Where Are We Going?
Feminism and Masculinity
Monday 2 December 2002
The signs of a transition in the gender order are everywhere and the impact on men and masculinities is very dramatic. In many respects these changes are interpreted through two perspectives: men as victims and men as under-achievers.
The most dramatic shifts in the gender order concerns women. Young professional women are winning many of the new jobs in the services and knowledge industries, earning more money, increasing their share income and strengthening their hold on the professions. In the field of education, female achievement has been outstripping that of young males for at least a decade. An increasing number of young women are exhibiting characteristics previously considered typically male, such as a willingness to take risks, a desire for adventure in sport, foreign travel and a much greater interest in sexuality.
The rise in the participation of women in the workplace and in education as well as women’s new social freedoms are often related to the decline of the male breadwinner and male privilege. The conclusion often touted is that of male marginalization or that “men are at risk,” to borrow from the controversial title of Errol Miller’s book.
The problem with this argument is that it constructs men as victims of the women’s movement. The men as victims argument is associated with a counter movement to reassert the dominance of men and masculinity. The suggestion is that the problem is that men are unable to fulfil their role because women are too ambitious.
This conclusion is based on the age-old conception of the role of the male ‘breadwinner’ as being essential to the full realization of male identity. Having a job and earning a good income are essential mechanisms through which men gain power and prestige as well as attract women. The role of the breadwinner is an important source of authority for men within the context of patriarchy. A decline in this role, through unemployment for example, has manifested in the loss of self-esteem and problems such as domestic violence and reduced sexual potency.
Men and masculinity are also going through many changes. Men are increasingly required to adjust to the rise of male unemployment and the feminist challenge to patriarchal ideology.
For instance, the objectification of men’s bodies is associated with the emergence of a new consumer culture. Men have long held the power of ‘the gaze’ over women’s bodies and still do. With the growth of men’s style magazines and male modelling, men are being subjected to ‘the look’ of both women and men. This is exemplified by the range of new body-sculpting magazines and exercise machines that are being promoted. Men are being encouraged to have “rock hard abs” and a totally toned physique (a hard body).
Also, men are proving to be almost as susceptible as women to a loss of self-esteem and dissatisfaction with their body image. The male image is increasingly being sexualized, eroticized and so feminized. For example, the sale of male toiletries has been increasing recently and it is men who are doing the bulk of the purchasing.
The men as underachievers argument demeans men as underachievers and deviants. It portrays men as a growing social problem because an increasing number of them are uneducated, unemployed, unmarried or gay. The view is that school, work and family are key socializing institutions without which men become unproductive, uncontrollable and dangerous. For example, men behaving badly are responsible for the decline of family values, the growth of single-headed households and the proliferation of homosexuality.
According to Ehrenreich (1995) some of the key features are that:
men no longer depend on women for physical survival;
masculinity, like femininity, is now being exploited by consumer culture;
men no longer need women to express their status;
male wages have declined and so has the breadwinning role;
women’s gender identity is becoming masculinized.
These transitions in masculinities are viewed as indicative of the decline of patriarchy. The traditional meaning of patriarchy (the rule of the father, including the rule of older men over younger men adn of fathers over daughters, as well as husbands over wives) is being eroded by fundamental shifts in the sexual division of labour and gender ideology. But Ehrenreich (1995) warns that ’the end of patrarchy is not the same as women’s liberation’. For her, patrarchy involves a process of mutual obligation, which meant protectiveness on the part of men, either in terms of comforting or infantilising women. She argues that those days are over. She identifies two parallel trends: male flight from female companionship and the masculinisation of women. She forecasts an increase in male violence, especially that against women and suggests that ’the battle of the sexes’ may stop being a metaphor and become an armed struggle".
Pleck (1995) makes the point that in contemporary times men have become more dependent on women for emotional and sex-role validation because male-male friendships have been declining, while male-female relations have expanded with dating and marriage occurring more universally. As a result, women have gained more expressive power and more masculinity-validating power over men:
women are used as symbols of success in men’s competition with each other;
women play a mediating role by smoothing over men’s inability to relate to each other non-competitively;
relationships with women provide men a refuge from the dangers and stresses of relating to other males;
women reduce the stress of competition by serving as an underclass.
These scripts not only define what ‘true masculinity’ is, or, is not, but it also informs what femininity is all about as well. Deviation from these roles is seen as a threat to the natural order of patriarchy. Consequently, the challenges that have arisen through “women’s liberation means that the stakes of patriarchal failure for men are higher than they have been before, and that it is even more important for men not to lose” (Pleck 1995: 10).
The ideology of masculinism is able to exploit male insecurities and vulnerabilities about sexuality and work. It is also used as a basis to perpetuate sexism thereby reinforcing traditional occupational and reward hierarchies. The myth of male privilege, power and status blinds men to their own gender oppression and therefore limits the possibilities for an emancipatory transition from within the boundaries of masculinism. This suggests that the prospects for a preferred future in gender relations are dependent on the continued unmasking of the core ideas that inform masculinism.
Keith Nurse lectures at the Institute of International Relations, University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked with various women’s organisations in Trinidad and Tobago on issues relating to the economy, gender relations between men and women and masculinities.