It’s not easy being a straight, white male these days. Sure, we’ve still got it far easier than any other demographic, but there has never been a point in history where heteronormative white dudes have enjoyed less societal dominance. But before you reach for your tiniest violin, let me clarify that I don’t think this is a bad thing – not at all. Because this decline in male privilege has been inextricably linked to the emancipation of women and sexual minorities, which is certainly a good thing. It has leveled the playing field somewhat, made society fairer, and liberated us as well in ways that aren’t quite so publicized.
But our loosened grip on the levers of power, shifting gender norms and our diminished place in the social order has convinced many that the hairier half of the human race is caught in a “crisis” of masculinity. Countless books and op-eds have been written on the subject. Screeching conservative commentators lament the death of The Real Man while deriding those of us in possession of a Y chromosome as espresso-sipping eunuchs who are so useless that we can’t even build a porch. Because everyone knows that the main measure of A Real Man is his ability to construct a porch.
Putting facetiousness aside for a second, though, this panic isn’t completely unwarranted. Over the past four decades or so, the economies of the Western world have gone through a profound restructuring. Industries such as mining and manufacturing that employed so many working-class men in back breaking “man’s jobs” that put hair on their chests, and enough money in their pockets to provide comfortable lives for their nuclear families, have been actively dismantled and shipped out to the third world. Beyond degrading living standards, this has robbed many of their roles as breadwinners – a defining feature of male identity since the dawn of time.
The crisis of masculinity is at its core a crisis of economics, one that gave rise to the abomination that we call President Trump. But to reduce it purely down to an economic equation is reductionistic, because there’s been a cultural shift, too.
Ever since the emergence of the metrosexual in the mid-90s (which, it should be noted, quickly followed the arrival of the globalizing forces that I mentioned above), traditional notions of masculinity have been in flux. According to a recent YouGov poll titled “the decline of the manly man,” only 30 percent of men aged 18-29 describe themselves as “completely masculine” on a scale of zero to six. For over-65s, this figure sits at 65 percent. Where once men were expected to look and act like grizzled steelworkers, it has become increasingly acceptable to dress like David Beckham and talk about our feelings – a once-radical notion that suddenly looks quite quaint in 2017, an era where terms like “gender fluidity” have embedded themselves firmly in mainstream discourse.
A new masculinity is clearly, if ever so slowly, emerging, but the old conceptions of what it means to be a man still remain. For millennials this creates a unique inner conflict: we have been raised with the old masculinity of our fathers, but we’ve also internalized the fluctuating gender norms of our changing world.
We are very much of our time, but we are still our father’s sons and the past endures within us. We’re forced to navigate a minefield of potential faux pas while being gnawed at by masculine growing pains. Many of us worry that we might not be man enough, yet holier-than-thou Lena Dunham types accuse us of being patriarchal mansplainers whose porn habits are equatable with sex trafficking and moral degeneracy. Times are changing and we are, too, but it often feels that we’re not able to do so at our own pace and on our own terms.
This anxiety has given rise to a number of online fraternities devoted to navigating this new manhood. On one end of the divide you have organizations like The Good Men Project, which tries to define “what an enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century,” and complex-ridden personal essays by self-described “male feminists” who struggle to reconcile their wokeness with their primal sexual urges. At the other end, you have odious boils of misogyny like 4chan and “The Red Pill” Subreddit, where socially stunted, Trump-loving keyboard warriors renounce female relationships and pretend that they did so by choice rather than miserable circumstance.
So what do modern men find so difficult? Well, that depends on factors like class and geography. If you’re a university educated, tech-literate, middle-class cosmopolitan, you’re far freer to explore the parameters of the new manhood than your working-class counterparts who come from smaller, more conservative towns. But the transition is far from seamless.
From my own experiences, the old masculinity is, in liberal circles, regarded as toxic and oppressive. To retain or exhibit elements of it is to perpetuate The Patriarchy and seemingly progressive, otherwise decent dudes are treated like wolves in sheep’s clothing if they can’t (or won’t) shake off every last masculine trope.
Let me offer myself up as an example: while I would never call myself a feminist, I agree with most feminist positions. I think that the gender income gap is indefensible and that abortion access should be provided by the state. These beliefs influence the way I vote. I think that anyone who uses the word “slut” unironically is an idiot. Yet, at the same time, I roll my eyes at the “body positivity” movement. I quite like conventional beauty standards and find sensitive guys who pen open letters to their “curvy” wives utterly cringeworthy.
The old masculinity is often conflated with sexism, and, because of this, I have been lazily accused of sexism by people whose politics hardly differ from my own. This hardly fazes me at all, but it’s these sorts of contradictions, this friction between regressive and progressive masculinity, that drives male feminists to pen self-conscious personal essays or turn to The Good Men Project for tips on how to behave and highlights the schizophrenic nature of manhood in millennials.
So, what’s the solution? Well, first of all, solutions can only exist if we accept the premise that there is a problem. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very real economic element to the so-called crisis of masculinity, but that’s a broader political problem afflicting the Western world as a whole rather than just its male population.
Yes, more men are out of work than ever before and we are, generally speaking, less equipped to thrive in the new economy than women, but this distracts from the fact that real wage growth has been more or less stagnant since the 1970s and right-wing politicos have actively restructured Western economies into ones dominated by low-paying service jobs. The crisis of masculinity is a symptom of the wider crisis of capitalism that was laid bare by the Great Recession a decade ago. Focusing on masculinity distracts from the far more significant political component of the issue.
Meanwhile, conservative shrills who lament the decline of amateur porch building are frightened human beings clinging desperately to a dying worldview. It’s not masculinity that’s in crisis, it’s their reactionary and outdated puritan values, which are being sidelined by a world that edges farther away from that reactionary utopia of the 1950s with every passing day. Bringing our masculinity into question is a covert way of making us question decades of social progress – which ultimately serves their regressive agenda – by framing change as a very personal feeling of loss. It’s a deceptively clever tactic that should be ignored. In fact, I think the less we listen to people who try tell us what masculinity looks like, the better off we will be.
Now read why social media has created a generation of self-obsessed narcissists.
- Lead image: Christophe van Waetermeulen / Highsnobiety