Gender


Gary CooperMen are the more reticent sex. They might, in general terms, be louder when discussing sport or politics or music but they often clam up when it comes to their emotions. For Siobhan Bligh, this is evidence of a “crisis in masculinity”. Men, she writes, are “constantly told from a young age to “man-up””, and to be “strong, emotionless [and] cruel”. Am I the only man who’s yet to face this curious command? Doubtless, some men have endured it but I have a simpler hypothesis to explain the general trend of apparent stoicism: that men have been the more reticent sex for centuries, be it in England, Russia or Japan, and that young men take after their fathers, uncles, brothers and friends.

For Bligh, young men are faced with an “unachievable masculine identity”. I am not sure what led her to this conclusion, given that the adult males that they are most exposed to beyond their immediate relatives are liable to be moronic or ineffectual losers like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Pete Brockman, Alan Harper and countless idiots blundering their way through adverts. It is true that boys can grow fixated on achieving the spectacular physiques of David Beckham or Brad Pitt, or thinking that rappers are men worthy of emulation, or believing themselves to be the next generation’s Kurt Cobain, but this just shows that male identities and experiences are too diverse to be generalised in such a broad manner. If people want to help boys, in a real, practical sense, they should come up with ways to stop so many of them growing up without fathers. This is a crisis, but it is one that people are wary of acknowledging.

Still, we are left fact of male reserve. This stands accused of a being cause of the higher rates of suicides among men, and of their unwillingness to seek help when facing mental illness or even physical suffering. This seems fair. It is, indeed, in cultures that promote emotional isolation, such as those of South Korea or Lithuania, that suicides are most common. Young men, and women, should be raised to know that we evolved as social beings not merely to aid us in hunting and housebuilding but to offer benefits of collective wisdom and emotional support. All humans are vulnerable enough that they sometimes require a hand to aid them in returning to a position of strength.

Even beyond the desire to help such troubled people, though, there are trends that oppose male, and female, restraint. There is the progressive stance against peculiarities of sex, and there is also confessional culture: a phenomenon that promotes emotional expressiveness as a sort of exercise in cleansing, as displayed in billions of tweets, updates, Ask.fm entries, tumblr. blogs, YouTube videos, advice columns and chat shows. At its worst, this vulgarises human feelings, as people compete for the attention of their peers, and conform to standards they perceive around themselves.

To reserve one’s feelings need not involve their repression, for that would imply that our emotions are designed to be expressed. This need not be true. One might respond to hurt or anger by adjusting the conditions that provoke it. Not all feelings are particularly complicated, and just as hunger may be solved by food and boredom by films, a negative emotion may respond to practical treatment. Other feelings are more troublesome, but may not be fatal for the introspective being. Individual meditation on fears, grievances and dislikes can help one to make sense of them in times when the naive contributions of others may cause further perplexity.

People should be helped to learn that there is no shame in seeking help for one’s problems, or, indeed, in discussing one’s feelings whether they be good or bad, but one should not hold stoicism to be inherently problematic. In an age where transparency is idealised it may appear suspicious if somebody keeps their feelings to themselves, but, then, a feeling that it is expressed can be deceptive. Human beings are strange creatures.

The Big SleepRegardless of the absence of copulating transsexuals, I enjoyed reading Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep. It left me with a question, though: why is the reader left aspiring to be like Phillip Marlowe? I risk miring myself in embarrassment in making this admission, but I spent the day after completing it devising grim witticisms, glaring out of windows and inwardly wishing that I had not given up tobacco. I find it hard to believe that I am alone in this.

Why might this be? Marlowe is, after all, a miserable loner with an evident dependence upon alcohol; a habit of witnessing grotesque crime scenes and a tendency to commit acts of private violence against bedsheets. What makes him attractive? It is not, unlike his trashy counterpart James Bond, his sexual adventurism. Marlowe is apt to refuse sex even when it’s offered to him. It doubtless helps that he is attractive to women but this alone is a mediocre explanation. Carmen Sternwood seems to be attracted to everyone except the butler and Vivian Regan’s apparent fancy for him is compromised by the knowledge that she lies through her teeth.

I think that Marlowe’s appeal can be found in the respect that he is able to command. Whatever the beauty of the face that stands before him, or the size of their wallet or pistol, he has an insolent remark and incisive revelation that forces his interlocutor to admire him as an ally or fear him as an opponent. He might have no money and a mild alcohol addiction but he appears to have pride and this can seem enough to compensate for all the lonely nights in dingy apartments.

Chandler was too good a writer to compose escapism, of course, and Marlowe is not the cold fish that he presents himself as being: brooding on missed chances for romance; fretting about death and purging his frustrations at the expense of his own furniture. What is interesting is that he craves respect and is keenly aware of its absence. Here is a nice bit from Farewell, My Lovely (Rembrandt is on a calender)…

My foot itched, but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck. I put honey into my voice and said: “Many thanks for calling me, Mr Marriott. I’ll be there.

He hung up and that was that. I thought Mr Rembrandt had a faint sneer on his face. I got the office bottle out of the deep drawer of the desk and took a short drink. That took the sneer out of Mr Rembrandt in a hurry.

It seems to me that men have evolved to value respect: the dignity of individual ownership and achievement. There has been a great deal of chatter regarding the nature of masculinity in the twenty-first century. There is no one problem faced by the British male: some of them are struggling to cope with an indefinite role within their families; some of them just need a bloody job; some of them are too fond of drugs and some of them are, well, fine, thank you very much.

I suspect that an absence of esteem and, thus, pride is a detrimental force in our society, though. Working lives are often spent in awkward, artificial submission before clients, customers, managers, committees and public officials. Love and esteem, meanwhile, is directed not towards people who embody virtues they are expected to represent but a bunch of preening dullards on the television. Life, then, can mean obscure indignity – escaped from via a television on which fathers tend to be portrayed as ineffectual dimwits.

Respect is not one’s birthright, of course, and must be earned – I have no wish for us to heed demands of thugs who often abuse peaceful citizens for paying insufficiently obsequious homage to their existence. There must be the hope for respect, though: as a good father; a good husband; a good citizen. If virtue does not seem valuable, some men are going to think it pointless to achieve.

Russell Blackford posts on a code of conduct adopted by American Atheists, in response to concerns regarding lecherous behaviour at conferences. It includes this segment…

You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders — and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

This represents an interestingly wrongheaded view of human interaction.

Relationships between people, whether they’re the best of friends or newest of acquaintances, depend on non-verbal communication. Their behaviour shifts according to environmental circumstances and the signals they infer from eachother’s manner, posture and status. For example, if I meet someone whose stance is open, speech enthusiastic and expressions receptive I’m more liable to make some kind of physical contact than if they’ve got their arms crossed and speak in monosyllables. There are uncodified, evolving social principles that govern these things. They are complex; can lead to awkward misunderstandings (heck, Seinfeld was largely devoted to the confusion they inspire) and sometimes defy the norms we’d find preferable (must teenage girls scream on meeting, for example). Nonetheless, they have the virtues of (a) generally working and (b) proving that we’re relatively skilled at comprehending the nature of each other’s propensities and predilections.

The latter point, I think, is quite important. I suspect we judge the nature of our relationships, be it with someone who may become a dim acquaintance, a good mate or a romantic partner, by the extent of mutual abilities to tell what words and actions are suitable for different circumstances. If you feel the need to get “unequivocal consent” before knowing whether a hug is or isn’t welcome, for example, it suggests that you’re crap at reading peoples’ body language and would be a little awkward to be around. As I say, this means that episodes of poor judgement are inevitable but, then, that’s the price we pay for social environments that aren’t rigidly formalised. Human beings and the forms their interactions and relationships take are so different that they’re impossible to rigidly systematise or strictly regulate. To think otherwise is to give too much credence to the totalitarian imagination.

And, besides, one can always say, “No” or “Get off me, freak”.

David Benatar, last seen proposing that humans should become extinct, has a less controversial thesis to propound: that men are faced with a “second sexism”; “the victims of many and quite serious forms of sex discrimination”. (Well, as I said, it’s less controversial but, then, Stilton is less pungent than Camembert yet both remain fairly whiffy.)

The Guardian offers a preview

Do Benatar and Farrell have a point? A handful of statistics seems to bear out their thesis. Not only are men more likely to be conscripted into military service, to be the victims of violence, and to lose custody of their children in the event of a divorce, but tests conducted in 2009 by the programme for international student assessment, carried out by the OECD thinktank, showed that boys lag a year behind girls at reading in every industrialised country. They work longer hours, too: in 2010 the Office for National Statistics found that men in the UK work an average of 39 hours a week, compared with 34 for women. Healthwise, men develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women, on average, and young men are three times more likely to commit suicide.

Without having read the book I can’t judge its thesis. (Though it’s an intriguing one and people are dismissing it rather presumptuously. Disadvantages that women face are being cited to discredit it, as if it’s only possible for one sex to face hardship.) But I’d like to exploit the opportunity to make a couple of points about the nature of differences. The rise of egalitarian ambitions has, I think, inspired people to view disparaties between groups with an impulsive hostility that’s often unreasonable. Some are artificial and consequences of poor human behaviour but they needn’t be.

Some disparities are the result of natural differences rather than social constructions. Males are generally preferable as soldiers, for examples, as, if nothing else, they’re more physical adept: tending to have greater capacities for strength, pace, fitness, distance viewing et cetera. They’re just built for it. That men are more liable to be killed in violence, on the similar theme, is in large part due to their greater tendency to get themselves involved in conflict. I can’t pinpoint (with a scientist’s assurance, at least) the aspects of the Y chromosome-endowed that inclines them towards greater physical aggression but as it’s characterised all human societies on record I suspect it’s a deep-rooted feature of the male species. There are good reasons for minimising all forms of violence, of course, but “sexism” isn’t among them as the male majority among its combatants and victims isn’t the result of bogus prejudice or partiality but inherent disparities. Some things just fall into place. Blame Mother Nature.

Disparities that are unnatural needn’t be consequences of prejudice, still less of malevolent biases.  They might well be incidental consequences of policies that were meant to produce different ends. It’s true, for example, that girls are doing better in English than their male classmates and as I’m not sure this fact is thought to be the result of biological mechanisms it’s liable to be due to features of our systems. Yet I don’t think there’s evidence that it’s down to conscious or presumptive beliefs regarding the character and intellect of the hirsute gender. One should still rectify disadvantages if indeed they’re rectifiable but attributing them to prejudicial treatment in lieu of evidence might needlessly politicise and emotionalise an issue. And, besides, it sounds a bit whingy.

The Sun reports

SOARING numbers of UK males are suffering from life-threatening eating disorders, a Sun investigation has revealed.

We found young lads are at particular risk from conditions such as anorexia and bulimia, amid increasing pressure on them to look slim.

Overall, 228 males were admitted last year — more than double the 108 in 2001. But the full extent of the problem is far greater.

The figures do not account for GP consultations or those seeking help in private clinics. And vast numbers endure the dangerous disorders in silence.

First of all, they can stop calling it “manorexia”. I’m sure it can be distinct in cause and manifestation from the illnesses of women but these cutesy terms bring me out in hives. “Broga” is the worst that I’ve seen in recent times. What’s next? “Mancer”? “SchizoHenia”? Enough already.

The Sun correctly notes that the phenomenon has received insufficient attention (the very article was classified under “woman”!)  but I’m wary of its references to “increasing pressure” on young men and the “growing scrutiny of male bodies in the media”. What we don’t need is a thousand earnest commentary pieces on the objectification of men: a very small minority of ‘em experience eating disorders and generalising so broadly would be pointless. Inasmuch as a rise in bulimia and anorexia among men is the result of cultural factors I’d guess it stems in large part from particular subcultures: those of certain sports; gay communities and so on. The important thing is to diagnose such influences – as and when they exist – within the sufferers; not extrapolate from one’s own perceptions. Which is awfully tedious for commentators, I know, but that’s the way it is.

The BBC reports

Erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by previously unknown British author EL James, has topped the New York Times best-seller list.

We learn that…

The book started life as a “fan fiction” story posted online about lovers Edward and Bella – the lead characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books…

James shifted the details, though: Edward, now Christian, is no longer a vampire but a fan of sado-masochism. (This is not much of a change; it’s just less allegorical.) Here’s the novel’s priceless blurb…

When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating.

Has anybody met an Anastasia outside of romance novels? (Or Russia.) I think I’ve heard of one and she was aleading Tory activist”.

Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind – until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time.

It’s the details that elevate this above the offerings of Mills & Boon. What’s the significance of “part-time”? Why did I have to know that? (And why, if she can only have part-time employment, did she take work in such an impractical location?)

For all the trappings of success – his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving adoptive family – Grey is man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control.

I do like the idea that it’s counterintuitive for an owner of multinationals to be a control freak. Are they generally known for their docility?

There are quotes as well…

He’s naked except for those soft ripped jeans, top button casually undone.

Me, I prefer to have my jeans formally undone. Painstakingly undone.

“You’re a sadist?”
“I’m a Dominant.” His eyes are a scorching gray, intense.

I’ve never seen a “scorching” grey. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that it exists. Scorching red, yes. Scorching orange. Scorching yellow. But I’ve never shielded my eyes from the dazzling sight of a rock. Or an elephant.

I’m being an arsehole, of course. Ms James’ book was never meant to rival Rushdie. It might be printed onto fibers but it’s not and, if she’s honest, was never meant to be literature. Its ancestors are the novels of Judith Krantz – who offered the baffling descriptions of lips, breasts and “hot sticky organs” that Clive James had such memorable fun with. Their success reveals a female appetite for porn that was barely disguised among reactions to the more demure Twilight. But while they’re wish fulfillment in the carnal sense they’re also wish fulfillment in the emotional sense.

These Edwards and Christians are precisely engineered to be the ideal boyfriends; flawed, yes, but only to indulge the characters’ and readers’ urge to, as James puts it, “bring [them] into the light”. This is clear from their reviewers’ breathless responses to the characters not as creations of the author but as fantasies. (One even addresses her review to “Mr Grey”.) Even the critics aren’t turned off by literary contrivances or tedious prose but by the insufficiently appealing male at its heart – some feel Christian’s “dominance is too much for [them] to handle”; others moan that he’s “not enough to get [their] blood pumping”. This fusion of sexual and emotional fantasies is, I think, almost exclusive to women. Men lust after the ideal bedmate but they’ll rarely fantasise or, at least, admit to fantasising about the perfect wife or girlfriend. As pornography became e’er more ubiquitous people asked whether guys and gals raised on such far out stuff would find sex underwhelming. As Edwards, Jacobs and Christians loom in the imaginations of millions of women, you’ve got to wonder if the patchily passionate unions of the real world are going to become a little uninspiring for them. There aren’t enough enigmatic young entrepreneurs for everybody, after all. Without or without scorching grey eyes.

I’ve posted before on the phenomenon of “sex selective” birth control. Nicholas Eberstatd has an essay in The New Atlantis that provides a bleak view of its scale and likely future…

The practice has become so ruthlessly routine in many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very population structures, warping the balance between male and female births and consequently skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males. This still-growing international predilection for sex-selective abortion is by now evident in the demographic contours of dozens of countries around the globe — and it is sufficiently severe that it has come to alter the overall sex ratio at birth of the entire planet, resulting in millions upon millions of new “missing baby girls” each year.

The social implications of this are disturbing. There are, for example, lots of people who’ve been inspired to affirm the value of women – to affirm value of women as commodities, that is. Many poor girls are forced into arranged marriages or prostitution. It’s hardly surprising. After all, if there are millions of people who think women aren’t worth bearing there’s likely to be millions more who don’t they’re worth much once they’re alive. Meanwhile, there are millions of blokes who are beginning to find it more difficult to locate partners, and they could get a bit frustrated if it carries on.

Eberstatd doesn’t think the crisis will be solved by policy. The phenomenon is pronounced in countries with both harsh and liberal stances on reproductive freedom, and attempts by the state to curb such practices have failed. He mentions, however, that there’s an exception to the trend – that one country has stabilised its birth ratios. That country, he writes, is South Korea. He proposes that…

South Korea’s SRB reversal was influenced less by government policy than by civil society: more specifically, by the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated congealing of a mass movement for honoring, protecting, and prizing daughters. In effect, this movement — drawing largely but by no means exclusively on the faith-based community — sparked a national conversation of conscience about the practice of female feticide. This conversation was instrumental in stigmatizing the practice, not altogether unlike the way in which nationwide conversations of conscience helped to stigmatize international slave-trading in other countries in earlier times. The best hope today in the global war against baby girls may be to carry this conversation of conscience to other lands.

A “nationwide conversation of conscience”? I hear you. It sounds nauseating. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to say “thank you” to whoever’s working behind a checkout, let alone start nattering with the entire population. And, yet, sometimes things that make us queasy have to be endured for the greater good. (Dental flossing, for example.) If there’s any truth to Eberstatd’s claim it’s actually quite inspiring. The abolition of slavery – though, yes, a question that demanded a greater shift in attitudes – followed decades of debate. What with the grave problems facing our society – the need to reduce our energy consumption, say – such conversations are, in lieu of dangerous authoritarianism, a necessity. And, of course, they can’t just take place on Guardian comment pages.

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