New Age Patriarchs
issue 227 - January 1992
New Age Patriarchs
Feminism helped mould the 'new man'. But the latest brand of new
man has little truck with feminism. Erica Simmons investigates.
Behold the newest of the new men. You might have seen him on television, adorned with a mask of body paint, dancing around a campfire, entering a sweatlodge, shouting out his grief and anger from some pleasant location in the North American countryside.
Under the tutelage of Minnesota poet Robert Bly and guided by his bestselling book Iron John, thousands of American men are gathering to forge a new masculine identity.
The tools for this reappraisal include poetry, mythology, fairy tales, mask-making, drumming and sweatlodges - the traditional native Indian version of the sauna. Believers call the movement 'mythopoetic'; the historically minded observe that it borrows heavily from Jungian psychology.
Bly has diagnosed the psychic wounds of contemporary American men. They are afflicted with inexpressible feelings of grief and are emotionally repressed and socially isolated from one another. They are nice guys who are adept at meeting the needs of women and submerging their own. They have abandoned the old macho version of manhood, but lack a suitable new model of masculinity. They are what Bly calls 'soft men'.
But women and the women's movement are not to blame, Bly stresses. In fact feminism and the change it has wrought in gender relations are peripheral. The problem with most men, he argues, is that they lacked genuine fathering. Women have been left with the job of raising their sons and these boys have been tamed in their mother's image. 'Eventually a man needs to throw off all the indoctrination and discover for himself what the father is and what masculinity is.'
To assist with this process of self-discovery, Bly and his colleagues run workshops and retreats - sometimes a week long - in different sites around the country. Doug von Koss, Prop Master at the San Francisco Opera, works at some of these events. He asks men to identify scars on their bodies and to explain how each scar was received. 'Each scar represents a place where the body has been invaded,' says von Koss. 'It is a story, a doorway. I ask: "What did this to you? Was it a knife, a gun, a piece of glass? Who did it? Your father, your friend, another man?"' In a gesture of respect, red ribbons are tied around the scars. Correspondingly, there's a section in Iron John titled 'The Wound as Male Womb'.
But at the centre of Bly's mythology is the story of Iron John, which comes from the Brothers Grimm. It is about a boy prince whose ball rolls into the cage where a hairy, primitive-looking 'Wild Man' is confined. In order to retrieve the ball the boy agrees to set the Wild Man free by fetching the key from its hiding place under the Queen's pillow. The boy then flees to the forest with the Wild Man, whose name is Iron John. After learning self-discipline through a series of initiatory challenges the boy becomes a confident and successful adult.
Bly wrings endless significance out of this story. The Wild Man represents the suppressed and most valuable side of the male character. Those who come to Bly want to free their own Wild Man. They must do this despite the resistance of women and the apathy or the hostility of other men.
What exactly is Bly's vision of the ideal, well adjusted man? Even those who admire his work are uncertain. When pushed they say things like: 'I'm still learning about this' or 'I'm still working on it'. But searching through Iron John's tangle of mythological references and bizarre historical analysis one can draw up some kind of short-list of recommended characteristics. The man who is 'in touch' with his Wild Man or 'inner tradition' will exhibit childlike spontaneity. He will show responsiveness toward the natural world, will demonstrate 'the positive side of male sexuality' and will 'fight cleanly with women - that is, without physical violence. He will be disciplined in the pursuit of his desires; will experience a full range of spiritual and emotional states; will 'honour grief' and show 'respect for riskiness'. Finally, he will have his inner 'male and female principles' operating in 'partnership'.
Such a man, Bly suggests, will have less trouble coping with women - any woman would be pleased and even grateful to deal with a man so profoundly 'in touch' with himself. After all, this is a man whose 'instincts have not been so suppressed as to produce the rage that humiliates women'.
The emphasis of men's events is on creating a 'safe' environment where men are less fearful of self-revelation. 'Men are a dangerous people,' says Jim Richardson, a Vancouver activist with the Island Men Network. 'It's very scary to go to a men's group. But we're not going to get a real sense of masculinity by talking to women. Men need support from each other.'
Not everybody in the men's movement agrees. Ken Fisher, of the Ottawa-Hull Men's Forum Against Sexism complains that the mythopoetic approach offers 'a structure for pulling out of traditional masculinity into never-never land'. Bly's strength, says Fisher, lies in bolstering low male self-esteem in a time when 'there's no good news for men; no sense of power and élan'. But Fisher is suspicious of the New Age cast of the mythopoetic thought and argues that 'Bly guys are unconscious. They are looking for the short cut to nirvana. They want to go from confusion to a graceful existence beyond doubt.'
Fisher represents the anti-sexist branch of the men's movement which regards the status of women as inextricable from the question of masculinity - and he knows the dangers of avoiding this issue. He recalls what happened to one early men's group that he started. 'Within a year, five of us dumped our nagging feminist wives for pliable younger women on whom we could use our new sensitive skills.'
Like many profeminist critics Fisher says the men's movements should not focus on 'what aspects of masculinity to celebrate and perpetuate, but to what degree are we committed to dismantling and consciously pulling out of patriarchy'. He worries that Bly's movement is providing nothing more than 'our own little world' that 'gets us off the hook of nasty feminist demands' while offering 'no vision of how to bridge this great chasm of mistrust and despair' between the sexes.
Because the movement is still in its infancy and apolitical on principle, it may be slightly unfair to attack it on political grounds. Unlike the feminists who early on decided that 'the personal is political' these men are inward-looking. The agenda of the movement is a transformation of consciousness, not political change. But feminism has already laid the groundwork for examining gender issues in terms of power politics and so it seems reasonable to ask the men's movement to reply in kind.
Yet the mythopoetic movement appears almost culpably dismissive of political, especially feminist, thought - a complaint readily voiced from within the men's movement too. Meanwhile Bly is able to attract those men who may never have belonged to a support group, seen a therapist or thought much about feminist theory. The growing popularity of the movement suggests there is a need for something. The question for women is: how are these men going to behave when the weekend workshop is over?
Erica Simmons is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
At the age of 15 I joined the Royal Navy and became a submariner. I left to go into the probation service and started working with sex offenders. In 1984, I went to the US to profile serial killers and look at treatment for sex offenders. I became very unsure that I wanted to be a man any more. But I also became very sure that nobody else seemed to know what to do about sex offenders.
At this time women's groups were having important discussions on the interpretation of survival behaviour. Whatever the woman did during a rape attack the man interpreted that behaviour as validating and confirming his distorted thinking - not as a survival strategy. There were loads of examples of this, but men and the legal system did not take into consideration the power to get co-operation that an attacker has during a life-threatening situation.
I went to talk to rape survivor groups - with some unease. Why should they listen to a man talking about rape? But they were very supportive. I talked about my knowledge of sex offenders. About the deliberateness of offending. How it didn't just happen. How sex offenders groomed, how they targeted, how they selected their victims. And how the woman became depersonalized, a symbol.
In 1988 - with other like-minded people - helped set up the Gracewell Clinic for the treatment of sex offenders. It's the first of its kind - and its ethos derives from feminism. It was women who brought the rape issue to the forefront. Feminism talked about how men actually abuse women, about how difficult it is to be a woman in society and not be abused; and about all the different levels of harassment. It was women who pushed child abuse and incest survival into the limelight too.
I think our treatment fails if it does not take on board what women are saying; if we do not challenge that deep desire in society to let men off the hook.
Apart from rape crisis groups I also exchanged information with anti-pornography campaigners. I do not think It is helpful to argue that pornography causes abuse, but in my work with offenders I kept seeing how pornography was used to validate and confirm their thinking.
It's been a strange journey for me - from a submariner to here. But I'm addicted to change. I think I have moved therefore I think the offenders can move and change too. They are not stuck. And with the help of male colleagues I have been able to get over those negative feelings about being a man. The discussions, the emotions, the arm around each other, the working friendship: these did it.
But being with other groups of men I have to fight not to get sucked back into being a submariner. If you listen to men talking together they are incredibly abusive. This work makes you realize that abuse is everywhere. In the pub, the office...
Men who rape use anything to justify themselves, to blame the victim, to minimize, to normalize. And of course men will use the rise in feminism to justify what they do. But I'll fight it to every part of my being.
In the three years that Gracewell has been going no offender who has been treated here has been reconvicted. But we are just a rock pool; there is a bloody great ocean out there. And society prefers to build hospitals at the bottom of cliffs rather than fences at the top.
Ray Wyre is author of Women, Men and Rape (Perry Publications, 1986).