Misogynist, woman-hater, rapist, selfish bastard, sexist pig, patriarchal git, controlling, domineering, overbearing, ambition-quashing male, and more. Sounds familiar? I’m sure it does. The recent dropping of charges against Dominique Strauss Kahn for the attempted rape of a hotel maid resurrected such terms on the tongues of many, even if his star remains undimmed for others. Yet most of us have been well-groomed to observe the ways modern man on the loose, sometimes by vigilant teachers in school, but also during third level modules designed to promote gender-justice in society, by helping students to interpret other kinds of messaging about the legacy of patriarchy.
But. And there is a ‘but’. On the most superficial level, all you have to do is observe the television advertising which depicts men as helpless, silly and generally ineffective primates on the loose. Women, on the other hand, are sassy, clever, indelibly marked E for Erotic, and generally all-knowing creatures. But surely what was funny and relevant once, has long passed its sell-by date, just as thinking on gender has evolved and needs to be addressed in a different way. Although I belong to the cohort interested in women’s rights in particular, and will never, ever, understand why ‘good’ men don’t organise themselves politically to protest against the rapes, the violence, the assaults, the flagrant, foul conniving that affects women who might well be one of their sisters, mothers, wives or girlfriends, it’s hard not to also observe that today, Western men are getting a raw deal.
So as 2011 draws to a sorry close, here’s to good men, who do not rape, pillage, overwhelm, disempower, control, silence or intimidate, because they number millions, and frequently struggle to do the right thing at the right time, never quite comfortable with the notion of ‘choice’ because they are attached to a system that encourages them to work till they drop (usually within two years of retirement), and because work is synonymous with ‘masculinity’ and achievement. And of course it’s a truism that work does generate a sense of achievement, that it’s healthy to work and healthy to feel the knife edge of competition from time to time. But if men are expected to be all things to all people at all times, (which ironically is what women often believe about themselves, especially once they marry and become parents, and even when they don’t marry but perhaps have to care for an elderly parent), the price is surely high.
And perhaps because that price is high, it is so altitudinally dizzying that nobody really addresses it, least of all men themselves. Who among us today does not know some man whose marriage has ended, who supports an ex-wife (working or not) and children, has a mortgage and/or rent to pay, and who lives with the legal fall-out of the division of spoils and the custody agreement? Who among us today does not know some guy whose job and entire way of life has also been pulled from beneath him, and who must still attempt to do all of the above? Hang on, I hear you protest, but aren’t women doing exactly the same thing?
Indeed they are, but the thing is, things never resolve as squeakily-clean as they appear on legal parchment. Rules are frequently bent, rancour often increases exponentially the further from the marriage the woman moves, (especially if the man starts up a new relationship) and once an ex-wife decides her husband is all of the things described in paragraph one above, this can turn his life into an emotional and financial hell. Not only is he supporting her expenses, their children (to the last cent, even if she too works), but, like Oliver Twist with his empty gruel-bowl, an ex can keep returning to court to ask for more as ‘living expenses’ mount. The person perceived by law to be in the weaker position can pull off an Oscar-winning performance playing the victim, the helpless one, the Mother of all Mothers. We all know this to be the case and it is a lie to state otherwise. There are men of integrity everywhere, who genuinely want to do the right thing, even after a marriage has ended, yet it sometimes seems as if they live largely unsupported and unacknowledged within our victim-supporting society. Yet the meme persists that men are programmed to be bastards and that women are incapable of Bitchdom.
Neither statement is true, of course. For all the women who put in the hours after work doing the domestic tidy-up/meal preparation/ironing stint, there are men who somehow never make it into the reported statistics on how they pull their weight domestically: the putting out of bins, the de-hairing of shower plug-holes, the unblocking of toilets and sewage, the fixing, screwing, DIY, and yes – the meal preparation too. In this vexed area of modern coupledom, it appears that men have been written out of the story, unless their role is obstructive.
Then there is the much-mentioned verbal silence men allegedly prefer, an apparent inability to emote as women do. Why is this a problem? After all, it’s not a crippling disease, or a psychological malfunction, so much as another way of behaving, a manner of managing and responding to the world. Mind you, the number of silent men around seems few and far between, but on the question of feelings they definitely don’t wash, starch, tumble-dry and iron them with the alacrity and self-referential quality of some women.
The film ‘American Beauty’ portrayed so many silences in male experience, and the great pain that punctures human male potential – from the silence of the protagonist’s marriage, to the tragic silence of the gay, ex-military father next door. Stack ‘American Beauty’ alongside ‘Thelma and Louise’ and you can book-end the two arguments regarding the liberation moods of two different decades. In the former, the crushing stress of being a conforming working male who is completely taken for granted is highlighted, while in the latter, the crushing weight of the worst aspects of patriarchy and the way the two women resist it made me cheer at the time.
But outside Red Carpet Land, in the grubby, unrecorded, day-to-day cycle of survival, men in Ireland today are working, or trying to find work. They are being good lovers, good fathers, good sons, good mates and generally good guys. This does not imply women do not also tick these boxes (lovers, mothers, daughters, friends etc. etc), but it suggests that the current view of the male at large may need some adjusting. Women know that most men probably do believe themselves to be more equal; men have possibly got the message that women have a pretty high sense of their own value too; but in all the received ideas about men and their capacities, it’s possible to overlook the fact that they may actually be sentient humans of incredible tenacity, who have evolved with an added need to protect the vulnerable and fend for the weak. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising. It isn’t intended to be, more an acknowledgement of the way male energy has also shaped our world and made it sparkle. To dampen down what is distinctly male, would be an incredible loss to women, because quite often it is in difference that the beautiful tension of male-female relating is at its best. That male energy is so often perverted into teenager-to-teenager status wars, whether in the streets, or on the global warfront where mere boys are allowed to tote bazookas, that it is also perverted into the impulse to violate and rape, is one of the sorry legacies of our time, but one which points to the exploitation of the nobility of men (mostly by other males).
In an ideal society, we would harness gender difference in the best possible way, with none of the violence so often associated with it, and none of the cunning victim games either. Let’s give ourselves a break by giving men a break.