I ran a workshop earlier this year at the Christian Feminist Network’s conference about masculinity and feminism. The questions were roughly these:
1. Why are men rarely feminists? Or, why are feminists rarely men?
2. What are the issues facing masculinity today? Is masculinity oppressed in any sense?
3. What kind of masculinity is ready to rise to the feminist struggle? What kind of masculinity will the feminist struggle accept?
But by way of introducing the said questions, and indeed the idiocy and sincerity of masculinity in general, I will tell you about the dream I had a few weeks before the conference…
I was at a feminist conference (in the dream that is). It was a beautiful spring day and we were sat along tables outside. I was sat next to Lucy Holmes of the No More Page Three campaign, and we were talking about things, but I felt self conscious because I was only wearing my boxer shorts. Freudians will want to note that they were banana-man boxer shorts. I tried to play it cool, adjusting myself discreetly. And then, when we got up to go to the next seminar and I realised that Lucy Holmes was at least 9ft tall, and I was scrambling along the road squinting upwards at her.
Then something else happened, but I’ll tell you about that later.
To hazard an interpretation I’d say that I (even I!) who had been wheeled out as some kind of minor expert on certain feminist issues, was nevertheless anxious about this thing… anxious, I suppose, about bringing my masculinity into a feminist gathering.
1. WHY MEN ARE RARELY FEMINISTS
I asked some men, before the the conference, if they identified themselves as feminists. And if not, why not. The discussions that followed weren’t a grilling. I wasn’t asking them to explain themselves for some shameful apathy, and they weren’t answering in the spirit of self-justification. Their responses had more the character of reflection and confession. It was a candid exploration of where men stood in relation to feminism. and often they seemed to be articulating their thoughts and feelings to themselves for the first time, which we must always dare to do before we can have productive dialogue with ‘the other.’
I got roughly four kinds of response.
Perceived philosophical differences
The most obvious starting point for most was that they didn’t agree with certain feminist stances:
“I’m cautious about positive discrimination. Feminism seems to be about using positive discrimination to restore inequalities in society.”
“The pursuit of legal equality is in danger of losing a consciousness of complimentary difference between genders.”
“It has the connotation of an aggressive compensation… although I do get that. To re-balance an unjust situation, you need to over-emphasise.”
“[I’m] Suspicious of the covetous or self-interested motivation of feminism. Like a three yr old that wants a toy just because the other kid has it.”
I was delighted and fascinated to hear those at the Christian Feminist Network howl with laughter when I relayed these responses to them. Why laughter? Because we feel comically misunderstood? Because these are absurd views? Because it’s fun to hear what people think of you, but won’t say to your face?
These were the most predictable responses, to my mind, but I think they were also the most superficial. Partly because feminist history is characterised by divergent beliefs, opinions and schisms, but mostly because the men seemed uneasy saying these things. Voices were all hushed as though the room might be bugged.
Of course these statements react against a crude caricature of feminism, and some were aware of that, and of their own limited understanding of feminism.
“Not sure what it [feminism] is…” said one.
“Don’t really know what it means to be a feminist” said another.
“My understanding of what it means to be a feminist is… I don’t know! What is a feminist?” Said yet another.
What is feminist orthodoxy? Do you have to sign up to everything? Is it possible to be a feminist and believe in complementary difference? Is it possible to be a pro-life feminist? Or, could one perhaps engage in the feminist struggle even if one is not found to be quite worthy of the term? The assumption to all the above was, probably not… that one would be rejected outright for holding erroneous views.
No one started by talking about fear, but when when we got there it felt like a big relief. There was recognition of the grip of a feminist stereotype: the image of a gang of women who are generically angry at men. They said things like:
“I’d be quite intimidated by a room full of feminists…”
“There is a fire-breathing man-hating image of feminists in media and culture that [that has made it’s mark…]”
“There is [in myself] a tension, between the recognition of the necessity of feminism, and a personal feeling of recoiling from the aggression.”
Nobody thought this was this was a fair reflection, but some had the lucidity to recognise the power of this image over themselves. One said “I feel like part of the problem, by my very balls.” Underlying philosophical differences seemed to be an irrational fear of the feminist intolerance of the very essence of masculinity.
We should dare to ask though, if the fear really is totally irrational. Or is there, in fact, such a thing as feminist hate? Here are two considerations..
Firstly, feminism is the emergence of a long repressed humanity. It inevitably began explosively and dialectically. How could it not be characterised by anger? And secondly, we feminists are fallen human beings and represent the usual spectrum of humanity. I know feminists who are spectacularly resolved and open, and others who are closed and defensive about certain issues. There is anger. There are taboos. There is a sort of feminist conservatism in some camps. I wonder if, at this stage of the feminist journey there is scope and readiness for a greater depth of dialogue and a willingness to hold differences in tension in the fight for the dignity and honour of the image of God in women?
If that were so maybe some of the men I spoke with would dare to identify themselves as feminists. And maybe those who couldn’t would still be able to support and respect feminist struggle insofar as they shared its values, rather than simply regarding feminism as something entirely other, foreign and hostile.
Sociological and cultural barriers…
Most said they didn’t know any feminists.
“I only know a few “no-brainer feminists,”* but no feminists of any kind older than myself [35yrs].”
“Don’t know any feminists, except for teenagers who are sort of processing things anyway.”
(I know what you’re thinking…)
“I’m not aware that I know any feminists (but maybe I do, without knowing it).”
They didn’t know any active feminists and were not aware of any local feminist movement that they might encounter. The idea that I might be considered a feminist went under the radar. It was assumed that when we talk of feminists we are talking about women, and not men.
One man pointed out that there is little cultural precedent for the man-feminist. What does one look like? What does a man feminist do? How would I go about being one, rather than just nominally adopting the label. There’s almost no model for it.
Consciousness of an intrinsic puzzle
At the most thoughtful level, some were concerned that their identification with feminist struggles might become patronising. “What right do I have to speak for women” said one. The very act of doing so seems faintly patriarchal. Feminism is one of a number of forceful movement in society where men are outsiders. Maybe its significance lies partly in that fact. How can masculinity be introduced to the movement without somehow compromising it?
To re-examine the quote: “I feel like part of the problem, by my very balls…” perhaps this wasn’t just to do with the fear of feminist intolerance of masculinity. Perhaps it was a more profound question about the nature of masculinity itself, and whether it can constructively engage in the feminist struggle at all. Would we not be ever in danger of misunderstanding the issues and blundering stupidly over them?
* * *
At this point I’ll tell you about the rest of my dream.
…So I was walking stupidly alongside a 9ft Lucy Holmes in my banana-man boxer shorts, and suddenly there was a commotion from behind. A woman in a sparkly sequin dress was in trouble. The ground had given way and she was up to her armpits trying not to fall down into the muddy abyss. I jumped into action, ran back and rescued her from a soily death. I felt marvelous. And then I woke up.
I hope you’ll be gracious with me. It was only a dream after all. I didn’t actually mention this part of the dream at the CFN conference because I was so ashamed of it. But in the end, what could illustrate the problems of masculinity and the feminist struggle better? I’m a feminist and my blood boils along with Susan Brownmiller’s as she denounces that man-made image of feminine helplessness that “gives the masculine principle its validity and its admiring applause” But in my unconscious world I find exactly that kind of masculinity: women who are engaged with changing the world are intimidating to it, but it comes to life in the presence of helpless women in pretty dresses.
Even my involvement in feminist activities is no doubt confused with all kinds of incongruous impulses, desires and convictions. How can I possibly bring my mixed up masculinity into the feminist struggle? Wretch that I am!
That question can hang for the moment. Next we will explore some of the many grave issues of masculinity today.
2. ISSUES OF MASCULINITY TODAY
Masculinity is in a miserable place today, and I have come to believe that the fight for women is implicitly also the fight for men. If this essay is able to say anything, I hope it will say that. Let us imagine for a moment that masculinity is somehow oppressed. How so? I’ll highlight three issues…
The emasculating domestication to consumer society
We are something like 2nd generation zoo animals. The stuff of life comes out of packets and is thrown into our cages. We’ve never known the wild. We were born into this situation. We’re all desperate these days to grow our own vegetables in the hope of breaking our alienation from the real stuff of life. We’re like children who never learn to tie their own laces because it has always been done for them. The office I work in has an electric kitchen bin, so I don’t even have to go through the vulgar indignity of having to touch it. It sounds trivial, but when you put it all together it stops men from feeling alive.
There is myth that it is women that domesticate men. Woman, the cruel goddess, who builds a life of passive comfort around herself and keeps a man as a pet to amuse her, fetch her slippers and do her bidding…The myth still exists, even though our experience says something entirely different. Woman does not sit enthroned over the domestication of man, rather she has become one of the products that is thrown into his cage, along with convenience foods, electronics, clothes, films. etc. It is consumer capitalism that has domesticated the men of the West and emasculated them by removing their imperative to act upon the world. It serves the world up to them for a price, and offers no other paradigms for living. This passivity is nowhere seen so plainly as in men’s disinterest in contending for the dignity and honour of women.
The slavery of the male libido
Our sexual energy has been co-opted to power the machine of consumer capitalism. It is clearly the male libido that fuels western advertising, even when the products are aimed at women. I think this is what Foucault calls bio-power – the elites harnessing the bubbling life-forces available in the population, for their own interests: for control and for profit.
No man wishes to be a cog in someone else’s machine, to have some part of themselves co-opted into the running of some impersonal system. In fact there is something systemically abusive about any arrangement where a person becomes an unsuspecting part of someone else’s scheme. The co-opting of the male libido into the running of consumer economies reduces masculinity from being humanity to being, not even a thing, but a stuff.
There are many who willingly embrace their alloted hamster wheel in the economy of lust – and accept it as a mutually gratifying social contract (between men and the economy we note, not between men and women). But for others, the systemic drilling into their most vulnerable, powerful and sacred impulses becomes a matter of confusion, exhaustion, shame, weariness and emotional damage. The dehumanisation of the other is always the dehumanisation of the self, and it is to this that men are called every day by the current order.
The boredom of self and introspection
In British consumer capitalist society there is no community to be great in… no community to serve. We are ever turned inwards to private interests and individual pursuits. Real masculinity is sat uselessly on the shelf as long as an order of individualistic pursuit remains. We’re like horses after the invention of the car… a purposeless novelty dreaming of a world where we could do something that mattered. We have no people to do something for or amongst.
This isn’t (necessarily) a matter of pride. This isn’t about being seen to be great, but of actually being great – that is, of simply bearing the weight and agency of human beings. The issue is this: if what we do really doesn’t matter at all to anyone else, then it has no social or historical substance. It is a non-act. It may as well be a dream. If we have become non-historical, and non-social beings, then we are peopleless and storyless. We are less than fully human. And so masculinity is thrice dehumanised.
Thus western man is reduced from humanity to that lower rung that has characterised the post-war world: to boredom. The arrangement of life in consumer capitalist societies is implicitly emasculating.
* * *
Amongst the men I interviewed, some were actively for the feminist struggle, but most had never taken it seriously. The irony is that in feminism there is an invitation to men, to move beyond a passive acceptance of the domestication, oppression, and boredom of their own situation. In feminism lies the liberation of masculinity.
The table of western gender politics (if you’ll pardon its crudeness) has tended to capture the hearts of men because it depicts an order that hovers over both women and men… that oppresses both. That both must overthrow, for the loving sake of the other.
The question that was originally posed to me for this discussion was to explore how patriarchy disadvantages men as well as women. But in whatever activism I’ve been involved in, I’ve never used the term “patriarchy” in the conventional way. There are more examples of oppressive patriarchy in human history than I could explore in a lifetime, and the use of the word in the journey of the feminist movement makes complete sense to me. However, I don’t consider patriarchy to be inherently oppressive, just as I don’t think matriarchy is. I think feminist theory itself has revealed an oppressive order that sits above and beyond the co-opted idiocy that characterises the history of the “first” sex. Toxic patriarchy may be the norm but it is the order that co-opts, oppresses and poisons the sexes that I want to address. It is this common oppression that the table of western gender politics describes, and it is that which men recognise when they see it. I call it empire, along with others (See my book Kingdom vs Empire).
3. WHAT KIND OF MASCULINITY JOINS THE FEMINIST STRUGGLE?
This might be a problematic question. It is one thing to ask how men might come to join the feminist struggle, but to speak of masculinity as a thing in itself is quite different. Some will not wish to see masculinity (or femininity) as anything more than a construct to be overcome. We might well say that to be talking of the characteristics of masculinity as though they were exclusive to masculinity is to contradict any feminist agenda from the start.
However, for existential reasons, men will always be broadly excluded from the feminist movement as long as masculinity is not understood as a particular experience and identity. There may be different ideas about the origins of a gender identity, but in any case, few men will be able to ignore their troubled experience of their own masculinity as a thing which is in themselves and beyond themselves.
A lot of what men find in themselves is not in the least complementary to women. For men to rightly enter the feminist struggle, it must involve some degree of confessional consciousness. That is, consciousness of one’s masculinity and its damage. And so the environment must be one of grace and openness. A man must start from where he really is, and bring his experience (and his balls), his sincerity and his idiocy, against the paranoia about which of his experiences are allowed or legitimate. An openness to mystery, disparity, pain and wonder is more fruitful than a closed orthodoxy. In my experience, a lot of the men who do identify themselves as feminists have done so by taking the route of repression rather than confession.
That said, I would like to suggest what I think are some of the most fruitful qualities we might associate with masculinity. The question was asked whether I see the following as exclusively masculine traits. I don’t. I see them more vividly in the women of the feminist movement than in most of the men I know these days. These things are sleeping somewhere beneath our culture, and they need to be awoken. I think we need to graciously condescend to flatter masculinity with a vision of what it at least might be if it could only escape the zoo. Masculinity needs a feminism that believes in it. And to repeat the irony, I think the liberation of masculinity might be found in the feminists’ gracious call to action.
These are some of the things masculinity needs to be truly alive and to act.
A desire to contend for the other
Masculinity is truly alive and truly human when it contends for the other as, St Paul said, “Christ loved the Church.” That is to say, when it is willing to empty self, without reserve, for the other. A man’s moronic desire to appear great by re-imagining women as helpless creatures to be rescued, is a corruption of this image. In this case it is our own honour we contend for at the expense of the other’s, who is portrayed as a lesser being. But if a man is not able to authentically contend for the other, he is lost and miserable, toxic and destructive.
This is the fate of men under the current paradigm. In consumer capitalist societies it is only ordained that a man should contend for himself, and all gestures of petty heroism are an act contrived to serve the same ends. He is a microcosm of empire; an entity reasonlessly bent on its own greatness. There is no toxic patriarchy apart from this law. But as weak as we men are to such vainglory, something in us longs for some shadowy parallel existence, where we’re supposed to dedicate ourselves to an other.
To contend for the other is to become smaller so that the other may become greater – not the other way around. It is to empty oneself that the other may be filled, not the other way around. It is to stand with them in their struggle, to support them in their action, and to force space for them to be, and to exercise their own agency. It is not to make the other more like himself, or to use the other for himself, but to shrink and make space for the other to be who the other is. What is described is an act of radicalism.
A desire for life, direct and unmediated
Masculinity is truly alive and truly human when it feels directly connected to the things of life: to food, and housing, and work and family, and community and culture. That is to say, a man needs to able to contribute to, and shape these things as they appear in community life. He needs to have some role in fashioning the structures and rhythms of his world. Not only does he need the imperative to serve the other, he also needs the capacity refashion life for the good of the other.
The normal arrangement at the moment is that the world that everyday men live in is managed and arranged for them by the powerful minority who oversee the different aspects of consumer capitalist society. And then this world, as decided from on high, is mediated down via managed mediums. Provision of food is mediated via the super markets, culture is mediated via television, social life is mediated via social networks, the questions of how we should live are mediated by government legislation and the press, education is mediated by the school system, sex is mediated via the screen, family matters are increasingly being managed and mediated by state services… All the stuff of life is mediated to us via systems controlled by others, and so masculinity lives in a permanent state of disempowered redundance.
To some degree a sense of agency in the world may come from paid work, depending on the nature of that work, but usually it is the illusion of unmediated agency. The holy grail of a vibrant career is often more to do with holding an esteemed position, or making enough money to acquire the power to do certain things. But an esteemed position as an ends in itself feed only the toxic masculinity of empire, because it serves self and not the other. And the agency that comes with high income is to support and submit to the structure that mediates life to men, for money, rather than expecting them to fashion it themselves. The point is to build a shed, not to buy one. The reduction of men’s agency in the world to paid employment is equates to their total subservience to the powers.
“Do not conform any longer to the patter of this order” says St Paul. If a good masculinity exists, the sleeping elephant must be brought to consciousness of its subservience. It must be awakened to its discontent, and invited to envision an everyday life that ordinary men and women fashion themselves.
A desire to act upon the world, rather than to passively accept it as consumer
Masculinity is truly alive and truly human when it recognises itself as an active participant in history. Not only must it cultivate an unmediated agency in its own world, it must also recognise the validity of its voice in the wider world.
For a long time the contemporary vision of power in the world has been synonymous with fame, office and the public voice. But the imperative to to think, to talk, to pine, to pray and to act towards the blessing of a world bigger than one’s own is given to the ordinary man and woman. This consciousness is to be the stuff of ordinary life, and not monopolised by the powerful. It is this humanising capacity that lifts us beyond the animals. By this we participate, even if stupidly, in the divine nature.
* * *
Of course today it is the feminists who emerge from an introspective existence to a radical contention for the other. It is the feminists who deconstruct the loaded and dehumanising mediation of the current order. It is the feminists who have believed that their humanity has the calling to act upon the world and interrupt the passive entropy of the historical process. Thus feminism stands as a witness and an example to masculinity. But not only that. The struggle to free women from an order that oppresses them is the struggle for a liberated masculinity. The existence of men’s movements is very well, but it is the conviction of this writer and this essay that masculinity cannot save itself by fighting for itself. It can only be genuinely recovered when it dedicates itself to the struggle of the other. He who holds onto his own life loses it, but he who forsakes it for the sake of the other is thereby saved.
*By the term “no-brainer feminists”, he meant nominals, who were feminists because a belief in equality is a no-brainer, but the label was unconnected to any action of any kind.