Gentlemen of leisure

We should question the assumptions made about the need for a new masculinity before we give up on men.

Sean Bell

Topics Politics

What are men for? No one seems to know. Finding a credible role for men in modern life to replace that of breadwinner has confounded commentators, writers, filmmakers and TV programmers. Michael and Mrs Buerk say we’re redundant and good only as sperm donors, while Michael complains of a femocracy running the media. A Sunday Times response to the Buerks featured an illustration of a woman clutching a testicle-shaped world. The headline ran: ‘Of course women don’t rule the world, says John-Paul Flintoff nervously. (Just don’t let them tighten their grip any harder…)’ (1).

Davina McCall’s new BBC vehicle is He’s Having a Baby, following the fates of hapless new dads. The Week the Women Left on BBC3 featured men in a village having to cope with everything for themselves. It was trailed as a men-coping-badly comedy of errors but finished with the unsurprising result that blokes enjoyed their kids’ company and appreciated that their wives and girlfriends put in a lot of effort.

Most men I know would cope fine. Their wives and girlfriends already leave them to it while working shifts, taking separate holiday breaks and doing training courses. There is very little mileage remaining, I would assert, in characterising men as domestic idiots because it conflicts with the reality of men taking, and having to take, more of a role in family life.

Anecdotally, I know most people can be persuaded to admit that they think women are better at multi-tasking (working while looking after the kids), empathising with others emotionally (doing the unpleasant middle-management tasks of firing people, writing horrible reports and arguing about budgets) and maintaining a professional working environment (they supposedly never tell off-colour jokes, wind up co-workers or come in late). Common sense says that women do the same things as men, just slightly differently and not necessarily any better. If men designed the new kitchens that everyone builds, there would be two large dishwashers and fewer cupboards. The stereotypical, ball-breaking career woman assumed by the cultural debate on masculinity is as unreal to us as a Neanderthal view of ourselves.

Do real men sit about wondering what they are for? I have found that most of my male friends have fixed contracts, stop-start patterns to their work and periods of part-time employment or inactivity. We have formed a loose collective, ‘the gentlemen of leisure’, and occasionally two or three of us meet for some daytime activity such as seeing a film or mountain-biking. Our women have similar job patterns but we never considered involving our wives and girlfriends because their daytime leisure was already accounted for. They probably encouraged us in the first place.

I think the nickname ‘gentlemen of leisure’ stuck because, as blokes with spare time already involved in sporting activities, we had to adopt a historical description to express a positive image of males not working or competing. Not all of us know each other and, unsurprisingly, we don’t explicitly discuss the media’s idea of masculinity in crisis. I’m a husband in my forties, with kids, and my friends of a similar age and situation are supposed to be among the most vulnerable and poorly adapted. We all recognise the picture Buerk paints but we don’t see the world like that.

I am reminded of the Two Ronnies’ famous serial about women taking over the world (in leather shorts) while put-upon men (in floral dresses) watched John Wayne films in secret.

Actually, we gentlemen largely agree with women’s liberation; we don’t feel threatened by women and we don’t blame women for the state of the world. We get on with the struggles of life, try to adjust to the difficulties of combining modern child-rearing with work and form new associations and social arrangements to these ends.

If anything, my younger, thirtysomething single male friends are the more concerned about the redefinition of gender – in relation to womanhood. The boys have every confidence in being able to meet Ms Right’s expectations (except, perhaps, for earning more than her), but they think women are confused about what they want from a man. Some see the modern girl as being shy of commitment. A young man who wants to settle down with kids can have a tough time finding a young woman with a similar immediate ambition these days.

Our whole society has emerged from the ‘battle of the sexes’ with the sense that strong women must keep on winning until they can command as much absolute power as men in a Sunday supplement list. Yet we have always thought men and women did things differently. A century ago, women had a clear physical disadvantage in industry. How can we possibly identify a similar psychological disadvantage in a young man today? The inability of commentators to establish a firm role to replace that of breadwinner sets up the debate as a comparison in which men can only appear by turns unfortunate or ill-equipped for modern life. Comparison of the sexes was fine when it was applied to the changing position of women in society, but it’s a poor tool to use when explaining what is different or new in relation to men. We should question the assumptions made about the need for a new masculinity before we give up on men.

The most damaging thing to both men and women is to assume that men are the problem. If a different ideal of manhood is to emerge, it ought to be shaped by the experiences of men taking on the challenges of real life, rather than a cultural panic about how useless they are in a woman’s world. Real men don’t complain about a petticoat dictatorship; they have more important things to worry about.

(1) Focus, Sunday Times, 21 August 2005

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Topics Politics


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