Reading between the lines
Wendy Earle wonders whether boys should get all the blame
- Gender in Early Childhood, Nicola Yelland (ed), Routledge, £13.99 pbk
- The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, Eleanor Maccoby, Harvard University Press, £24.95 hbk
- Masculinity and Morality, Larry May, Cornell University Press, £13.99 pbk
Near the end of The Two Sexes, Eleanor Maccoby tells a personal story of a young male student who came up to her after a lecture and asked, 'Just tell me one thing: what's good about being male?'. She writes: 'I was startled. I had not intended my message to be anti-male. I did not, and do not, feel anti-male; quite the contrary. But it is true that once the phenomena have been laid out as objectively as possible, the trends described can be interpreted as meaning that it is mainly men who have stood in the way of achieving equality between the sexes.' So the problem is men - or, more precisely, the masculinity that they develop from boyhood.
All of these books are concerned one way or another with the issue of equity between the sexes. Unfortunately, where the struggle for equal rights once meant that women demanded the same opportunities as men, the current discussion seems to have redefined equality to mean that men should make the same sacrifices as women. All the writers in these books take as their starting point the notion that the inferior status of women and their ongoing responsibility for childcare and domestic work are rooted in assertions of masculine power and claims of masculine privilege. Broader issues of social organisation, the market and the family are rarely addressed. The message is that if individual men could be taught to deal with their masculinity, perhaps redefining it to erase aggressive behaviour and attitudes, the world would be a better place.
An early exposition of the view of masculinity as a moral worldview was developed by Carol Gilligan in her influential book, In a Different Voice (1982). She argued that boys and girls are brought up with fundamentally different moral orientations. Boys develop a perspective that stresses, for example, individualism, rationality and objective concepts of justice and fairness. Girls are brought up to be more oriented towards concern for their friends, family and community, and a desire not to cause hurt. She argued that 'while an ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality - everyone should be treated the same - an ethic of care rests on the premise of non-violence - no-one should be hurt'. She proposed that greater recognition of the 'care ethic' would lead to a better society. Despite the widespread rejection of the argument that women are characteristically more caring, not least because it reinforces sexist stereotypes, the notion that men are characteristically too aggressive, greedy and power-hungry has become highly influential over the past decade.
Larry May's Masculinity and Morality is explicitly concerned with redefining masculinity. He argues that men have a responsibility to find alternative interpretations of what it means to be male. 'Men can see themselves as mere procreators or as nurturing fathers. Men can see rape, sexual coercion and harassment as badges of solidarity or as matters for collective shame.' (p150) This sounds fair enough - except how many men really feel solidarity in relation to rape, sexual coercion and harassment?
May sets up a lot of straw masculinities to be knocked down with his nice version of masculinity. His argument is that masculinity ought to be a group thing - a matter of taking collective responsibility for 'reconceiving ourselves as men'. Like Carol Gilligan he asserts that men and women have very different ways of looking at the world, and that men must take responsibility for creating a masculinity that is less oppressive towards women. He even goes so far as to suggest that men who refuse to challenge traditional masculine behaviour are the moral equivalent of sociopaths or psychopaths, because they wilfully refuse to recognise their own role in rape, sexual harassment and other supposed crimes of masculinity.
While Eleanor Maccoby rejects the claim that individual differences between men and women are significant, she plays up the differences in their social relationships. As Maccoby points out, extensive research to discover whether there are substantial differences between the personalities and moral orientations of men and women has turned up little of significance. Apart from the obvious biological distinctions, there are more differences among individual men and among individual women than there are between men and women in general. Maccoby suggests that the root of gender differences may lie in patterns of gender-differentiated social behaviour and attitudes that children begin to acquire from an early age. In other words, men and women do not necessarily or 'naturally' think in gender-influenced ways, but in their social interactions they are strongly influenced to act in gender-oriented ways by social pressures and expectations which they experience as they grow up.
Maccoby presents a well-balanced analysis of gender development, drawing on her own experience as one of the foremost academics in this field and on extensive research done over the past 30 years. In considering the role of parenting in gender development, she argues that the evidence suggests that their influence is weak. Instead she points to the powerful pull among children themselves towards gender segregation in early childhood, and the implication of this for the development of different patterns of behaviour which may be carried into adulthood. Children's peer relationships and their influence on each other appear to be a key factor in the process through which children learn about and practice different social roles.
I find this an interesting observation, but it worries Maccoby. She makes the mistake of elevating peer group relations as a causal factor in gender role development, and so concludes that intervening to alter boys' behaviour might be a good idea. Yet as she herself explains, boys and girls learn gender roles as a result of powerful social influences. Children may practise their roles among their friends, but trying to alter playground behaviour will not affect the powerful pull of social influences that surround children as they grow up. Despite Maccoby's correct starting point in stressing the social pressures children experience, in the end she argues, like May, for a moralistic appeal to change masculine behaviour. She suggests that intervention in childhood processes may be necessary to ensure that boys learn early on of the problematic nature of masculine behaviour.
This preoccupation with getting children early runs through the essays in Gender in Early Childhood, edited by Nicola Yelland. Written primarily from a self-consciously theoretical ('post-structuralist') perspective, by early years education theorists in Australia, the aim of the book, as stated in the introduction, is to challenge gender-based categories of behaviour. 'We want to keep blurring the edges so the categories gradually fade.'
The contributors to Gender in Early Childhood see gender categories as such - masculine or feminine - as problematic, since these set up binary pairs (male/ female, powerful/powerless, strong/weak) which force children into patterns of behaviour based on essentialist or naturalistic notions of what it means to be male or female. However, while the writers are careful not to represent girls as passive victims of male power, masculine behaviour ultimately comes through as particularly problematic. For Glenda MacNaughton it is the patriarchal gender order, for Susan Danby, hegemonic masculinity in the rituals of terror used by boys, and for Kathy Lowe, boys 'being focused on their strength and control of their physical selves' and harassing girls. In these authors' opinions masculinity sustains power relationships that need to be counteracted as early as possible.
Because children are influenced from such an early age by gender categories, these writers argue that challenging gender categories must be a central focus in early years education. 'The challenge for educators', says Kathy Lowe, 'is to deconstruct these seemingly natural responses with children and enable them to see that there are other positions they can take within discursive practice'.
However, just because gender is socially constructed from an early age, it does not mean it can be deconstructed among young children. Children's capacity for critical abstract thought is limited. However hard teachers may try to deconstruct abstract gender categories and get children to think about wider options, the fact remains that gender categories play an important role for children in sorting out their place in their world and negotiating their relationships with each other. There is a real danger that teachers who are preoccupied with 'deconstructing gender discourse' will be distracted from their primary task - which is to ensure children are intellectually, imaginatively and physically challenged by their school experiences. After all, a good education is the secret of a broad mind, whatever your sex.
Alan Sinfield is a leading lecturer in lesbian and gay studies and a longstanding academic critic for Gay Times, Britain's premier gay magazine. As a gay liberationist he has a problem, faced sooner or later by many rebels: what do you do when the establishment has accepted the key features of your rebellion and is busy incorporating them into its techniques of power? Sinfield's solution is denial.
- Gay and After, Alan Sinfield, Serpents Tail, £12.99 pbk
Gay and After is a title that refers to the burgeoning sense among non-heterosexual writers that the 'gay identity' and its associated subculture may have outlived its usefulness. At the core this wide-ranging book is a defence of the gay 'subculture' from the attacks of two post-gay liberation trends: assimilationist 'conservatives' who argue the main obstacle to gays gaining 'acceptance' is the offensive styles and behaviour of 'subculture-oriented' gays; and an assortment of radical queer and post-queer writers who attack the gay subculture from the other side for its complacency, banality and consumerist conformism.
Both these positions are simplifications of a gay subculture through which many people with different lifestyles and opinions pass, says Sinfield. But in defending the 'les/bi/gay subculture' against its non-heterosexual critics, Sinfield fails to engage seriously with the real social changes that have given force both to the assimilationist and the more radically queer critiques of gay 'culture'.
Sinfield believes that 'determined subcultural work' is important because, while gay is currently chic, society is still ideologically dominated by what he calls the 'straightgeist'. Behind the partial licence granted to homosexuality there remains, according to Sinfield, an underlying commitment to the 'procreative model' of proper sexuality. Against this straightgeist, les/bi/gay sexual 'dissidents', who symbolise a commitment to a pleasure model of sexuality, require the protection afforded by the subculture that has developed over previous decades. But this assertion is entirely unconvincing. Indeed Sinfield's illustrations only draw attention to the decline and fall of heterosexist domination.
Take the supposed stigmatisation of gay men that he repeatedly asserts has resulted from the AIDS epidemic. While AIDS has undoubtedly produced a terrible loss of life among gay men, a decade on from the days of the 'gay plague' it should be clear that the authorities have steadfastly stuck to a line (originally proposed to them by gay activists) of not stigmatising or targeting gay men as being 'to blame' for AIDS. On the contrary, everybody who is sexually active is officially deemed to risk transmitting or receiving the HIV infection, despite the fact that the large majority of AIDS victims are indeed gay men.
When he investigates the infiltration of gay images into mainstream drama and advertising Sinfield finds that these serve the straightgeist by eroticising lesbians and gay men as 'the Other'. Of course there is some truth in this, but Sinfield fails to ask why the mainstream feels the need to indulge a bit of homoeroticism in the 1990s. Significantly, he ignores prominent nineties examples of the exploitation of gay relationships in the mainstream in which they have been romanticised as models of commitment in contrast to the imagined chaos and emotional cowardice of heterosexual lives.
Curiously for a cultural critic, Sinfield's sensitivity to images and language never tempts him to investigate the meaning of his 'straightgeist'. Just what is the geist of straight in the 1990s? As the term itself suggests, the one thing that the straightgeist is not is the old regime of compulsory heterosexuality. The straightgeist is in fact all anxiety, uncertainty and self-doubt.
The traditional family, once the bulwark of the homophobic establishment, is now officially perceived to be the location of domestic violence, emotional and physical abuse and the poor parenting held to be the source of antisocial behaviour. The authorities are particularly hostile to masculinity, and this can only be to the advantage of lesbians and gay men who are stereotypically perceived either to have rejected or derisively parodied masculine traits. In the 'emotionally literate' New Britain the experience of 'coming to terms with your sexuality', which gay men in particular are presumed to have undergone, is assumed by most educated people to confer a peculiar moral advantage over old-fashioned straight men. When George Michael recently appeared on the crusty old Parkinson show with his tales of being arrested for cottaging, he was not only treated as a returning hero by the studio >> audience, but sales of his album increased by 70 per cent the following week.
These developments express significant changes in the ideological organisation of capitalist societies. Sinfield is not entirely unaware of this and he cites the American critic Donald Morton, who argues that gays are not out of step with capitalism in the West where the market rules and the only obligation is to consume; but he never seriously considers this argument. If he did he would be forced to confront the reality that there is no longer anything about homosexuality as such that is in any way 'dissident'.
'What exactly do women want?' is a question which has crossed most men's minds at some stage or another. Carmen Legg, our heroine, is, however, a little strange. After one presumptuous proposition too many she decides to go for the 'less is more' theory. An attractive thirtysomething insurance broker, she wants, according to the advert she places in the local paper, a 'clear-thinking male...who must be intelligent and impotent'. The men who respond are perhaps the best advert there is for impotence. They are 'dream dates' - refined millionaires, witty artists and handsome, charming bon viveurs.
- In Search of an Impotent Man, Gaby Hauptman, Virago, £9.99 pbk (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
While as many as one in 10 men will experience some degree of impotence at some time in their lives, few will expect their impotence to be an attraction for women. To be honest, Legg's interest in most of the impotent suitors wanes quickly, and when she does find one she wants to spend the rest of her life with, she goes to enormous lengths to cure him.
The fact that this book is reportedly a million-seller in Germany, and has hit the bestseller lists in countries as diverse as Korea, Israel and Sweden, speaks volumes for contemporary opinion. Far from seeing sex as an enjoyable and sometimes liberatory experience, all too often sex - particularly heterosexual, penetrative sex - is now denounced as another example of male domination, violence and abuse in the phallus-centred world in which we all supposedly live. No wonder it's so hard to get Viagra on the NHS.
'I was about 13 when I started letting the boys feel me up', reads the first line of A Certain Age. Page three - '[Holly] was the kind of person who warned everyone she was going to fart and gangs of blokes flocked round her, just to get a whiff'. Page four - 'things started off badly at high school...from the moment that I realised I needed a shit'.
After 400 more pages of spots, periods, sex-with-an-older-man, puke and drugs, the narrator removes her shirt to reveal the self-inflicted slashes on her arms. Her father cries. And that's that.
A Certain Age is raw, blunt and about nothing in particular, but still rather clever. By combining the stereotypical behaviour of a working class slapper with the insecurities of an uptight, Guardian-reading, vegetarian family, Rebbecca Ray taps straight into the fears of liberal parents everywhere.
If you thought it was just teenage angst that made the narrator see herself as not 'the kind of girl you had to like' but 'the kind of girl you fucked', you could maybe breathe easy. But then you find that her father is the one to blame: the loving, bullying dad who talks to her friends and wears Tony Hancock t-shirts. 'You're the one with the daughter slashing her own wrists!' shouts older boyfriend to dad at the end.
Unfortunately, this revelation wrecks a book that started unusually, with the stuff people try not to talk about. But self-mutilation? Blaming the dad? It's all a bit predictable.
For a lighter read you might try Wasted, as 23-year old Marya Hornbacher recalls the toilets she has blocked up with her self-induced vomit.
The book's selling point is its vivid content. 'No-one who reads her devastating testimony will follow her into that hell', reads the back cover of the review copy, above a promised promotion campaign targeting the fashion industry. Wrong.
Hornbacher admits that her own problems were shaped partly around a fantasy about anorexia. 'I could do that', she thought, admiringly, when hearing of a 16-year old anorectic who burned herself to death.
When the whole world loves a victim, it is precisely the destructive, disgusting and dangerous aspect of anorexia that gives it its appeal. Promoting Hornbacher to have a pop at the fashion industry (which she barely does in the book anyway) seems one way of ensuring that the bulimia will keep on flowing.
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999