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We Need to Talk About the Men

16/05/2013 14:26 BST | Updated 15/07/2013 10:12 BST
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What does masculinity mean today? What does it mean to be a man? There are so many problems with this question. The real point of enquiry - given that gender is a construct! - should be this: who have we allowed to dictate to us what this void we call masculinity is?

The answer to this is very easy: idiots. Masculinity was, and is, perceived to be power. Even where a woman is powerful we ascribe to her active, masculine attributes. Similarly where a male is lacking in power, we attribute to him passive, feminine attributes.

David Kutcha, in his book The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity, noted the class structure of power, saying: "power is achieved through forsaking the feminine and postponing pleasure, in constant suppression of an Oedipal desire for fancier dress."

It was ever thus. The aristocratic male, wearing breeches that Anne Hollander in her book Seeing through Clothes described as "unpractical light colours of fawn or yellow or grey or white", would effectively show off by exposing the bulge of his testicles.

The notion of hegemony and power has for so long been aligned to revealing one's masculinity in a crass way. To take an example Martin Amis, reviewing Iron John by Robert Bly for the London Review of Books in 1991, pointed out that from 1792 (the year of the release of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women) until about 1970, there was the enlightened man whose calling in life was 'getting away with everything'.

We might be reminded, here, of laddish wideboys bragging about their weekend infidelities, or boardroom bullies bemoaning the 'little lady' at home.

As Amis understands it 'getting away with everything' was a political project in the becoming of man. Showing off was still that preferred form of showing masculine power, but doing whatever the hell he felt like was that form of power structure common to aristocratic man as lower class man.

Enlightened man may have given women concessions (we may think of voting) but this in turn highlighted further the power relation at play (or, to misquote Emma Goldman, if voting did anything to change hegemonic masculine discourse, they probably wouldn't have allowed for it).

Amis concluded by saying: "Post-1970, the enlightened man became the new man, who isn't interested in getting away with anything - who believes, indeed, that the female is not merely equal to the male but is his plain superior." The trouble is this is plainly untrue. If man today predicated his philosophy on this, would gender inequality exist in the way it does?

Perhaps I am wrong about this - but then this is the problem. Diane Abbott MP, speaking at Demos today, says men "no longer ask themselves what it means to be a man." And she is right. This vacuum has not only allowed for spurious analyses like that of Martin Amis, but has done little to counter its definition falling in to the wrong hands.

Abbott says porn has informed sexual relations and consumerism has drawn profit from promoting erroneous gender differences, which has in turn informed personality.

Identity is no longer bottom up, but instead created by PR bottom feeders.

The photographer David Gamble once carried out a project of photographs dealing with the problem of contemporary masculinity. When asked what prompted his project he answered: " after 20 years of feminist literature, there seemed a distinct lack of anything truly male". This is a problem for feminism, too.

While masculinity is ignored it becomes a gift, open to hostile voices, susceptible to the germs of sexism and homophobia. And it problematises the lives of those who don't fall for its appeal.

It was reported recently that suicides rose among both men and women "but the problem was most acute among men in their early 40s, where the rate rose to its highest level in almost two decades". On seeing this we are allowed to ask whether this is more than just a coincidence.

Will Self, whose project Perfidious Man was carried out alongside David Gamble, said the problem of masculinity is that it doesn't know what it wants: "A makeover or an undoing, a retread or a retrenchment?" This is ultimately true, and this is no good thing at all.

Yes, we know that it's all nonsense, it's a construct. But this helps nothing. Corporates are out there filling that void with high ideals which line the pockets of consumer capitalist leeches. Or worse, masculinity becomes a synonym for that highly intolerant character who fears gays and women.

Diane Abbott is absolutely right - we need to talk about the men. The expectations to be a certain type of person, if you're a man, are untenable and unattractive. A conversation on what masculinity actually is, is crucial.