Being a man just ain't what it used to be

December 22, 2006

Men remain overwhelmingly in control of the business, media and and cultural worlds, so why all the talk of a 'crisis in masculinity'? Lynne Segal investigates

He'll look cute, in a bathing suit, on a billboard in Manhattan." When Malvina Reynolds composed this song in the late 1950s, the idea was hilariously absurd. Today it's part of the landscape. When asked to write about the latest developments in "men's studies" and to assess the effects of the mixed messages young men today receive, I do my research. Why ask a feminist gender theorist? Well, first, women do their homework.

This is something boys have been failing to do, whether at school or in higher education - at least compared, overall, with girls. The second reason might be that despite two decades of flourishing courses in the US, there is no men's studies as such in the UK. Or rather, there were no such courses within universities until a few weeks ago. The department of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University launched the first university course in men's studies last month.

However, linking media concerns with recent thought in men's studies is not so straightforward. Public anxiety over men's educational and other failings compared with women's is one thing, the tangled issues explored in the new work on men and masculinities is another. The diverging strands are clear enough in any trawl through the gender commentaries in The Times Higher over the past ten years, in contrast with its reviews of books about men and differing masculinities. There is routine anxiety about men's problems and the problem of men, on the one hand, often appearing alongside more gleeful enjoyment of texts searching out new ways of analysing that confusing and volatile conception, "masculinity", or - as most of us suggest today - masculinities.

From either perspective, being a man, one might think, is no longer quite what it used to be, but a more complex, often troubled, affair. From the 1990s, men replaced women in public debate as the problem sex, suffering from falling levels of confidence, "losing out" in school, jobs, personal relationships, overall health and wellbeing. They were seen as having few positive role models and as threatened by the advance of women on all fronts. Nowhere has this caused more alarm than in education. The predominance of women enrolling in higher education is steadily increasing, leading some US universities to positively discriminate in favour of men.

Year on year, The Times Higher has highlighted research indicating that men are relatively less successful at their studies than women. The steady flow of academic research and publications accompanying the media emphasis on men as the "failing" sex does sometimes echo popular concerns, although these can be sharply diverging.

It is not difficult to summarise the historic shifts that have affected men's lives, from the decline of industry and of their role as sole breadwinners, to women's increasing economic autonomy. In the update of his classic text, Masculinities , R. W. Connell, professor of education at the University of Sydney, sums up the disadvantages evident in men's lives today. Not only are boys and men losing ground in education, they are also overwhelmingly the sex most likely to be arrested and imprisoned, and they remain the likelier target of violence and criminal assault. Men more often are the ones employed in dangerous occupations. Men die, on average, younger than women, with a higher death rate from accidents and other patterns of morbidity, including suicide, when young. However, as Connell emphasises, these disadvantages are a product of the advantages men enjoy. Men remain overwhelmingly the sex in control of our business, political, cultural and media worlds. They hold power in all the coercive institutions of society, earn, on average, twice as much as women and receive more social support and servicing from women in the home and elsewhere.

The "crisis of masculinity" springs from a situation where those men who benefit most from the continuing social and ideological position of their sex are not likely to be the same people as those who suffer from the disadvantages of shifts and insecurities in men's lives. The downside is a product of the upside. Since all the linguistic codes, cultural imagery and social relations for representing the ideals of "manliness", or what is termed "normative masculinity", symbolise power, rationality, assertiveness and invulnerability, it is hardly surprising that men, individually, exist in perpetual fear of being unmanned. Simply comparing men and women serves primarily to obscure the sources of trouble for those groups that are most likely to be losing out. For instance, there is nothing new in the educational failure of working-class and specific ethnic-minority boys, whose alienation in school has always accompanied the assertion of rebellious bravado. If we look thoughtfully at the evidence usually offered for the crisis in masculinity today, we see a picture in which all the most significant differences on display are predominantly between men, rather than between women and men. It is particular groups of men, especially unemployed, unskilled and unmarried, that have higher mortality and illness rates compared with other groups of men. Class, ethnicity and race, not gender, are the major predictors of young men's educational underachievement, unemployment and resort to criminality. As sociologist Tim Edwards notes in Cultures of Masculinity , any evidence of crisis "remains demographically and geographically quite specific and not particularly indicative of any overall crisis".

It may be only specific groups of men that are at greater risk from the most destructive effects of failure, as they anxiously compete to maintain a sense of the status manhood is supposed to confer on them. Nevertheless, there are reasons to suspect the unfolding of milder forms of malaise in many men today. Another British masculinity text, educationist Stephen Whitehead's Men and Masculinities , concludes that although there is no singular crisis of masculinity there is, increasingly, pressure on men to negotiate and reflect on what it is to be a man.

Similarly, the texts of Victor Seidler, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, raise, and seek to remedy, the tensions he says men often feel when comparing themselves with prevailing images of masculinity. In his latest book, Transforming Masculinities , it is the mixed messages men receive from the media itself that are seen as part of the problem. Both the popular press and masculinity theorists have paid particular attention to the effects of the spectacular rise of men's style magazines, such as FHM and Loaded from the 1990s. These magazines have been accused of promoting a macho culture of "New Laddism", which, if not as tough as the Gangsta rap music celebrating the violent, misogynist lifestyles of US inner-city black street gangs, are nevertheless seen as cultivated in defiance of the "softer" image of "New Man". For certain, such magazines are marketing some kind of affirmation of masculinity, especially one that targets young men as high consumers of fashion and other commodities. They encourage new ways for men to look at themselves and each other, quite as much as fostering the traditional sexist look at the scantily clad females also appearing within them. But exactly how one comprehends the relations between men's life experiences and these newer trends in the marketing of commodities and fashion photography aimed at men's pockets is far from obvious. Most contemporary empirical work suggests an ambivalent relationship between young men's accounts of themselves and the culturally diverse models of masculinity on offer - from the comically tough guys beamed out from Hollywood to the perfumed, decorative models in magazines.

More ironically, to the extent that the male narcissism marketed in lifestyle magazines leaves its mark, it is likely to increase the anxieties that men share with women, rather than to underwrite distinct ways of being a man. Some feminists have complained about the heightened sexualisation and commodification of female bodies contributing to women's anxious self-scrutiny of their own inevitably deficient versions. But the body has become "a new (identity) project" for both sexes, as Rosalind Gill, Karen Henwood and Carl McLean conclude in "Body Projects: Masculinity, identity and body modification", published in the journal Body & Society - a project fraught with particular difficulties "for young men who must simultaneously work on and discipline their bodies while disavowing any (inappropriate) interest in their own appearance". Edwards similarly concludes that the future of masculinity may hold "an increasingly self-absorbed and anxious state of being concerned with how one looks as much if not necessarily more than what one does". More sharply focused on the ubiquitous marketing of alcohol, Michael Messner, the US masculinity researcher, and his co-workers see it too as a type of masculine "lifestyle branding". Self-mocking and ironic liquor adverts construct a type of white male identity as cheerful "loser". This consumer is a man of leisure (always depicted outside the workplace) forever happy with his mates, clutching his drink, ogling, but suspicious of, beautiful young women.

Such images make light of the male insecurities that beset at least some, if not most, men. They can be seen as ironically knowing about men's lack of heroic grandeur, while humorously indulging a more traditional sexist banter about women. That one man's ironic words may resonate with another man's cruel fist, however, is absent from the commercial image. Barely hidden beneath the surface humour, 'I'm not bitter', one can sense the familiar cultural patterns encouraging men to blame women for their woes.

In theoretical harmony there are a few masculinity researchers themselves reacting against their pro-feminist forebears, countering the focus of Connell, Messner and Jeff Hearn, by suggesting that the media has been undermining, even "demonising", men's identities and self-esteem.

Australian media researcher Jim Macnamara, for one, has just published his findings proclaiming that an extraordinary 75 per cent of reports on men in the media are unfavourable. Men appear as rapists, harassers, "deadbeat dads"; they become the butt of ridicule in advertising, or of women's derision in popular programmes such as Ally McBeal or Sex and the City .

However, since men occupy all the top media positions, we are given no way of understanding why this should be other than to assume that feminists have mysteriously reprogrammed men to undermine themselves. Displaying the blindness of those who cannot see that men are gendered at all, unless named for their aberrations or appealed to as lifestyle consumers, Macnamara's analytic eye fails to detect that most men in the media do not appear marked as men, but as politicians, businessmen, cultural spokespersons or in some other apparently gender-neutral, often authoritative, role.

Finally, neither public fears over crises in masculinity nor worries that men are receiving the wrong cultural messages are truly new manifestations.

Most masculinity theorists tend to agree that it is men's restless search to fortify affirmations of manhood that all too easily becomes part of their problem. The ambivalent messages men receive about masculinity would be no bad thing, perhaps, if the irony sometimes accompanying them could help men to see, rather than to repudiate, that they share many of their deepest fears with women. Were the recent stress on "masculinity in crisis" put in terms of a broader context of shared vulnerability, whether in the precarious work of self-fashioning or the global fashion to provide only precarious work, it would begin to turn around the ways in which men feel threatened simply as men. Stressing men's shared human condition with women does not, of course, shore up any hierarchical sense of difference. And that, from whichever way I look at it, is no bad thing.

Lynne Segal is professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London. A revised edition of her Slow Motion: Changing Masculinity ; Changing Men is be published by Palgrave in January. Her new book, Making Trouble: Life and Politics , will be published by Serpent's Tail in March.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments