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Guest blog: 'There's always been a "crisis of masculinity", Diane Abbott'

(75 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 16-May-13 12:21:54

This morning, Diane Abbott MP gave a speech in which she spoke about the 'crisis of masculinity' which has, she says, left a generation of men "isolated and misdirected by a boundless consumer outlook, economic instability and whirlwind social change."

In today's guest blog, Mumsnet blogger Glosswitch takes a closer look at Abbott's claims.

What do you think? Let us know here on the thread - and if you blog on it, don't forget to post your URLs.

As the mother of boys, I have no desire for them to be 'in crisis' over their male identities. Hence perhaps I should be grateful to Diane Abbott for highlighting that "rapid economic and social change has affected male identity, and created a number of largely unspoken problems". After all, it's not as though anyone ever speaks about a crisis in masculinity - apart from all the bloody time, that is (thank you, Steve Biddulph).

I was born in 1975. Looking back, it may not have been the most liberated of times for women but even so, I can't recall any point in my life at which someone, somewhere, wasn't saying "now it's time we focussed on the men". There were The Two Ronnies with The Worm That Turned (a joke, yes, but it didn't stop my dad and his mates nodding knowingly while casting wary glances at their kitchen-bound wives). There was Neil Lyndon with No More Sex War, with its cover helpfully illustrated by a bare-legged, jack-booted feminist from hell. There was Simon Baron-Cohen in The Essential Difference, using rational, manly science to argue that society "is likely to be biased towards accepting the extreme female brain and stigmatizes the extreme male brain". Honestly, it never ends! And now Abbott"s jumped on the bandwagon, claiming to argue from the perspective of "a card-carrying feminist", despite sounding not a million miles away from arch-sexist James Delingpole in the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago.

Let us be clear: men have problems. Women have problems. Sometimes women and men even have the same problems! For instance, when Abbott complains of a society in which "British manhood is now shaped more by market expectations - often unachievable ones - than by fathers, family values, a sense of community spirit and perseverance". I wonder when women were given the message that market expectations don't apply to them. I seem to have missed it. I too get home too late to spend quality time with my kids. I too don't get to play out fantasies of womanhood that were supposedly embodied by my mother and grandmother. Why should we idealise the past for men and the present for women? It's an easy story to tell but it's just not true.

For instance, let's look at this extract from the draft of Abbott's Demos speech:

"Thinking about old expressions of masculinity is like flicking through a dusty, well-worn, black and white photo album from a loft - the men who toiled in the iron, steel and coal industries, in shipbuilding, and pre-mechanised farming. The soldier, the bank manager, the breadwinner, the family man. Yesterday's heroes, in the fantasies and the realities of British life, were affirmed, in part, by physical strength, silent stoicism, and athletic daring."

Hmm. This seems more like an episode of Heartbeat, topped up by a few selective re-readings of Victor Book for Boys, than anything based in reality. It's as authentic as my grandma's Cath Kidston-style bliss, flitting around with a feather duster while she waited for her 'breadwinner' husband to come home (the man who eventually left her, penniless, for a younger woman, because that's what responsible breadwinners could do before feminists got all uppity about women having financial independence). If men are struggling today there's a complex web of class-based, social, racial and sexual inequalities with which we need to engage on an individual, clear-headed basis. Feminism, especially the much-derided intersectional feminism, provides a good model for this. The broad 'masculinity in crisis' approach just doesn't work.

The fact is that right now any instance of men pissing around can be cast as 'masculinity in crisis'. It can be minor pissing - over-doing it on the harvest mead - or major, out-and-out pissing - going on crusade, for instance. Looking back on my (brief) studies of medieval literature, I'd say the whole of Hartman von Aue's Iwein counts as 'masculinity in crisis'. As for Henry the Eighth? It's masculinity in crisis a-go-go. It's an essential plot device for any history book or gender-focussed magazine article, this whole thing where men have to think "who am I? what is my role? should I go out and slay some more dragons/beat the shit out of a random stranger outside Weatherspoons?" To be fair, men are only allowed to do this for around twenty years - anything beyond that and the crisis is less 'masculinity in' and more 'midlife'. In the meantime, though, 'masculinity in crisis' is the all-purpose rag-bag into which any negative things associated with men can be chucked - regardless of who is suffering and why.

Very occasionally, femininity is allowed to be 'in crisis', too. Ladette culture counts as femininity in crisis, but only insofar as it's a minor version of male pissing about, a sort of masculinity in crisis lite, if you will. Otherwise women do have identity crises, but these tends to be reduced to indecision over career options, panicking over the biological clock and debating whether or not a woman can 'have it all' (thus making all crisis-ridden women sound middle-class and self-indulgent, as opposed to all crisis-ridden men, who are working-class and put-upon, even if they are actually well-paid right-wing journalists).

But is it really appropriate to lump together criminality, violence against women and homophobia with depression and a high rate of suicide amongst men? Are the causes the same? Is it fair on men as a group to assume that they are? Or to at least imply that the more men are suffering due to a lack of choice, the more they'll turn on women? I don't suspect the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson suffer low self-esteem and a sense that they've no purpose in life. All the same, I know plenty of men who are nominally 'less successful' but have far more balanced, humane attitudes towards their female counterparts (for instance, my partner, a primary teacher - aka a poor man in a 'woman's job' - wouldn't think of telling a woman to "calm down, dear").

It's not that we shouldn't talk about how inequality affects men. We have to, all of us. I just wonder why, whenever we do, we have to create such a false narrative regarding how women and men actually live their lives.

Do have a look at Glosswitch's blog over here - and if you like this post, don't forget to share it on Twitter, Facebook and Google+

MoreBeta Fri 17-May-13 08:17:03

Yes I think that pretty much sums it up for me too:

"Let us be clear: men have problems. Women have problems. Sometimes women and men even have the same problems!".

Dervel - you said what I was thinking. Its about society as a whole. Its about men and women and boys and girls. There is a crisis going on. Partly it is reflected and caused as a result of the financial crisis where society as a whole has consumed the future of our children by borrowing so much money that it will be decades if ever before we as a society can pay it back. Our children wil inherit debt and have a far more uncertain future in terms of employment and financial security.

It is reflected in the fact that most families now are living on the edge financially as wages for the many have stagnated and fallen for the many and risen astronomically for the very few. Many families have to have two parents working and that undermines family life. Employers now demand 24/7 flexibility and zero hours standby contracts with parenst juggling imposisble shifts and not enough income to pay for childcare.

It is about mass long term unemployment for generation after generation and a dependency on benefits and welfare.

It is about a society that values consumption over everything else and individuals are little more than consumers or producers. The pornification of our society, the binge drinking, the X factor wannabe are all symptoms.

Diane Abbot just has the anxieties of many middle class parents. She is middle class and she just happens to have boy children and she just happens to be a woman and she just happens to be black. They are not specific to her condition or to the sex of her children. She does not have any more insight or experience of the issues facing our society than I do as a white man with two boy children.

I think she is wrong to label as a crisis of 'masculinity' but rather it is a crisis of society. Yes men no longer have the secure unchanging role as 'breadwinner', yes there are no longer thousands of men walking through factory gates every morning in flat caps instead of loitering on street corners in baseball caps unemployed - but that is not a crisis of masculinity. It is a crisis of society.

BasilBabyEater Fri 17-May-13 10:25:19

Oh FFS Jewcy I grew up in a working class family where my mother worked like a dog while my father had the status and power of being the main wage-earner and didn't lift a finger in the house because that work was her responsibility (as well as the cleaning, waitressing and dinner-lady jobs she was doing at various times). Don't tell me working class men have always done the domestic work, that's not true - none of the men I knew as a kid lifted a finger in the house, my uncle still doesn't, even though my aunt always worked full time and she's actually quite frail and old now and has difficulty with the housework. But it's her job, not his, so he doesn't help her. When my father got made redundant in the eighties and became long-term unemployed, he never did housework while my mum was at work - he expected me and my sister to do it when we came back from school (not my brother, of course). The lofty assertion that all working class men have always mucked in with the domestic labour, is simply not born out by many women's experience.

And don't tell me working class women don't have body clock issues, otherwise my cousin (who grew up on a council estate) who had IVF to have her children, doesn't exist. Or that working class women don't have career issues, or most of the women I know don't exist, whether they live on council estates or not. They have to earn their living and pay their rent as well as anyone else. I'll pass on your offer of a visit, I can go to a council estate any time I like, thanks, where I'll be called "Love" as a term of affection, not a passive aggressive tic.

I'm not sure what you mean by "working class" tbh. You seem to be talking about only working class people on council estates, but most working class people don't live on council estates anymore, since the Thatcher sell-off.

BasilBabyEater Fri 17-May-13 10:25:39

And yes, I agree with a lot of what Dervel says.

EldritchCleavage Fri 17-May-13 10:56:27

Read this yesterday, and Diane Abbot's speech made me very cross, but I was struggling to articulate ll that I felt was wrong with her viewpoint. Fast forward to today, and huzzah! Laurie Penny's done it for me, in The Guardian:

"We need to talk about masculinity. Across a country torn by recession and struggling to adapt to social change, men and boys are feeling lost and powerless, unsure what the future holds and what role they might play in it. Most feel as if they're not allowed to question what it means to be a man today – or discuss what it might mean tomorrow.

"The Labour MP Diane Abbott, launching a new campaign this week, is not the first person to kick up a fuss about this "crisis of masculinity". In a speech to the thinktank Demos on Thursday she said that millions of young men are in distress, acting out violently or sinking into depression. Unfortunately, the only solution many in the audience could offer is not giving men and boys more power over their own lives, but restoring their traditional power over women, as "breadwinners" and "male providers".

"Nobody seems to have bothered to ask men and boys whether they actually want to be "breadwinners", or whether female independence is really their biggest worry at a time when youth unemployment is more than 20%. Sadly, the debate is still focused on the evils of feminism, and on convincing men their real problem is that women are no longer forced to trade a lifetime of resentful sex for financial security. The chosen scapegoats, inevitably, are single mothers.

"There is no creature more loathed and misunderstood in modern Britain than the single mother on benefits. She is blamed both for the financial crisis and for the attendant collapse in men's self-esteem. The academic Geoff Dench was among those who attacked her, complaining that "the taxes of working men pay for [single mothers'] benefits". The taxes of working women, presumably, are spent on shoes and lipstick.

"Call me an iron-knickered feminist lingerie-arsonist if you must, but I thought we had agreed that forcing women and their children to choose between a husband and punishing poverty was a policy best left back in the dark ages where it came from, along with smallpox and witch-burning.

"As Abbott noted, domestic and gendered violence always increases during times of high unemployment and social breakdown, because men often find it easier to take their feelings of frustration and powerlessness out on women. Governments are only too happy for them to do so: the Conservative party has long relied on a mythical golden age of marriage and "family values" as the solution to civil unrest.

"In the real world, not all men want to be "breadwinners", just like not all men want to be violent, or to have power over women. What men do want, however, is to feel needed, and wanted, and useful, and loved. They aren't alone in this – it's one of the most basic human instincts, and for too long we have been telling men and boys that the only way they can be useful is by bringing home money to a doting wife and kids, or possibly by dying in a war. It was an oppressive, constricting message 50 years ago, and it's doubly oppressive now that society has moved on and even wars are being fought by robots who leave no widows behind.

"The big secret about the golden age of "male providers" is that it never existed. First, women have always worked. Second, and just as importantly, there have always been men who were too poor, too queer, too sensitive, too disabled, too compassionate or simply too clever to submit to whatever model of "masculinity" society relied upon to keep its wars fought and its factories staffed. "Traditional masculinity", like "traditional femininity", is a form of social control, and seeking to reassert that control is no answer to a generation of young men who are quietly drowning in a world that doesn't seem to want them.

There can be no doubt that men are in distress. Society's unwillingness to let go of the tired old "breadwinner" model of masculinity contributes to that distress. Instead of talking about what men and boys can be, instead of starting an honest conversation about what masculinity means, there is a conspiracy of silence around these issues that is only ever broken by conservative rhetoric and lazy stereotypes. We still don't have any positive models for post-patriarchal masculinity, and in this age of desperation and uncertainty, we need them more than ever."

Quangle Fri 17-May-13 11:38:53

I always want to like Diane Abbot and she says things I agree with and I start listening and then a little explosion goes off and she goes wrong. I can't put my finger on what the problem is but it's summed up by the fact that I listened to her Desert Island Discs the other day (it's on iPlayer). One of her tracks was by a Jamaican artist I didn't know and she said "obviously he's said some dodgy things re homosexuality but I have to overlook that because he's amazing". I don't think she'd put up with me saying that about a racist artist that I like. I don't know what it is - unwillingness to confront her own double standards maybe? Like I say, I'm 90% there with her but that last 10% is not good.

Bleedingheart makes a good point about the destruction of industries and I do agree with that although I don't think those kind of changes only affect men. As a result of those changes, many men will have fallen out of work, permanently, and families will have broken up or found themselves reliant on the woman's income. Those women have to keep things going. Also agree with morebeta and dervel

As for Jewcy, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to make of that picture. Men and women cooperating in childcare ... but somehow that's a bad thing. I think what Jewcy is talking about is unemployment - which is always a terrible thing for everyone. So back to Morebeta and Dervel - it's about a problem with society not a problem with this mythical, fragile object called masculinity.

EldritchCleavage Fri 17-May-13 11:46:56

I don't know why Diane Abbott didn't make a speech about a 'crisis of capitalism', because she could have made all the same points, only better.

Jewcy Fri 17-May-13 13:12:57

Basil, white, middle-class and heterosexual women have been predominant in IVF treatment for, well..ever. You may well know of a working-class woman who had IVF but you obviously know nothing about the power of classist discourses of motherhood and family, a power that makes most sense from a white, middle-class position.

Working-class women nowadays tend to have their babies when they're supposed to (in their teens and early twenties), unconstrained by top-flight careers or university education. They don't have to find a 'life balance' (whatever the hell that is) and certainly don't lie awake at night wondering how they can 'have it all'. These 'crises' beset only the middle-classes.

grimbletart Fri 17-May-13 16:04:14

"Working-class women nowadays tend to have their babies when they're supposed to (in their teens and early twenties)"

You do know that the second most dangerous age (after women over 45) to have babies is their teens don't you Jewcy?

BasilBabyEater Fri 17-May-13 16:27:22

Jewcy please stop assuming that if someone is a feminist, they know bugger all about other power dynamics than that between the sexes. It's boorish and inaccurate and makes it impossible to have a sensible conversation with you. I am perfectly well aware that being white and middle class will give women better access to IVF - and to education, training, employment and everything else - and I'm perfectly well aware of issues around power relations between classes as well as between genders, races etc.

The fact that white middle class women have better access to services than working class women do, doesn't mean they care more about them - it just means they have better access to them.

And again, you haven't said what you mean by "working class". Are you using the term in a Marxist sense? Because if so, then it is extremely inaccurate to say that working class women have babies in their teens - a tiny section of the working class may do so, but it really isn't the norm in any class in the UK.

FWIW I doubt if many middle class women would lie awake at night wondering how to "have it all". But hey, it's a good cliche, right?

BasilBabyEater Fri 17-May-13 16:30:43

And yes Laurie Penny gets on my nerves a lot, but she occasionally hits the nail on the head and she has done that with this article IMO.

BasilBabyEater Fri 17-May-13 16:31:57

I remember reading somewhere that the optimum age for a woman to have a baby in terms of her safety and best outcomes for the baby, is mid-twenties (apropos of "having babies when they're supposed to")

Quangle Fri 17-May-13 16:43:20

"Working-class women nowadays tend to have their babies when they're supposed to" shock

You seem torn between an idealisation of a world where women are completely constrained by poor life choices and their own biology and anger at it.

Also don't give women the burden of having to solve all the problems before they can solve some of the problems.

This is also reminding me of the the "women have got in the way of social mobility" argument. Something that improves the world for women of all classes does not have less validity than something that improves the world for the working class (man).

FloraFox Fri 17-May-13 19:06:50

The working-classes have always shared domestic duties; always.

Arf. Your credibility just flew right out the window. Next.

Jewcy Fri 17-May-13 22:37:46

You seem torn between an idealisation of a world where women are completely constrained by poor life choices and their own biology and anger at it.

Poor life choices? The working-classes don't have choices. Feminism hasn't bothered to reach them yet.

ashesgirl Sat 18-May-13 09:44:53

I dislike it when people come on here, saying it's just a middle-class problem. It's a means of shutting down debate, it's dismissive and it's relies on crass generalisations and stereotypes. Not to mention, it's also patronising and makes a lot of assumptions about working class attitudes.

Having been brought up in a working class household, I don't recognise what Jewcy is saying about all this equality in the household.

And sexism runs riot across all groups in society.

Bakerchef Sat 18-May-13 09:47:02

Is it possible to generalise in any way about Men like this. I can't speak for any man other than myself and I'm not sure what class I should be in. I work and share the household duties equally with my wife. I don't feel emasculated by this, I love cooking but some people here seem to think its not a good thing to cook and is demeening. my Mum mostly showed me the love of good food. I think that i have been blessed by having strong caring women take care of me in my life.

IsBella Sat 18-May-13 10:39:32

Oh really, feminism hasn't reached working class women yet?

You not seen Made in Dagenham then?

Working class women have always been at the forefront of feminism. They were the driving force behind the fight for equal pay - they bloody needed it, they didn't have the luxury of being able to earn less than the men they lived with and they still don't. This bollocks about feminism only being for the privileged middle classes really pisses me off. Do working class women not have access to contraception, abortion and the fight for equal pay then? What was all that decade long fight about women in local authorities demanding equal pay for work of equal value? Those jobs aren't middle class jobs, they're jobs done by working class women - women who argued that their work as cooks, cleaners, care-workers, were worth the same as men's jobs like refuse collectors. Feminism hasn't reached working class women yet? Bullshit. But you're not actually addressing anyone's arguments are you Jewcy, you're just repeating your incoherent statements about feminism being for the middle classes - and you still haven't actually defined what you mean by working class women.

ssd Sat 18-May-13 11:01:01

jewcy, you are probably thinking you're coming across as very knowledgeable and educated, but you're actually sounding like a bit of an arse, an out of touch arse at that

Jewcy Sat 18-May-13 16:07:39

Okay, so I'm an arse and bullshitting. You are entitled, of course, to your opinion. Maybe the Guardian readers among you will be more interested in what Dalia Ben-Galim, the associate director for family, community and work, at the Institute for Public Policy Research IPPR thinks. She concedes that feminism in Britain has failed working-class women by focusing too much on gender equality in high-profile roles.

"While feminism has delivered for some professional women, other women have been left behind. Many of the advances for women at the top have masked inequality at the bottom. The 'break the glass ceiling' approach that simply promotes women in the boardroom has not been as successful in changing family-friendly working culture or providing opportunities for other women to advance. Gender still has a strong independent impact on [your] earnings prospects – but class, education and occupational backgrounds are stronger determinants of a woman's progression and earnings prospects."

Do you honestly believe that the issues faced by higher-paid women – equal pay in the boardroom for example – matter to those who are less well-paid? Has feminism really done a goob job at addressing the issues that hit working-class families the hardest – such as a lack of affordable childcare, fairly paid jobs or access to decent housing? Can't you see that feminism has let down the working-classes by focusing on the demands of more economically privileged men and women?

Oh, and when one of you proffers a definition of what it is to be middle-class I will happily educate you about what it means to be working-class.

Jewcy Sat 18-May-13 16:12:24

Also don't give women the burden of having to solve all the problems before they can solve some of the problems.

Nice sound bite (albeit a disingenuous one).

colditz Sat 18-May-13 16:34:14

Jewry, are you a working class woman who had a baby in her teens or early twenties? I am.

I also care deeply about equality. The fact that I have never been in a board room does not mean that I don't care that women in board rooms are paid less. The fact that I have never been to UAE does not mean that I don't think abut the intrinsic woman hating that is is ingrained into society over there.

And as for your comment about working class men sharing the house hold work load - no. This, in general, doesn't happen. They walk in from work and they say "what's for tea?" Because they can't fucking cook. Nobody every thought to show them, because obviously the cooker is only operable if you have a vagina. They get up in the morning and yell "where are my socks?" because obviously, they can't find their own possessions because they don't have ovary-radar. They interact with their kids by watching telly at them, and back out of helping with homework by claiming to be thick.

These are my neighbours, these are the partners of my friends. These men aren't fucking disenfranchised, they are as spoiled as they ever have been. While the women are scrabbling around for two hour a week cleaning jobs, and night shifts in old people's homes, anything to fit around the school hours, the men do as they please. They work, and do nothing at home, or they don't work, and get "so depressed" about it that they -wait for it - do nothing at home.

Until they pick the kids up once a week while the mother sleeps of a night shift. Then all of a sudden, they are domestic demigods.

Jewcy Sat 18-May-13 16:58:48

And as for your comment about working class men sharing the house hold work load - no. This, in general, doesn't happen. They walk in from work and they say "what's for tea?" Because they can't fucking cook. Nobody every thought to show them, because obviously the cooker is only operable if you have a vagina. They get up in the morning and yell "where are my socks?" because obviously, they can't find their own possessions because they don't have ovary-radar. They interact with their kids by watching telly at them, and back out of helping with homework by claiming to be thick.

What an offensive and downright ignorant stereotype of working-class men. You've obviously never met my hard-working, child-loving (from a previous partner), housework-sharing, working-class husband.. have you, colditz?

ssd Sat 18-May-13 17:26:45

jesus, am actually agreeing with you there jewcy shock

colditz, you should get to know more people if your friends and neighbours are all married to dickheads

there's plenty decent men out there

FloraFox Sat 18-May-13 17:53:23

Sounds to me like colditz is describing most of the men she knows. The fact that there are other men (or even more ridiculous one man) out there who are (is) different does not negate her experience.

Jewcy Sat 18-May-13 19:11:43

Neither does it make her theory valid above all others.

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