The Times

Sunday, May 30, 1999

Men are the victims of a feminist myth

by Melanie Phillips
The Sunday Times

An unmistakable sound of a bandwagon being leapt on is wafted on the summer breeze. Researchers, lobbyists, think tanks, journalists, ministers and civil servants have discovered a new social problem: men. Fresh and lucrative empires are being assembled. Grant applications are being eagerly filled in. Pamphlets are being sharpened. Susan Faludi, whose book Backlash ripped into male-dominated society for waging war against women, is now about to berate us - according to the breathless publishing blurb - with the fact that men are "at the mercy of social forces distorting their lives" (in which, presumably, she does not include herself).

Having demonised men as wife-beaters, deadbeat dads, child abusers and criminals without whom the world would be a better place, salon society has decided that masculinity is in crisis. Fatherhood is now frightfully fashionable. Labour's house analysts at the Institute for Public Policy Research held a conference on the subject last month. The Home Office, which ran a seminar on men last year, is starting to throw money at men's issues. It is launching Fathers Direct, a nationwide service offering information, advice and support to fathers. The word is that it will also set up a commission on fatherhood. Men are now a cause for concern - official.

Yet last week, when the Men's Health Forum (set up by the Royal College of Nursing) came up with some hard facts about men's ill-health and disadvantage, the government merely flannelled. The forum reported that, compared with women, men died earlier, suffered three and a half times more heart disease and were four times as likely to commit suicide; yet the government was spending eight times as much money on women's health as on men's.

The forum is right. Health services are indeed skewed towards women's needs. Embedded in our cultural psyche is the belief that women are victims of life and of the men who dominate it. This gender resentment, which has so distorted our society, ignores the obvious fact that both men and women have needs and that women and men are capable of behaving both badly and well. Some women also attack their spouses, abuse their children, break up families and behave appallingly; and much ostensible discrimination in the workplace is down to women's choices, freely made.

The Men's Health Forum is a small step towards redressing the factual balance. The government's own initiatives, however, are rather more dubious. Most of the undoubted problems that men suffer from as a group have been caused by the very people who now seek official status as the saviours of this new victim class and who are minting new and bamboozling myths. The chief cause of men's distress is surely the collapse of family attachments and the related blow to their sexual identity. More and more boys are fatherless, with untold damage to their sense of self. Women claim that they no longer depend on men; that they no longer want them on board, no longer want them to be family breadwinners, no longer want them to be men at all.

Research bears this out. The family charity One Plus One has shown that divorce has devastating effects on men's health. Men suffer from the breakup of their families more than women, whose health also suffers. Divorce greatly increases men's chances of having heart attacks or cancer and of committing suicide. Top Man's Leading Lads survey revealed vulnerable boys who thought men were being written out of the employment script and who - particularly those boys not living with their fathers - had a tremendous fear of being thought feminine.

Indeed, so much of the male self-image is about reassuring men that they are not feminine. They recoil from emotional display. They value stoicism, restrained feelings, acting out their concern and commitment through practical deeds. That is why providing is so intimately wrapped up with fatherhood. That is why unemployment is far more devastating for a man than for a woman.

The new myth, however, turns this distress on its head. The very people who are willing the destruction of a distinct male role claim that men have lost their role in life; that as a result they are useless and becoming criminal or feckless; and that the only way out is to reconstitute themselves as quasi-women and look after the children (which women will never let them do, except as souped-up au pairs).

This is merely man-hating feminism in a more sophisticated guise. Masculinity is being talked up into a crisis in order to deconstruct it. Even some men, too chivalrous to tell women that they are talking rubbish, subscribe to this. There is a touch of it in the forum's report, which says the British workforce is now mainly female. This is untrue. Most workers are men; of the women who work, half work part-time, a proportion that increases

greatly among mothers. So the idea that men's role as family provider and protector has gone down the tubes is simply false. Yet this myth is being assiduously promoted by those who wish it to be so.

Home Office sources say there is now wide acceptance that fathers matter and need special support and help. They want to talk up fatherhood, but the government itself is doing it down. It is destroying the idea of the male breadwinner; it refuses to provide incentives for couples to marry and stay married; indeed, it is endorsing broken family life by encouraging the fatuous idea that a man can be an effective father even if he is not living with his family, as long as he spends more "quality time" with his children.

Whether by accident or design, the Home Office is endorsing the feminist agenda of destroying marriage and reconstituting fatherhood and masculinity in the image of women. How else are we to explain the presence at its men's seminar last autumn of Angela Phillips, author of The Trouble with Boys? She advised that boys should no longer conform to "outmoded stereotypes of masculinity" and should find ways of shining in school "which were not to do with being macho - music, drama, dance".

How else are we to explain its enthusiasm for Adrienne Burgess, appointed to head Fathers Direct and tipped also to run the commission on fatherhood? In her book, Fatherhood Reclaimed, Burgess tries to show that men's provider role is not a universal given. To prove her point she cites a number of tiny, dwindling primitive tribes as exemplars of New Manhood. In particular, she enthuses over the Arapesh tribe, where fathers are "intensely involved throughout pregnancy" and the minute-by-minute care of their small children.

Yet the anthropologist Margaret Mead, from whom this information was drawn, described how the extreme passivity of Arapesh males meant that they were blackmailed, bullied and bribed by their more aggressive neighbours. "It is a society that makes it much more difficult to be a male, especially in all those assertive, creative, productive aspects of life on which the superstructure of a civilisation depends," Mead wrote. Oh, and their children died from hunger.

Welcome to the brave new world of new Labour man.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.