The problems that men and boys face (and our re collective unwillingness to address those problems) started with Patriarchy not Feminism—-but feminism isn’t helping, argues Darren Ball.
I was recently criticised for giving the impression that I blamed feminism for the problems faced by men, which reminded me about my early interest in gender politics. What first attracted me to gender politics was not associated with feminism at all, but rather because I noticed a general societal ambivalence towards men and boys – from feminists and non-feminists alike. I have formed the view that most of the gendered problems faced by males are primarily due to our prevailing culture, and the culture that prevails is a derivative of old-fashioned patriarchy.
Our culture is mostly inherited from Christianity, which is one of the major Abrahamic religions: you don’t get more patriarchal than that. God, Abraham, Moses, Noah – they’re all father figures. Brides are given to the groom by their father. Men have traditionally competed for supremacy over each other, and women have married into that hierarchy as high as they could, but women were not equal, they were property: even the word “husband” is a farming term.
Patriarchies are hierarchies of men, and you can’t be at the top unless there are other men below you: every top needs a bottom. The patriarchy does not incentivise powerful men to look out for the interests of other men with whom they’re competing. Those men making decisions in our society are, by definition, those men who have done well and they cannot be relied upon to help other males (their competitors), other than their own offspring. Males who can’t make the grade go under – this entirely explains society’s general ambivalence towards them.
The root cause of men’s problems
Ambivalence towards males is not the preserve of feminists – the political right are the worst of all. Traditionally it’s the right-wing which imprisons the most men, closes homeless shelters, expels boys from school, sends troops to war, etc. The whole stiff upper-lip, men should be men, women first, etc., is drawn from our patriarchal past and remains today in the minds of socially conservative men and women. Since these attitudes that harm men are held equally by non-feminists, and are inherited from a pre-feminist era, we can conclude that feminism is not the root cause: it’s patriarchy.
Feminism has removed those parts of our dominant culture where women were disadvantaged. Note that I differentiate between dominant culture and popular culture. I’m defining dominant culture as the State, legislation, the judiciary and generally what is acceptable to say, do or believe if you hold public office and other large public-facing institutions. Although women remain under-represented in positions of hard power, women have all the rights of men plus some. Whereas popular culture is anything commonly said, done or believed by the general public – here feminism has much more work to do.
The result of feminist success in transforming the dominant culture is to leave a version of patriarchy that retains all those elements that feminists did not campaign to removed – those parts that didn’t negatively impact upon women.
Man still expected to “man up”
We are left with a pruned-down version of patriarchy that still allows men to sink or swim, still expects men to “man-up” and “grow a pair”, is intolerant of those men who fail to measure-up: the rough-sleepers, the mentally ill, the addicts, and so on. This version of patriarchy has also retained its paternal instinct towards women, which is evidenced in the criminal justice system, education, physical and mental health, family courts, and so on.
The literal definition of patriarchy is rule by the father. In a true patriarchy fathers would rule everything, from the home to the state; nobody could seriously claim that we live in a true patriarchy. Family legislation has made most fathers of dependent children de facto guests in their own homes and removable, with virtually no notice, by the State at the behest of their partner. Women also run for, and obtain, high public office (although not often enough).
A patriarchy is not defined as “rule by men”; that’s an androcracy, A patriarchy requires a paternal element.
In my definition, the dominant culture is the “father” and women are the “daughters”. A father can be oppressive and dictatorial to his daughters, or he can be doting – giving his daughters all that he can. It seems to me that feminism has had the effect of changing the type of father from the former towards the latter, but it’s still patriarchal. In my analogy, men are not the fathers but the sons, who are expected to forge their own way without assistance. Because the “father” is not a real person or persons, but a system of laws, beliefs and attitudes, the patriarchy can be administrated just as well by women.
Feminism isn’t helping men
To take this full circle and answer the question: do I blame feminism for the problems faced by men? The ultimate answer has to be no, but it’s not helping either. The feminist movement should be challenging any gendered disadvantage caused by our patriarchal structure, whomever it affects; both because feminism is a movement for gender equality, and because the movement is committed to end patriarchy.
However, as a movement, feminism does nothing to challenge patriarchy where the disadvantage is experienced predominantly by males, unless there is a vicarious benefit for women (i.e. encouraging men to share work and home responsibilities), and sometimes the movement actually uses patriarchal attitudes to press for female advantages to the detriment of males (such as issues around domestic violence and prison reform).
The huge contradiction is that feminists are very often pushing against a door that’s opened for them by socially-conservative, gallant, traditionalist patriarchs.
If feminism wants to be the go-to movement for gender equality, it needs to include male issues in its radius of concern, and give those issues proportionate concern. I’m not talking here about individual feminists who can be individually wonderful; I’m talking about feminism as a movement – what does it campaign for? When men’s issues are also feminist issues, they can sign me up.
Darren Ball is a regular reader of The Guardian and insideMAN magazine, he is not affiliated to any particular organisation.
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