Home > Gender Politics, Local Democracy > What is it to be a man (and why does it matter)?

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.

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  1. November 27, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    “[male gender roles] 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.”

    This is where I think we disagree. For both men and women gender is a hugely power social construction, weighted down with millenia of history. It is not that easy as smebody just taking an individual decision to abstract themselves from the culture, and from the social meaning projected onto their lives and actions.

  2. November 27, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I think it is that easy for straight white men, whereas I imagine everyone else finds it somewhat harder.

    What stops a lot of straight white men is the value they find in the identity offered to them by virtue of being straight, white and male – identity is then turned into the zero-sum game we socialists know it doesn’t have to be.

  3. AdamP
    November 27, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    As highlighted in the Third Estate article, however, where such men’s societies could be useful is not entirely to do with the fact that the “vast majority of men [you've] known have no fear of calling down female derision” – any gender-related ‘oppression’ (I agree that may be too strong a word for it) that men suffer is not a result of women oppressing them, but of the gender roles themselves constricting choice and calling derision upon them (predominantly reinforced by men, but some women, parts of the media etc play their part).

    I would suggest that there it can be productive for men to engage with their own identities rather than purely with other identities, due to the fact that dominant notions of masculinity are still very prevalent in many areas, and deviation from them *does* tend to result in either derision or being labelled according to other stereotypes – e.g. a more effeminate man might be seen as being gay, when men don’t seize opportunities to provide leadership or stand out as being strong and stoical their masculinity is seen as somehow in doubt, etc.

    While you might be right that the Oxford and Manchester societies are unlikely to be particularly successful in challenging such models, the fact that men could well profit from space in which to engage with notions of male identity means that the attention generated by them can be used to have a useful debate on the topic, and possibly even lead to a few societies of the sort that will investigate and help challenge simplistic notions of male identity.

  4. November 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    I don’t think that creating Men’s Societies will be of use in that way though. First, obviously, none of those discussed thus far set out with that intent – whatever they say after they get called out.

    Second, the areas in which masculinist narratives are prevalent aren’t the worst on student campuses. They’re the worst in working class areas, where going to the pub and gambling, then coming home for dinner is still very much an operative identity. A Men’s Society will change nothing about that.

    Thirdly, isn’t the proper response to having one’s masculinity questioned not simply to deny that masculine identity is what one is aiming at? And if that is the case, then can’t we shatter these preconceived notions of identity by permitting individuals to pursue individual courses, supported by a coalition of free-thinking (i.e. socialist) and minority groups?

    Which is the opposite, really, of creating a Men’s Society.

  5. AlexMagd
    November 27, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Adam, I take your point and it’s true that these Men’s Societies won’t achieve much in the areas where it’s truly needed. However, I don’t see the harm in having a more open discussion about these things and hopefully deconstructing stereotypes among those people who will – in all likelihood, no matter how you feel about it – end up being in influential roles in the media, government etc later in life.

    I can’t decide if it’s Orwellian or overly-rosy to imagine that once the mainstream cultural shift is moving away from gender stereotypes, that the majority of people will shift with it for fear of being left on the outside.

    I heart Liv too, though it’s a shame that she’s gotten embroiled in this. The last thing women with bright futures right now is to draw Harman comparisons, when the government is in such disrepute.

  6. November 27, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Well, I think the point, Alex, is that mainstream cultural shift is never going to occur just because of a discussion group. It will occur because people of all identities will move to take control of the structures that disseminate the ‘approved’ information and will use it instead to explode identity myths. In short, mainstream cultural shift will happen in the direction we want only with class struggle.

    And I don’t think that’s Orwellian; what we have now is a centralised method for discriminating against people who live their lives on the edges of what is ‘approved of’ by the media, standing its self-appointed place as Vox Populi. Abolishing that and allowing anyone and everyone to take over the role is much more democratic.

    In the meantime, discussion always helps – but allowing what is, as I alluded to, the ‘default’ identity in Western liberal democracies to form official groups is probably not going to facilitate discussion – certainly not in these specific instances. Better to combine such discussion into a wider forum, such as – at Oxford – the Left Forum, where anyone can take part and debate the issue.

    I think the key point is that women’s groups are formed in order to take specific action on women’s rights; there is no equivalent need for men. And if such groups are formulated, the actions they can most readily take turn identity issues into a zero-sum game. Such as trying to establish Men’s Welfare Officers, or trying to eliminate the idea of only women standing for any particular office.

  7. Aaron
    November 27, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Great post!

  8. Vicky Thompson
    November 27, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Excellent article, infinitely superior in reason and understanding to the one on the Third Estate. You have, however, quoted my words as belonging to Caitriona Rylance from Communist Students!

  9. Miller 2.0
    November 29, 2009 at 1:23 am

    Hmm. Don’t agree with men’s societies, but there is possibly a case for Men’s welfare officers. Issues like domestic violence against men and ignorance of testicular cancer and other primarily male health issues are some obvious ones. There’s also the idea of giving men a feminist education, which the exclusivity of female self-determining spaces often presents an obstacle to.

    Mind open.

    Of course though, in practice…

  10. Bob
    November 29, 2009 at 1:45 am

    Intelligent debate, interesting P’s.O.V., well written piece. However, why oh why are people *still* so obsessed with pigeon holing everything – oh, to be a man you must do x, have x, act like x. Bollocks. I have a penis, therefore I am a man.

    How I behave/live/dress/speak is utterly irrelevant. I’m not gay, I like pink (the colour, not the musician), I write poetry, I cook, I iron. I also box, kick box, ride off road, drink beer, and gamble. I also know many women who do all of these things. Are you all so insecure that you *require* some label to know who/what you are? How is this even considered important?

    I’m aware of the arguments about “representation” in various arenas, but as far as I can tell it is only when things are judged on ability – jobs, “salaries” (you can tell it’s the few % of the populace who earn large amounts of money talking about earnings and inequalities in pay – the rest of us are on an hourly rate which is the same for everyone, irrespective of gender. Typical crap assuming they know about/can speak for everyone), etc – that this kind of intellectualisation of abstract, unimportant, self righteous tosh falls by the wayside.

    How about, instead of indulging in the sort of “debate” your priveleged western life allows about male/female only stereotypes/roles blah blah blah, you consider important things. Feeding everyone. Population issues (the only other organism that is remotely similar to humans is the virus. We SERIOUSLY need to address population levels, and now). The accumulation of most of the world’s resources by a tiny percentage of the population.

  11. splinteredsunrise
    November 29, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    The question, surely, is what a men’s society would aim to do? If the whole purpose is to drink beer and watch Top Gear, men don’t need a society to do that. Ditto for a men’s officer – I think some women’s officers have only a hazy sense of their remit, but at least there is a remit and it’s usually linked to campaigning and representation.

  12. November 29, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Splinty, I agree – and this is what worries me because, as I said in my comment @6, last paragraph, the actions they can most readily take (and will be most easily pressured to take) are the sort of actions that go on via the CF and Lib Dem youth groups – trying to get rid of particular women’s representation and so forth.

    Bob, I think you’ve actually missed the point. Plenty of young people end up committing suicide as a result of the tension between what they ‘are’ (or rather how they are seen by others) and what they are expected to be. So I think it’s superficial at best to dismiss it all with the claim that every minority, every individual should simply be who they want. They can’t.

    Social influences are an important factor in determining who each of us are, and if we’re lucky enough not to experience the tension above, well then we can be glad for ourselves – but it is simply not the case with everyone.

    Even the vaunted concept of ‘ability’ is socially constructed; genderised ‘norms’ as to what young people choose to study (for example) are still very much operative. It would be better if they weren’t, of course, but wishing doesn’t make them go away. They go away when we fight for it.

    And even ‘ability’ is moderated by the fact that women are still chained, to an extent, by the expectation that they’ll get a good job, bring up the kids, tidy the house and still be up for sex every night (Laurie Penny always has good stuff on this, usually written in amusing hyperbole). These expectations are not laid on men; the archetypal male (of popular culture) has disposable income, is single, likes to drink til he drops and has all the moral qualities of a particularly perfidious rodent.

    Finally, my ‘privileged Western lifestyle’ allows me to consider all these things – if you’d read this blog more than just skimming on article, you’d note concern for jobs and a raft of other things. I write simply to understand how all these things interact to create a world, rather than considering any of them in abstract, since they don’t exist in abstract and can’t be dealt with one by one.

  13. November 29, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Just back in blogoland after a break, and see I’ve missed an interesting discussion, which I may well follow up on with a post of my own.

    Briefly, I think there may be a conflation, as the comments proceed, of arguments about whether men’s societies within universities are warranted and the broader question of whether men ought to spending time assessing their masculine identity etc. etc..

    On the former, my response would be a fairly straightforward no, albeit one without familiarity with the circumstances, given what appears to be a significant likelihood that even well-meaning efforts may be co-opted by forces which are actually in favour of strengthening the beer-swilling, Top Gear watching identity.

    On the latter question, I’m more in two minds, but then it seems to be that feminist thinking may be too. I’m struck, for example, by Susan Faludi’s provisional support (in ‘Stiffed’)for the Louis Farrakhan’s ‘million man’ march of the late 1990s, on the basis that it was an attempt to develop a masculine identity different from the traditional post-war conception of the working man. On the other hand, such support seems to rely on the reasoning that there is in fact some kind of a priori hunter-gatherer-cum-problem-solving male psyche which has been ‘stiffed’ my the shifts in the post-war American industrial ‘way of life’, and I’m tempted to think that any organisational construction around the male identity is bound to end up reconstructing an identity favourable to the retention of a power status quo when, as Bob suggests, the real task to be undertaken is about capital/labour inequities.

    All half-thought through. I’ll come back to it.

  14. November 29, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    I agree with what you say, Paul, about any attempted organisation ultimately resulting in the reconstruction of an identity. Whether one favourable to the retention of the power status-quo, between the genders for example, I can’t really say, but I suspect you are correct there too.

    My thinking is that trying to construct any identity for straight, white men is a wasted effort. As I said above, I think it is more constructive for such men to engage with other ‘identities’ rather than try to construct a corporate one for themselves. Evidence is given to this by Alex Linley’s comments posted above, where he posits the ideas as essentially choosing between competing identities.

    This misses the point entirely.

  1. December 28, 2009 at 1:33 am

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