The Masculinity Debate Is Not One-Sided: You Just Aren't Listening

24/05/2013 12:14 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 10:12 BST

Every once in a while, certain issues will rise to the surface of mainstream feminism and garner more media attention than they perhaps usually do. As of late, the focus seems to be on masculinity.

Journalist Laurie Penny wrote that 'the crisis facing men and boys cannot be solved by reviving the tired stereotypes that oppress and constrain them'. MP Diane Abbott revisited her warnings about a 'pornified culture' and encouraged young boys to take a less narrow view of masculinity. Even Vice, not exactly known for its serious journalism, published an article about how troubling it is that gay men are encouraged to 'act ashamed when they do something that's considered stereotypically feminine'. And then there was Jack O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan's article, 'the masculinity debate: no wonder men stay out of it', laments the ostensible absence of men from the discussions of masculinity, asking 'can there be any group that is subject to so much debate and accusation [...] yet remains so utterly speechless?' The answer to this 'bewildering male silence', in his view, is feminism. Feminists, with the help of 'the matriarchy', have apparently silenced men by meeting their concerns with ridicule. Women, it seems, are hindering societal progress by refusing to engage with men. Who'd have thought it?

The irony of this standpoint cannot be ignored. As the abundance of literature by male and female feminists on masculinity demonstrates, feminism has been wholeheartedly supportive of the deconstruction of gender roles and masculinity since the get-go. Men who choose to defy or object to traditional masculinity are and always have been thoroughly welcomed within the feminist movement; the hyper-masculine standard that patriarchy imposes on men is, after all, symptomatic of a society that associates femininity with weakness and lesser value. It is not the fault of feminism that Jack O'Sullivan has failed to notice decade's worth of masculinity criticism, and to treat it as such is downright insulting to the individuals who have been and are still standing against such ideas, both male and female. Even a cursory knowledge of what feminism truly stands for would have put him right on that.

Incidentally, O'Sullivan's claim that 'misandry can be just as nasty as misogyny and is as widespread (just check the internet)' is not one that should be left unchallenged. Although the internet does not exist in a vacuum, and many of the hostile and abhorrent views present in Youtube comments or Twitter are symptomatic of very real and damaging ideas in the world, the telling attribute of 'misandry' is that it exists more or less entirely online; something that very firmly separates it from misogyny. Although I cannot speak for all, I can assure O'Sullivan that while there may be small groups of largely discredited radical feminists lurking in the corners of the internet who have no time for men, the stereotype of a man-hating feminist is a straw man argument - and one that has traditionally been used to refuse proper discussions about feminism. The women who believe men are one monolithic mass of rapists and abusers are fewer and further-between than any other stereotype. Misandry, despite empty claims to the contrary, has yet to make its way into the physical world and have the same culturally ingrained presence that misogyny has.

Masculinity is a damaging construct - there is no doubt about that. Gay men are discriminated against for failing to adhere its strict constraints, trans* individuals are forced to both escape and follow its 'rules' in order to fulfill the narrow-minded concepts of gender, and it is used to both alienate and target black men in social and legal contexts. The association of masculinity with stoical silence is more than likely a contributor in the high number of men with untreated mental health problems, and the unwillingness to let masculinity mix with femininity results in social stigma surrounding men who choose to undertake traditionally female-dominated careers, such as childcare or nursing. These issues are neither against feminism nor separate to them; dismantling these archaic ideas about men and women is absolutely intrinsic to what feminism is. To accuse the movement of helping to enforce these ideals is unnecessarily divisive and fundamentally wrong.

O'Sullivan writes about wanting a space where men feel comfortable to speak, and I can sympathise - feminism exists, in part, to give women the voice that they were so sorely lacking in mainstream society. While it may be a domain primarily inhabited by women, this is no way denies men a say. Feminism in general welcomes the contribution of male allies; indeed, welcomes the contribution of anyone and everyone. While the input of allies is not necessarily prioritised and held above others, it is heard and welcomed; this is not an exclusive movement. The silence of men is not down to feminism - it is down to a patriarchal society, and one that feminism is attempting to fight. Recognising this is the first step towards change. If there is one thing that Jack O'Sullivan and I can perhaps agree on, it is that the problem of masculinity and the society that perpetuates it is not an issue for which we should pick sides, but rather one that we should confront together.