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16 February 2022

“Men are trapped in a gender prison”: Ivan Jablonka on the crisis of modern masculinity

Observing that many men are resistant to social change, the French historian wants to reimagine the cultures and norms that shape ideas of the “male self”.

By Freddie Hayward

During his childhood, the French social historian Ivan Jablonka rarely saw his father cook. It was a traditional and sometimes unhappy family set-up. His father worked as a nuclear physics engineer and his mother taught literature at a secondary school. While his father would occasionally change Ivan’s nappies, as a husband he wouldn’t share in the household chores. When he was upset, he sometimes turned violent and beat his son.

Speaking to me from his home study in Paris, Jablonka told me his father was orphaned by the Holocaust. “His parents – my grandparents – were murdered during the Second World War, and as an orphan he embodied this figure of masculine vulnerability.” This complicated Jablonka’s childhood because he was both under the influence of a traditional male role model and aware of his father’s shortcomings. “I could feel that as an orphan my father was weak – he was fragile; he was weak.”

After the publication in 2019 of Jablonka’s book, Des hommes justes: Du patriarcat aux nouvelles masculinités, his father, who is now aged 82, visited him. “My father came to me and said: ‘You know, I think that I was a “problem father”.’ This expression was interesting,” Jablonka told me. “He meant not only a father who had personal problems, but also a father for whom masculinity itself was a problem. And I inherited this reflection.”

With his silvery hair swept to the side and wearing black-rimmed glasses, Jablonka, 48, has the look of a tech entrepreneur rather than an academic. He graduated from Paris’s prestigious École normale supérieure and eventually became a professor at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, where his research topics have included gender violence, masculinity and the Holocaust.

In 2016 Jablonka won the prestigious Prix Médicis for his book Laëtitia, ou La fin des hommes, which recounted the real-life murder of an 18-year-old woman. The book forced him to confront the question of what a “just man” was: could masculinity and justice be reconciled? Soon after, in Paris’s bars and cafés, Jablonka began to write Des hommes justes, which became a surprise bestseller in France.

His work has now found a much wider audience: a lucid English translation by Nathan Bracher was published at the start of February, entitled A History of Masculinity: From Patriarchy to Gender Justice. Jablonka’s study of masculinity, by which he means the cultures, institutions and norms that shape ideas of the “male self”, begins in the Palaeolithic period. He traces how the unequal division of labour kept women in the home, having and raising children, while men were free to hoard resources and pursue power. Over millennia, a patriarchal system that benefited the majority of men was established, bolstered by a masculine culture of domination through which women were subjected to sexual violence and sexist stereotypes.

In the second part of the book, Jablonka explains why traditional concepts of masculinity are outdated and harmful. He argues that the value societies place on traditional masculinity serves to undermine and control not only women but also men whose masculinity is deemed illegitimate. Jablonka calls on men to rid masculinity of its “pathological tendencies”: he points to sexual violence, discrimination in the workplace and sexist stereotypes as perversions of masculinity that need to be excised. To combat this, he proposes a new form of gender ethics that starts with sharing household chores and listening to what women say.

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Jablonka does not want to abandon masculinity completely, but rather make it compatible with gender equality. He argues that men are suffering under the traditional conception of masculinity and must redefine it to keep up with a changing society. While the 20th century brought feminist progress, it was also a period of masculine decay. Deindustrialisation stripped men of their role as breadwinners. In many societies, suicide rates for men are several times higher than for women, and since the 1970s, this disparity has widened in the US, Japan and several European countries.

[see also: Why do students still want Jordan Peterson to tell them how to live?]

Today, masculinity is often portrayed as being in a state of crisis, with some men seeking to push back against what they see as an attack on the traditional standards of manliness. Personalities such as the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson have attracted huge support from young men looking for answers about how to live and behave.

“It seems to me that the lives of so many men are poor, are narrow,” Jablonka told me. “So many men are imprisoned in what I would call a gender prison, with the model of compulsory virility, the model of hyper-masculinity and what we should call a ‘male alienation’… This male alienation can be summed up with social facts, such as the shrinking of psychological life, or addictions, or car accidents, or suicides, and so on.” The result, as Jablonka argues in his book, is that some “men are worried about no longer being dominant”.

This fear breeds inertia. Jablonka believes that many men resist social change and act as their grandfathers did. “The truth is that many men still live in what I would call the ‘old world’… The risk is less of being an alpha male than of being an archaic man, shaped by patriarchy and completely overwhelmed by the march of society.” Jablonka thinks that men, stuck in a bygone era, no longer embody modernity. Instead, women are the archetypes of freedom and equality.

Jablonka’s solution is to task men with stripping masculinity of its misogyny. He argues that there are a “thousand ways of being a man”, and that enabling men to express their gender in multiple ways can help build a culture that supports gender equality. “If a man wants to drive a fast car or a motorcycle, or eat meat, or have a knife in his pocket to cut wood in the woods, well, I don’t care… A man can be the man he wants – provided that [his form of] masculinity doesn’t rhyme with misogyny or homophobia.”

He takes comfort in the example set by a younger generation more open to different expressions of gender and sexuality, which he thinks partly demonstrates a “distrust of patriarchy”. He cited the Korean band BTS as an example of young people challenging traditional conceptions of masculinity. “I can feel that it’s a real issue for young people and something they feel they must reflect upon. I can feel that there is something new in the air and it makes me more optimistic.”

Whether masculinity can become compatible with social progress is a personal question for Jablonka. He has three daughters, aged eight, 13 and 17. “For me, equality is no longer a theoretical word,” he said. “As a father of three daughters, equality became a daily struggle and a very concrete challenge. So, I wrote the book for men’s use, but also for the sake of my own daughters… I would like to change the world for the sake of my daughters, because I would like a safer and happier world for us, but also for them.”

Jablonka used this conviction to steel himself against some of the criticism his book received in France. On the right, “people would sneer at the book in a condescending tone and say I had undertaken a kind of feminist act of contrition”, Jablonka said, while on the left, “people were upset that a straight, white man dares to take part in the debate”.

But Jablonka rejects the notion that feminism is solely for women. “Equality of the sexes very much concerns men,” he writes in the book. “The problem is not of sex, but of gender; it is not about biology but rather about culture. As such, everyone can fight against it: feminism is a political choice.”

[see also: Whose freedom?]

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War