Keynote: Birth of a new man
issue 175 - September 1987
Birth of a new man:
the politics of masculinity.
Chris Brazier argues that in giving up their power
over women men may just find themselves.
My grandfather died as I was putting this issue together. He was 84 and illness had led us to expect the worst. And I knew when I visited him the weekend before his death that I was speaking to him for the last time. As I stood beside the bed he looked shrunken into himself, helpless and weak though still mentally alert. He seemed like a little boy, lost inside a withered frame. I couldn't say anything meaningful to him - about whether he was afraid at the prospect of death, perhaps - since neither his own wife nor his son, my father, were able to have such conversations with him.
But then it had always been so. Intimate talk about anything that went much deeper than the surface level of work and everyday happenings always made him profoundly uncomfortable. In this he was typical of many men, though there is no such thing as 'a typical man'. And as I meditated at his funeral on what he had meant to me I kept coming back unavoidably to this one image of him standing by the fireplace, his hand jangling the coins in his pocket as a way of absorbing his embarrassment at the experience of one-to-one communication. Once I remember he and my father stood together at the fireplace talking, both of them jangling the coins in their pockets. And I promised myself that I'd never be like that with my father or my sons, that I'd work to change the patterns of masculinity laid down for the male members of my family.
* * *
I hope women and gay men will understand if I address this article (and indeed most of this magazine) to heterosexual men like myself. We, after all, are the ones who need to get our act together.
I'm trying to imagine your first reactions on seeing that this issue of the NI is about Masculinity. A little fascinated, possibly. Perhaps even a little threatened? This would be hardly surprising, since 'masculinity' is itself something of a taboo area in our culture. True, it is a culture dominated by men, and we will sound off endlessly about most things under the sun. But, as Simone de Beauvoir once pointed out, men are always the subject rather than the object of discussion. We never talk about what it is actually like to be a man. Instead we simply react when forced to by the urging of our female partner or a feminist at work. We wait for women to raise the issue and then adjust accordingly. This is why almost all heterosexual men who have thought seriously about masculinity have been obliged to do so by entering a relationship with a feminist - at which point they are doing it for the sake of their own comfort.
This is understandable but it is time we stopped seeing 'women's concerns' as only being relevant to us when they smack us in the face. Women have enough trouble dealing with their own problems in a sexist world without having to take all the responsibility for changing men, too. It's time we stopped relying on their emotional strength, their knowledge of relationships and built up some of our own.
But we can't begin to do that until we recognize that masculinity as it is currently constructed is oppressive to women. The distressing statistics on Page 16 are evidence of this. We earn 90 per cent of the world's income and own 99 per cent of its property.1 We commit around 90 per cent of crimes of violence2 and 100 per cent of rapes.
When I say 'we' do these things you may think I strike a false note. After all, it is probable that you, like me, have only a modest income and little or no property; that you have never committed a violent crime, let alone a rape. Why should we be equated with men who run countries and corporations, men who rape and kill?
We can ask women not to lump us indiscriminately together with hostile men. But in return we need to recognize that we benefit from sexism every day of our lives, whether we like it or not. There is, for instance, the way that male-dominated workplaces tend to reproduce themselves by appointing more men. The way even sympathetic men leave more of the burden of childcare and housework on women. But there are also more everyday, less obvious benefits, such as the confidence and power we can feel in public situations because they are populated and defined mainly by men.
This is true even when we walk down a street, especially at night. On rare occasions we might find this frightening - when we have to pass a group of aggressive or drunken men, for example. But a woman is likely to experience this feeling as an almost everyday experience. Some don't go out at night at all. Others make elaborate transport arrangements to avoid walking alone. Those who do will often have a nagging fear in the back of their minds - trying not to think about the shadows, worrying about those male footsteps echoing behind her which just might be those of an attacker. This might seem exaggerated. But if so it probably only shows how safe we feel by comparison. The echoing footsteps are quite likely to be ours, after all. We know that nothing is farther from our minds than rape or attack. But the woman ahead of us does not. By simply crossing the street or waiting we could put her mind at rest.
Guilt, guilt, guilt. If we manage to get past our initial threatened reaction, this is often the next phase - despair sets in. If anything from walking along the street to taking a job in an already male-dominated setting can be seen as a contribution to the problem, then aren't we all hopeless cases?
I don't believe this for a moment. Guilt is a negative emotion which paralyses us, makes us feel worthless and incapable. And a lot of the early writing and thinking done by anti-sexist men in the 1970s was redolent of this guilt. But there is so much we can do and so much to be done if we are serious. True, there are also a lot of things we should do our honest best to avoid doing - and Page 25 offers both some ground rules and some tips which might help you take action here and now. In order to be usefully anti-sexist we have to listen to what women are saying and take political action to help their cause. But we must also be prepared to change ourselves, often in quite painful ways. This is a tough business. But it might also be a great adventure. To understand why, we need to go back to the beginning.
* * *
Photo: Camera Press
Imagine you're encountering someone else's baby for the first time. You look at the strange, scrunched-up little face, you push your finger into its grasping hand and your heart melts at the vulnerability of this tiny human being, But something is nagging at you and you feel uneasy until you know one key thing - whether this is a girl or a boy. Why should this be? I think it can only be because we need to slot the baby into a box marked 'male' or 'female' in our minds - and to respond accordingly. This may result in the most imperceptible changes in attitude and behaviour - particularly among those of us who consciously try to be anti-sexist. But I can't see any other reason for that small movement of relief in us when we find out a baby's sex.
The world at large, of course, is much more crass and unashamed in its preconceptions. And the result is that boys and girls are set out along different routes. Some argue that biology has something to do with it. This may well be true but it almost doesn't matter, since it is clear that society and culture, which are human creations, fully capable of change, have an overwhelming influence upon us. If this were not so then you would have to say that Iranian women, for example, were more genetically predisposed than Canadian women to wear veils and be submissively invisible, which is clearly absurd.
Masculinity and femininity are not written down in tablets of stone or of DNA. And that is a message of hope. Because although no parents can exclude all the sexist influences upon their children, they can certainly alter the mix. Indeed every one of us, parents or not, can do our bit to change that mix of influences by our own example. Minute and undiscernible it may be, but this is one area in which we all have an effect.
Boys learn how to behave by hint and example from parent and peer group, television and teacher. They learn to be more interested in activity and competition than in communicating and listening, than in being sensitive to the moods and rhythms of people and places. This is often quite a painful process for them. Very few boys are as rough, tough and unfeeling, for example, as the often violent culture of the playground expects them to be.
Take eight-year-old Michael, the son of a friend, who is torn between the macho boy his school friends expect him to be and the more sensitive creature required at home. We settled down to talk one night as an alternative to a bedtime story and the novelty of having his words recorded helped him respond very well to the challenge of an adult conversation.
I mean there's a bad side of me and a good side of me and sometimes the bad Michael comes out and sometimes the good Michael comes out. Because they're fighting... to come out.
What happens when the bad side comes out?
I just start to fight.
What makes you start to fight?
What my body says to me. It says you've got to do the things that you want to do. When someone does something bad to you you've got to do what you want to do to them. Like if they hurt your feelings you have to do something, not just walk off. You have to do something, tell somebody or just punch them.
Where do you feel more like the real you?
Do you think one day there'll only be one Michael?
Mmm. Maybe when I'm grown up.
Not all of us would express this so starkly - in the classic terms of the split personality. Nor did most of us, coming as we did from homes and parents with conventional assumptions about boys and girls, have to face up to this conflict quite so early as Michael. But it is a drama we have nevertheless all undergone. Learning to be a man is partly learning how to hide and cover the more sensitive side of ourselves. This, we are taught, we have to do in order to survive in a violent world. We have, as the Sergeant says every week in Hill Street Blues, to 'do it to them before they do it to us'. This helps is to 'get on', to fix our eyes on the far horizon in the interests of 'getting the job done'.
People around us can be damaged by this 'far horizon' approach. But we are damaged by it, too. A man, as Elvis Costello once sang, is 'shot with his own gun'. The same weapons in his personality which protect him in the big wide world also leave him lost in his own personality. Our preoccupation with doing and achieving things is a real hindrance when it comes to understanding our own inner selves or forming and maintaining close relationships. This is why we rely on women to unlock this area for us, and where the common saying arises that a man 'has his rough edges knocked off by a woman'.
Back in the 1970s some men concluded from this that they were just as much victims of their 'sex role' as were women. They conceived the idea of 'men's liberation', when there can't really be any such thing, What they forgot is that men have power over women and not the reverse. It is men who have constructed a world for their own benefit - and men who must be prepared to relinquish their power by supporting women's rights in the home, the workplace and society at large.
But at least these men were putting some serious thought into what had made them men. Most men are still light years away from understanding the issues, let alone from embodying the newly popular marketing image of 'the new man' which is referred to on the tongue-in-cheek cover of this magazine. We could all come up with depressing evidence that we have a long way to go. My own mind goes back to the bar at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport last April. I was joined by a white man keen to engage me in conversation. As most of us will, he chose what he thought would be uncontentious shared ground for his opening comment. He said: 'There are some tasty pieces of meat on this flight, aren't there?' What he meant, since you may well be in need of an interpreter, was that he found some of the women sexually attractive.
I should perhaps have answered that I was a vegetarian. I should certainly have done more than splutter apoplectically into my orange juice and then pointedly ignore him. But, like most men, I am often weak when it comes to telling other men that their sexism is unacceptable to this one, at least, of their brothers. I've had some successes along the way too. But somehow it's always easier to opt for a quiet life and keep your head down than to confront that sexist joke at work, that casual aside about a woman's appearance.
I'm sure you know the pressures I mean. Ever since adolescence, socializing with other men has meant being drawn into this kind of banter. Yet another part of learning to be 'a regular guy' in this society is learning the codes of conduct that are acceptable between men, knowing the right prejudiced levers to pull. We joke about straight sex to prove we're healthy redblooded males who lust after women. We joke about gay sex to prove we're not homosexual - and so scared are we of being thought so that when we're in a public toilet we stand in lines, eyes straight ahead in case that man in the next urinal might think we have an abiding interest in his lower anatomy.
I'd be surprised if there was a single man reading this who is genuinely free of complicity in this kind of sexism. We have to be brave and leap in there to pull up other men on their sexist witticisms and remarks, no matter how much social discomfort this causes us. Taking responsibility for our own sexism and that of other men is a bottom line - but it has positive spin-offs too. By accepting responsibility for other men we are holding out the hope of another kind of communication and relation with them, beyond the backslapping banter. At the moment our male friendships too often subsist on a ritualized level - we rarely expose in them our deeper feelings and anxieties, saving those instead for one or two selected women. But our male friends should be worth more to us than this.
There may be a long way to go but I think there are still grounds for hope. Men are already experiencing some of the beneficial effects of feminism, whether they realize it or not. They are finding themselves in more equal relationships with strong, independent women. Such relationships may require painful compromise at first but they ultimately provide a mutual understanding undreamed of in the past And men are also beginning to participate more actively in fatherhood, from their presence at birth through to a more intimate involvement with their children later on.
This renovated fatherhood could be very important. The special feeling of intimacy it offers with small, vulnerable people whose needs and emotions are very much on the surface is a unique experience which might well change men almost of itself. It might make them that bit readier to be gentle, that bit more responsive and sensitive to the other people around them. Certainly there are new frustrations involved. But the joys of a more active kind of parenthood which are beginning to ripple through men's lives are joys which few of their fathers and grandfathers ever knew. And that leads me back to where I began, seeing the changes I manage to effect in my masculinity as something I hold in trust from my father and grandfather for my own sons and daughters.
That is the hopeful message about masculinity. This issue presents a pretty grim picture of man's inhumanity to woman from Kenya to Cairo, from New South Wales to Nova Scotia. But it also shows men who are beginning to change. Believe me, there is no more important task before us than to respond to the challenge feminist women have set before us. And no more exciting one either.
1 UN estimate. Development Issue Paper 12, United Nations Development Programme.
2 Estimate based on US and Australian figures. See under 'violence' in the facts spread
From one set of muscles to another, men are slowly changing. Some still force themselves through the pain barrier towards 'manliness'. Others still rejoice in ancient male uniforms and rituals. And the models for small boys are no less violent. But commerce has sensed something in the wind - and the male body beautiful is being sold to people who don't realize these images were originally gay. The marketing of 'the new man' maybe superficial. And it may leave men, like women, chasing after an impossible ideal of themselves - now we're supposed to cradle babies to muscly frames, to be both tough and tender. But it can't be a bad thing for men to be pictured as sensitive creatures. And straining for an ideal of sensitivity is a sight more constructive than imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.