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What is a man?

And why does no one ever ask

Artillery Row

Does anyone remember masculinity in crisis? In the not-too-distant past — say, ten years ago — everyone was panicking about it.

Hanna Rosin had just published The End Of Men, predicting that Plastic Woman — a creature able to adapt and move with the times — would win out over Cardboard Man, leading to the US becoming a matriarchy. As a mother of young sons, I couldn’t move for people recommending parenting books aimed at preventing my children from losing out in an age unsuited to their hardwired masculine instincts. 

One of the key arguments of doom-mongerers was that a combination of feminism and deindustrialisation had led women and girls to take all the stuff. Not materially, you understand — the vast majority of wealth still lay in the hands of men — but culturally and psychologically. 

Whereas once it was argued that women’s capacity to gestate and bear children was balanced out by men’s capacity to do everything else — as Adrienne Rich put it, “not only have women been told to stick to motherhood, but we have been told that our intellectual or aesthetic creations were … an attempt to become ‘like men,’ or to escape from the ‘real’ tasks of adult womanhood: marriage and childbearing” — now it was being suggested that we, too, could use our minds as well as our bodies. 

Unlike us, men could not create new humans, but just like them, we could contribute to culture, politics, science and art. To many, this felt like women stealing men’s identities. A common complaint from men’s rights activists was that if women could control their own reproductive lives, gain a degree of economic independence and be respected as intellectual agents in their own right, men would be “reduced to sperm donors”. 

Male entitlements are not like female protections

One decade later, all I can say is what a difference a backlash makes. I can’t remember the last time I heard a man complain about being reduced to his gamete production. Instead, the question on everyone’s lips is, “what is a woman?” 

Following on from right-wing pundit Matt Walsh’s exploration of the topic, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has decided to take it on. Don’t worry, though, ladies. If you think this sounds like a succession of men jabbering on as they always have — about whether women have souls, how much we differ from the beasts of the field et cetera — Stewart feels our pain. 

Stewart’s a feminist, too. He, too, would like men to stop telling women what they are. That’s why he’s aiming to be the final man to do it, presenting a definition so complex, so intelligent, so progressive, all the other men have to agree that it’s the right one (as for the women, we’re supposed to be so grateful that he’s not Matt Walsh, we’ll settle for any old crap). 

According to Stewart, defining women is both very complicated and not complicated at all. A woman is anyone who identifies as a woman. It doesn’t matter what her anatomy is, how she presents herself to the world, how she behaves. She is a woman because she says so, and who’s to question that? 

In Stewart’s world, the only counter-argument to this is Walsh’s proposal that a woman is an adult human female (with which I agree) who is made for marriage, popping out babies and meekly asking for pickle jars to be opened (with which I disagree). Those are your options, ladies. You have to pick one. 

Being difficult, though, I don’t want to. What I want to know is why we’ve stopped asking, “what is a man?” I know what Stewart’s response to this would be: everything that is said about identifying as a woman applies to identifying as a man. We both know this is nonsense, though, which is why “what is a man?” remains a thread which those who support gender self-identification do not wish to tug. Start pulling at that thread, and you could end up exposing the fact that feminists — or TERFs, as they’re now known — have been right all along. 

According to feminists, gender isn’t some complex, ineffable sense of self, a combination of personality and immortal soul for people who consider themselves too special and sophisticated for any of that religious bullshit. Gender is a social hierarchy facilitating the transfer of resources from female people to male people. Nothing highlights this quite so much as the practicalities of gender self-ID. Put simply, one cannot self-identify into manhood because unlike womanhood, manhood is not defined by submission and availability, but by control.

As Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote, masculinity and femininity are not “similar sorts of things; equal degrees of adaptation to different situations”. Were I to identify as a man — and why shouldn’t I, given that apart from the anatomical one (which Stewart says doesn’t count) I see no single innate difference between me and the men around me? — I would gain precisely nothing. Were my male partner to declare himself a woman, he would gain access to all the things currently withheld from him because of his own dominant position as a man: female-only spaces, women’s sports, women-only shortlists, plus a super-charged version of female victim status. Other than pronouns, there is nothing about himself he would need to alter. 

The only way I could gain access to any degree of male privilege would be to present myself in such a way as to be mistaken for someone who is biologically male (difficult in person, since even with my breasts removed, plus a harsh exercise and starvation regime, I would remain 5’1”). Yet even that would not be true male privilege, since it is by definition not something one acquires through pain and surgery, but by birth. To go through extreme physical pain to be treated as halfway human in spite of one’s sex is a quintessentially female experience. Yet what else can anyone in possession of both a vagina and a complex inner life do? 

Male entitlements are not like female protections. The dominant class can identify into taking possession of the resources of the subjugated. Such is the nature of dominance. Meanwhile, the subjugated class cannot identify out of subjugation. 

The theory of gender pushed by Jon Stewart and others disregards the enormous power imbalance between male and female people, one that fundamentally shapes the response to any request to be seen as the opposite sex. To compensate for this (and to feign as though they are still supporting feminism) proponents of gender self-ID do two things: one, they pretend it is the noticing of sex difference that creates sex discrimination; two, they claim the existence of a new power hierarchy in which cis women oppress trans women by “excluding” them from womanhood. 

Jon Stewart is seriously out-manning Matt Walsh

This doesn’t prove feminists wrong, however — it proves they have been right about gender being rooted in acquisition. For male people, even the status of the class you oppress is meant to be yours for the taking. 

A further reason why “what is a man?” is the question that can never be asked, is that once you discount male reproductive biology, there is no “male” quality one might propose that is not either a naturalisation of abusive male behaviour (dominance, aggression, violence) or a traditionally sexist assertion of what women are meant to lack (rationality, intellect, authority). By contrast, with “what is a woman?”, trans women have argued that femininity itself — as opposed to femaleness — has been the target of oppression, hence an embrace of feminine stereotypes is in fact liberating (at least for the volunteers, if not the conscripts). 

Whilst we cannot define what a man is, we are still allowed to say that the “real” oppressor of women is “cis man” — that is, the biologically male person who identifies with his maleness. But where does that leave us? It implies the very inevitability to male supremacy that feminists have always fought against. 

Cis man can’t socially transition; that wouldn’t be true to his cis manliness. Instead we are left having to accept there is some quality which, say, Jon Stewart, Matt Walsh, Owen Jones and others all possess, a quality which isn’t down to physical difference, but which I and all other female people, including trans-identifying men, lack. This quality explains why they dominate and we do not. Unless it’s “being a sexist, bullying wanker”, I can’t think what it is. 

This, then, has been the resolution to masculinity in crisis: cis men are the people who dominate, who get to steal all the resources, who can’t possibly be expected to change. Trans women are the people who get all the stuff cis men rule themselves out of getting by being the dominators: the victim status, the need for protection, that privileged vulnerability that female people have spent all those millennia hogging to themselves.

The only thing neither group can access is the reproductive capacity of female people, which leaves us to be the ovulators, the menstruators, the gestators, the birthers. Hey presto! Far from being reduced to sperm donors, as the men’s rights activists feared, male people have reduced female people to their reproductive capacity all over again. Not only that, but they’ve taken “being oppressed on the basis of sex” from us whilst they’re at it. 

So then, what is a man? A man, as Mary Daly wrote, is one with “the power of naming”. On that score, I’d say Jon Stewart is seriously out-manning Matt Walsh. I hope he thinks it is worth it. 

There was a time when I thought men like Stewart understood that the lives of women and girls were worth more than their own masculine psychodramas. Turns out it’s all about status and showing the old-style misogynists how it’s done. 

Well done, Jon. You’re really manly. The manliest man of all mankind. Just don’t kid yourself that women — the ones you won’t even name — don’t see you for what you really are. 

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