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The British MP Dianne Abbot famously announced a few years ago that British men were having a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Her fear was that in the UK, men had been reduced to beer drinking buffoons who shirked away from responsibilities as fathers and husbands, and took pride in a ‘lad culture’ built around cars, football and ‘manly banter’. For Abbot, there was a sense that men no longer knew how to be ‘real men’ in Britain. To be a successful man, meant to be a provider, a good father and a reliable husband. Abbot’s views are not uncommon. The biological difference between male and female are often exaggerated to hide the social constructions and similarities that define ‘men’ and ‘women’ as different human beings.

Men are often imagined as more aggressive, sexually active, sporty, confident, strong and tough, whereas women are thought of as more caring, motherly, passive or domestic. Several feminist groups in Britain like the Everyday Sexism Project or SlutWalk have done a huge amount of positive work to break down these ideas about women and femininities. But ideas of men being strong providers and ‘naturally more aggressive’ still go unchecked and unaddressed. What I find most striking is that ideas about men and masculinities in Britain are so normalised that when we talk about ‘gender’ it is assumed to be only about women, men remaining the unmarked gender.

We see these ideas of men and masculinities being freely reflected in the way products are marketed or in the way media create male characters in films or on TV. L’Oreal, for example, has a range of beauty products for ‘Men’s tough skin’ or Old Spice sells its deodorant for men under the mock humour tagline of ‘Smell like a man, man!’. Similarly films like Fight Club or Boys Don’t Cry or more recently The Wolf of Wall Street, build on these unquestioned ideas about men and their masculinities to construct the image of a ‘real man’. Likewise I have often noticed at universities and organizations, there is a ‘Women’s Welfare Officer’ or a ‘Women’s Day’ but there is no such thing as a ‘Male Welfare Officer’ or a discussion of ‘men’s issues’. Going one step further and on a more interpersonal level, I have noticed several of my female friends in casual conversations often mentioning that they are looking for ‘real men’ or ‘men who can take control and make the first move’. At the same time, the inability of men to express emotions are glamorized and turned into ‘he’s such a typical man’. Hence what we have circulating and embedded at various levels in British society are ideas about men and masculinities that construct our knowledge about what men are and what they ought to be. They become framed as persons who are tough, don’t talk about emotions much and who generally make the first move, are more active and get things done. There is very little space for men to express doubt, emotional vulnerability, anxiety or fear.

In reality, however, men in England are not the strong, aggressive protectors we are popularly led to understand. Several studies on men and masculinities in Britain show the multiple disadvantages men go through. Various reports explain that boys do worse than girls at schools, men in general seek less help and advice from the NHS than women, more men are alcoholics and die earlier than women, most homeless people on the streets of any major British city are men. In the UK, men are also more involved in violence and crime than women, and men are disproportionately higher victims of such crime and violence, too. Instead of challenging conventional ideas about men, government policies to address these issues in the UK have tried to create more ‘sporting facilities’ for young boys, targeting young men in ‘problem neighbourhoods’, introducing boxing rings etc. which to me seem to be further feeding into conventional ideas about men and masculinities.

If we dig a bit further into this category of the ‘man’, what we find is that in a country like Britain, there is no monolithic category of the ‘man’ or fixed idea of ‘masculinity’. On most streets in the UK there are white men and black men, educated and uneducated men, rich migrant men and poorer unskilled men. All these men have different ways of being a man: they dress differently, talk differently, treat women, children and the environment differently. They also shop in different shops, wear different clothes, probably do very different kinds of jobs and have different friends and peers. When MPs like Abbot declare a ‘crisis of masculinity’ whose masculinity are they talking about? More importantly, what is this idea of ‘masculinity’ being in ‘crisis’?

Scholars working on masculinity in Britain write about a hierarchy of masculinities, where race, gender, class and ethnicity interact with each other to create some masculinities as more desirable than others. In London, Black men for example use elaborate performances around handshakes, walks, posture and dress to mark themselves as both ‘black’ and ‘men’ in an attempt to form a masculinity that is distinct from an Asian or a white masculinity. They also do so in order to make themselves visible in a system that marks them and their masculinity as invisible. Other academics working on men’s violence towards women or other men go on to explain how violence also becomes a tool for men in performing conventional ideas of masculinity. If they cannot be the confident providers society expects men to be, they overcompensate by displaying ‘manly’ strength, bravery and aggression.

Unless we start understanding the various constructions of masculinity – the way we bring up and put expectations on boys and men, what the normative ideas circulating in society are about men – we will not be able to address the various social difficulties and violences men face and are part of. We need to learn important lessons from popular feminist movements in the UK in picking out and then dismantling these various ideas and expectations put on people. What we need to acknowledge is that men and masculinities are not homogenous categories and that men need our help, empathy and attention. This does not mean we take away the much needed resources or attention from the historic injustices women have faced. Rather, the aim is to acknowledge more wholly that ‘gender‘ is a concept that makes both men and women, and that places expectations, pressures and vulnerabilities on both of them. The more strictly we define gendered beings, the more unnecessary limits we put on both men and women and corresponding masculinities and femininities. A post-gender utopia remains a feminist dream of mine, but nonetheless, in the meantime addressing and breaking down some of these rigid gender boundaries put on men is one important and immediate step in addressing some pressing issues we are seeing in Britain today. f


Shannon Philip is writing his PhD in Gender Studies at Oxford and is doing field research in India this year.page 3 Shannon