There’s no denying that men are oppressed by certain cultural norms. These tell them that they shouldn’t openly express their feelings, that there is only a very limited way to perform masculinity in an ‘acceptable’ way and that disagreeing with dominant tropes about what is and isn’t ‘manly’ can lead to very unpleasant consequences. I read No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz and agree with a great deal of what is said there, about men, ‘manliness’ and the problems unique to men in a patriarchy. I also find Tony Porter’s TEDWomen speech on the pernicious and damaging “man box” to be moving, and accurate, and highly pertinent.
However, as the section of the men’s rights movement which hates women gains ground in online spaces, the recent Observer article by Elizabeth Day on the subject not only seems disingenuous but also potentially dangerous. Indeed, it all but concedes the vast majority of the anti-feminist talking points pushed by men’s rights activists (MRAs). Before I begin, I should point out that Melissa at Shakesville has done a superb job of explaining many of the article’s problematic aspects, not least that “it ain’t women who are the primary gatekeepers of that bullshit [i.e. patriarchy]. It’s other men.”
Society teaches boys that to be masculine is to be self-contained, to be in control of one’s emotions
The headline and standfirst of the article are bad enough: if women and girls were merely “lagging at school” and “the butt of cruel jokes”, rather than victims of systemic violence and inequality, we’d count ourselves damn lucky. The piece then begins by setting out the usual tedious MRA talking points about the “supar sekrit!” oppression of men, using arguments promulgated by Professor David Benatar and men’s rights author Warren Farrell. This is followed by a paragraph giving half a dozen examples of the oppression men supposedly face. In my opinion, these mislead the readers by omitting various highly relevant pieces of information and context. To highlight a few:
“…men [are] more likely to be conscripted into military service…”
Yes, because patriarchy teaches that women are weak, fragile and non-aggressive, and therefore unsuited to military roles. Women were, for many years, actively banned from active service in the armed forces. It is only recently, and by no means universally, that we see women allowed to take up certain frontline roles.
“…[men are more likely to] to be the victims of violence…”
“…[men are more likely to] lose custody of their children in the event of a divorce…”
This is because our patriarchal society deems child-rearing to be “women’s work”. And the picture is far more complicated than the publicity seekers at Fathers4Justice would have you believe, too.
“…Boys lag a year behind girls at reading in every industrialised country.”
How is this the fault of women and/or feminists? I’d say the “man box” view of masculinity, combined with a culture which views reading as a “sissy” activity, has rather more to do with it than a conspiracy of women looking to give their daughters an educational boost.
“[Men] work longer hours, too…”
Was this statistic adjusted to take into account the fact that women, who are much more likely to be primary care-providers for children as well as for other relatives, tend to work part-time a lot more than men? Again, is this evidence of “sexism” against men – or of devaluing women in the workplace? By itself, it’s pretty much worthless.
“…men develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women, on average..”
I really do struggle to see how this can be laid at the feet of women, or of “sexism” against men.
“…young men are three times more likely to commit suicide.”
This is an issue I feel especially strongly about, and it disgusts me that MRAs often cynically use it to back up their points. The thought that young men in severe emotional distress may feel unable to talk to others about their problems or to seek help should be of concern to everyone. But again, this is a consequence of patriarchy before anything else. “Boys don’t cry”, “stiff upper lip” and the “strong and silent type”: society teaches boys that to be masculine is to be self-contained, to be in control of one’s emotions. Talking about feeeeeelings is ‘girly’, right, and we all know that – for a boy – being called a “girl” is a terrible insult, yes? All this sounds like old-fashioned sexism (rather than MRA Bizarro World anti-male sexism) to me. Besides, all the talk of young men and suicide rather tends to obscure the fact that young women actually attempt suicide more frequently than young men, but the methods they tend to use are less effective, on the whole, which helps explain the discrepancy in completion rates.
Including ads – not exactly media known for their progressive view of gender roles – is a startling misstep
Benatar says this state of affairs for men is “a neglected form of sexism.” But who is perpetrating this “sexism”? Who punishes men for transgressing the boundaries of the “man box”? In many cases, it is other men.
Another point Day raises is about men being “increasingly the butt of jokes”. In the wake of the Unilad/”banter” episode/fiasco, and a rape culture where jokes about sexual violence are common, I’m having trouble taking this particular form of male “oppression” too seriously. The examples Day gives – Jo Brand saying she’d like to kill all men, and an oven-cleaner ad with the tagline, “So easy, even a man can do it” – aren’t exactly the strongest. I mean, I don’t find Brand’s joke especially funny, but clearly this is not a case where it can be said that the converse would be just as bad. Women who kill men are vanishingly rare; men who kill women are not. I wouldn’t make the same joke as Brand, and I don’t think it’s really defensible, but it does not support an oppressive and existent societal structure in the same way that a joke about killing all women would.
As for the oven ad, it is obvious that the tagline pokes fun at men in order to prop up an oppressive paradigm which says that women ought to be in charge of domestic ‘stuff’. “Ha ha, look at those silly men, thinking they should do some housework, ha ha ha, don’t they know that’s for the women to take care of!” Including ads – not exactly media known for their progressive view of gender roles – is a startling misstep.
Benatar then says, jumping from jokes to violence, that: “There have been lab experiments with both men and women where it has been shown that we have fewer inhibitions inflicting violence against men than women.” He doesn’t explain, and Day doesn’t ask him, why that is – why we associate violence with men. Could it be, hmm, another example of patriarchal attitudes at work? Could it be the “chivalric” idea, a form of so-called “benevolent” sexism which once again pushes the stereotype of women as fragile, in need of protection, delicate flowers who need men to look after them? And who benefits from “benevolent” sexism? Not women – not in the long run, most certainly.
I myself know precisely zero people, women or men, who are pushing for matriarchy
Benatar gives the game away when he says that ignorance of the “second sexism” stems from what he terms “partisan feminists”, who are interested only in the advancement of women’s rights, rather than true equality and co-operation between the sexes. Ah, so it is the feminists’ fault, after all – those awful “partisan feminists” who wish to turn the West into a matriarchy. Good thing there’s so many of them, and they’re so powerful. I myself know precisely zero people, women or men, (although I assume that Benatar’s mythical “partisan feminists” are an all-female category) who are pushing for that. I have never met a female supremacist. Perhaps they exist; perhaps, out there on the internet’s wilder fringes, they get together to plot the downfall of Stinky Men. Perhaps the Flat Earth Society is going to overcome the oppressive teachings of the round-planet theory-pushers any day now, too.
I just find it really hard to believe that, in a society whose upper echelons (politics, media and business) are absolutely dominated by men, these “partisan” feminists wield enough power to influence military policy, healthcare priorities, the criminal justice system and whatever on earth it is that Benatar thinks causes people to be happier seeing men as victims of violence, or any of his other laundry list of “oppressions” faced by men. Yet Day lets his outrageous statement pass without comment. In a long piece with only short statements from dissenting voices (Julie Bindel and Natasha Walter each get allocated a small space to reply), this failure to challenge Benatar is of great concern.
In the end, Day’s article is fatally flawed because it does not put forward a remotely believable explanation for the difficulties faced by some men under patriarchy. The only people who mention the p-word in the article are Walter and Bindel. “Facts” about the “second sexism” are brought up with no explanation, no context and no discussion. Sadly, the article will doubtless be used by MRAs as “proof” that their thin arguments are actually valid, when all the problems facing men which the article lists are offshoots of patriarchy – unintended consequences of a system which causes disproportionate harm to women and girls. Talk about missing the point.
First picture shows a male coded circle/top right arrow symbol in black on a white background. By Amit6.
Second picture shows the HTML for “end patriarchy” written in red pen across a white sheet that is placed on a pavement and tilted diagonally upwards into the top righthand corner. By ctrouper.
Both pictures shared under a creative commons licence.
Jo T lives in London. She likes writing angry emails to newspapers when she really ought to be getting on with her essay