Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Challenge for feminism to find an honourable role for men
It’s the Great Man’s birthday bash and we mill, harbourside, in the summer evening. A thin, acidic woman, herself a Great Man’s spouse, gestures towards their emeritus congregation.
“They’re finished,” she declares without pity. “The lot of them, those old blokes, they’re over. It’s our turn now.”
By “our” she didn’t mean the (slightly) younger generation of which she was also a member. She meant the Monstrous Regiment.
And, although “50/50 by 2020” remains both the cat-call of gender parity and, it is presumed, the acid test of feminism’s success, there are many signs that sourface is right. Men, it seems, if not altogether endangered, could do with a spot of affirmative action themselves.
It comes down to that old enigma: what do women want? But even that this has become the pivotal question is itself telling. Does feminism – do we – really want to feminise men?
Probably, on balance, not. Most women would say no, they’d rather have men as men. It’s just that women unleashed – as fully operating political, professional and economic (as well as personal) entities – have proved themselves so terrifyingly competent, there doesn’t seem to be much left for men to do.
Where once men were needed to bring home the bacon, sign the mortgage, smack the children’s bottoms as required and buy flowers three times a year, all this is done by the woman – except the smacking, which has been slotted into the tut-tut basket somewhere between sadism and paedophilia.
Fine, would be the expected male response. See you, then, we’re off, sailing round the world/climbing Everest/pursuing lost horizons. But in truth, not only is most of that Boy’s Own stuff done to impress women, research shows that even in divorce, even in bachelorhood, women fare better than men. In everything except muscle, it seems, men are genuinely the weaker sex.
This is a turn-up. It’s as if women’s power could only grow by sucking it from men. And as if, having gained power, women cannot stop themselves, even when it’s not what they want, using it to remake men and boys in their own image.
This urge to force others into conformity with oneself is not unusual; to wit all forms of totalitarianism, political wars, religious evangelism, pro-life extremists and the anti-gay funeral picketers of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.
For it’s not that women, as mothers, teachers, wives and bosses, want to switch roles with men. It’s not like we’re staging a mass walkout from our child-rearing or home-making roles. Rather, it seems we want to be men and women, both, and we want men to do this also.
The effect – in terms of roles, but also looks, behaviours and even disease (with more women now suffering male-pattern disease, include reduced longevity) – is a gathering of both genders towards some central norm.
This is entirely unlike what happened under the patriarchy which, on the contrary, sent the genders to their corners, requiring each to be more intensively itself.
Broadly speaking, women seem happy with their newly expanded roles. What we don’t know – the experimental bit, if you like – is whether men, too, will happily learn the new dance steps. Or whether women’s super-competence will leave men emasculated, underperforming and disgruntled.
On the issue of power, there are always two significant questions; how it is acquired, and how it is used.
The appalling sexual assault of the CBS reporter Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square two weeks ago (and to be honest, the almost equally appalling five-day cover-up by her own news organisation) reminds us just how far feminism has brought us from a tribal, primate mentality that makes women fair game.
But even there, if you examine it carefully, is an assumption that men are the weak ones; too weak to resist their primitive urges, too weak to self-restrain. Too weak to manage anything more noble than punishing the woman for attracting them. Or perhaps for being attractive but not submissive.
Which brings me to the idea of chivalry, which I was recently surprised to find myself defending to my pre-teen daughter. She’d been tree-climbing with a friend (boy) and, having disturbed a nest of large, bitey ants, was indignant at having to be rescued by a combination of the boy and most of a full can of Mortein.
Her indignation was partly on the ants’ behalf but mostly for herself, and the near-intolerable humiliation of being thought girlie.
I found myself explaining (a) that it was actually quite nice to be helped, now and then, even by a boy, and (b) that accepting his help was a kindness to the boy. Boys – the modern girl is apt to overlook – need to impress, rather than be impressed.
Within 25 seconds I was aghast. Could I be saying this? Advising precisely the sort of screw-with-your-head faux-simpering femininity I’d spent my life eschewing?
It caused me to think again about chivalry. We have traditionally regarded the chivalric tradition as returning with the Crusaders from the gracious Moorish cultures of the Middle East – implausible as that now seems. Many scholars now, however, argue that chivalry came to Europe via the Alans, who occupied what is now Georgia, Orleans and Galicia and continued the mounted, armoured, woman-respecting traditions of the Black Sea Sarmatians.
Either way, chivalry is interesting because of its inherent paradox; a gracious, heroic, woman-respecting tradition that was roundly rejected by feminism as a patronising put-down.
But was that a misunderstanding? Those few gentlemen who remain are on the whole adored by even the most liberated women, door-opening notwithstanding. This is not just manners. It’s that James Bond thing of elegant manners gloving a power not exercised.
It’s no accident that the word chivalry comes to us from cheval, or horse. Women love horses for the same reason; the deep sex appeal of great power under equally great control.
To find an honourable role for men is not to regress feminism, but to advance it. The muscular control of men by women is, I would argue, a hallmark of civilisation and although under-control looses brumbies on the streets, over-control turns the horse into a donkey, or maybe a mule. Is that what women want?
CARTOON BY ROCCO FAZZARI