It's goodbye He-Man, hello She-Man

February 13, 1998

Will the 21st century see the end of men as we know them? asks Jeff Hearn

The end of the century. The end of ideology. The end of violence. What about the end of men?

In the 19th and 20th centuries there have been many changes in the relationship between women and men - in law, work, citizenship, personal relations... But there has also been a widespread, stubborn persistence in men's dominance - in politics, business, finance, war, diplomacy, the state, policing, crime, violence, science, technology, culture, media, and,of course, higher education.

So, what is in store for men in the 21st century and how will it compare with this century? Will there be more of the same?

In thinking about this, we must remember that current thinking about the future, "future studies", often plays down gender. Many of the "grand narratives" of the future - globalisation, environmental destruction, information explosion, reproductive engineering, technological advance generally - remain presented as inevitable and strangely genderless, rather than as largely controlled by men: the real "men of the world". Even the idea of future visions may carry a subtext of religiosity, transcendence, heroism or scientism that easily privileges the male.

The future of (most) men will probably be more mundane. Many will still find ways of holding on to various powers; of being violent, threatening, shouting, seeking to get their own way, while working fewer hours and getting paid more than women, living less healthily, dying younger and "hanging out" with other men.

Nevertheless, changes are inevitable. Much of the way men are will change,in terms of specific conjunctions of age, body, class, culture, dress, sexuality and the other social divisions that make someone a man, and some people men. Being a man is historically and culturally contingent. This is clear from the particular ways - the use of wigs, make-up, bodypainting and so on - through which men have become men in past times or different cultures.

The past 25 years have seen, though not for the first time, the naming of men as men. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was the claiming of "gay" by gay men, shortly followed by "effeminist men", "bisexual men" and "anti-sexist men"; in the 1980s, "pro-feminist men" put their cards on the table, "wild" and "mythopoetic men" came out of (or went into) the woods, and "new men" became happy media creations; the 1990s have brought "newish man", "new lads", "men's rightists" and now "post new men" too. Elsewhere there are extremely worrying moves to anti-feminist political organising by men, as in such United States men's organisations as the Free Men (men's rights), the Million Man March (Nation of Islam), and the Promise Keepers (Christian). We hear, too, of "older men", "overweight men", or more composite identities such as "South Asian gay men"(Shakti), or "black men against sexual violence" (Men Marching Against Rape, Alexandra, South Africa).

Such contemporary namings of men have been accompanied by greater interest in men in the worlds of advertising, journalism and popular culture. Imaging men is now a matter of both fiercely reaffirming boring old Rambos and their like in film, computer games, and comics, and presenting ever more ambiguous homo-het, man-woman pictures of "men" in both mainstream and alternative media. A recent issue of the main Finnish broadsheet Helsingin Sanomat figured prominent men dressed in skirts; many were media types, but there was also the odd conservative politician and "respectable" public figure mixed in. At this rate of change, there are likely to be yet more surprising associations drawn in the future in image and text around the sign of men.

Something similar has happened in academia. The study of men and masculinities is no longer considered esoteric. It is now established for teaching and research. While it has examined male lives in schools, families, management, the military and elsewhere, many aspects remain unexplored. This critique of men also implies drastic rewritings of academic disciplines themselves, and their frequently pre-scientific ignoring of the fact that their "science" has been dominantly done by men, for men and even mainly about men.

All these developments give some indication of what is in store for men. Indeed, one likely and paradoxical implication of the naming of different types of men is that the deconstruction of the category "men" may be opened up more fully. Perhaps naming social categories, which were once taken-for-granted, begins only when those categories are beginning to become less meaningful.

Within the range of possibilities for the future of men, two dimensions seem particularly important: the apparent divergence or convergence of women and men; and the movement towards greater equality or inequality between them.

The technology certainly exists for extending men's global domination, through the control of scientific, medical, military, commercial, information and imaging technologies. The gender class of men could be strengthened a lot further; things could get worse. Men could blow up half the world, terrorise homes more effectively, establish more repressive national and supranational governments, control the streets through extra-state mafias, pursue the backlash against feminism more single-mindedly and, in the last scenario, clone more men. After all, prefering male babies and male bodies to female ones is ancient. This scenario emphasises a continued, perhaps greater, divergence of women and men, an extension of old patterns of domination.

An alternative future is convergence, or apparent convergence, of women and men along with continuing inequality. This might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is already with us in the agendered postmodern world, where we can supposedly be whoever we want to be. According to this scenario men might continue to obscure their power as men through all sorts of contradictory identifications that may say everything but "men continue to retain power". This is the convergent inequality of the Internet, with its manifold possibilities for assumed gender/sexual identities. In this scenario what future sexualities are there for men "beyond queer"? Are there new yet unspoken sexualities, whether cyber or other, in waiting?

Then there is the possibility of divergence with greater equality. This may also seem an odd combination. There is now increasing talk of global citizenship, beyond the nation. And worldwide gender equality is at least on the agenda - but does it attend to the task of changing men? Establishing an agenda of formal gender equality, as in the United Nations,does not of itself mean men will change. Such equality agendas also beg massive questions: how will they deal with wars, migration, refugees? Or with differences marked by religion and culture that institutionalise gender inequality?What will happen in the post-Soviet era (with men's life expectancy sinking spectacularly in Russia), or with the eventual loss of US hegemony, and even the decline of the Asian tigers?

A fourth possibility is convergence and equality; this seems to be the most radical and probably least likely. It would mean men becoming in some ways less different from women, perhaps really giving up violence and really taking up childcare. Such a transformation would entail deconstructing dominant forms of men, and specifically WHAMs (white, heterosexual, able-bodied men). It might also involve facing the possibility of the end of men. By this, I do not mean any kind of genocide; nor a movement to androgyny. Rather, it is the possibility of the abolition of the social category of men as a serious political force; and the paradox that men may consciously reduce gender power by defining themselves other than as men. For this to happen will necessitate men losing identification with power, whether through practice at home or through pro-feminist global organising, as in the men's anti-violence White Ribbon Campaign established in Canada following the 1989 Montreal Ecole Polytechnique massacre of 14 women ("because they were feminists"), and now growing globally. So the vision is a world without men's violence, and thus without men as we know them.

Most likely is some uneven combination of these four futures.

Feminism has taught us many things, though men keep ignoring or forgetting most of them. One is that gender relations are not "just natural", but social and historical; accordingly, we may best think about the future through the past and the present, not through some idealist, romanticised or biological conception of how women and men are "naturally" meant to be. Changing future gender relations involves changing men; changing men involves deconstructing men and men's power; deconstructing men and men's power may involve the abolition of the category of men. Is the new millennium the time (at last) for men to change?

Jeff Hearn is professorial research fellow, University of Manchester, and Donner professor in sociology, bo Akademi University, Finland.

* Gender studies books, page

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