"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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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution