One of the more curious aspects of modern Internet culture has been the spread of the masculinism movement, wherein groups come together to preach the gospel of men’s rights and speak out against movements focused on addressing inequity within social groups. The most visible way this manifests is in the “anti-feminist” movement, where members of forums or comments sections speak out in favour of holding both genders to the same legal and cultural standards, often times falling back on unconsciously or overtly sexist rhetoric to reinforce key messaging.
However, when examined in greater depth, an interesting pattern emerges: the majority of individuals who use these discussion forums will overtly claim to be in favour of equality between genders. Exceptions obviously exist, but the discussion condemning feminism often contains a variant on the phrase “Of course men and women should have equal rights”. So if the conversation is not one surrounding why one gender should dominate another, where then does the issue of the supposed inequality of feminism arise?
Gender as a societal construct is well-denoted, particularly in more recent years with the growth of the transgender movement. But, as discussed in a previous post, societal constructs are developed as direct indicators of status within society. And much like being white has always been an indicator of status, being a male has equally been an indicator of superior social standing. Men have always held traditionally dominant roles, a practice explored in greater depths in third-wave feminist theory, which focuses less on the disparity between sexes or genders and more on the manner in which power is assigned across cultures. And if gender is a construct, then being a man is separate from being born a member of the male sex, and can be deconstructed along social and biological lines accordingly.
In simple terms, to be a man is to be masculine, and masculinity in the Western world is defined by three core constructs – physical dominance, wealth and sexual conquests. There are indicators that these are cultural, and not biological, factors, given that they differentiate historically. For example, hegemonic masculinity has been at odds with male homosexuality since the Italian Renaissance, but was readily practised before then and was a cultural norm in earlier European societies. And, due to the role men have played in society, these three core traits were not only associated with being male but also with being powerful – indicators of power and influence became directly tied to the accumulation of wealth and the dominance of others. Myths and legends across the globe are filled with tales of heroes striking down their foes and bedding beautiful women, all while demonising the non-intimidating intellectual as spiteful, cowardly or simply not a real man.
Being male in the Western world of today is also equally nuanced due to the fact that that status is made up of a series of privileges, not a designated set of explicit benefits. But privilege is often non-visible to those who hold it, given that it manifests as a lack of barriers encountered in day to day life. But, oddly enough, the lack of systemic bias against males in a Western culture can lead to difficulties as well. Removal of an individual’s status as a man, due to a lack of sexual conquests or a perceived physical weakness, can result in being exiled from your peer group and not accepted by other surrounding groups. The lack of systemic injustice being ingrained into the cultural DNA of Western males means there is no urge for support in times of exile – to fail is to fail with every advantage, and is a reflection on the lack of capacity of the individual, not of the ingrained bias of the system. This can mean that men who lose their status find they have nowhere to turn, and can become increasingly isolated from social circles before attempting to assert their supposed masculinity in potentially harmful ways (In the last three decades, 97% of school shooters have been male, and 79% have been white, a startling indicator of the isolation felt by young males).
This systemic notion of manhood can also be seen in more mainstream terms in today’s world: men are meant to be breadwinners and the heads of their respective households. But as times evolve, and other minority groups begin to see their own status rise and their definitions evolve in societal terms, men in the Western world have failed to see the same progress. An example: the modern woman can have it all. She can be career-oriented and a mother and can do anything a man can do. While there continues to be barriers and stigma attached, it is no longer societally unaccepted for a woman to be dominant in her personal and professional relationships. However, it remains unacceptable amongst men for a man to be dominated – such a thing sees the revoking of his status as a man and the individual is feminized by his peer group (meaning he loses his status and power associated with being a man).
This fear of being shamed or exiled can create feelings of strong animosity towards grassroots movements of minorities attempting to increase their own social status, thereby seeming to encroach on the relative dominance of men. As the definition of what it means to belong to a minority group in the West has evolved (Black civil rights movements, first and second wave feminism, same sex marriage equality movements), the definition of what it means to be a man has not. Men are still expected, for the most part, to be economic breadwinners and to earn the bulk of their household incomes. Men are also expected to defer child-caring to their spouses. These are norms that are shifting, but they nevertheless remain the current norms of the way society interacts. And while the perception of women who choose to pursue a career instead of remaining at home to care for children is changing positively, the view of a man who sacrifices his career for his children is not evolving at the same pace, resulting a perceived sense of inequality when viewed as who will lose greater status through the undertaking of a certain action.
Studies have shown that with men, the simplest way to change embedded behaviours is to instil a sense of shame. The isolation felt by individuals when their status of manhood is removed is palpable, and has been known to inspire action in more positive directions. This strategy has been used in education systems to encourage young men to stop bullying and be more accepting – the hope is that the lessons learned at a young age are not lost in adolescence as social acceptance grows in importance within the minds of young people, preventing it from being translated into the minds of the next generation of grown men.
There is no debate around whether it is easier to be a man or a woman in the Western world – across the board, men have distinct advantages and still occupy a higher position of status than women do, shown every day through the episodes of sexism in personal and professional environments that men need never encounter. But when deconstructed as a symbol of status, it is easier to understand why men in chat forums would feel animosity towards the opposing gender while still seemingly espousing their legal rights – the appearance of acceptance of empowerment is perhaps the only privilege men have not managed to take for themselves.