Fran Newton considers the conflicting ways we talk about men.
In Naomi Alderman’s 2017 novel The Power, the newfound women’s republic of Bessapara, made up heavily of victims of sex trafficking, never stops seeing men as perpetrators of violence and abuse. Eventually, the rumours say, the government begins to make moves to slaughter as many men as possible, leaving only those with a woman guardian – enough to sire the children needed for the perpetuation of the state – alive. In the midst of it all, we see Tunde, a young Nigerian man who has never committed an act of sexual violence, running for his life.
This divided portrayal seems representative of modern feminism in general. We have a complex in the way we talk about men.
Recent movements towards recognising gender as more complex and non-binary has placed cis men in a position of mutual victimhood with women and other oppressed gender identities. Essentially, it presents us with Option 1: men share in the unjust pressures of a society which assigns specific characteristics to people based on what’s in their pants. They suffer from expectations which don’t allow them to show emotion; which require them to be ‘strong’; which force them to be providers; which make impossible any desire to experiment with their own sexuality, or to be creative with their appearance.
But that’s not it, is it? Alongside this rhetoric, #yesallmen feminism tells us the opposite: that all men are complicit in the abuses committed by members of their gender. Aziz Ansari’s now famous bedroom manners, and the generally horrified reaction of men to their denunciation as sexual misconduct, have been touted as an example of the fact that men are imbued with a sense of entitlement from an early age. Here, we have Option 2: whether it’s conscious or not, all men benefit from women’s reinforced fear of saying no; all men benefit from women’s emotional labour; all men are unaware of the effect that certain actions have on the emotional wellbeing of others.
When, like me, you’re inclined to agree to an extent with both of these portrayals, it can be hard to find a middle ground. Watching The Red Pill, recently, I was surprised to find that I agreed with some of what was being said. The MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) interviewed were criticising a legal structure that privileges men over women in parental custody battles. It seemed obvious to me that this privileging stems from a gendered assumption that women are inherently better at raising children than men, and that, in turn, reinforces harmful stereotypes of women as mothers and homemakers, and men as breadwinners. These men were complaining about a gender representation that was causing them emotional harm – focusing in on Option 1.
What was frustrating, though, was that the MRAs weren’t shouting about how ‘men need feminism too’ to dismantle those structures. They were directing their anger about this towards women, and particularly, towards feminists.
But in 2016, only 36% of judges in US federal courts were women. Sorry, dudes. Sadly, we didn’t make the rules.
This is the problem. Portrayals of masculinity which posit its demands as a crime against men seem to fail to realise that its basis stems from, well – men.
Men who don’t want to be included under Option 2 or the #yesallmen banner, then, have to ask themselves what they are doing to help reduce the stigma faced by men who reject traditional masculine presentation, by emotional men, and, on a deeper level, the oppressions faced by by trans men, by gay, bisexual and queer men, by BAME men. They also need to actively reject notions of masculinity, like sexual entitlement, which have a harmful effect on other people of all gender identities.
My key point is this: if men want to benefit from feminism, and be considered under Option 1, they need to put their efforts into ending the version of masculinity presented in Option 2. They can’t pick and choose which parts of feminism work for them. Women feminists can set an example of how to battle gender structures, sure – but it’s not down to women to provide the labour which allows men to rid themselves of gendered pressures. As we often hear, ‘men need feminism too’: but to gain, there needs to be contribution.
Progress has been made, particularly by men’s mental health campaigns like Delivering Male and CALM, but there’s still a long way to go. It seems counterproductive that we should speak about men entirely as victims of gendered structures when on many levels they continue to contribute to them – and Option 1 rhetoric can also be at risk of making it impossible to voice criticism where it’s due. Until men step up to the mark, #yesallmen will continue to have relevance, and, for me, the actions of the government of Bessapara remain – while deplorable – at least understandable.