12/06/2013 06:06 BST | Updated 11/08/2013 06:12 BST

Looking Backwards Is Not the Way Forwards for Society and Masculinity


Both those on the left and those on the right of the political spectrum seem to agree that an emphasis on family is key to addressing numerous social problems, including the current 'crisis of masculinity'. But while the left see this as an opportunity to broadening the horizons of manhood, conservatives are grasping at outdated gender tropes.

In May, Dianne Abbott spoke of the 'crisis of masculinity' currently facing British men. This crisis takes the form of a confused sense of identity owing to low employment, low motivation, poor health, and a neglect of parental duties.

Both left-leaners and right-wingers alike promote reintegration of men into the family as the solution to the crisis. But whilst Abbott calls for more positive role models for men, spaces for men to talk openly about personal issues, and relaxing the association between masculinity and consumerism, the right are falling back on archaic beliefs, such as promoting the heterosexual nuclear family as the cornerstone of a stable and happy society.

Right-wing commentators like Belinda Brown and Kathryn Gyngell, hold the state and feminism guilty of removing men from their essential social role as father and breadwinner, thus depriving them of their identity and value. On Radio 4's Women's Hour, Gyngell went as far as condemning the current state of society, with its support of single mothers and working women, as "gender equality gone too far... that has perverse consequences for young men". The opinion seems to be that, by elbowing their way into the work place and demanding greater freedom and independence in the form of state support, working women and single mothers, along with the government that supports them, are undermining family, the male sex and society.

There is an unfounded idealisation of the traditional family unit implicit in such views. It is an idealisation that reveals a disregard for all those families in which husbands and fathers have inflicted physical and sexual violence on the mother and/or children with disastrous consequences that ripple through society. It is to overlook all those hardworking single parents who have successfully raised healthy, well-rounded children. And it is to patronise men by casting them as worker bees capable of deriving self-worth solely by bringing home the bacon.

For conservatives and traditionalists, the ideal social situation is one of 'interdependence' between women as mothers and men as providers. This banal-sounding phrase effectively translates as a call for the reintroduction of female oppression in the form of economic dependence on men. This is as harmful to men as it is disempowering for women. As Abbott noted: "The centrality of money in the lives of many men means that the loss of cultural certainty associated with unemployment can be more damaging for men than women" - damage observable in the increase in suicide amongst young men since the beginning of the recession.

No one would dispute the importance of family life, as a source of well-being, purpose and identity. But we should take issue with the idea that a particular family model is best, or that roles in that family, and consequently in society, are necessarily gendered. Women should be made to feel guilty for wanting to have a job, to earn money, to have the kind of freedom and independence that men have had for centuries. Nor should women have to shoulder the blame for the fact that men are finally having to compete as hard for their identity and position in the world as women have for decades. And we should not be content to accept arguments that imply that the role of parent or carer is either inaccessible to men or disagreeable to their psychological constitution. It's a sad state of affairs indeed when the only meaningful role a man is seen to have in a family and in society is determined by his income.

There is little doubt that society and its institutions need to adjust in response to progresses in the gender equality movement. Women and the liberal left began the push for change, and men and the conservative right have fallen behind in accepting and adjusting to this change. A renaissance of the male role in society is much needed, and we should credit men with having the imagination to look forwards rather than backwards, to create rather than conform, and to explore the new spheres open to them as a consequence of gender equality advances. While it will not be a simple and straightforward process, it will be a worthwhile one.