February 18, 2021

People have been talking about a “crisis of masculinity” since at least the 1980s, which means that masculinity has been doing its nut for roughly as long as I’ve been alive. Despite all that gender angst, men continue to hold more power, earn more money and do less unpaid domestic labour than women — who, it follows, hold less power, earn less money and do more than their share of the unpaid domestic labour, because someone’s going to have to pick up around here.

But masculinity takes its toll on men. Most glaringly, there’s the suicide rate. In his new book You Are Not the Man You Are Supposed to Be: Into the Chaos of Modern Masculinity, author Martin Robinson describes this as “an orange flare in the night sky, illuminating a heaving ocean of self-harm, addiction, eating disorders, violence and anti-social behaviour”. In England and Wales, three quarters of those who died by suicide in 2019 were male — a trend which has been consistent since the mid-1990s. That’s a horrifying 4,303 men, in just one year.

And there’s more. Robinson lists the stats: “95% of prisoners are male, 86% of homeless people, 73% of deaths from drug misuse.” Some of these figures are not quite as clear cut as suggested, thanks to a data gap that consistently under-measures women (female homelessness, for example, is often hidden in official figures). But nevertheless it’s true that some men pay a hell of a price for masculinity.

Yet the informal man code requires that men accept this suffering without complaint. Robert Webb put the predicament vividly in his own memoir-slash-dissection-of-manhood, How Not to Be a Boy: “if you want a vision of masculinity,” he wrote, “imagine Dr Frankenstein being constantly bum-raped by his own monster while shouting, ‘I’m fine, everyone! I’m absolutely fine!’”

Robinson is neither imprisoned, nor homeless, nor addicted (although he does make a point of mentioning just how many of his encounters over the course of reporting this book took place drunk, wasted or straight-up pissed; the use of booze as a solvent for male reticence is one trope of masculinity that isn’t getting reassessed here). He lives with his partner and their two children, and until 2016, he was a magazine journalist; in 2018, he launched the website The Book of Man, with a self-defined brief to “open up the possibilities by questioning masculinity”. You Are Not the Man You Are Supposed To Be is the book-form version of that mission.

Whose benefit is all this questioning for, though? Robinson notes that the audience at one of his many “events encouraging men to talk” is “as ever” made up of almost completely women. Most reviewers of Webb’s book were female, and here I am, female also, writing about Robinson’s. Women, it seems, feel compelled to understand men — to do the emotional picking-up. And while there is certainly a male market for introspection, the success of Jordan Peterson shows that there’s an even bigger one for hearing that maleness has been cruelly traduced.

Peterson tells men that their problems lie, not with masculinity itself, but with a society that fails to value masculinity properly. For Robinson, masculinity is the problem. He sets up the ideal of manhood in his chapter headings — “in control”, “one of the lads”, “hard”, “ripped”, “straight”, “the breadwinner” — and then tries to understand why aspiring to this role hasn’t made him happy. His explorations take him to men’s groups, to a cage fight and to a drag queen who paints him up in full femme mode (Robinson is disappointed to discover that this does not unleash an inner reservoir of campy wit).

Robinson is interested in how gender stereotypes make men unhappy. He is less curious about what they do to women. We’re halfway through the book before he mentions the problem of male violence against women, and three quarters before the wage gap comes up. A discussion of domestic abuse focuses on men and boys as unrecognised sufferers, but elides the fact that, while female perpetrators do exist, most perpetrators are men whatever the sex of their victims.

One of feminism’s perpetual battles is the insistence that to address violence, we must “name the agent”. That means rejecting passive constructions like “woman killed”, which suggest some inevitable and impersonal force at play, and instead use formulations such as “man kills woman”, identifying both the human source of the violence and the fact that committing it is a voluntary act. When Robinson baulks at naming the agent, it’s hard to resist the suspicion that his interest is less in solving the problems masculinity causes, and more in repositioning men as an afflicted class deserving of sympathy.

It’s right to sympathise with men, as it’s right to sympathise with anyone, but doing so is not a radical reframing of gender politics. It is usual for male subjectivity to take centre stage (the philosopher Kate Manne calls this phenomenon “himpathy”). The flow of feeling from women to men is one of the mass transfers of resources ensured by men’s social dominance, and if Robinson had read much feminism, he would perhaps have come across that concept.

In fact, he seems hardly to have engaged with feminism at all — there are cursory mentions of de Beauvoir and Butler, but that’s as far as it goes. And this is very strange, because masculinity and femininity exist in relation to each other. When feminists address the state of women, they write about men because it would be impossible not to. Yet women barely figure in Robinson’s book, which suggests he is less willing to leave the strictures of masculinity than might be hoped.

When it comes to the vexed issue of gender identity which has lately ripped feminism in two, he has a splendid obliviousness to the detail that I can only envy. At one excruciating point he announces that “the trans community should be worshipped as the ultimate humans, for showing the rest of us how it’s done”. This is embarrassing for everyone, including trans people, who surely do not want the burden of sainthood.

The most curious thing about gender is that while its outward forms can be flexible, its function rarely is. There have been many versions of being a man, ranging across history and geography; but however masculinities differ, they share the property of dominance over femininity, and that dominance ensures the flow of goods (power, property, reproductive labour, sex, compassion) from women to men.

If men want to stop the Frankenstein of masculinity from committing its daily violations, they need to start by admitting that this monster was made for a reason. In 1980, philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards put the matter with perfect clarity in her book The Sceptical Feminist:

“What, for instance, must be happening if an employer passes over a competent woman in favour of a less competent man? It means that the job will be less well done, and therefore (to put it schematically) that he will be losing money by appointing the man. Why should he do that? He is actually willing to pay for something or other, and it is hard to see what it could possibly be other than the simple cause of male supremacy.”

Some men are paying a hell of a price for masculinity. That price is the cost of dominance. (Of course, the class system and racism help to ensure those prices aren’t borne evenly.) Robinson says towards the end that men must “cede power for parity with others”, and deserves credit for that; he’d deserve more credit if he outlined exactly how that might happen.

Advocates for women’s rights have always known that attaining justice for their sex meant giving up the illusory securities of feminine subordination. Men who want to break the constraints of masculinity similarly have to embrace the losses, as well as the gains. Books like Robinson’s will be half-hearted so long as they are only seeking a version of masculinity with the sharp edges worn off. Men can have their new version of manhood: it starts, not with a glorious expression of pent-up emotion, but with cleaning their own bathrooms.