this new world, hence the need for a conversation that includes both, men and women, since cultural definitions of manhood and femininity are ever-shifting and are particularly volatile in the contemporary era.

    • Thank you, Anna – that’s a really interesting assessment. I agree with you that the issues that arise for men are appropriately addressed within gender (or maybe diversity) studies.

  4. “In a world where leadership in politics, business and indeed academic life is still dominated by men we must face reality, and not turn it upside down.”

    I’m all for facing reality Ferdinand, which is why it is important to avoid sweeping generalisations like the one you ended your post with. The fact is that the leadership in certain circles is dominated by *some* men: not men in general. The reality most feminists wish to deny is that men experience greater inequality than women – which is why our prisons, dole queues and suicide statistics are also *dominated* by men.

    Replacing an elite group of men with an elite group of women or a combination thereof won’t make a blind bit of difference to the vast majority of men – or of women, come to think of it.

    • anna notaro Says:

      *The reality most feminists wish to deny is that men experience greater inequality than women – which is why our prisons, dole queues and suicide statistics are also *dominated* by men* That sounds to me like a sweeping generalization too Gerard, the fact that prisons are ‘dominated’ by men is by no means proof of the inequality men allegedly experience, but the product of some specific socio-economic causes!

  5. Al Says:

    I’m staying out of this one!

  6. Trich Says:

    I think it is vital that both men & women respect each other’s difference and know we are all equal. No matter who you are.

    When either sex allows the victim mode, then we are no longer taking respons I bility and accountability to and for our own actions!

  7. kevin denny Says:

    There is one domain in which males are clearly at a disadvantage: academic attainment. Is this not worthy of the same consideration that would prevail if it were the other way around?
    It seems bizarre that one is only to be allowed think of sexism in one direction. If so, we are condemned to replace one inequity with another.

    • Helen Says:

      Kevin – yes, women are attaining better grades in school and college. However, men still earn higher salaries within a few years of graduation, and the upper echelons of management, politics and academia are dominated by men. Female academic attainment rarely translates into economic and professional success, thanks to the privilege that men still enjoy.

  8. Mary B Says:

    Can I just make a plea for a rethink on the writer Robert Bly? His book ‘Iron John: a book about men’is one of my favourite books EVER, and I keep having to buy new copies as I lend it to people who don’t give it back (yes, YOU!). Bly is a Jungian and he is arguing for men to develop a different script – he uses the folk myth of an apparent monster who acts as a mentor to a young man and helps him makes sense of what life throw at him. But Bly has been ‘accused’ of starting the so-called ‘men’s movement’ – he didn’t. He just believed that both sexes needed to be in touch with the archetypal images with which our lives are hardwired. He subsequently wrote a book called ‘The Sibling Society’ which charts the failure of nerve of older people to be authoritative role models for the young. But no way is Bly anti-female and his work is relevant for both sexes. I just love his stuff and if you haven’t read it you have a real treat in store – just don’t ask to borrow my copies! I write as a convinced feminist but I like (some!)men.

    • anna notaro Says:

      even Bly did not get it right first time around, if I am not mistaken he divorced from his first wife, still I’m all in favour of rediscovering some old myths and fairy tales, as he seems to suggest, provided that women’s image in such tales is somewhat upgraded too! By the way, like you I like (some) men 🙂

  9. cormac Says:

    I’d like to start and men-and-women group. I think there is a real danger that mens’ (and womens’) groups serve to emphasize differences and differing experiences of disadvantage, instead of looking at what the genders have in common. I can’t help suspecting that good women friends would be of more pragmatic benefit to a disadvantaged dad than a weekly moan. Perhaps it all goes back to segregation in schools..

  10. jfryar Says:

    Personally I think a lot of this has to do with a culture of blame and lack of personal responsibility. Can’t find a job – blame immigrants. Only get a part-time contract – blame the woman on maternity leave. Can’t get good grades in schools – blame the ‘feminisation’ of the curriculum and the numbers of female teachers. End up in prison – blame the society that never helped you.

    I think what we’re seeing is the effects of a culture of entitlement rather than any specific discrimination. I don’t believe in male issues or female issues. Only in people issues.

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