The war on men

Prime Minister Gillard addressing a press conference this week.

Prime Minister Gillard addressing a press conference this week. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

We may be headed into the season of peace and joy, but when it comes to gender relations, the rhetoric – at least on the right – is of combat and conflict. Last week, opposition leader Tony Abbot accused Julia Gillard of attempting to “invoke a gender war” with her recent speeches about the pervasiveness of misogyny.  Not to be outdone, America’s Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch) on Sunday lets the Australian PM partly off the hook by suggesting that what they call The War on Men dates back more than 40 years. “Women aren’t women anymore,” conservative activist Suzanne Venker laments in the piece, claiming that feminist harridans have driven a generation of browbeaten and bewildered lads into an embittered and extended adolescence.

The traditionalist pushback against women’s rights has been happening across the globe for decades.  What’s new isn’t just the overheated vocabulary of armed conflict. The latest weapon (as it were) in the anti-feminist arsenal is the suggestion that empowerment works against women’s best interests by alienating the constituency most essential to female happiness: men. Equality hasn’t alienated men so much as it’s “pissed them off,” claims Venker, and men have responded by refusing to commit to marriage or children, choosing instead a life of easy sex (conveniently provided by contraception-wielding feminists) and “no responsibilities whatsoever.” 

It would be funny -- if only so many people didn’t believe it.

It’s true that marriage rates have fallen across the Western world.   Rather than see that decline as evidence that more people than ever have found equally (or surpassingly) satisfying alternatives to wedlock, social conservatives see the decline in weddings as a disaster. Recognising that jeremiads about premarital sex carry less weight than ever, these anti-feminists have slickly repackaged misogyny as concern for women’s happiness.  You thought an education and a career would make you blissful, dearie, but all you’ve done is make yourself so intimidating that no man will want you. 

What Venker -- and, more obliquely, Tony Abbot – are peddling is the tired lie that male responsibility is contingent upon female vulnerability.  In other words, if you ladies want we men to “step up,” to make commitments, to evince ambition, you lot need to drop this unseemly display of post-modern autonomy and make like damsels in distress.  Men, we’re told, interpret women’s self-sufficiency as proof of their own superfluity.  If we don’t have a dragon to slay (or at least a larger pay packet than yours to bring home), we’re left discombobulated and sulky.  So the traditionalists would have you believe.

Most defenders of antiquated gender roles appeal to immutable natural laws, claiming that men are hardwired to be either protective or predatory, and that it’s up to women to determine which of those two instincts will win out.  This sells men massively short.  It assumes that men’s decency is simply a mating strategy, offered in return for women’s willingness to be servile and dependent.  Men — and I speak as a member of that species — do not require feigned (or genuine) helplessness in order to treat women as people deserving of respect, nor do we need women to hide their professional, intellectual, and sexual ambitions in order to feel a sense of purpose in our lives. 

When we empower women economically and educationally, we liberate them to make romantic decisions based on desire rather than necessity.   The progress of the last 40 years, as incomplete as it remains, has allowed women to see marriage as a source of happiness rather than mere survival.  Much of the male rhetoric of the so-called ”gender wars” is rooted in rage-filled indignation at women’s newfound capacity for sexual selectiveness.  Dimly aware of an “earlier time” when “women knew their place” (the bygone days of the vulnerability-for-responsibility exchange), these men (and their female surrogates, like Suzanne Venker) direct their anger not only at the women who reject them but at the feminism that empowered women to be more “choosy” about those with whom they mated. Women today can afford to say, as many of my students do, “If I meet the right person, then I might consider getting married – and if I don’t, then I’ll still be fine.”   Contrary to what the Abbots and Venkers might claim, that “if/then thinking” represents tremendous opportunity for both sexes.  It means women can avoid being trapped in desperately unhappy marriages; it means that men can trust they’re being chosen for their emotional and sexual desirability rather than their bank balance or their staid reliability. 

To put it simply, the more freedom women have to say “no,” the more men can trust the authenticity of their “yes.”

If there is a “war on men,” it’s not being waged by feminists. It’s being waged by an unholy alliance of social conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who relentlessly repeat the message that men can only feel powerful when women make themselves powerless.  In the modern gender battles, it’s worth asking which side believes in men’s capacity to be fully human.  Reading the propaganda, it’s clear it’s not the side of the sexual traditionalists.

71 comments

  • Superb. As a man I don't feel the slightest bit represented by traditional conservative values. I simply don't fit into that mold. It took me some time to realise that the main source of my depression was trying to live up to an image of what being a man was supposed to be, whilst wanting to be the person I was. Which as it turns out, is a man.

    Commenter
    Lucid Fugue
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    November 27, 2012, 1:26PM
    • Nice comment Lucid. Like you I've often thought about the essence of what being a man means. Trying to live up to an image of men from a bygone era that has been surpassed by time and by men themselves can only result in feelings of inadequacy and poor self-confidence. This atavistic view of men proposed by traditionalists falls far short of how I see myself , let alone falling far short of the potential men have to be more than two truncated choices (protector/predator).
      For me I think its true men have seen their archetype questioned and there is no clear replacement and so this is threatening to many. Instead there are ambiguous and multiple notions of what a man should be. This is in part because men haven't done any questioning about themselves. If the male archetype has been questioned it is a reflection from the questioning women did of their own archetype. Women were rightly not content and tore down the simple notions of what they should be. We Men are still hindered by our inherent lack of introspection so we cling to a faded notion of what has come before. For now like you I simply try to just be a good bloke.

      Commenter
      Gman
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 9:30AM
    • I agree with much of what you say. However, "We Men are still hindered by our inherent lack of introspection so we cling to a faded notion of what has come before." I think there is a fairly rich history of philosophy which might suggest this statement is false.

      Commenter
      Ray
      Location
      Sunshine
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 10:23AM
    • @Ray. Good point - Aristotle and Plato being the stand outs of course. However philosophy largely does not guide most men directly these days. The majority of men would be hard pressed to know anything of Plato's Forms, Aristotle's ideas of self-perfection or even more recently Freud's theory of Id, Ego and Superego. There is obviously a rich history here, but it is a history, perhaps not a present reality? I think a lot of men these days are just too scared or unprepared to question traditionally accepted notions of manhood.

      Commenter
      Gman
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 11:37AM
    • Many men still don't get it. Sure a few men dominate at the top but to
      say therefore men have priviledge is a prime example of the Apex Fallacy.
      The majority of men and women are not in that position and never will be.
      Civilization was built on the backs of men, women certainly contributed but the
      " heavy lifting" was and is still being performed by men and that will not change in the
      forseeable future. Women by the fact that they give birth are persons in their
      own right while men are recognized mostly for their utility and we are quick to
      write off any man who is seen not to be pulling their weight. Men are disposable,
      they always have been, born out by the estimate that for the whole of history
      80% of women pass on their genes but only 40% of men do.

      Germaine Greer spoke the following:
      "The visionary feminists of the late sixties and early
      seventies knew that women could never find freedom by
      agreeing to live the lives of unfree men."

      Also the term hero usually applies to men but it's derivation underlies what
      it really means:
      "Heroes" comes from the Greek word "serow", from which we get our words
      "servant" and "slave".

      A servant of society remembered and praised for their deeds not who they are.

      There is probably a better way for men but it is not the path feminists would
      have them tread. Some men recognizing this have decided that under the present
      circumstances "pulling the plug" is an option.

      Commenter
      Bev
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 11:43AM
    • Agree, LF.

      I was struck by this phrase: “If I meet the right person, then I might consider getting married – and if I don’t, then I’ll still be fine.”

      I would say that as one of the original Gen-Y blokes (or so I'd like to believe) this essentially sums up my approach to relationships and gender relations as well. Regardless of whether you're male or femal, we are all individuals, and we are ultimately responsible only to ourselves, and to/for the people we choose to care about.

      There is something of an association between one's politics and one's views on this subject I think. Conservatives will be likely to adhere to what 50 years ago were seen as "traditional" gender roles, whereas progressives will be more likely to espouse gender equality.

      This means very little though in the scheme of things if you regard culture and politics simply to be contemporary social phenomena devoid of any inherent meaning or claim to existence. I guess my take on this is that I've come to the realisation that there's very little point in questioning where cultural and political ideas come from, and just accept that they exist in other people's minds - which in turn makes them subjectively valuable, and therefore worthy of consideration.

      And this might sound postmodernist, but the reason it's not is because it's underpinned by something that I think is relevent to everything this article talks about: In a gender-equal world, love is all that matters. if you take that approach, then there's no need forr politics.

      Commenter
      ssscrambled
      Location
      Ashfield
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 12:53PM
    • Same except that I am a woman, but I'm not very 'womanly' because I detest makeup, fashion, getting my nails done and all that useless crap. I don't wear dresses or heals, I hardly ever shave my legs. In today's day and age, that leaves me stuck out on a hill all alone.

      Commenter
      Ailie
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 1:15PM
    • @Bev
      Please don't argue from definition. It matters not what a word meant thousands of years ago. It matters what it means today in a modern context.
      This piece seems to sum it up nicely:
      http://thisaggression.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/whats-in-a-word/

      Commenter
      Heisenberg
      Location
      Townsville
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 1:21PM
    • Sorry Gman, I think you slightly misinterpreted my comment. I don't doubt that modern man is not overly interested in the philosophy of days gone by. I merely think it is a false generalisation that men are not introspective, which you say is inherent. The evidence that men are introspective, thoughful, considerate, questioning etc etc is represented in the long line of philosophers who have adorned human history. These guys are not exceptions, they were just better at it than most men.

      Commenter
      Ray
      Location
      Sunshine
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 1:45PM
    • @Bev, thanks for the very interesting comment.

      Commenter
      alex
      Date and time
      November 28, 2012, 2:25PM

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