“Phew! International Men’s Day is finally over. We had a quiet one this year. Just friends and family at home, sexually harassing each other over a large goose. We pulled crackers and inside each was a Polly Toynbee quote, which we read out in a mocking ladyvoice. Then the traditional afternoon walk: so nice to see other men out in the park, flashing. We flashed the vicar and he good-naturedly flashed back and even gave himself a little wank. Then we stopped off at the police station to see if there were any crimes being reported by women for us to disbelieve. Finally, after beating each other up outside a bus stop, we all drunkenly wobbled home to read Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and commit suicide. Roll on next year!”
A little unfair perhaps. There again, the notion of a special day devoted to men is less likely to provoke the sorry list of crimes and stereotypes above as it is to inspire a shrug. International what day? Don’t they get quite a few days as it is? Radio 4’s That Mitchell and Webb Sound once featured a sketch called “Man’s Hour” where a well-intentioned man asked his co-presenter if he’d seen any movies lately featuring men or of particular interest to men.
“Yeah, I have actually.”
“Well, all of ’em.”
“Right… I suppose we’d better talk about prostate cancer again.”
In fact, the point of International Men’s Day on 19 November is to highlight those areas where men disproportionately need help rather than disproportionately cause trouble. It will be pointed out to me that it is “no laughing matter” that three out of four suicides are male. It is also true that the overwhelming majority of murders are perpetrated by men and I can’t say my sides are splitting about that either. The two things are linked, but the problem with IMD is that these serious issues attract the attention of some deeply unserious people.
Two categories: let’s call them “men’s groups” and “men’s rights groups”. Apparently synonymous, to separate them is like distinguishing between a mature political party and a fascist rabble. One, ideally, is interested in seeking the causes of problems and actually doing something about them; the other is a self-pitying and ultimately self-harming exercise in hatey grievance-mongering. So within that first category I’m thinking of Calm (the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a male suicide prevention charity) and Great Men (a group of volunteers running workshops in schools to challenge gender beliefs that are damaging to both boys and girls) as two outstanding examples. And what you notice is that these guys manage to care very deeply about male well-being without coming off like a noxious bunch of anti-feminist cranks.
Which brings us to the second category. Who wrote this? “You see, I find you, as a feminist, to be a loathsome, vile piece of human garbage. I find you so pernicious and repugnant that the idea of fucking your shit up gives me an erection.” Yikes! And this: “Should I be called to sit on a jury for a rape trial, I vow publicly to vote not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the charges are true.” Ooh.
These are the public musings of Paul Elam, generally considered to be the “father” of the modern men’s rights movement and founder of one of its more respectable websites. Paul shows up in The Red Pill, Cassie Jaye’s cack-handed and helplessly partial documentary about people like Paul which claims to be entirely objective despite being part-funded by its subjects. Her Kickstarter appeal received a huge boost from a sympathetic interview with Milo Yiannopoulos, then of Breitbart News. Sadly, we don’t hear so much from the Nazi-befriending and paedo-curious Milo these days, but it’s hard to ignore the mutual support and interlinking beliefs of the men’s rights movement in America and the alt-right.
To inspect these forums and websites is to enter the lonely world of the conspiracy theorist. For them, this Godless universe has to contain a supervising evil power that isn’t on their side but at least cares enough to want to fuck them over. The alternative is intolerable. For some people, it’s the intelligence services that are all-powerful. For Nigel Farage, it’s the EU and, judging from his recent statements, Jews. For the hard right, it’s the liberal media and Jews. For the hard left, its neocons, neoliberals and Zionists (ie Jews and neo-Jews). For the men’s rights movement it’s often Jews but, refreshingly, it’s mainly feminists.
Given the painful but self-evident truth that most of society’s problems are caused by the mistakes of men (because we still control most of the stuff and because we often do so according to the warped expectations of masculinity), the paranoid men’s rights mentality has no choice but to project itself on to its critics. So for these guys it is feminists who are the conspiracists and our own supervising evil power is “the patriarchy”: a concept we have conjured from thin air because we’re in denial about the reality of female privilege. Know the men’s rights activists by their rambling vlogs and indoor hats; their meaningful “just let that sink in” pauses and their frequent little pantomimes of forced patience as if explaining to a stubborn eight-year-old for the umpteenth time that two plus two equals five. And the rage. The terrible, self-limiting rage. I would say that they doom themselves to the periphery by their own nastiness but then I remember who lives in the White House.
Even in Britain you find otherwise intelligent people expressing genuine concern about men’s issues while at the same time heartily recommending The Red Pill and using “feminist” as an insult. Guys: pick a team. You can lament the way our culture makes it harder for men to look after themselves emotionally or you can hate feminism, which has been saying exactly that for years… but you can’t do both. You can say that domestic abuse against men is under-reported or you can ask yourself why men find it particularly difficult to report. You can complain that boys are under-achieving in schools or you can question the unruly, disruptive, “reading is for queers”, “don’t be a girlie swot” stereotype that the culture still expects boys to perform. You can regret that men die younger or you can ask why so many of us seem to think it’s a woman’s job to tell us to go to the doctor.
In short, you can accept that men get into trouble at least partly because masculinity writes a series of cheques that we can’t cash, or you can carry on whining about the remake of Ghostbusters.
The objectives of male well-being and women’s equality are inseparable. Masculinity expects men to be a) too tough to ask for help because b) that’s what a woman would do. Once we understand that gender is taught, we might not take it so personally when that teaching is criticised. Instead we still have a culture where the emotional sphere, the place where we can recognise our feelings and nurture our relationships, is still associated with women and still relatively despised. Some of those enthusiasts for International Men’s Day who complain about stereotypes on TV of clueless dads Sellotaping their fingers together when trying to wrap Christmas presents are the same guys who think women do it better because they are innately decorative and caring rather than because they’ve had more practice.
Men are still massively over-represented at the top of politics, the law, finance etc, but at the first whiff of progress for women you find a tag team of volunteers ready to hurl themselves into the path of a speeding glacier. “It’s OK lads, I’ve got this! There’s a #MeToo hashtag that seems to be shifting attitudes imperceptibly towards some notion of equality and mutual respect! So this would be the moment to point out that Magda Goebbels was a real arsehole and ask how the human race can survive if we’re no longer allowed to corner women in dark corridors and jizz into a plant pot.”
International Men’s Day could and should be just like Christmas: a celebration of shared humanity. But it’s also a time when we spare a thought for those of us especially vulnerable to the cold and the dark.
I was there too.
“How Not to Be a Boy” is out now (Canongate). Calm is at thecalmzone.net and the Good Lad Initiative, which runs Great Men, is running a fundraising campaign here.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special