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The government-led campaign against all things masculine is becoming an obsession, says Frank Furedi

In praise of masculine men - and women

It's official: British men are hopelessly stupid, devoid of emotion, lacking in basic social skills and stubbornly resistant to the helpful lifestyle advice offered by the New Labour government. This was the line advocated by Tessa Jowell, public health minister, when she launched yet another propaganda booklet designed to 'help men to help themselves'. According to Jowell, women are not the problem, since they are 'far more aware of health and lifestyle issues', but men have a lot to learn. Her banal booklet, 'Life begins at 40', probably refers to what she thinks is the IQ level of her target audience. Her top tip is 'give up smoking or at least cut down', followed by the exhortation 'enjoy a drink, be sensible'.

Jowell's patronising assumptions about male inferiority are widely shared within the political and cultural establishment. For some time now the media has been scaring us with alarmist accounts of 'male underachievement', 'the crisis of masculinity' and the 'lost generation' of young boys. In recent months it has been claimed that young men are far less competent than young women at adapting to the new labour market. 'It's a woman's world' was the confident message on the front page of a recent Newsweek. According to this mantra, women are more adaptable and more flexible than their oafish male counterparts.

In all of these accounts there is an uncritical acceptance of the idea that female is good and that male is bad. Educational experts dwell on the problem of boys' negative attitudes in schools. It appears that while the boys are off playing football, the girls are busy talking to each other and learning sophisticated communication skills. Health professionals continually remind the public that men are incapable of expressing emotion and find it difficult to talk about anything other than sport, beer and page three girls. Men are also suicidal and self-destructive, psychologically out of control. One such 'men in crisis'-type report published recently in the British Medical Journal claimed that, in Scotland, depression was on the increase among men; while the female admission rate to hospitals was falling, male admission had risen. Nobody needed to spell out the inescapable conclusion - that yes, men are a sad lot.

It is not only officials in health and education who tend to pathologise male behaviour. Newspaper reports involving young men frequently exude an air of panic, linking the social problem of male failure with sensationalised accounts of crime and family violence. According to one study of the treatment of men as fathers in British newspapers in the month of July 1994, the largest single category of stories reported concerned 'men as monsters', who had bullied or abused or murdered their children (cited in The End of Masculinity, J MacInnes, p15).

The stigmatisation of masculinity is strongly endorsed by the New Labour government. The home secretary, Jack Straw, is now reported to have set up a special ministerial committee to deal with the problem of delinquent young men. It is likely that this committee will come up with the usual politically correct proposals, such as helping boys to develop a 'more positive self-image'. Although the committee is ostensibly about dealing with the danger of youth delinquency, it is evident that the government's agenda is inspired by a wider brief. According to reports, the 16-24 year age group is continually referred to in Whitehall circles as 'the Loaded generation', after the self-consciously un-PC men's magazine.

The scorn which New Labour expresses for Loaded has little to do with its concern for poor young men. This stylish glossy magazine is not exactly required reading on the run-down inner-city estates of Britain. The real target of this campaign is not men trapped in poverty, but men influenced by what the government imagines constitutes masculinity. The term 'Loaded generation' expresses New Labour's contempt for such supposedly masculine values as risk-taking, assertiveness, self-confidence and competitiveness.

The new British establishment's crusade against the 'Loaded generation' indicates that the object of its scorn is not simply men, but a set of values and norms of behaviour that it characterises as masculine.

Today's anti-masculine culture condemns forms of behaviour that in the past were considered elementary human virtues. Critics of masculinity have a strong distaste for the habit of self-reliance and self-control. They believe that the aspiration for heroism is ludicrous. And they are intensely suspicious of the virtues of independence, willpower, risk-taking and rationality. One interesting study of this subject sums up the change in mood:

'What were once claimed to be manly virtues (heroism, independence, courage, strength, rationality, will, backbone, virility) have become masculine vices (abuse, destructive aggression, coldness, emotional inarticulacy, detachment). Advocates of the anti-masculine culture are particularly disdainful of the alleged inability of men to "ask for help" and "display emotion".' (The End of Masculinity, J MacInnes, p45)

Clearly this unhealthy 'male desire for control' goes against today's social norms, which dictate that we are all increasingly dependent on therapeutic intervention to get through life.

The key point that has often been overlooked in this debate is that the attacks on masculinity actually mask a rejection of such fundamental human principles as the sense of self-worth and the aspiration for self-determination. That is why ultimately this debate is not really about men. Women who display such 'masculine' characteristics as self-control, * rationality, courage and leadership have also come under intense suspicion.

Every time a so-called 'superwoman', such as money manager and multiple mother Nicola Horlick, runs into trouble, there is a collective snigger about their unrealistically high expectations. The flipside of this is that when powerful women give up high-pressure jobs in favour of their personal or family lives, they can count on being widely praised for lowering their horizons (see the reaction to the recent resignations of Frank magazine editor Tina Gaudoin and Conservative frontbencher Angela Browning).

Writing recently on contemporary British heroines, Angela Neustatter worried about the impossible example such women set to others. She cited approvingly a psychologist who claimed that 'if people are encouraged to think they must be brave' then they 'may deny what they really feel' ('To boldly go on', Guardian, 13 April 1998). From this standpoint, bravery and exemplary behaviour are actually obstacles to people getting in touch with their 'real' emotions.

Men who act like women are clearly preferred to women who act like men. According to the politically correct hierarchy of virtuous behaviour, feminine women come out on top. Feminine men beat masculine women for second place. And of course masculine, 'macho' men come last.

Many trendy health professionals adopt this approach when considering health risks. According to one study 'masculinity' is a 'significant predictor of poor health practices'. In contrast, 'feminine characteristics' are associated with 'health-promoting behaviour'. The emphasis here is not on gender but on behaviour. The study argues that 'highly feminine men' exhibit the greatest concern about their health and that, irrespective of sex, those with a feminine orientation are more likely to 'maintain good health habits'. Why? Because traditional masculine types are allegedly individualistic, dominant, competitive and willing to take risks, and such values are inconsistent with the health obsessions favoured by today's professionals (see 'Appraisal of health risks: the roles of masculinity, femininity and sex' in Sociology of Health and Illness, vol 17 no 2, MS Kaplan and G Marks, 1995, p207). Another way of saying the same thing is that individuals who stand up for themselves and who are prepared to take responsibility for their lives are unlikely to rush down to their GPs every time there is a new health panic. That is why the very experience of masculinity is now seen to constitute a health risk.

Critics of masculinity are so confident of their crusade that they very seldom pause to reflect on the logic of their argument. A belief in their moral superiority absolves them from the tiresome task of backing up their convictions with evidence. Articles in otherwise liberal newspapers casually accept the myth of boy/male inferiority at school. Experts see no need to elaborate on their thesis that emotional literacy is the preserve of women and that men are rarely in touch with their feelings. Feminist writers (of both sexes) simply assume as a matter of fact that women's way of knowing is superior to men's. Under the guise of social research, there has been a reversal in the prejudice that used to inform gender relations. The traditional prejudice of male superiority has been replaced by the cult of femininity.

In some ways the present discourse on masculinity involves striking echoes of the nineteenth-century discourse on race. The racial view of the world associated different races with diametrically opposed characteristics. White people were rational, black people were emotional. The Western races were scientific, the Eastern ones were spiritual. Today, enlightened opinion understands that racial traits and characteristics were not only stereotypical, they were also fantastic products of the imagination. Yet many people who are dismissive of racial myths are quite happy to embrace the myth of masculinity. A similarly sharp counterposition of male and female traits and emotions informs the current intellectual climate.

Of course men and women often do react differently to situations. This divergence is above all the result of the differential experiences of men and women within the division of labour that prevails in society at any time. For example, the experience of working at home influences human personality in ways that are radically different to life on a building site or at sea. But differential experiences do not lead men and women to develop genuinely contrasting emotions. It is not so much that women are emotional and men are not, but rather that their feelings are expressed through different social conventions.

All of the serious research has continually questioned the assumption that there are qualitative differences between men and women. On the contrary, researchers have emphasised that there are greater differences within one sex than between them. For instance, although most commentators uncritically accept the contention that boys find it more difficult than girls to confide in friends, research suggests that such differences across the gender line are very small.

As we all know from our everyday lives, there are plenty of cold competitive women and lots of warm supportive men. And we also know that the same individual can at different times act very differently: warm and affectionate on Sunday, cold and competitive on Monday. Individuals can also adopt different emotional strategies in different situations. There is no inconsistency between one person playing the roles of callous manager, passionate lover or anxious father.

The myth of masculinity really has little to do with the experience of boyhood or the behaviour of men. Like the racial imagination of old it is based upon a presumption of female virtue and male vice. Those who uphold this prejudice imagine masculinity as inspired by a brutish and destructive impulse to dominate. Masculinity is now presented as the cause of a wide spectrum of violent behaviour, from child abuse to war. The anti-masculinity literature is infused with the same moral repugnance that Victorian missionaries felt towards the savage.

These days, ostensibly academic accounts of the experience of boyhood can barely conceal a profound distaste for their subject matter. You can almost hear the tone of disapproval with which one recent account of schoolboys growing up describes the young savages. It reports that 'compared with girls, boys speak hard, act hard and, to our detriment and theirs, perhaps in so doing they actually do become hard'. It concludes that these 'processes constitute a divisive and brutal form of learning to be a male' (' "Shorties, low-lifers, hardnuts and kings": boys, emotions and embodiment in school', S Prendergast and S Forrest, Emotions in Public Life, 1998, p202). For the critics of the young brutes there can be no greater sin than being 'hard'.

There is an unquestioned assumption that growing up to be hard is necessarily destructive and will inexorably lead to behavioural problems. Anti-masculine writers are obsessed by the troublesome and conflictual dynamics of the childhood experience, since they imagine that these are the source of the key problems facing society.

The campaign against masculinity has become an obsession - a fact illustrated by the tendency for otherwise serious politicians and public figures to associate all kinds of problems with the so-called crisis of masculinity. The lines that divide different types of behaviour have become blurred; what would once have been characterised as simple self-assertiveness now tends to be lumped in with everything from bullying to serious violence, as characteristics of the same problematic masculinity. From the perspective of the masculinity-haters, all these forms of behaviour reflect a hard macho style of learning to become a man. Tragically, the creative side of growing up hard has been entirely overlooked in all of this. In the real world, hardness is not so much a male artefact as a practical way of negotiating the many challenges thrown up by life. It teaches children to learn how to be assertive. Moreover, it can help them to gain physical and emotional confidence.

The myth of masculinity assumes that the key to the emergence of an enlightened society is for children to learn to come to terms with their emotions. That is why boys growing up hard are seen as such a big problem. It is suggested that these callous young monsters continually cover up their emotions with a false bravado and physical violence. The conclusion of this therapeutic worldview is that boys as well as girls need to be taught to cry more, to focus on their feelings and to get in touch with their inner selves.

The fact is, however, that learning to control your feelings, act rationally and face the challenges thrown up by the outside world are all a key part of growing up. Getting children to become more 'emotionally literate' will not make them any better at dealing with the unexpected problems they will inevitably face in life. More likely it will encourage an empty introspection, a generation of navel-gazers. Worse still, it is likely to hold back children from being bold, from actively experimenting and developing a sense of adventure. Girls as much as boys will pay the price for this new attempt at social engineering.

And make no mistake, the anti-masculine project is above all an exercise in social engineering. Its emphasis on emotion legitimises the growing tendency of the state to colonise the private sphere. Once the emotion of the self becomes the business of educators, caring professionals and public officials, the line between private and public concerns will become blurred. That is why masculinity, stereotyped as a refusal to acknowledge emotion, is so despised by the New British establishment and its therapy state.

If you want a glimpse of the anti-masculine future, look at what happened at an all-women basketball match in upstate New York earlier this year. A player, Nykesha Sales, was one basket short of becoming the leading scorer in the history of women's basketball. But she had ruptured her Achilles tendon and could not play in the game. So at the start of the match the opposition stood aside and let her score an uncontested basket, to break the record. Michael Tranghese, the official who organised the fix, thought this charade was a great advert for feminisation. He explained that 'males are made up differently to women' since 'men compete, get along and move on with few emotions'. He added that 'women break down, get emotional, get so much more out of the game' than men. That is what we are supposed to cheer today.

The contemporary discussion on masculinity does not so much reflect a new phase in any 'gender war' as a wider loss of nerve across society as a whole. We prefer sad men and women who openly indulge their weaknesses to those who want to get on with life, take risks and if necessary ignore the pain. And instead of acknowledging our anxieties and trying to overcome them, we wallow in them and insist that we are actually more 'aware' and more in touch with our feelings. Such flattery, such self-deception. Bring on the masculine men and the masculine women who are prepared to fight hard, love hard and take a few risks.

Frank Furedi is the author of The Culture of Fear, published by Cassell. He will be speaking at the LM debate 'Sad men and worthy women' at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Thursday 20 August

Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998

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