The past few weeks in Oxford have seen a multitude of talks, events and PR aimed at raising the profile of feminism in our university and stimulating dialogue about gender relations. The ‘why I need feminism’ meme proved particularly potent, with dozens of men and women taking part. Despite the slightly odd use of the word ‘need’, seeming to suggest that feminism is an impersonal force, rather than a participatory movement, the campaign did succeed in getting me thinking about gender politics.
As a man I can’t help but feel that feminism is in some ways, a victim of its own semantics. The word ‘feminism’ itself can be alienating to many men, and even those of us who consider ourselves sympathisers often feel slightly awkward describing ourselves as feminists. Whether or not you have a Y chromosome and a penis should in reality, have nothing to do with your views of sexual equality, liberalisation, and challenging certain cultural norms. Yet as long as feminism is presented solely as a women’s interest movement, or alternatively, a celebration of femininity, male support will remain for the most part, quiet and passive. The term ‘patriarchy’ as well, is not only many things to many people, but also seems to suggest, by using a word that means ‘the rule of men’ to refer to unequal gender relations, that men benefit somehow from keeping women down and maintaining the sexual status quo. This is obviously nonsense, but it has sadly, created something of an ‘us vs. them’ (or even more cringeily, ‘battle of the sexes’) mentality on the part of many.
The reality is that men, both historically and in the present day, have suffered considerably from ‘patriarchy’ as women have. This is not of course, to make light of the plight of women in the past, with 50% of humanity having been denied a social, political or economic role. Nor is it to demean the immense achievements of women’s liberation and feminist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries in securing equal legal status and raising a worthy challenge to an age-old problem. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that although history’s elites have been almost exclusively male, the vast majority of men in the past have been conditioned and pigeon-holed on the basis of gender in a routine and systematic manner.
The concept of the ‘disposable male’ has been at the heart of organized societies for millennia and continues to shape views of both genders. In most societies, war has been a duty imposed on adult males, more often forcibly than not, resulting obviously in death, mutiliation, trauma, fear and dehumanising rigour being routine experiences for men the world over. Even in our own society, mercifully untainted by total war for centuries, the expectation that men should be leaders; emotionless, authoritative and self-sacrificing continues to hold weight, and is undeniably rooted in the ideal of men as soldiers. Demeaning manual labour as well, such as mining, which few men or women would choose to undertake voluntarily, has traditionally been the duty of males. Neither this, nor the experience of war, whether voluntary or not, has traditionally offered the vast majority of male-kind the possibility of social advancement or political power any more than domestic penury and social isolation empowered women. Such arrangements were to the benefit of small ruling elites, not to the be-testicled half of the human species as a homogeneous group. Most men I know, myself included, have no desire to risk our lives in war, or to make our living through backbreaking labour, or to repress aspects of our personality in order to fit an imposed, martial mode. Yet alternative male identities to this norm are still considered counter-cultural by the mainstream. The shadow of disposable masculinity and the idea of male ‘duty’ continues to hang over our society and shape the way men feel they should behave in a way that the majority of men should, and indeed do feel uncomfortable with.