In a world in flux, what’s the point of men?

As women continue to make inroads into places that were once bastions of male privilege, men are needing to define themselves anew.
Disgraced American football player Ray Rice and his wife Janay Palmer. Andrew Burton / Getty Images
Disgraced American football player Ray Rice and his wife Janay Palmer. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

The man stands by the open elevator door, clutching a purse in one hand as he reaches over his fiancée’s supine body to pick up the shoe that has fallen off her foot. He nudges her midsection, to get her out of the way of the closing door, before swinging her feet out of the way. He half-heartedly attempts to lift her up before a bystander – a hotel employee – comes along, and he roughly drops her back to the floor. The woman sits up groggily and the three figures – the man, the woman and the bystander – engage in a slowly moving tableau of equivocation, confusion and disorder. The man paces, the woman rocks back and forth on the floor and the bystander calls for assistance. Another figure, possibly a friend, comes along and helps the woman off the floor and half-carries her out of sight. The man half-heartedly offers the woman a hand, and she slaps it away.

The man, as nearly everyone in the United States knows by now, is the American football player Ray Rice. His then-fiancée, now-wife Janay was blocking that elevator door because he had just knocked her unconscious. The case was major sports news when it first came to light, with Rice suspended for two games of the current football season. Then it was a national scandal, when the videotaped footage from inside the elevator was leaked to the press, and the National Football League was excoriated for its sloppy and classless handling of the incident. But the images that played on an unending loop in the mind’s eye were that vicious punch and the sight of Rice, only seconds later, calmly moving his fiancée out of the way of that elevator door.

The story of 2014, around the world, was a familiar one: women abused, women assaulted, women attacked. The Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram abducted 276 teenage girls from a school in Borno State and fled with most of them to the remote forest, their fate still unknown. Young Muslim women, many from Europe, went to Syria to join up with ISIL. ISIL has gone so far as to enslave the women it captures, sexually abusing them before selling them in slave markets in Raqqa and Mosul, while other women were forcibly prevented from continuing in their professions. The Taliban stoned women to death and shot prominent female politicians in Afghanistan. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, increasingly outspoken about his version of traditional values, declared last month that “you cannot put men and women on an equal footing … it’s against nature”.

Disdain for women, and a hidden legacy of violence, was hardly constrained to the Muslim world, or Islamic radicalism. The American comedian Bill Cosby was accused of rape and sexual assault by, at last count, 19 different women. Discussion of sexual assault on college campuses and in the American military reached fever pitch, most prominently in the recent controversy over an allegation of gang rape by fraternity members at the University of Virginia. The US Supreme Court ruled, in Burwell v Hobby Lobby, that American corporations could choose to opt out of paying for their female employees’ contraceptive coverage if it contradicted their religious beliefs. Women were in the cross-hairs.

But we could just as easily, and perhaps more usefully, turn around and argue that the story of 2014 was one about men: men scorned, men angry, men defending what they had come to see as their natural privileges against a late-breaking onset of female assertiveness. From the halls of the US Congress to the streets of Tikrit to Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in southern California because of the “oppressive feminist system” that made him an “involuntary celibate,” to the clammy caves of Twitter, where the perilously confusing video-game imbroglio known as Gamergate unfolded, men were lashing out in 2014, demanding to maintain the status quo in word and deed, even when the status quo they sought to maintain was an entirely fabricated construction.

Men were being singled out for blame for the very things some of them had been doing since, well, forever: treating women as their sexual playthings, acting as the unquestioned rulers of fiefdoms large and small, offering a kind of rough justice to the women and children under their rule. The rules were changing, and masculinity itself was in crisis. Who were men supposed to be? Who should they become?

Into this fray steps contrarian cultural critic and essayist Laura Kipnis, whose previous books include such argument starters as Against Love: A Polemic and How to Become a Scandal. Kipnis’s Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation lives up to its arch title, studying an impressive array of deadbeats, malcontents, whiners and flakes in the hopes of coming to an understanding of the wayward male. Tiger Woods, Harold Bloom, Anthony Weiner and John Edwards are just some of the controversial figures placed under the microscope, but Kipnis’s interest is less in castigation (all of these men have already received their fair share) than in treating masculinity, in all its variegated forms, as an alluring but alien lifeform, to be studied and deconstructed. Kipnis, who has previously written about the undying appeal of scandal, closed her book too early to pen responses to most of 2014’s juiciest scandals, but the basic form – misbehaving men and the women who love them too much – hardly changes.

Feminism has meant women crossing over into traditionally masculine territory, as breadwinners and heads of households and independent operators. This has been, in nearly all respects, an unalloyed victory for the women themselves, freed from the often-confining roles of daughter and wife and mother, one after the other until death. But what of men? If men are not to be protectors of women and unquestioned authorities in their homes, who are they to be? In much of the West, we are in the midst of Kipnis’s “massive social and economic transformation”, in which men are being quietly retrained. And the fundamentalism of ISIL and the Taliban is, in large part, about bloodily defending a vision of manhood triumphant, of women relegated to the shadows.

2014 was also the 75th anniversary of Stagecoach, the classic John Ford Western that introduced a former football player and bit-part actor named John Wayne to a mass audience. This past year also marked the publication of a well-regarded Wayne biography by Scott Eyman, and his return raised a panoply of questions: was it still possible to be John Wayne? Was being John Wayne something to aspire to? (It turned out, alas, that even John Wayne was not really John Wayne; he was Marion Morrison, neurotic actor, imitating the manly icon, and only belatedly confusing himself with his most famous role.)

Feminism told men who they were not to be, but failed to provide much guidance about who they should become. And no parallel movement – masculinism? – arose to guide men away from some of their more self-destructive impulses. Watching John Wayne taught us less about being a man than quietly reminding us that manhood, too, was a ­performance.

From this perspective, much of contemporary politics suddenly snaps into focus. Masculine bluster is an advertising strategy, a campaign often intended to distract attention from the threadbareness of the ideas on display. The Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s impulsive annexation of the Crimea and disastrous showdown with the West were expressions of classical strongman behaviour – a self-appointed manly man intent on forcefully leading Mother Russia, a country that, he worried, might otherwise devolve into feminine dissipation. Putin’s flailing was that of a leader who once released a campaign video of himself riding a horse shirtless and once shot a tiger with a tranquiliser dart. In a recent New Yorker profile of German chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin looses his black Labrador retriever on Merkel, knowing she is afraid of dogs. Merkel is quoted telling reporters, devastatingly: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man … He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

Male authority is craved and resented, all at once. The guiding hand only too easily becomes the restraining fist. The Arab Spring, in this light, could be understood as a belated rebellion on the part of abused children against a tyrannous father. The yearning for order was too deep-rooted to be dismissed so easily; Egypt soon replaced one strongman, Hosni Mubarak, with another, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a man who plays off similarly subtlety-free ­Putin-esque iconography, depicting himself as personally wrestling the feared Muslim Brotherhood into submission. Even the homegrown animus against US president Barack Obama can be understood, in part, as a buried frustration on the part of some voters with his determination not to play the cocky, ever-confident leader role. No flight suits for him.

Gamergate was the strangest of all. Beginning as a modestly constructive critique of the all-too-cozy relationship between video-game designers and the journalists who covered them, it soon devolved into a crude online attack on female gamers and game designers, seen as infecting a safely masculine corner of contemporary culture with unwanted political meaning. Gamergate was a bizarre amalgam of backlash politics and consumer dissatisfaction, born of a quasi-infantile desire to protect video games from the clammy hands of women intent on spoiling the fun. Any attempt to change the violent status quo, or create games that might appeal to a wider audience, was an assault on a safe space for (geeky) men. For these distressed gamers, it was masculinity that was under fire from a feminism intent on eliminating all opponents.

This defensive masculinity was an expression of a conservatism that saw itself as perpetually beleaguered, always in danger of being swept away by the winds of change. “Punishing imagined inferiors, subjecting victims to the same capricious abuses you yourself have suffered”: Kipnis describes combative literary critic Dale Peck’s brand of literary criticism in terms that could just as easily apply to the angry gamers or ISIL fighters. “Well, here’s a creative solution to a stored-up history of persecution, at least: counteracting its effects by deflecting them elsewhere.”

This is all, of course, Hillary Clinton’s fault. OK, it isn’t, but Hillary and her much-expected presidential campaign serve as a bellwether of the peculiarly tangled relationship of the personal and the political when it comes to gender. The male right-wing ideologues whose Hillary scare manuals Kipnis reviews/decodes in Men illogically associate her with Communist dictators and concentration camps, and Kipnis wonders what it is about Hillary that inspires such deranged antipathy. Since her husband’s time as president, and her failed bid to oversee American health-care reform, Hillary has come to represent, for a certain conspiracy-minded perspective, the fear of womanhood ascendant, tyranny in sensible heels.

Her status as the early front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination has reactivated the panicmongers intent on transforming Hillary into a dictator-in-waiting. Kipnis summons Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur to describe the “human malaise” whereby, in Kipnis’s description, “men rule the world and women rule over childhood, and mothers are the ‘first despots’ in our lives”.

In order to mature, children must overthrow the tyranny of the mother, making them reluctant to return that power to mother figures. While there will likely never be a “national Cambodian re-education camp for anyone caught wearing an Adam Smith necktie or scarf” in the United States, there is something undeniably revealing about the anxiety that creates such fever dreams.

Kipnis reminds us, in her expert undermining of the Hillary mouth-breathers, that the crisis of masculinity takes place simultaneously on the largest and smallest stages. Women are banging on the doors of corporate boardrooms, demanding to attend school and hold down jobs and drive cars, but they are also requesting some respite, at long last, from the endless drudgery of the nursery and the kitchen. We are at a moment where, in sharp contrast to much of recorded history, women are demanding a change to the familiar business of child-rearing and homemaking. Men are losing ground, or so it seems to those of them intent on protecting masculine privilege at all costs. “The historic distribution of power between the sexes is being revamped, power is a subject that cuts deep, and the male psyche is feeling a little embattled,” Kipnis notes. “Change hurts; loss rankles.”

Contemporary feminism defines womanhood in terms of the ground it seeks to make up: higher salaries, more respect, more self-determination, less verbal, emotional and sexual abuse. Feminism desires the status that men already have. So how can masculinity remove itself from its defensive crouch, intent on denying women what they want, and become a positive force in its own right? Nappies.


The solution, Kipnis gently suggests, lies less in socialist utopias than in the far more prosaic field of childcare. Perhaps if fathers shared more of the burden of childcare – changing nappies, warming bottles, preparing dinners and lunches and breakfasts – the tyrants of childhood to be overthrown would no longer be explicitly feminine. Men who grow up seeing men, and not just women, as the despots of childhood might be less threatened when a woman seeks that corner office, or that White House. “Men aren’t going to give up ruling the world until women stop ruling over childhood,” Kipnis argues, “meaning that if political power is ever really going to be reapportioned between the sexes, child-rearing would have to be reapportioned too.”

While it would undoubtedly be amusing to have cameras follow president Erdogan as he chased after his grandchildren at bath time, the larger point is to end the artificial cutting off of half of humanity from the beneficial drudgery of caring for home and family. It is still possible, after spending an entire day caring for a sick, cranky baby, to look down on the responsibilities traditionally known as women’s work as inherently inferior to men’s work, but doing so requires a near-heroic degree of denial. It’s a lot harder to denigrate women after spending a day – or even an hour – in their shoes. Nappy duty will not be enough to change the world. But it may at least change the terms of the conversation.

“It’s been less than 50 years that women have been freed from at least some of the consequences of sexual expression. So what women are ‘by nature’,” Kipnis argues in her debate with conservative professor Harvey Mansfield, reprinted in Men, “I just think we don’t yet know.” Feminism feels like an elemental force of the contemporary world, and yet its ripple effects are only just starting to be felt. Some men lash out against what they fear with their brutal words and even more brutal fists; some have bought wholeheartedly into the new, more equitable ideal; many still remain on the sidelines. Who are men by nature? We don’t yet know.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM


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