A growing number of men want to hug their way through the next few awkward years of feminism. They call themselves Real Men, and a group of them met one Saturday in May at a community centre in Edgware to talk about what it means to be a brave man. Their method is to share their emotions and go through modern-day rites of passage built around love. While these Real Men talk about peace, behind their backs the police attack poor young lads, the prime minister orders the closure of refuges for abused women and men in suits compete to see who can con us out of the most money.
“I’ll spare you the talk about patriarchy because we don’t have seven hours”
I went to this Real Men conference hoping to find men who not only accept that gender is made up but who also want to reject the advantages that society happens to give them. I’d written about my optimism for the conference on my blog.
But when I got there I didn’t feel comfortable at all, despite the organisers’ best efforts to make me comfortable with their soft voices, their candles and their Himalayan prayer bowls. I felt the love in the room, but it didn’t feel real. I’ve been desperately trying to understand why I can’t feel the kind of love that was warming the other men.
I think it just felt like the product of a process. We were directed to mooch around the room, find a man and look deeply into his eyes and describe what we saw there. When a man does this to you and says “compassion” or “fear” or “strength”, all of which are no doubt true for him as much as you, you can’t help but feel a connection. But this connection exists simply because you’ve been instructed to feel it. Emotion-ogling is a better way to relate to another bloke than thumping him, but really both are a performance based on what other men in the immediate vicinity are doing.
Yes, I buy into the idea that humans should love each other. And I do believe that many men need to learn different ways of relating to each other than the punches we see on the big screen or the bundles on the rugby pitch. Love, or concern and kindness between people, is a universal need. That Saturday morning in May warmed me because I saw men recognising this among themselves—but their method does not really touch the problem of masculinity.
The problem is power. The problem is patriarchy. The problem is that no-one wants to talk about those things either. One man speaking at the conference heard himself say that word and then said, “Oh, I’ll spare you the talk about patriarchy because we haven’t got seven hours.” OK, but we did have six.
How can men seriously expect to break out of the box of masculinity without talking about money and power? How can we understand what makes us vulnerable if we don’t talk about the other side of vulnerability: power? These Real Men are concerned about young men who are trapped into poverty, but their solution is simply love. They seem to want to prop one of these wayward boys in front of the mirror and ask him to chant at his reflection how smart and beautiful and confident he is—until he believes it. “It’s about pulling people up out of the dirt and showing them their light,” said one of the Real Men.
Is it? Or should it really be about showing other people the mirror and asking them to question why wealth and money flow upwards in society, away from that young man? At the moment the focus in this movement is on the individual man. The idea is that he’ll reach enlightenment through declaring his love for himself and other people—good for him. These Real Men are not new; they are the mythopoets who have been around since the 1980s.
This is not feminism. It is not activism. This group tells itself it is apolitical. Instead, efforts should be focused on helping that individual man to spot the special rights he gets in society as a man, and how much power he has compared to others. So yes guys, we do need to talk about patriarchy, and we do need to talk about the different degrees of privilege within it.
“They know masculinity is an exhausting performance”
We need to talk about how weird it is to think so much about building the confidence in the wayward poor boy so he doesn’t grow up to be abusive towards his future partners. That lad needs attention for sure. But so do the casino bankers who competed with each other to bring the economy to its knees. Fortunately one of the Real Men mentioned this, but the point didn’t stick. The same guy also wanted a conversation about the way media companies make money out of commercialising bodies like Kim Kardashian’s. This point didn’t stick either—suddenly the gong was struck and we had to move on.
I wonder what’s happening here with these Real Men. Many of them have been through damaging experiences, with one admitting his violent past to me. All these men need love—just like everybody else. And their instincts are right: they know masculinity is an exhausting performance. But I think there’s a major dodge going on. The Real Men know that masculinity is exhausting, but they don’t believe that gender is a social creation. “I only realised I was a man two years ago,” said one 50-year-old. He meant that before that moment he had used force to make a point and had bottled up all his anger and his sadness; he hadn’t been one of the Real Men. Today he is, because he is comfortable talking about emotions…
The great aim of the conference that May Saturday was to get men to talk about being brave. This was a quip, of course—the Real Men say rightly that bravery is not about being an action hero but about opening up your sorrow. But for me they just weren’t brave enough. Lighting a candle and trying out an imported ethnic chant are not brave. We’d be better off shoving that lit candle into a petrol can and chucking it into parliament during prime minister’s questions when the privileged and powerful are jeering at each other. That is a joke; I am not inciting violence. But I do think we need to see the connections between the power that is concentrated in authority figures like politicians and the power we may wield as men over the family members and colleagues in our lives.
The Real Men want transcendence. They aim to rise above the shitty reality of everyday life because they can’t yet grapple with its complexity. They don’t listen to academics and thinkers with detailed studies on how society works and how it can be transformed. Instead they go off into the forest, chant a pseudo-prayer to themselves and hope for the best.