What is it to be a man (and why does it matter)?
Gender has been one of the prime subjects du jour on the thinking person’s blog. The relationship between feminism and socialism has been discussed by HarpyMarx and I; Paul has discussed the role of gender in partitioning health care workers and now, the issue of Men’s Societies is creating a storm, with contributions from Comment is Free, Third Estate, Jim Jepps. Indeed this dispute has even acquired that modern emblem of political import: a facebook group.
The question of Men’s Societies being recognised by university student unions comes up in the context of frequent campaigns to attack women’s representation. Oxford University, one of the two universities seen to pioneer the idea, frequently faces attempts to abolish the position of Vice President (Women) in the Students Union, or to ‘merge’ the position into that of VP (Welfare and E-Opps), which doesn’t have to be a woman. Manchester suffers the same tendencies; e.g. the Conservative Future Women’s Officer who abolished her own role, after election.
Locations may change, the arguments stay the same; “having women’s officers is discriminatory”, “positive discrimination is still discrimination”, “men should have someone to represent their interests too”.
Now up comes the question of Men’s Societies in Manchester, ‘led by a couple of Tory toffs, a UKIP support, an evangelical Christian and an Orange Order supporter’. All in all, impeccable credentials for people who are supposed to leading discussion about how men can be oppressed through the genderised roles imposed on them by capitalist cultural hegemony. I think not. Nor is a venture like this liable to be any better if ‘the Left’ tries to intervene and seize control of such a society. The very idea is counter-productive.
Alex Linley, a supporter of the Manchester society declares, “There is so much conflicting information for men. There is massive confusion as to what being a man means, and how to be a good man. Should you be the sensitive all-caring, perhaps the ‘feminised’ man? Or should you be the hard, take no crap from anybody kind of figure?” Except Linley puts his finger on two very genderised stereotypes as the alternatives to be ‘investigated’ as potential identities for men. The point of course is to deconstruct and break down all identities.
Opponents of the societies characterize the methods of investigation of these stereotypes as, “Top Gear shows, gadget fairs, beer-drinking marathons and Iron Man competitions” (c/o Jim Jepps). I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that’s accurate, but knowing Oxford University, and the sort of men who propose these sort of ideas, it’s more than likely to be true. I mean, this is a university where the Tory Association was seriously rebuked for anti-semitic japes. Intelligent debate doesn’t rank highly on their agenda.
Not to say that my opposition to Men’s Societies is a way of closing down discussion about male gender norms and how to defeat them. Quite the opposite. Yet since white and male are the ‘default’ identities of Western society, it stands to reason that white men can best challenge that norm by constructively engaging with other identities, rather than attempting to come up with an identity of their own. It needs to be said that women’s groups don’t allow that opportunity to engage as well as they should, but Men’s Societies certainly won’t.
Men, therefore, don’t require their own group or their own ‘welfare officer’, because there’s never a danger of straight white guys going unrepresented on a union executive. They certainly don’t go unrepresented in the popular imagination (except perhaps in Melanie Phillips’ Daily Mail column, where black gays and lesbians are taking over the universe). Men can certainly attempt to ‘deconstruct’ the concept of male identity – but the very idea of that deconstruction is socialistic.
It can be theoretically debated in socialist societies across the country, and can be practically challenged every time a man goes to a poetry reading, or does something off-the-wall, but it doesn’t require corporate action to correct ‘oppression’ – we’re not oppressed.
If there is a crisis in male self-confidence, it’s not because of a decentred identity; it’s because of a more rigidly defined identity being imposed through popular culture and lads’ mags whilst capitalism offers us ever more commodities and avenues by which we can defy that identity. All we have to do is choose, and if we want to talk about our choices and their significance, we can. It doesn’t require a Men’s Society.
On the other hand, from a practical point of view, whilst a lot of women involved in student public life take no shit from anyone (I heart Liv Bailey, Helen Bagshaw etc), a forum where women can say things without the risk of calling down male derision upon themselves is quite necessary. Without wishing to impute a genderised stereotype, the vast majority of men I’ve known have no fear of calling down female derision; politics is not a girl’s club, it is still very much a guy’s club, and student politicians can be amongst the worst of all.
Just remember, it’s men at Westminster who are being forced to address the nature of their all-male exclusive clubs, not women. This is just the tip of the iceberg of oppression, of course; I’ll let Catriona Rylance of Communist Students say it.
In our society, men experience no oppression simply because they are men. Women, on the other hand, experience oppression in numerous ways, whether from the double burden of childrearing and work, or through the myriad of sexist remarks, jokes and advertising that are the norm in the world we live in.
If you don’t believe this is the case – if you think women’s liberation has been achieved, or even gone too far – you can look at the underrepresentation of women in every democratic body from parliament to city councils to trade unions.
1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. On average, women earn 20% less than their male counterparts. And if you think equality has been achieved in Students’ Unions, you need only consider the paltry number of women Presidents in the UK.
The imbalance in the reality necessitates the imbalance in the approach to each gender. It’s that simple.