Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
How society turned modern men into bank managers
I have a male friend – safety demands his anonymity – who declared straight-faced the other day that just being a man is heroic. And yes, he is still a friend, but life is cruel. Only as my cyclonic laughter subsided did I see, through the tears, he was dead serious.
We’d been having one of those “men don’t have to behave like brutes” conversations. The refreshing breadth of roles available for modern men, blah blah. We’d got to the part where I wistfully summon the noble male hero meme then notice, even more wistfully, that all my examples are from fantasy. (Ishmael Chambers in Snow Falling on Cedars, John Procter in The Crucible, Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven, Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander); people (OK, men) who do the right thing even at great cost to themselves.
My friend’s thesis contained the unspoken qualifier “in society”: just being a man in society is heroic. What he meant was, the male primate drive to scatter seed far and wide makes Genghis Khan – whose trans-continental ploughing and furrowing is now calculated to have genetically marked th of contemporary humans – evolution’s Ur-male. In other words, just staying on the porch (as in, he’s a hard dog to keep on the) is a unceasing heroic act.
So I’m going, “Uh, let’s get this straight. Women want to have and nurture babies, so that’s not heroic. It’s not even a sacrifice, really, but an indulgence. Whereas men, in wanting something bestial, are heroic in just not, in just chaining the beast. I see some justice in the argument. Heroism requires struggle, no question. And it’s no struggle just to enact your urges, like falling into a warm bath.
Consider, though, the implications. First, women are deprived of even the capacity for heroism by the simple coincidence of their primal urges with the greater good. Talk about victims of your own success. To be heroic, this says, women must override their inner chimp and man up into Joan of Arcs or Boudicas, Ladies Macbeth or Thatcher.
Secondly, this makes society itself – the great bottler, if you will, of the urge-to-sperm – a female, or pro-female, construct. This I like. Counter-intuitive maybe, but it strikes me as an idea with potential, a bottle worth exploring, as bottles so often are. (See me after.)
But never mind women. We were talking, like I said, about men. In response to my friend’s Genghis thrust I parried the arch observation that in my experience most men – especially most husbands – are not warriors at heart but bank managers. If warrior selves they have, these are so profoundly cardiganed as to be vestigial at best, like the appendix. To which he says that’s the point. That’s what women have done to men. It’s what men have sacrificed.
Society, seen thus, is a fine endocrine equilibrium, a nesting-treaty between estrogen and testosterone, but tilted in estrogen’s favour. This, argues my friend, is the source of men’s anger; anger at women, at themselves, at society. Angry at what they must do to keep civilisation happening and babies protected.
Anger is a sign of distress and frustrated desire. This, he says, is what drives street brawls, football, domestic violence, war and the vast nastiness of internet porn.
Cultures that regard visible women as “uncovered meat” presume that men cannot, and cannot be expected to, discipline their sperm. Hence the burqa, the closet, the pumpkin shell. (Is terrorism so named, perhaps, not for its victims’ terror but for its perpetrators’ blinding fear of their own women?)
Western culture, once similar, has over recent centuries entirely about-faced, insisting first on fettering its men and then, latterly, on liberating its women, particularly regarding the pill, which totally threw the endocrine treaty out of whack.
War, continues the argument, has generally been driven not – as we tell the kids – by territory, with rape as a side dish. Rather, from the Latins to the Masai, war has been primarily about the right-to-rape, and express male anger like mother’s milk, with land and loot on the side.
And yet, these days, war is a cool and distant affair, fought by unmanned drones under order from some control centre in suburban Washington. Hardly the rape of
These days boys wear perfume and plait their hair while, even among
pre-teens, it’s the girls who aggress, picking partners, gathering courage, rehearsing nonchalance as though practising to be the cougars of
Confused? Perhaps entomology can assist. The male mantis, as you know, is selected by the female not for his amatorial adroitness but for his meal value – the mantis equivalent of the bank account. He can copulate even as the female digests his head and thorax. As Patrick O’Brien’s Stephen Maturin drily notes, “You do not need a head, nor even a heart, to be all a female can require.”
But perhaps this is no longer the way of things. Perhaps even Barack Obama’s death-drones signify a new fem-world order, clean, nest-centred, ruthless. Perhaps the future human insect is more like the phasmid, reproducing by parthenogenesis, calmly popping self-cloned eggs from her rear, while reserving the males as fashion items. Are men necessary?
I say yes. Accessorise!