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Boys aren’t losing role models – girls are

Responses to online misogyny have missed the point

Artillery Row

Following the arrest of influencer Andrew Tate for human trafficking, parents of teenage boys are being encouraged to talk to their sons about online misogyny. I am one such parent, though precisely what I am supposed to say, I’m not sure. 

Masculinity must be something that femininity or womanhood are not

That misogyny is bad? That rape isn’t fun? That women and girls are people, too? If my sons don’t know this already, what hope is there? 

It’s not that I haven’t tried, albeit with that feeling of gardening in a gale. Whatever seeds I plant could instantly be blown away. On the one hand it feels stupid, offensive even, to suddenly behave as though the boys I know and love could be in thrall to incel culture. If this makes my sons defensive, I cannot blame them. On the other, I suspect they do not notice all the ways in which beliefs about female inferiority are embedded. I’ve struggled to notice them, too. 

Still, the arrest of Tate has to mean something, and something must be done. Hence a plethora of articles musing on why teenage boys are drawn to him, and how one might distract them. We are told Tate fans are vulnerable”; that with “a dearth of alternatives”, Tate offers them a blueprint of how to be a man”; that Tate has become “a role model for a generation of lost boys”. Thus a story which has, at its heart, the hatred and abuse of women and girls, ends up leading to calls for more attention and sympathy for men and boys. 

Except as Martha Gill writes in the Guardian, “men do not, in fact, lack for role models: they have entire libraries, film archives and the leaders of almost every country and profession”. The insistence that the latest expression of misogyny is a symptom of masculinity in crisis, is not at all new. As Tanya Modleski wrote in 1991’s Feminism Without Women, “male power is actually consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution, whereby men ultimately deal with the threat of female power by incorporating it”. 

In so many of the mainstream responses to men such as Tate, I see not so much an engagement with the threat of violent misogyny, as the deployment of “good” masculinity in a protection racket. Make boys feel secure in their masculinity, we are told, and then they won’t hurt you. How does one do that? How should girls go about assuring boys of their difference — their specialness — without making less of girls themselves? 

The problem with masculinity is not that there are good versions and “toxic” ones. It is that it is a relational concept. To make any sense at all, masculinity must be something that femininity or womanhood are not. The ongoing obsession with presenting boys with “good” models of masculinity will always run up against the fact that, beyond greater physical strength, there are very few positive qualities that men possess that women do not also share. Thus those who seek alternatives to what Tate is offering end up presenting a watered-down version of the same misogyny: what “boys need more role models” really means is “women and girls should be restricted in what they can say and do — what they are ‘for’ — so that men and boys can feel exceptional, not as humans, but as males”

I do not doubt that life is difficult for my teenage sons. Just like their female counterparts, they are dealing with huge levels of stress and uncertainty. I rarely speak to them about concepts such as male privilege because I know that at this stage in life, they do not feel powerful in relation to many people at all. They might know in the abstract that they are privileged, but this is not something they feel in relation to their peers. Why should they? To be their age is to face enormous social pressure with little personal or financial freedom and few assurances for the future. It is difficult, but I do not think they are helped by being encouraged to root their sense of self in the possession of attributes that, according to the misogynist imagination, women and girls lack. 

Ever since I was my sons’ age, I have noticed that whenever girls prove that they are worthy of the rights for which earlier feminists fought, this becomes evidence that masculinity is under threat. When girls outperform boys in exams, this is treated, not as proof of the enormous injustice of female exclusion from education, but as a kind of theft. When women earn enough money to be self-sufficient, they are robbing men of the breadwinner role. When they prove themselves capable of managing their reproductive choices and the family unit, they are reducing men to sperm donors”.

Boys do not need more sidelining of girls

You can dismiss this as MRA paranoia, but the truth is, women are doing this. They are dismantling the shaky foundations of masculinity by revealing the enormous overlap between male and female desires and capabilities. Men can deny this, and use violence to enforce their denial, but women will retain the same potential, even if it is not permitted to flourish. Until men can accept that they are not more unique, more interesting and more quintessentially human than women, they will not be happy. Until men can accept this (because they know it anyways), they will not stop hurting us. 

Whilst self-styled “progressive” men might think themselves the opposite of men’s rights activists, their own investment in the concept of gender identity — a concept which essentialises masculinity and femininity — reveals the same attachment to the myth of male exceptionalism. Femininity remains whatever masculinity is not. This does not lead to a world in which boys are being robbed of an identity; it leads to one in which girls are. 

This is not a world in which cervical cancer charities advertise using slogans such as Women: They’re Worth Saving, whilst prostate cancer outreach issues tentative appeals to “prostate owners”. It’s not a world in which significant numbers of teenage boys are disidentifying from maleness on the basis that they feel like “a person”. It’s not a world in which exceptional men of the past are being recast as having been women after all. It’s not a world in which men are losing their place in the arts and competitive sport

Boys aren’t losing role models — girls are. This is not due to some misguided attempt at inclusion. They’re losing role models for the same reason they always have, the same reason they’ve been excluded from activities of which only men were presumed to be capable, the same reason they’ve been denied a history and a legacy: because men have not yet worked out a way of being sure they exist unless it is in relation to female inferiority. 

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argued that “man is defined as a human being and woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male”. As a feminist, I refuse to accept that women are dehumanising men — robbing them of their selfhood — by behaving as human beings. 

I want my sons to be happy and secure in themselves. This security cannot depend on upholding an artificial distinction between them and their female peers. This is what leads boys and men to see female achievement as an affront, a theft, something to be smacked down. Right now, it is being smacked down very hard. 

Boys do not need more sidelining of girls — missold as either “celebrating men and boys” or “being inclusive” — to tell them they are enough. To be as good as girls is enough. I believe they are capable of that. 

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