I suppose, in a way, British men are like white people were in Nineties South Africa or young Germans after the Second World War. We are expected to go through a period of atonement for the sins of our fathers. To be treated worse than we merit because of crimes previously committed in our name: in this case the crime of feeding, protecting, loving and nurturing women in accordance with our biological imperative. They don’t want that any more. They want to be linesmen. And so we have to let them tell us endlessly how they wish we were all dead.
Thus spake a gourmand and professional waffler last week, a child-of-privilege educated at Westminster and Oxford, who, despite these handicaps, manages to articulate for us the crisis of contemporary masculinity. Apparently two compatriots got caught up in some garden-variety lechery of the career-halting kind. Their trials and tribulations, although obviously upsetting for them on a personal level, at least had the merit for many of acting as a flashpoint for opposition. That is, a common-sense opposition to the political correctness surrounding the damages wrought on men by feminism and feminists. Finally, people can begin to speak out.
It is rather tempting to pursue the bizarre line of metaphorical reason here (if ‘sexist crimes’ are merely love expressed biologically, and if British men today are like post-fascist South Africans and Germans, does that make apartheid and Nazi rule the equivalents of a natural and benevolent stewardship? Did they even involve ‘real’ crimes?). But we should resist that. Coren is but a symptom, and should not detain us overlong in picking the low-hanging fruit. The triggering events are themselves already old news, the detritus of the news cycle now rendered especially vulgar and tattling by some actual struggles for justice.
The tropes at play have been with us for some time, inflecting what are essentially public relations SNAFUs with the full force of mythological sex wars. But these themes do seem to be becoming increasingly familiar. Those who grumbled about the rise of such minimal concessions as equal pay legislation in the halcyon days of economic vibrancy now have the pressures of austerity with which to buttress their case. Outrage at the redundancy of a favourite sports broadcaster spirals rather quickly into a diagnosis of women’s ‘special treatment’ in our society and the counter-sexism of a gender settlement in which men are no longer authorised to authentically, organically, just be themselves. Castrated. Emasculated. Prostrated.
As Richard Seymour points out, we should be alive to the diversions and detractions involved with the puerile zero-sum-game-cum-battle-o’-the-sexes approach to feminist politics. Tony Porter’s plea will strike some already alive to the operations of gender as rather basic in its analysis, if worthy in its intentions. The bigger problem is that it was delivered to TEDWomen (hard to imagine many fully-fledged masculinists in attendance). Nevertheless it connects two areas to which our attention should be drawn: the impact of generalised misogyny and the realities of violent and often fatal misogyny.
The accumulated rhetoric of subordination, worthlessness and sniggering contempt can hardly but have an effect. There is no substitute for analysis, and no question that the manifold pathways from attitudes and dispositions to actions and life outcomes are complex. But contemptuous speech acts are clearly not just ephemera. This is the realm of our everyday interactions: with media, with memes, with conversations overheard at transport hubs and drinking holes. These are the culture wars beloved of many, the chance to fight out questions of identity and worth via the effluence of entertainment products.
That’s the generalised misogyny. The stories that make the news, and generate the scandals, invariably operate at this level. People fired for not being young and blond. Whether licking phallic vegetables qualifies as a legitimate way to promote veganism. Or whether ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ count as normal celebrity banter. And does Sex & The City hate women and Muslims? This stuff matters on all kinds of levels. But by circulating within infotainment agendas, and by relying on superficial shock value, it can (can) also distract from fatal misogyny. Indeed, the ‘commonsense’ plausibility and popularity of Clarksonite fears seems to depend on keeping the conversation on the generalised fracas, where we can circle ambiguities and fret over motives without the issue ever really moving beyond hurt feelings and bruised egos. Stop being such a girl.
But we would do well to at least occasionally return the conversation to some rather less genteel topics, and hence to the hostile underbelly of patriarchy. We might, for example, wonder about why it is that the brigade of secret feminists has been unable to maintain their cushy revenue streams? Or ask how it is that in 2009 a third of all local authorities in the UK lacked domestic violence services? Or that more than a third lacked even a refuge? Might we inquire why, even when there is good news, it is small change in the context of over-stretched and under-resourced attempts to provide some kind of support structure? For a country so in hock to ideologies of biological reversal and feminine superiority, our pockets seem somewhat impervious to their charms. After all, when we speak with our wallets it is to say that we care more about donkey sanctuaries than domestic violence.
But what jokey laddishness is it that calls for such resources anyway? The police recorded just under 14,000 rapes of women and 1,200 rapes of men in 2009. And that from an institution which finds it surprisingly hard to even treat rape as a crime. Under-counting is notorious, but crime surveys suggest that around half a percent of all the girls and women living in the UK are raped each year. Depending on your statistical method, that gives a total of 60-100,000 rapes a year for women alone. Buttressed by a range of justifications and ideological closures.
And that’s just the most clearly physical and violating of contemporary expressions. These are the basics, although they bear repeating. Not yet a word about pay gaps, or people trafficking, or the forms of labour and dependency, or commodification, or the impact of military adventures, or of the forms of gendered violence that escape neat little separations into male and female. Expressions of bruised masculinity are salvoes in an imagined war for sexed superiority. Us or them. Someone has to be on top. That war is a fake one, whether at the levels of identity or politics or sexuality. Or at least a mis-identified one. But the division of resources is very real, as are its effects. At that level there are choices to be made in the age of austerity, and allegiances to be formed.