I grew up in a small village in Wiltshire and my beloved dad Clive was always there. I remember him preparing dinner and giving fatherly advice to my brother and me, a constant, encouraging presence, often telling us that he loved us.
My father worked for 40 years as a dentist, never going into private hands because he wanted to provide free or at least affordable care for everyone. He is now 75 years old and retired, knows all the neighbors, is very practical and good at fixing things, and spends most of his time assembling folding dental chairs to ship to countries that need them.
As my dad reminds us, life isn’t always fair. However, life may have been simpler for the men of my father’s generation, who entered adulthood before the economy moved away from industry.
I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that in the current environment, many men, especially young men, feel lost and alienated. They struggle to establish themselves in a job market that increasingly values ”feminine” skills such as communication over manual labor; they also lost the respect that was traditionally awarded to the strong earner and protector, the “head of the family.”
And they have to deal with the fear that any romantic act of theirs can be misinterpreted and used to publicly shame them.
Cultural critic Nina Power says young people feel alienated in the current environment.
In my new book, What Do Men Want? I’m looking at masculinity in crisis. Modern realities such as capitalism, consumerism, and constant interconnectedness mean that the values that once held us together—family, religion, service, and honor—are receding. Some women have prospered, at least economically, in this brave new world, but by correcting a historical injustice, I believe we have somehow tipped the scales towards the idea that men as a class are inherently autocratic.
It’s just not true. In my experience, in my personal life and during my time teaching philosophy at university, most men are kind, thoughtful, self-aware, interested, and loving, as friends and partners. Perhaps I got lucky. But I suspect most women would say the same.
Now, thanks to Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, all men are accused of “toxic masculinity.” In the popular imagination, men are now cruel, selfish, greedy, misogynistic and empowered.
So many headlines lately have been about men’s crimes against women: not just Weinstein, but Jeffrey Epstein and others. For example, the murder of Sarah Everard, who was killed by a police officer who was supposed to be her protector. These stories are terrible. Listening to them, it’s hard not to be alarmed that such men fear or hate women. But we don’t have to start believing that all people do.
There is another old idea that feminists hate men. Neither is correct. It is true that the life of the average person is confusing.
Men are subject to a series of conflicting directives: they are told to take responsibility, be responsible, take the initiative; but at the same time warned that their version of masculinity might display privilege.
We once knew what we valued as masculinity. To call a man “masculine” today is to limit the word to its sexual connotation. Etymologically, we also get the word “virtue” from vir, an ancient term in several languages meaning “man.”
Thus, masculinity is not just what a man does with his masculinity. For the ancient Greeks, being a man meant not showing off your sexual prowess or using brute force. Instead, it was a matter of noble conduct. Being courageous meant being patient and taking care of yourself in order to better support others. So, masculinity was associated with kindness. Maybe one day it will be again.
New book by Nina Power “What do men want?” looks at masculinity in crisis and how the values that “kept us together”, family, religion, service, honor, are receding.
We can say that we now live in a post-virtuous world where desire is everything. As an individual, you put your wants and needs above everything else. Virtue, like self-sacrifice, is considered old-fashioned, anachronistic.
Our ancestors were not fools. The fact that we have sophisticated technology like mobile phones doesn’t make us any better at understanding human nature. If anything, our addiction to social media has eroded our judgment.
Remember that patriarchy is not only oppression, but also responsibility. The patriarch should be the one who takes care of everyone else. In our self-obsessed world where you are invited to be a child forever and everyone is having fun, no one wants to be the adult in the room, not even the prime minister.
So we might consider creating a new type of culture that values authority and responsibility. This applies to both women and men – an irresponsible culture does not benefit anyone. Meanwhile, other aspects of men’s lives have also changed.
Many very serious incidents have been uncovered through #MeToo, but I can’t help but think that others could have been resolved with a simple conversation. Paranoia reigns among men because the Internet has become a terrifying potential weapon. If the date goes wrong, you can go online and offend someone for the whole world.
Dates are sometimes off. This is not always harassment or insult, it may be a misunderstanding of the situation. I think everyone has had that experience, but we live in a very harsh culture.
Young people are afraid of making mistakes, which may be why many millennials don’t drink. They don’t want to become disinhibited. When we had a more Christian culture, it was more accepted that people were imperfect, but there was forgiveness and redemption. Today, however, there is a false sense of moral superiority, accompanied by punitive measures that prevent people from realizing that they are wrong.
Let’s be clear. This has nothing to do with male violence in its extreme form, where men harm or kill women. I’m talking about everyday, petty skirmishes or flirtations, where it’s unfair to portray men as predators is to see women as victims. We are not victims: many women not only appreciate, but also enjoy light-hearted flirting and admire the qualities that traditional masculinity embodies.
In response to the ripples of fear created by #MeToo, actress Catherine Deneuve was one of many signatories to a letter published in France that argued for a woman’s right to “disturb” (i.e., flirt):
“As women, we do not recognize ourselves in feminism, which, in addition to condemning the abuse of power, expresses hatred of men and sexuality. . . Incidents that may affect a woman’s body do not necessarily affect her dignity and should not, however difficult, make her an eternal victim.
Men are subject to a series of conflicting directives: they are told to take responsibility, be responsible, take the initiative; but at the same time warned that their version of masculinity might display privilege
In other words, there are flirtatious games played by men and women that are a part—often a delightful part—of life. But it is not surprising that men are now afraid to make a mistake. It’s much safer to stay away.
In this sense, relations between the sexes are in a kind of no man’s zone.
We still talk about it being a man’s world, but it’s not a case where men have all the power.
Some rich people certainly have power, but if you look at life expectancy in underprivileged areas or the opioid crisis in America, where essentially working-class men die incredibly early, it becomes clear that some men have little power.
Men hold 90 percent of the world’s most dangerous jobs, including roofing, logging and helicopter piloting. Of the 144 people who died at work in the UK in 2017–2018, 96% were men. Conversely, there are areas of life where the role of women is underestimated. Ultimately, men and women complement each other. We are not enemies.
So how can we help men get back the respect they deserve? I think that they need to unite, not opposing themselves to women, but appreciating each other.
Many men already do this – sports and the gym are very popular for a reason. The pendulum of history that swung women forward into the post-war economy will settle down. Men and women will conclude a truce.
Meanwhile, the growing youths need mentors. My father supported a boy who had no father.
I think that women-only places are good. Could re-introducing male-only spaces be beneficial? Keeping fit helps many men stay focused. Take care of yourself and mentor the boys to show them what it means to be a man. Talking more, listening more, and understanding more is the way to get along better.
After all, in the real world, millions of men know how to be kind, loyal partners and good fathers, just like my dad.
What do I want? Manhood and its Discontents by Nina Power published by Allen Lane for £18.99. © Nina Power 2022. To order a copy for £17.09 (offer ends February 24, 2022; free UK delivery on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.