A Man’s World…


Isn’t what it used to be, apparently. It always amuses me when my reading books gang up together to promote a certain perspective on the world. Yesterday I came across this intriguing paragraph in Tom Wolfe’s novel I am Charlotte Simmons:


‘..the feeling itself, male humiliation, is unspeakable. No man can bring himself to describe it. The same man who will confess with relish and in lavish ghostwritten detail to every sort of debauchery and atrocity will not utter one peep about the humiliations that, in Orwell’s phrase, “make up seventy-five percent of life”. For confessing to humiliation means confessing that he has cringed, caved in, surrendered his honor without a fight to another man who has intimidated him – that he has been unsexed and has plunged into a misery worse than the prospect of imminent death.’


Then a little later I was reading this:


In a culture where women no longer collude with many men’s view of them as predominantly passive, lacking and vulnerable, many men suddenly find themselves without women onto whom they can project their own unconscious lack, loss and envy, and may feel overwhelmed by feelings they never knew they had. Unfortunately, culture, by undervaluing emotional ways of thinking and knowing, cuts many men off from the very thing they need to help them – the emotional means of resolving and coming to terms with feelings of envy, loss and vulnerability in a creative way.’ And a little further on: ‘In many men’s phantasy […] there seems to be something ‘real’ about women with which the culturally accepted phallic version of ‘masculinity’ cannot compete, which does not seem to rest on the need for power and control.’

From Psychoanalysis and Culture. Contemporary States of Mind, Rosalind Minsky


And to round the day off, there was this:


Why do people with the fatal gene [the Y chromosome] do so badly? Society plays a part, and stupidity helps, but the testes are much to blame. Some of the harm is direct, for their secretions damage those who bear them. The cells of the immune system die when exposed to testosterone, and the male body, with its vast quantities of the substance, is less able to make antibodies than is its opposite number. As a result, men find it more difficult to fight cancer and to resist infection by a variety of diseases…’ However it is also true that ‘boys still face a doubled risk of accidental death compared to girls’ and that ‘Each year in Britain, five million man-years of life are lost to a demise that could, in principle, be avoided. Smoking, fat and stress all specialise in one segment of society. From gout to hernias (four and nine times more common in males) men suffer while their partners are spared.’

From Y: The Descent of Men by Steve Jones


What’s going on here? All of these books focus on contemporary culture and the relationship between men and women, Wolfe from a perspective of power and knowledge, Minsky from the psychoanalytic viewpoint, Jones from the biological arena. All three insist on the challenge to patriarchy that men are currently undergoing, be that from a social-historical point of view with the increasing equality between the sexes, or from a medical point of view, now that advances in genetics can make reproduction free from male assistance. What I found most interesting was the consistent implication that men have been socially and genetically estranged from the creativity needed to respond sensibly and strategically to the difficulties they face. Put a man in an awkward position, these three authors suggest, and he will instantly work to make it worse. After reproduction and aggression, man’s greatest instinct is for self-sabotage.


But is this all true and accurate? I ran the quotes by my husband to see what his reaction would be and he seemed particularly taken by the final one, shaking his head mournfully over the conundrum that is testosterone. ‘It makes me who I am,’ he sighed, ‘and it destroys me. Just like the lion, whose long mane prevents him from hunting properly.’ And that little serving of irony was all I got out of him on the subject. Generalisations are one thing, but yesterday’s reading built up a picture piece by piece, of a significant sea change in social organisation. One that suggested another, more far-reaching crisis in masculinity than the one that rocked the end of the nineteenth century. Is the future really going to look like a woman’s world?



23 thoughts on “A Man’s World…

  1. It seems to me, though, that instead of working merely to make things worse, throughout history so many men have worked to make things worse (current example being the war in Iraq) and have then done everything possible to cover up the fact they’ve made things worse, often portraying themselves as great heroes. Obviously, the cover-up doesn’t always work, as noted by my current example.

  2. Ah indeed, Emily. This may well point to another vexed issue in the masculine universe, which is taking responsibility for mistakes. Now, I don’t want to fall prey to pointless generalisations, so I’d love to hear from any man who is perfectly happy to put his hand up to a mistake. Unfortunately the ones I know are not that good at it…

  3. In development circles they say that when women are involved in government there is less corruption and the trains run on time, so to speak. There definitely seems to be something amiss with manhood…

  4. Hear hear David,

    I think the argument seems to be men are and have been awful at running the world (begging the question how we have reached this point or achieved any refinement to date) and that as the world is now changing (if men were so intent on holding power how do they now release it? The arguments just don’t stack up for me)they have no useful role.

    Frankly it seems a tired argument BUT one that does offer explanations (if you choose to accept the premise) for the crisis in masculinity that does seem to exist: poor school results, underachievment in university and high suicide rates.

    Perhaps though looking at men as part of society you will see that the crisis is part fo the wider questioning that seems to be at the heart of modern existence. At least for those of us happy and fortunate enough to have the luxury to worry about those things and not about where the next loaf of bread will come from!


  5. Sadly, in independent publishing one rarely needs to put one’s hand up, for we suffer daily for our mistakes. A point I raise because I suspect that an inability to admit mistakes may come from social circumstances where one can be protected from the consequences of one’s mistakes—I;’d be inclined to look outside, rather than inside.

    Semi-parathetically: entrepreneurial independent publishing (ie, not non-profits, and not corporate publishers) is largely male-run. We stupidly blunder into something is is intrinsically awfully difficult, where we’re not only going to inevitably make mistakes, but suffer personally for them too…

  6. Sylvia – I cannot imagine a mother who would willingly send her son into war, either… David and Eoin – such enlightened views! Perhaps masculinity is just changing and the outcome might be more gentlemen such as yourselves? (I love the notion of the gentleman and would be happy to see it return). And you are right, Eoin, to say that there is a widespread and cross-gender shake-up of society on the go. It IS a privilege of the sophisticated world to envisage such a thing, but, to bat the ball back very gently, those countries who do not have such a privilege are also those where gender roles are most old-fashioned. Steve, it’s a great response and I would just encourage people to read it. Richard – you make a good point there. Publishing is a high risk industry and of course, we could look at it from the other direction and see in men courageous risk-takers.  We might have to wonder how the industry would look in the hands of the more cautious sex…?

  7. May I provide a service here? Steve Mitchelmore did indeed have something interesting to say, to wit:

    “If men are predisposed toward aggression and self-sabotage, then it is due to their reproductive advantageousness. Such behaviour would otherwise die out.” He offers the example of Ted Bundy, clearly a caricature of male aggression, and reminds us that Bundy married after his arrrest, received hundreds of fan letters from female admirers during his incarceration, and fathered a child.” The implication being that if Bundy passed on his genes, evoltion favors aggression.

    Which it well might. But . . .

    There’s middle ground here. Aggressive behavior only dies out if it disadvantages the aggressor. If aggressors thrive at the expense of the rest of mankind, and if silly women throw themselves at their feet, that only means it costs the rest of the population more to support them both. If the species survives, we can continue to talk about it. If the species ultimately fails, it might well be a result of our own aggression and self-sabotage.

  8. There does seem to be some kind of crisis of masculinity going on. On the one hand I think — my God, give women their chance, their time out of the patriarchy before we worry about what’s wrong with men, which is what we’ve been worried about for centuries. Millenia. On the other hand, I think feminism and whatever crisis of masculinity there is going on right now offers a great chance for men to break out of old roles that harmed some of them as well as harming women. Patriarchy sucks for a lot of men too.

  9. David – I certainly agree that fundamental aggression in human beings (and that goes for both genders) is something that we ought to consider more closely with a view to taming it, not in a restrictive way, but in a sublimatory way. There are many cultures that would resist such a move quite forcefully, however. I don’t think governments consider the long-term sufficiently either, and history will regard this as the most wasteful and self-destructive of all eras. Dorothy – way to go! Just a great comment. I couldn’t agree with you more – instability and change offers a great opportunity to rethink what isn’t working, and that’s for everyone concerned. Bikeprof – oh dear! Now I feel terribly guilty. Whilst it’s intriguing to consider these seismic cultural shifts in the abstract, life is lived by individuals who don’t conform to any pattern. Didn’t you tell us all you read like a woman? I think you are perfectly placed to enjoy the best of both worlds.

  10. I don’t know about the other two, but the Tom Wolfe quote could surely apply to women as well. I don’t know that women are that concerned with being ‘unsexed,’ but losing face is a big deal to many women, especially when their power is so precarious. They (well, we) want to be competitive with women and with men, but without intimidating men. And women don’t necessarily ‘confess’ to humiliation, either. They retaliate in sneaky, malicious ways. Different m.o.s, similar dynamics.

  11. AC – I think you’re right. I was considering writing about female humiliation on another post because there’s plenty of it in Wolfe’s novel. It’s slightly differently organised in the novel, though. Humiliation is bound up for women in being turned down or abandoned or refused in some way. Not wanting what a woman offers seems to be key to her humiliation. And certainly the portrait of a woman seeking revenge was not a pretty one.

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  13. None of us is free until all of us are free — that’s my thought whenever I consider how men haven’t gained as much from feminism as women. I suppose this might be because women’s gains have mostly come from their access to male power — everything from the ability to work at more jobs to wear pants. But the things women have always known matter in living a decent life: time with children, the ease of making connections with other people, the stress relievers that are knitting and novel reading (not to mention the pleasure of wearing a skirt on a hot day) aren’t accessible by men, probably because these tradtionally female pursuits have been devalued by the culture in which we live and thus many men are discouraged from taking them on. Like many theories, there are holes in this one, but I’m guessing that things are already changing for the generations of men who are our sons, and that’s a huge thing, although not much remarked on. And I’ll write a longer post on that, later.

  14. Litlove,

    Fair back bat except: Gender roles weren the past as quaint in western states as they are now in under-developed nations and we developed to a considerable degree anyways. Equally traditional society structures have in the past been very successful and productive one and there is no reason to belive that will change.

    That is not to say we should therefore not seek equality and greater freedom just that they may not automatically ensure greater prosperity and growth than traditional society set ups. I say that not to defend Male domination but to suggest caution. A world of total equality while desirable for its own merit may not produce the freer better world we hope and may dissappoint us.


  15. Litlove, what wonderful reading and discussion here! I’ve finally had an opportunity to come back to your blog for a bit of a read and I feel I’ve missed so much great discussion. A fascinating topic. As a mother of sons, I hate to think that men are deficient in any way, whether due to society, or biology or for whatever reason. Fundamentally, we need to consider ourselves people, and not restrict ourselves, and our ability to stretch and grow creatively to meet all that life requires of us: whether humility or aggression.

  16. Bloglily, I like very much what you say about the way that our son’s lives will be different to those of their fathers and grandfathers. That’s what I felt when writing the post originally – that this might be the moment for men to gain access to a creativity that’s been foreclosed to them. And that would be a great thing. Eoin – ah we need to be sitting in a pub by the fire for this discussion! I suppose I’m interested in the concept of a ‘successful society’. All those that have been success stories in the past have done so by abusing their marginal members – on grounds of race, colour, gender, social class, whatever. What in theory the sophisticated Western world has the opportunity to do now, is to create a successful society in which the quality of life of all its members is paramount. Essentially, that’s where we are implicitly headed. But it seems as if we can’t move forward except via reversals of fortune, rather than mutual gain. I think what makes it more complicated is that equality might look very different to each individual. So, in that respect I agree with you – caution as we change our ideology is always a wise companion. Shuana – it’s lovely to hear from you. Just drop in whenever you can. And I appreciate your comment very much. I don’t think men are deficient in any way – just challenged in more ways than maybe they have been in the past. As you say, if each can call on his own creativity, confidence and humility, then the world will indeed be a better place.

  17. I meant to add that as regards “successful societies” :

    I used the term in an amoral sense. Rome was successful but it did indeed mistreat (At least to our viewpoint) the marginalised and the weak. The German Reich, both British Empires, the Soviet Union and even the American Hegemony of the present are examples of more modern “successful societies”.

    I would not hesitate to say that all have, from a moral perspectve, huge deficiencies but would also be loathe to describe them as failures because they did not conform to models of societal structure that we would desire now. Equally their successes are manifest and were not reliant on enlightened liberal perspectives nor equality (whatever the propaganda of the day said to the contrary) indeed their success was often as you say predicated on the abuse of our liberal views.

    So in short I guess they are successful if you judge them by material, economic, power and political standards but disasters and failures by more moral vantage points.


  18. It may be late for a final comment, but I just read this and had to share it here and now.

    “Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

    From “The History Boys” by Alan Bennett

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