[Paleopsych] The Age (au): There's trouble in patriarchy
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There's trouble in patriarchy
December 10, 2005
Are men facing extinction? Not quite yet, but times are a changin' in the
playground, writes Simon Caterson.
'THE REASON THERE are so many divorces," I remember my secondary school
literature teacher telling our class, "is that people nowadays marry for love."
It is one of those throwaway lines that remain lodged in the mind long after
whatever it was we were supposed to be learning has been absorbed, regurgitated
I was reminded of this aphorism two decades later when, at a recent dinner
one of the guests announced that his de facto relationship of 14 years had
After some brief expressions of sympathy, in particular from one of the women
present, the conversation moved on. Though sad for all involved, especially the
couple's young children, to us thirtysomethings such news comes as no surprise.
Breakdowns in relationships, such as retrenchment, car accidents or minor
operations, are just one of the everyday hazards of modern life for Generation
It is an event that statistically is as likely to occur as not.
In her provocatively titled new book, Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide,
American columnist Maureen Dowd tolls the bell of marital doom. In an extract
published in the New York Times Magazine, Dowd laments the abject failure of
modern relationships: "Despite the best efforts of philosophers, politicians,
historians, novelists, screenwriters, linguists, therapists, anthropologists
facilitators, men and women are still in a muddle in the boardroom, the bedroom
and the Situation room."
Dowd presents the landscape of relationships as a disaster zone of
and inequality for women: "Before it curdled into a collection of stereotypes,
feminism had fleetingly held out a promise that there would be some precincts
womanly life that were not all about men. But it never materialised." In Dowd's
view, the sway held by stereotypes hasn't lessened since the rise of feminism,
only their content: "The message is diametrically opposite - before it was
be a sex object; now, it's be a sex object - but the conformity is just as
Virginia Woolf wrote that "to enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves".
Dowd is quite right to identify conformity as a true enemy of happiness, but it
is a force propelling our consumer society that is difficult to deny. In gender
relations, as in everything else, we are only limited by our imaginations and
capacity to empathise with one another.
The "can't live with them, can't live without them" theme adumbrated by Dowd
echoes in the media across the gender divide, where the howl of embittered
is answered just as loudly by the bellowing of angry men who fear that they
really are unnecessary. In addition to the misery and hardship that failed
relationships cause to women, the high rate of divorce is just one of the
that contribute to the so-called crisis in masculinity.
According to Marian Salzman, Ira Matathia and Ann O'Reilly, the joint authors
a new book called The Future of Men, instability and uncertainty in
is just one of the issues profoundly troubling men. They refer to data
that men have a greater psychological need for permanence in relationships than
women, and point out the fact that roughly twice as many divorces are
by women as men.
But is the crisis real, or is it a furphy, an excuse for some men to behave
and feel sorry for themselves?
Are the gender wars overall a sign of social disintegration or a bit of a
The threshold question is not one that preoccupies the authors of The Future of
Men. In a sign of the times, the book is not a work of sociological inquiry or
journalistic speculation but a business title.
Salzman, Matathia and O'Reilly are not polemicists but professional
and as such are primarily concerned with how the fluid situation of men may
translate into future spending patterns. They assert that the combination of
women's movement, the evolution towards information-based economies, and
social mores and values" is having "a negative impact on the male psyche,
modern men hesitant, disoriented, and, in many cases, more than a little
The authors say that companies "looking to connect with the male consumer" must
respond to what they term "M-ness", that is a new masculinity being defined by
men themselves. After a decade or so of metrosexuals having the unblinking
eye appraise their dress, hygiene and appearance, men are reasserting their
This new "ubersexual" man will keep using a regular moisturising routine, but
will also be manlier in his pursuits and outlook. But like the conformist women
described by Dowd, is the crisis of masculinity merely creating a new breed of
fashion victims whose angst can only be soothed by retail therapy? Advertisers,
take note: boy's toys can compensate men for the feeling they are toy boys.
The new alliance forecast in The Future of Men between quiche-man and caveman,
borrow the distinction made in Kath & Kim, may seem like a refreshing new
development in the affairs of men, but is it simply a case of putting some of
old wine in new bottles? In truth, the really significant changes have occurred
around men and not within them.
Human evolution has lagged far behind technology, medical science and
change. Thomas Keneally reminds us: "It is for most of us far less than 5000
years since we came in off the plain and began farming. But our chemistry is
built for nomadic life. We really did have mastodons to kill once."
It is precisely this apparent mismatch between purpose and use, a "suspicion
we are biologically and socially redundant", as Keneally puts it, that gives
to a "profound unease" in men.
The projection into the future properly begins in the past, though we do not
to go back five millennia to establish the beginnings of a modern malaise. The
future of men arguably began that day in November 1951 when the patents were
filed that heralded the introduction of the contraceptive pill for women.
Giving women the power to control their own fertility, as almost all of them do
in the West, was an epoch-making moment in the history of humanity.
The freedom of choice that the Pill gave to women, and indirectly to their
partners, has been followed by medical advances that enable human reproduction
take place without the male partner or sperm donor being present at the moment
When cloning is perfected, then the concept of paternity could be done away
altogether. In any case, according to geneticist Jennifer Marshall Graves, the
chromosome will have exhausted its capacity to mutate within the next 10
years. The only real question is when, not if, the Y chromosome disappears, she
has said in an interview. "It could be a lot shorter than 10 million years, but
it could be a lot longer."
Some modern freedoms, such as those that enabled women to vote and to own
property without being treated as property themselves, have altered relations
between the sexes forever.
According to the authors of The Future of Men, there is no going back, and nor
would societies that have experienced the benefits of the liberation of women
want to return to the sexual dark ages: "In the short term, it's clear that
cultures that resist the rise in female power are losing out to those cultures
that accept it, because the cultures that accept it are progressing further
faster on most fronts - health, economy, security, and technology, to name a
Only history (sic) will tell what the longer-term consequences may be."
Some of the more militant men's advocacy groups may gnash their teeth but the
dethronement of men was in some sense an abdication, since the entry of women
into the workforce was an unintended consequence of the world wars waged by
and it was men that led the medical research into women's health. Now men and
women are able to work together as never before to improve the lives of
Who in their right mind would want to pass up the opportunity, however
the application so far, to create a non-discriminatory meritocracy?
On the domestic front, much of what has happened in our time is not
gender-specific but is the impersonal operation of technology-driven consumer
society. The services that in the past only marriage could provide to each
partner have now virtually been outsourced. Single women can now "hire a hubby"
whenever there's an odd job to be done, while any man with enough cash can
what used to be regarded as conjugal rights at the nearest licensed brothel.
Nothing is sacred, and everything has a price.
Shopping, cleaning, healthy food, child care, back rubs - all are just a phone
call or a mouse click away.
An enterprising Japanese inventor has even come up with an artificial arm for
singletons that takes the place of that otherwise provided by a real sleeping
partner. The marketplace fills the space to ensure that not even the absence of
ordinary human contact lacks a commercial substitute. If robots can serve as
pets, why not have them fill in for humans as well?
Objectively, the only factor holding women back from the possibility of
independence from men, and vice versa, is financial, since the moral, social
legal pressure that used to exist for couples to pair off permanently has
disappeared. The crucial issue is the mutual desire to have children. In most
cases, the cost of health and education is such that it still requires two
incomes to ensure that children receive what is generally considered to be a
start in life.
The authors of The Future of Men identify one area in popular culture that
an adjustment to accommodate M-ness, and that is the negative stereotyping of
men. In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote that women "all these centuries have served
lookingglasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the magic
figure of man at twice its natural size".
Woolf knew, however, that the best writing transcends gender-specific thinking,
since "anything written with a conscious bias is doomed to death".
Great art, according to Woolf, encompasses the whole of human experience and
dissolves any crude distinction between sex and gender. "Some collaboration has
to take place in the mind between the man and woman before the art of creation
can be accomplished.
Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated".
A powerful representation of this concept as it may be manifested in an actual
relationship appears in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night. The main character,
an American playwright recruited to spy in pre-war Germany, sees the bond
himself and his wife as constituting what he calls "a nation of two". The
couple's loyalty to this nation will allow for a measure of regional autonomy
can survive the occasional outbreak of civil unrest.
Despite Woolf's plea for wholeness and her warning against replacing misogyny
with misandry, stereotyping is still with us. Once women might have been
denigrated or patronised with impunity, but now popular culture tends to load
dice against men.
Sitcoms and ads routinely show male characters as weak, foolish or stupid.
Instead of Father Knows Best, there are such dubious role models as Homer
and Ray in Everyone Loves Raymond. Not that they have much of an example to
follow - Abraham Simpson was a terrible father and Ray's dad is a ranting
Of course, these shows would not be funny if the gag did not correlate to
in real life, but there is no balance, and in any case a joke repeated too
quickly becomes stale. Of recent comedies, Coupling and Kath & Kim stand out as
mature enough, and wicked enough, to be even-handed in satirising human
Selfishness, vanity, vulgarity, duplicity, snobbery, deceit - none of these
things is the sole preserve of one half of humanity.
Nor are any of the more admirable qualities, needless to say.
Unreconstructed heroes such as those played by John Wayne and Steve McQueen
disappeared from the big screen, but also lost are the Gregory Pecks, Henry
Fondas and Cary Grants.
Russell Crowe's rampaging public persona may seem like a throwback, but even he
can't go berserk in a hotel without concern for his family being the cause.
sensitivity, which is shared by Crowe's characters in such films as Gladiator
The Cinderella Man, never inspired the ritual trashing of hotel rooms by rock
bands in the '60s and '70s.
In modern life, the patriarchy has been superseded. Men increasingly share in
family chores and spend time with their children, which is why the authors of
Future of Men think that "business still seems to be lagging behind the
reality of how much gender-blurring has occurred in traditional female
They write that "products related to food preparation, home furnishing and
entertaining, and home maintenance (i.e. cleaning) are still generally pitched
women, despite the fact that most of these items have become gender neutral".
While it has never been easier to form attachments, it has never been more of a
challenge to maintain them.
The upheavals in men's lives have brought much that is new and unprecedented
also confirmed much that is as old as the hills. A good man or woman has always
been hard to find and the course of true love never runs smooth, as Shakespeare
and Jane Austen, among other writers, understood.
Some are lucky in love and others miss out, no matter what the rules of
engagement happen to be. Mutual misunderstanding and gender confusion are a
source of comedy and pathos in Shakespeare's plays and the politics and
of sex is a central concern of Austen's novels.
Female sexual selection was known to be a vital factor in courtship long before
evolutionary science confirmed it as the dominant one. Much of what seems
contemporary in gender conflict has a historical precedent. The cad or shrew of
yesteryear is today's ballbreaker or toxic bachelor. For every female
pig there's a pick-up artist playing "the game". In his primping and preening,
the metrosexual takes his cue from the dandy of yore.
The prospects for men may seem bleak to some, but that need not be the case.
Rather than feel useless and rejected, most men should perhaps feel lucky that
women still show as much interest in them as they do and want their
companionship. Often the most effective critics of cultural misandry are women,
and women do continue to give birth to sons as well as daughters.
Most women are attracted to men enough to want to be with them in some
way, while men (or women) who like each other are no longer prevented from
fulfilling their desire. Love is fragile and often fleeting but I doubt whether
many of us, no matter how modern our outlook, could contemplate life without
And for the time being, at least, it seems we don't have to.
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