Posted Under: Feminism,Gender Politics
Across the left there has been an explosion of mockery and outrage at the formation of men’s societies at Oxford and Manchester universities. This is, in part, because of the reputedly dubious activities of the Manchester men’s society in particular. Equally there has been an instinctive – and to some extent reasonable – reaction against the presumed idea that men’s societies can play an equivalent role to women’s groups within a society characterised by male privelege. Jim Jepps of the Daily (Maybe) has been amongst those leading the charge. Nonetheless, it is my contention that students’ mens societies have a potentially progressive – and perhaps even irreplaceable – role to play in the sphere of gender and in the struggle for male and female liberation.
Over on facebook, many of my friends and comrades have joined a group set up by a number of leading student lefties to protest the creation of mens groups. The reason given for such opposition is stark. The group description states, under the subheading of ‘why?’ that ‘men are not oppressed’ before listing the huge number of ways in which women genuinely are shafted by present social circumstances. As such it is suggested, there is no need for men to explore their interests as men.
Nobody with a brain would suggest the position of men in western society is remotely comparable to that of women. Yet with this said, relations between men and women cannot and certainly should not be understood in terms of two people sharing a cake. The fact that women have less does not mean that men universally and collectively have more. And while the gendered expectations that permeate our society are clearly most oppressive to women, this does not prevent the dominant notions of masculinity from bringing shame and unfreedom to the lives of men.
This all may seem a little abstract. Yet I am reminded of some government propaganda that I witnessed from the 1920s. With Britain gripped by an unprecendented wave of strikes, the Tory government tried to shame men into going back too work by telling the country that these hideous creatures were failing to ‘provide for their families’. A decade earlier the same men had been cojolled into the trenches with deeply gendered ideas of heroism and cowardice. The point here, is that while the ideas of men as providers or as soldiers have characteristically confirmed the subordinate position of women, these same ideas took a heavy toll on certain men. As the gender historian John Tosh reminds us, notions of masculinity do not simply mediate relations between men and women but between men and men. In these cases, masculinity was a tool through which the men of the ruling classes could shackle the men of the lower orders. Today a man who, like millions, loses his job is faced not only with material hardship but with the cultural onslaught that arises from his failure to live up to gendered expectations.
Relations between men and women are not, I repeat, a zero sum game. That men happen to be priveleged relative to women does not mean that men cannot have a legitimate interest in collectively addressing what it means to be a man.
And thus the stated aim of the Oxford Men’s Society is to explore the meaning of masculinity today. Now we may not expect them to come, necessarily, to the conclusions we would like -not least given rumours of ‘beer and top gear’ that surround the Manchester mens soc. Yet the fact that this question is being asked – and that a space is being created in which it can be asked, by men, is undoubtedly a step forward. If you doubt this, you need only consider the now-well-syndicated reaction of the loaded editor to the issue of men’s socs. In a statement – that for some fucked up reason was quoted approvingly by Jim JEPPS – the editor said, presumably in a deep voice:
“”I don’t think men are remotely confused about what it takes to be a man. They just get on and do it. My generation would not sit round and build a website about being confused. It’s complete navel-gazing bullshit.”
The implication is that men ‘just know’ what it is to be a man, as though it were something innate. Against this background, the idea that men might actually get together to discuss what masculinity, and perhaps even exersize some agency over its meaning surely opens an important door.
And the attitude expressed by some opponents of mens socs to the idea of men exploring masculinity is, i’m afraid, rather stupid if not appalling. On the front page of the anti-mens socs facebook group, prominence is given to comment by Kent Student Aaron Kiely, who tells mens soc members that ‘If you want to campaign on the issues of gender and identity, the LGBTQ society and liberation officers should be able to help you out.” His thoughts are echoed – again quoted approvingly – by another student who asserts that “since this is more a gender identity issue than one of a bias against men as men, I agree that it falls under the remit of the LGBTQ.”
Amazingly these people cannot imagine that heterosexual men have reasonable interest in discussing, let alone challenging the dominant gender norms. It is a view that is incredibly simplistic and in fact deeply pessimistic. It barely needs saying that the gender roles ascribed to both sexes are indterdependent and mutually reinforcing. And if people cannot percieve the need for the 90 odd per cent of men who are heterosexual to discuss and reconsider what it means to be a man, then there is little hope of liberation for any of us.