Globe and Mail

Please let the 'whither men?' debate wither

JOHN BARBER
The Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 23, 1999

I never realized it was so hard to be a man until recently. Not only has the deeply embarrassing "men's movement" refused to go away, but the bookshelves are again filling up with anguished tirades about the sorry state of our benighted sex.

Hold your heads high, men, and they are sure to be blown off in a withering crossfire. No matter how many diapers you change or dishes you wash, one side says, your attempts to accommodate the demands of feminism are insincere and opportunistic. (You just want your ashes hauled, as usual.) The other side judges you pathetically inadequate in comparison with the sterling models of your strong and silent fathers, who never doubted what it meant to be a man. There is no cover in this latest skirmish of the never-ending gender wars.

But does anybody really identify with all these tin-soldier stereotypes that the polemicists keep winding up and sending into battle? Is society really so awash with sensitive new-age hypocrites, emotionally constipated macho men and resentful, ground-bound Peter Pans? I keep reading about them, but I don't know any.

The men I know do the dishes, they even sew, and most of them have spent at least part of the past 15 years cheerfully up to their elbows in human feces. The few who didn't marry feminists are either gay or wish they had married them; they learned long ago that all the most desirable women are feminists. They no more resent that than they resent the colour of the jerseys on their favourite sports teams.

Nor, contrary to what passes as expert opinion, do they feel threatened by it. This is a situation I can personally identify with, as I have never made as much money as my wife does -- although naturally, being a sensitive new-age couple, we share everything equally. And this is supposed to be a problem? Displaying typical manly resourcefulness, Iron John has learned to deal with it.

What a contrast it is between the ambivalent insights of the new "whither men?" authorities and those clear and forceful tirades that ushered modern feminism into being. Twenty-five years ago, no one doubted what women wanted. And they got it, too, which is the main reason why any attempt to tackle social issues from either side of the gender divide today is so unavailing. Like the Cold War, the Battle of the Sexes is history.

This is not to suggest that the basic argument, in one form or another, will ever cease, any more than the defeat of communism has put an end to the class struggle. It's just not as important any more, and the most intelligent contemporary commentaries on gender issues -- I'm thinking of Susan Faludi's arguments in her new book, Stiffed -- prove it.

What men have lost, in Ms. Faludi's account, is not merely power in the corporate or domestic world; nothing so crude as that. It is the prize that feminists first set their sights on, back when they were called suffragettes: the prerogative of citizenship.

The great right, once available exclusively to men and symbolized in the power of the democratic franchise, was the right to take part, to make a difference, to build. It was that social project that justified the cult of manhood and anchored all the trappings that have now fallen into such disrepute -- the flinty-eyed, laconic toughness of the classic mid-century male. And that social purpose, most essentially, is what all of us, men and women included, seem now to have lost.

"Where we once lived in a society in which men participated by being useful in public life," Ms. Faludi writes, "we are now surrounded by a culture that encourages people to play almost no functional public roles, only decorative or consumer ones." It is a status "oddly similar" to that of the 1950s housewife, the author observes, "stripped of her connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with shopping." This is the agony not merely of men but of us all.

Each day's headlines bring more evidence of the collapse of social purpose. We do not criticize the appointment of Canada's new head of state because she is a woman -- no, no, we are all feminists today. Her crime is being an "activist" -- someone who actually believes in social change and has worked to bring it about. How outrageous to put someone with such a dangerous past anywhere near the levers of power.

Is it a tragedy of men to have been reduced to the role of passive consumers and disgruntled "taxpayers" in a world they have no part in making and no hope of controlling? Or is it a tragedy of women to have fought so hard to gain the essential male prerogative, only to discover it is so feeble? Or is it just a plain, old-fashioned, gender-neutral tragedy?

You decide.

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