We need to talk about masculinity. Across a country torn by recession and struggling to adapt to social change, men and boys are feeling lost and powerless, unsure what the future holds and what role they might play in it. Most feel as if they’re not allowed to question what it means to be a man today — or discuss what it might mean tomorrow.
The Labour MP Diane Abbott, launching a new campaign this week, is not the first person to kick up a fuss about this ‘crisis of masculinity’. In a speech to the think tank Demos on Thursday she said that millions of young men are in distress, acting out violently or sinking into depression. Unfortunately, the only solution many in the audience could offer is not giving men and boys more power over their own lives, but restoring their traditional power over women, as ‘breadwinners’ and ‘male providers’.
Nobody seems to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want to be breadwinners, or whether female independence is really their biggest worry at a time when youth unemployment is more than 20%. Sadly, the debate is still focused on the evils of feminism, and on convincing men their real problem is that women are no longer forced to trade a lifetime of resentful sex for financial security. The chosen scapegoats, inevitably, are single mothers.
There is no creature more loathed and misunderstood in modern Britain than the single mother on benefits. She is blamed both for the financial crisis and for the attendant collapse in men’s self-esteem. The academic Geoff Dench was among those who attacked her, complaining that “the taxes of working men pay for [single mothers’] benefits”. The taxes of working women, presumably, are spent on shoes and lipstick.
As Abbott noted, domestic and gendered violence always increases during times of high unemployment and social breakdown, because men often find it easier to take their feelings of frustration and powerlessness out on women. Governments are only too happy for them to do so: the Conservative party has long relied on a mythical golden age of marriage and ‘family values’ as the solution to civil unrest.
In the real world, not all men want to be breadwinners, just like not all men want to be violent, or to have power over women. What men do want, however, is to feel needed, and wanted, and useful, and loved. They aren’t alone in this — it’s one of the most basic human instincts, and for too long we have been telling men and boys that the only way they can be useful is by bringing home money to a doting wife and kids, or possibly by dying in a war. It was an oppressive, constricting message 50 years ago, and it’s doubly oppressive now that society has moved on and even wars are being fought by robots who leave no widows behind.
The big secret about the golden age of male providers is that it never existed. First, women have always worked. Second, and just as importantly, there have always been men who were too poor, too queer, too sensitive, too disabled, too compassionate or simply too clever to submit to whatever model of masculinity society relied upon to keep its wars fought and its factories staffed. Traditional masculinity, like ‘traditional femininity, is a form of social control, and seeking to reassert that control is no answer to a generation of young men who are quietly drowning in a world that doesn’t seem to want them.