The troubled man

It is not uncommon these days to hear about a crisis of masculinity. If you think, this only comes from reactionary misogynists committed to the defence of patriarchy then think again. There are plenty of voices from across the political spectrum who are deeply concerned with the state of modern man.

The idea that men are somehow doing badly is a paradoxical one, as The Economist rightly, pointed out in an editorial on the subject:

At first glance the patriarchy appears to be thriving. More than 90% of presidents and prime ministers are male, as are nearly all big corporate bosses. Men dominate finance, technology, films, sports, music and even stand-up comedy. In much of the world they still enjoy social and legal privileges simply because they have a Y chromosome. So it might seem odd to worry about the plight of men.

Yet there is plenty of cause for concern. Men cluster at the bottom as well as the top. They are far more likely than women to be jailed, estranged from their children, or to kill themselves. They earn fewer university degrees than women. Boys in the developed world are 50% more likely to flunk basic maths, reading and science entirely.

The greatest concern is reserved for the men at the bottom of the pile, especially in developed economies. Claire Cain Miller in a recent article in the New York Times opens with the following:

Boys are falling behind. They graduate from high school and attend college at lower rates than girls and are more likely to get in trouble, which can hurt them when they enter the job market. This gender gap exists across the United States, but it is far bigger for poor people and for black people. As society becomes more unequal, it seems, it hurts boys more.

The same is true in the UK where white working class boys are the lowest-attaining of all educational groups and are falling further behind.

There is a significant danger that we approach the issue as if it was a zero-sum game. Men can only prosper at the expense of women and vice versa. Let’s hope we can be more creative and generous than that.

What can be done?

The Economist sees part of the solution in a change in cultural attitudes.

Over the past generation, middle-class men have learned that they need to help with child care, and have changed their behaviour. Working-class men need to catch up. Women have learned that they can be surgeons and physicists without losing their femininity. Men need to understand that traditional manual jobs are not coming back, and that they can be nurses or hairdressers without losing their masculinity.

This may be true but it is clearly insufficient. In times past masculinity & femininity were defined by tasks performed, yet as women began to throw off the needless shackles this imposed upon them it also undermined the idea of ‘man.’ Decades later society still has no good answer to the question, ‘what is a man?’ other than to tell them different jobs are OK.

So what is the question that needs an answer? Roger Olsen puts it this way:

But if there are “inferior definitions of masculinity,” as there surely are, what are some true definitions of masculinity that affirm males as males with distinctively valuable and good characteristics like those we all rightly acknowledge as especially belonging to women?

I suggested yesterday that one area for this is related to strength and how it should be used to help & not hurt but it must be more than that.  If we are to create a world where both men and women flourish, then understanding maleness and femaleness as two distinct parts of humanity will be crucial: To quote Olsen again,

It’s a perspective that believes males do have something distinctive and positive to offer the world and the church beyond mere reproduction that is not tied into patriarchy or oppressive to women and that is not merely cultural—just like women have something distinctive and positive to offer the world and the church beyond reproduction and traditional roles. What exactly that “something” is in the case of men is almost never discussed and, when it is, especially egalitarians tend to turn away in fear.

For earlier but similar thoughts you may want to read this piece on The State of Men.

Photo by Ranoush.

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