Penny is a journalist, blogger,
author and commentator from London. She is a columnist and reporter
for The Independent and has written for The New
Statesman, The Guardian, The Nation, Salon
and many others. Her first book, Meat
Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, was published
in 2011 by Zer0 books, and her second book, Penny Red: Notes
from a New Age of Dissent, was shortlisted for the Bread
and Roses Prize for radical publishing in 2012.
The crisis facing
men and boys cannot be solved by reviving the tired stereotypes
that oppress and constrain them
men the only way they can be useful is by bringing home money
to a doting wife and kids . . . was an oppressive, constricting
message 50 years ago, and it’s doubly oppressive now."
We need to talk
about masculinity. Across a country torn by recession and struggling
to adapt to social change, men and boys are feeling lost and
powerless, unsure what the future holds and what role they might
play in it. Most feel as if they're not allowed to question
what it means to be a man today – or discuss what it might
The Labour MP
Diane Abbott, is not the first person to kick up a fuss about
this crisis of masculinity. In a speech to the think-tank Demos
on Thursday she said that millions of young men are in distress,
acting out violently or sinking into depression. Unfortunately,
the only solution many in the audience could offer is not giving
men and boys more power over their own lives, but restoring
their traditional power over women, as "breadwinners"
and "male providers."
to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want
to be "breadwinners," or whether female independence
is really their biggest worry at a time when youth unemployment
is more than 20%. Sadly, the debate is still focused on the
evils of feminism, and on convincing men their real problem
is that women are no longer forced to trade a lifetime of resentful
sex for financial security. The chosen scapegoats, inevitably,
are single mothers.
There is no
creature more loathed and misunderstood in modern Britain than
the single mother on benefits. She is blamed both for the financial
crisis and for the attendant collapse in men's self-esteem.
The academic Geoff Dench was among those who attacked her, complaining
that "the taxes of working men pay for [single mothers']
benefits." The taxes of working women, presumably, are
spent on shoes and lipstick.
Call me an iron-knickered
feminist lingerie-arsonist if you must, but I thought we had
agreed that forcing women and their children to choose between
a husband and punishing poverty was a policy best left back
in the dark ages where it came from, along with smallpox and
As Abbott noted,
domestic and gendered violence always increases during times
of high unemployment and social breakdown, because men often
find it easier to take their feelings of frustration and powerlessness
out on women. Governments are only too happy for them to do
so: the Conservative party has long relied on a mythical golden
age of marriage and family values as the solution to civil unrest.
In the real
world, not all men want to be breadwinners, just like not all
men want to be violent, or to have power over women. What men
do want, however, is to feel needed, and wanted, and useful,
and loved. They aren't alone in this – it's one of the
most basic human instincts, and for too long we have been telling
men and boys that the only way they can be useful is by bringing
home money to a doting wife and kids, or possibly by dying in
a war. It was an oppressive, constricting message 50 years ago,
and it's doubly oppressive now that society has moved on and
even wars are being fought by robots who leave no widows behind.
The big secret
about the golden age of male providers is that it never existed.
First, women have always worked. Second, and just as importantly,
there have always been men who were too poor, too queer, too
sensitive, too disabled, too compassionate or simply too clever
to submit to whatever model of masculinity society relied upon
to keep its wars fought and its factories staffed. Traditional
masculinity, like traditional femininity, is a form of social
control, and seeking to reassert that control is no answer to
a generation of young men who are quietly drowning in a world
that doesn't seem to want them.
There can be
no doubt that men are in distress. Society's unwillingness to
let go of the tired old breadwinner model of masculinity contributes
to that distress. Instead of talking about what men and boys
can be, instead of starting an honest conversation about what
masculinity means, there is a conspiracy of silence around these
issues that is only ever broken by conservative rhetoric and
lazy stereotypes. We still don't have any positive models for
post-patriarchal masculinity, and in this age of desperation
and uncertainty, we need them more than ever.