“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.