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The Masculinity Crisis - Thoughts and Stuff

The Masculinity Crisis


The talk of masculinity crisis has been making rounds for quite some time now. Dead Beat Kenya has only come to remind us how irresponsible man has become. In the Christian circles where men are not allowed to sleep around and sire “illegitimate babies”, we have another sort of deadbeat men, the kind who apparently refuse to commit, who refuse to grow up, and chose to remain faithful godly bachelors. They neglect their Christian sisters who end finding no Godly men to marry, and turn to unbelievers who apparently end up breaking their hearts (and in that sense, I have numerously been accused of being a deadbeat Christian man).

Women all over will tell you there are no men left in this world. Chivalry is dead, they will say. In a world where men have turned dumb and emasculated, what is a girl to do?  Men on the other hand are confused wondering what it is they are supposed to be. They joke that had God created Eve first, he would have been content to say “it is good for woman to be alone”, for no companion, created or uncreated would be found fit for her. Another friend jokes, “Women are very easy to please; they are promptly satisfied with the finest things of life!” But what does masculinity mean and what is a man supposed to be? When women say there are no men remaining in this world, it is because they look at the sort of men their fathers and grandfathers were; strong, protective breadwinners, and wonder where things went wrong. So, let’s look at what changed…

Several years ago when our fathers were hunters’ gatherers, it did a lot of good for a man to be swift and strong. When the man left home in the morning, clad in his hunting garb, carrying his hunting ax which he was skillfully trained at, his household saw a MAN. When he was in the wilderness with his kinsmen and was the most astute deer hunter, they respected him as a REAL MAN. But I think what his family saw to rate him a real man was not the hunting garb or the ax, or his skill in hunting down the deer. What they saw was the value his artifacts and his skill added to his household and to the society. In the same vein, as Susan Faludi (Stiffed: The betrayal of the America man) quoted on Newsweek notes, the riggers, welders, and boilermakers of generations past weren’t wearing overalls to feel like men, Instead, “their sense of their own manhood flowed out of their utility in a society, not the other way around.”

I must think every generation has presented masculinity with challenges of identity. As we moved on from hunting and gathering to an agrarian economy to industrial one to a service economy to what they now call the information age, man has had to develop new sets of skills to continue fulfilling his role as man, mainly breadwinner and protector. The current economic changes have however been far more reaching than any other changes man had encountered before. In a lengthy article in the Atlantic titled The End of Man, Hanna Rosin notes the post industrial economy is indifferent to the attributes that used to give man advantage: size and strength. The attributes that are most important today are brain power, social intelligence, communication, and the ability to sit still and focus. Size and strength is catered for by robots and machines where man can no longer compete.

I think Anthony Clare in his book Masculinity in Crisis captures this more accurately:

“The one biological difference between the sexes on which everybody is agreed is that whereas women possess two X-shaped sex chromosomes, men possess one X and a little Y-shaped chromosome. The Y chromosome accounts for superior male strength, stature, mass of muscle, sleight of hand, and speed of foot. These attributes have been of considerable value in a world dominated by a need for physical power and energy and a raw, brutal, martial strength. We have become accustomed to thinking of ‘real’ men as those who labour in the iron, steel and coal industries, in shipbuilding, lumberjacking, and pre-mechanised farming. Our martial heroes have been almost entirely male, in the fantasies and the realities of hand-to-hand combat, of sheer physical guts, the will to survive, and athletic derring-do. What is the price of all that brute strength, might and energy now, when more people are employed making Indian curries than mining coal, when computerized robots and not sweating men assemble cars and when the male predilection for violence, far from saving national pride, threatens world survival?”

What once defined man can no longer earn him and his family a living. He has to learn new skills, most of which have no masculinity written all over them. I said earn him and his family a living, I should have excluded his family. Our father’s generation prided themselves on being providers – for their spouses, families and themselves. But with the gains made by women in the last several years, that is no longer “objectively” essential (and that is why I feel it is an unfair burden to demand that our fathers should have prepared us to be better men and unreasonable to ask we reclaim masculinity as it was). This brings us to the social cultural factors that have made traditional masculinity untenable in the current socio-economic set up.

There is hardly anything to be done in today’s society that cannot be done by women. Though the gains that have accrued to women remain very modest, and they remain under represented and under compensated, the trend is fast moving towards parity especially in the developed world. (In the US for example the workforce is now more than 50% women, and college graduations are more than 55% women.) This trend will soon catch in the developing world especially in areas where girls have had equal access to education. Of course the welfare of girl child in Africa is still far from ideal. But the shift from hunting and gathering, farming to service/ information economy has taken place in just a few decades. The African man has had less than three generations to adapt (unlike his Western friends where the process took centuries). In those few decades, the role and capability of woman has so drastically changed, she no longer needs be provided for or protected by man in any objective sense (of course “provide and protect” is now used as metaphors on the pulpit to explain deep spiritual and psychological truths- no satire intended).

Our gender therefore is faced with a totally new landscape where gender identity no longer dictates ability to bread win, create wealth, or create “safety”. It is also faced with a scenario where their traditional role of “providing and protecting” is no longer required. He has to learn new skills to earn a living, and he has to find a new basis of relating with the opposite sex… and HE is confused. Newsweek, in the article above, describes this confusion thus:

“It’s clear that we’ve arrived at another crossroad — only today the prevailing codes of manhood have yet to adjust to the changing demands on men.”

Michael Kimmel (whose school of thought I do not necessarily agree with) captures it even more accurately:

“They (Men) can’t go back to Neanderthal masculinity; they can’t move forward to embrace some sensitive new-age guydom. They’re stuck where they are; in eternal boyhood. They cannot commit — to their girlfriends, their jobs, or even to a purposeful life.”

We no longer need to teach men the old notions and skills of masculinity. It is important to call men to reflect on what it means to be a man, but it should be more of introspection in the face of change, rather than fighting to maintain an unsustainable status-quo. It is a call for man to reestablish his niche in a gender neutral (it may not be today, but that is where we are invariably headed) economy, and establish a new memorandum of understanding with women who now have equal access to socio-economic opportunities.

When I was in class six or there about I read a very interesting book by HR Ole Kulet called To Become a Man. The book was about two Maasai boys who were friends, one whose father decided to take to school and the other who just followed the normal Maasai boyhood into a lion-killing, cattle-rustling moran. In no time, the little moran had killed his lion and stolen enough cattle to establish his little home. The other boy was just struggling in school and feeling inadequate looking at his friend’s spoils. The little school boy ultimately decided he needed to prove his masculinity and decided to join the friend in the next cattle stealing venture. Unfortunately the venture aborted when law enforcement officers intervened. The school boy was killed and the little moran maimed for life. The book ends with the Fathers of both boys reflecting on what they had done wrong, and the father of the surviving boy wishing his had died too, for in his state, he would never be a man. Such is the conflict of bringing up a boy and of growing up as one.

If there is anything to be learned from the little book, it is that traditional masculinity is no longer tenable. It is still nice to do sport hunting, hand crafting staff, climbing rocks and learning archery, but these things are purely ornamental. Today if I was to compromise my son’s education to teach him hunting because it is masculine, I would be setting him up for a dysfunctional manhood. It no longer holds the premium it used to.

If a little boy asked me what he needed to be a real man, I would give him this sort of answer.

“Almost everything you require to be a man has been biologically bestowed upon you. What you now need to do is to develop life skills that will add value to your life and that of those you love. Learn a skill that will help you earn a living, learn a skill that will be fun during your pass time, learn a skill that will leave the world a better place than you found it.”

If he asked me how he should relate with a woman, I would want to re-enact the Garden of Eden scene when God gives Adam a helper. A helper, to be able to help, can do what you can do equally well, or even better. She probably thinks differently, and has different preferences, but that does not make her any subordinate. She can only live optimally with you as an equal partner, thinking things though with you, making decisions together and deriving equal profit from your endeavours. I think the picture of Adam walking in the garden in the cool of day with Eve at his side is not long lost. I might even dare to suggest we are closer to that ideal than any other generation before us – now that women are our peers in most socio-economic spheres.

[The featured image is built upon an original from Flickr under this licence.]

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