How Toxic is Masculinity, and Whose Job Is it to Fix It?Historians in the News
tags: masculinity, feminism, patriarchy, womens history
en years ago, Hanna Rosin’s book, “The End of Men,” argued that feminism had largely achieved its aims, and that it was time to start worrying about the coming obsolescence of men. American women were getting more undergraduate and graduate degrees than American men, and were better placed to flourish in a “feminized” job market that prized communication and flexibility. For the first time in American history, they were outnumbering men in the workplace. “The modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards,” Rosin wrote.
The events of the past decade—the rise of Trump, the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the overturning of Roe v. Wade—have had a sobering effect on this sort of triumphalism. The general tone of feminist rhetoric has grown distinctly tougher and more cynical. Cheerful slogans about the femaleness of the future have receded; the word “patriarchy,” formerly the preserve of women’s-studies professors, has entered the common culture. Last year, in an article about women’s exodus from their jobs during the pandemic, Rosin recanted her previous thesis and apologized for its “tragic naïveté.” “It’s now painfully obvious that the mass entry of women into the workforce was rigged from the beginning,” she wrote. “American work culture has always conspired to keep professional women out and working-class women shackled.”
Men, especially conservative men, continue to wring their hands over the male condition, of course. (Tucker Carlson appropriated the title of Rosin’s book for a documentary, advertised this past spring, about plummeting sperm counts.) But feminist patience for “twilight of the penis” stories has run out. “All that time they spend snivelling about how hard it is to be a poor persecuted man nowadays is just a way of adroitly shirking their responsibility to make themselves a little less the pure products of patriarchy,” Pauline Harmange wrote in her 2020 screed, “I Hate Men.” More recently, the British journalist Laurie Penny, in her “Sexual Revolution” (Bloomsbury), notes the systemic underpinnings of such snivels: “The assumption that oozes from every open pore of straight patriarchal culture is that women are expected to tolerate pain, fear and frustration—but male pain, by contrast, is intolerable.” Penny is careful to distinguish hatred of masculinity from hatred of men, but she nonetheless defines the fundamental political struggle of our time as a contest between feminism and white heterosexual male supremacy. In “Daddy Issues” (Verso), Katherine Angel calls for #MeToo-era feminists to turn their attention to long-overlooked paternal delinquencies. If the patriarchy is to be defeated, she argues, women’s reluctance to criticize their male parents must be interrogated and overcome. Even the “modern, civilized father” must be “kept on the hook,” she recommends, and daughters must reckon with their “desire for retribution, revenge and punishment.”
The combative tone taken by these writers is hardly a surprise. One might argue that a movement currently scrambling to defend some vestige of women’s reproductive rights can be forgiven for not being especially solicitous of men’s sperm counts. One might argue that it isn’t feminism’s job to worry about how men are doing—any more than it’s the job of hens to fret about the condition of foxes. But two recent books claim otherwise. “A History of Masculinity: From Patriarchy to Gender Justice” (Allen Lane), by the French historian Ivan Jablonka, and “What Do Men Want?: Masculinity and Its Discontents” (Allen Lane), by Nina Power, a British columnist with a background in philosophy, both contend that the drift toward zero-sum war-of-the-sexes language is a bad thing for feminism. Although their diagnoses of the problem are almost diametrically opposed, both authors make the case for a more generous and humane feminist discourse, capable of recognizing the suffering of men as well as of women. Hens, they acknowledge, have legitimate cause for resentment, but foxes have feelings, too.
Jablonka’s dense, copiously researched book, which became a surprise best-seller in France when it was published there, in 2019, takes an ambitious, key-to-all-mythologies approach to its subject. Jablonka, who is a professor at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, begins in the Upper Paleolithic, examining its mysterious, corpulent “Venus” figurines, and moves suavely across the millennia all the way to the successive waves of modern feminism. He has an eye for striking, often grim, details—under the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, a daughter might be killed as punishment for a murder committed by her father—and relishes drawing parallels across eras. From ancient times to the present day, it seems, the central totems of masculinity—weapons, locomotive vehicles, and meat (particularly rare meat)—have remained remarkably consistent. Likewise, from the fall of Rome to the Weimar Republic, men have consistently attributed political disaster and cultural decline to the corrupting influence of feminine values.
Jablonka’s thesis about how patriarchy arose is a fairly standard one. Paleolithic societies already had a sexual division of labor—Spanish cave paintings from as early as 10,000 B.C. show male archers hunting and women gathering honey—but it was relatively benign. In the Neolithic era, with the advent of agriculture and the move away from nomadic existence, birth rates increased and women became confined to the domestic sphere, while men started to own land. From then on, each new development, be it metal weapons, the rise of the state, or even the birth of writing, further entrenched the power of men and the subjugation of women.
Until now, that is. “Patriarchy has declined,” according to Jablonka, but men remain caught in “pathologies of the masculine,” trying to live up to a symbolic role that doesn’t reflect their reduced dominance. The result is an “almost tragic” level of alienation, he writes, and feminists, instead of mocking or dismissing male anguish—thereby leaving men vulnerable to the revanchist fantasies of Tucker Carlson and his ilk—should recognize this moment as a crucial recruitment opportunity. Now is the time to convince men that their “obligatory model of virility” has immiserated them far more than it has empowered them. “The masculinity of domination pays, but it comes at a high cost: an insecure ego, puerile vanity, disinterest in reading and the life of the mind, atrophied inner life, the narrowing of social opportunities . . . and to top it all, a diminished life expectancy.”