"Masculinity in crisis" cannot justify killing your family

Maybe it will be clearer in hindsight, but this murderous defence of privilege is shocking.

“Masculinity in crisis” is one of those rag-bag phrases that’s ended up meaning everything and nothing: GCSE results, Fight Club, rape culture, Homer Simpson, UniLAD, househusbands, Page Three, adverts for washing powder, female primary teachers, testicular cancer, single mothers, Rod Liddle, Fathers4Justice, depression, suicide, Diane Abbott, Family Guy… need I go on? It’s a phrase few people like. Men are patronised by it, laden as it is with double-edged pity. Women feel insulted by it, and pressured to apologise for advantages they do not have. And yet it’s a phrase that won’t go away. Masculinity is perpetually “in crisis”. Meanwhile, although we never get there, women are always assumed to be on the up. 

A study into “family annihilation” conducted by Birmingham City University criminologists has gone so far as to link our current “crisis in masculinity” to fathers murdering their own children. Quoted in the Guardian, project leader Professor David Wilson describes a pattern whereby “some men are unable to come to terms with different and developing notions of the institution of the family, where women increasingly play a much more dynamic role than they had in the past”. I don’t suspect Wilson of ulterior motives in saying this, nor do I feel he is making excuses for the 59 men studied by his team. All the same, I find the reporting of his conclusions shocking, particularly in the direct use of the “masculinity in crisis” phrase. 

If family annihilation is truly a reflection of such a crisis what should be our response? Is it meaningful to cling even more desperately to the tragic tale of manhood in decline, tossing glimmers of false hope in amongst all the resentment we thereby create, or should we be questioning the crisis itself? In granting validity to the story, regardless of whether we’re discussing Malteser adverts, family courts or slit throats, aren’t we making it a foregone conclusion that however privileged you are, you will notice only the things that aren’t yours any more?

I think if we were discussing something that happened a century ago we’d feel a greater sense of horror. Had middle-class men of the early twentieth century been murdering their children in order to punish disloyal wives, or due to feeling undermined by women getting the vote, we’d find the phrase “masculinity in crisis” somewhat weak as a description. We’d recognise that this is not simply a situation in which something has been done to privileged men, leaving them unable to cope in a brave new world. We’d see, writ large, the hatefulness of the power relationships such men were seeking to preserve. We’d find it monstrous. And yet the modern-day “masculinity in crisis” narrative has eased itself in so slowly, and so subtly, that it feels self-evident for a certain type of man to mourn the loss of a golden age that never was. It feels wrong to intrude on their grief, even when we’re feeding a myth that, in its worst manifestations, risks validating a murderous sense of ownership. 

Privilege takes many forms. White, cis, heterosexual, middle-class women such as myself have advantages that millions of men haven’t. Yet sexism and misogyny are real, and it strikes me that women sometimes have most to fear from men who will feel any loss of power, real or perceived, most keenly. The Birmingham City University team found that most family annihilators “were employed, including policemen or soldiers, and were not previously known to the criminal justice system”. The “masculinity in crisis” thesis so often leads back to those men who have been able to benefit from being born male, and hence have more to lose. The male columnists who claim to speak on behalf of “the little man”, so harshly put-upon in our post-feminist age, are rarely little men themselves. 

If it is true that the journey is often better than the destination, then perhaps the slow, incremental gains that women make mark them out as privileged in a different way. We are the winners because we’re seen to be in the process of winning. Being an actual winner is, of course, profoundly dissatisfying. It doesn’t feel like victory. It just feels the way things should be, and the “masculinity in crisis” story pretends that it is. The “masculinity in crisis” story positions men as losers. It short-circuits attempts to understand gender relationships in ways that are not based on possession and loss. Women and men, and their children, deserve better than this.

A police line. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt