Susan Faludi author of 'Backlash' (Photo by Andrew Meares/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

Who said feminists forgot about men?

Educating Caitlin Moran (and her critics)

Artillery Row Books

Midway through her 2011 bestseller How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran makes a rather bold declaration. “Women,” she states, “have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years.”

Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man … We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo. No Ghandi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.

It’s a passage that any man currently feeling affronted by Moran’s latest work What About Men? might do well to recall. Sure, you might find it patronising to be compared to labradors, but at least it’s not being suggested that your half of the human race has contributed nothing of value to the whole of civilisation.

I don’t happen to share this view of history. As Dale Spender wrote in 1982’s Women of Ideas, “women’s past is at least as rich as men’s; that we do not know about it, that we encounter only interruptions and silence when we seek it, is part of our oppression”. Moran doesn’t engage with Spender, but then she doesn’t engage much with earlier feminists (beyond declaring Germaine Greer “crackers on the subject of transgender issues”). What she offers is a real-time enactment of the very cover-up she denies is taking place. Whatever she is writing about, no woman has written about before.

This is as much the case with What About Men? as with How to Be a Woman. To read it, one might think feminists have never before addressed The Man Question — that, up until this very moment, we have once again done “fuck all” — but this simply isn’t true. I write this as both a feminist and a mother of sons (Moran seeming rather contemptuous of the latter; unlike mothers of daughters, we’re apparently oblivious to the traumas they may be going through or indeed inflicting on others). I’ve found there is quite a lot of feminist analysis that is focussed on men and boys. It is not new, which is not to say that there is no more need for it today.

“A ‘crisis of masculinity’,” wrote Susan Faludi in 1991, “has erupted in every period of backlash, a faithful, quiet companion to the loudly voiced call for ‘a return to femininity’.” Like many feminists at the time, Faludi was highly conscious of the way in which this idea of “crisis” could be manipulated and used against women. In Feminism Without Women, published in the same year, Tania Modleski went so far as to suggest that feminists should “consider the extent to which male power is actually consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution”. Nevertheless, Faludi took her own era’s masculinity crisis seriously, following up Backlash with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man in 1999.

Stiffed is a detailed, fascinating read. Using numerous case studies, from the victimisation of a female army cadet to gay men’s mistreatment of drag queens, it suggests that a great deal of male self-hate stems from the impossibility of maintaining a consistent barrier between male identity and femininity. Misogyny will, inevitably, make victims of men themselves. The solution to this is complex, and it certainly goes far beyond exhortations for men to talk more or be more like women. Faludi is deeply sympathetic towards the men she interviews, recognising that their self-worth matters in its own right. It also matters for women, though, because when men feel ashamed, they do not just punish themselves.

As a feminist analysis of masculinity, it is compassionate but it is not servile

Not all second-wave feminists have been as generous towards men, or as curious about their inner lives. Nonetheless, it is not the case that earlier feminists assumed that men were all having a wonderful time oppressing women, or that the pressure to be masculine did not impose significant costs. In 1978’s About Men, Phyllis Chesler acknowledged that male supremacy condemned most men to be “losers” in relation to other men. However, she proposed that most men accepted this “sacrifice of the many for the benefit of the few”, arguing that of the men she spoke to, “most were more concerned with their own “winning”, or with the spectacle of another man’s “winning”, than with eliminating, even rhetorically, the necessity for “winners” and “losers”. Regardless of whether you believe this analysis to be fair — in her 2004 analysis of masculinity The Will To Change, bell hooks described About Men as “disappointing” — it demonstrates that feminists in the seventies were already looking far beyond the kind of “men are fine, women are victims” paradigm that Moran suggests has prevailed right up to the arrival of What About Men?.

In 1983 Andrea Dworkin delivered a speech to a US men’s organisation in which she declared herself sorry that men felt so bad:

… so uselessly and stupidly bad — because there is a way in which this really is your tragedy. And I don’t mean because you can’t cry. And I don’t mean because there is no real intimacy in your lives. And I don’t mean because the armour that you have to live with as men is stultifying: and I don’t doubt that it is. But I don’t mean any of that.

Here, Dworkin lists things which Moran holds up as revelations about modern masculinity — only they’re not revelations at all. Dworkin already knows that everyone in her audience is conscious of men not being permitted to cry. She also knows that, as an observation, it doesn’t get us very far. Like Faludi, she wants to push things further, to draw the links between this male sadness and what is being done to women:

I mean that there is a relationship between the way that women are raped and your socialization to rape and the war machine that grinds you up and spits you out: the war machine that you go through just like that woman went through Larry Flynt’s meat grinder on the cover of Hustler. You damn well better believe that you’re involved in this tragedy and that it’s your tragedy too.

This, to me, speaks as much to the world of Pornhub and Andrew Tate as it does to that of Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine. As a feminist analysis of masculinity, it is compassionate but it is not servile. It manages to reach out whilst holding a line.

Sadly, more recent feminist writing on masculinity has veered towards unhelpful portrayals of men as passive victims, whose relationship with patriarchy has nothing to do with their own desires. Feminists tell them they have no capacity to make their own decisions, so they oscillate between feeling vilified and patronised. In On Our Best Behaviour, published earlier this year, Elise Loehnen argues — in a manner not dissimilar to Moran — that “whilst men hold a perhaps enviable amount of power in this patriarchy, they are less equipped than women to lead us out of its strictures”:

They have more to lose — but ironically, they also have so much to gain … I have faith that men will be more than willing allies if we can show them the path to peaceful surrender, if we can teach them that mutual support is essential for our collective future.

If you are a man reading this and you find it quite annoying, do not worry. I, and I suspect most women, cannot be arsed to show you the path to peaceful surrender (that’s even assuming I knew where it was myself).

One of the most frustrating things about this and What About Men? is how it reduces feminist approaches to masculinity to sorting out men because they can’t sort out themselves (despite their skills at shaping the whole of human history). As Faludi, hooks, Dworkin and others have suggested, any work has to be collaborative. Moreover, it is work that feminists have a right to be involved in, given the consequences for women and girls when men remain “in crisis”.

Some reviews of Moran’s book have come from men who clearly feel feminists need to stay in our lane. After all, what do we know about what it feels like to be a man? Aren’t there men working to address the problems boys face? However, this, as Dworkin put it, is a shared tragedy. Masculinity in crisis will be women’s business as long as women and girls are collateral damage. It is not fair to tell women not to interfere in a matter that has such an enormous impact on our own autonomy. A feminist writing on masculinity is not the same as a man bemoaning the “problem” with femininity (if 99 per cent of the sexual assaults experienced by boys were committed by crisis-ridden girls, it might be a different matter).

“I am thankful that one of my children is male,” wrote Audre Lorde, “since it helps to keep me honest. Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” Whilst I don’t think one needs to be a mother of sons to understand this, there are millions of women — many of them feminists — who are raising boys. They do not need to be informed that their sons, too, are vulnerable. We have known and loved these people at their most fragile. Of course we are aware that they are not invulnerable, regardless of the strong man images that surround them.

I wish that What About Men? had explored this more. I wish it had picked up where books such as Stiffed and The Will To Change had left off. Instead, I fear it has made men feel confident in claiming what feminist think of them doesn’t matter, on the basis that until this very moment, we never really thought of them at all.

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