As a blissfully married and, I like to think, reasonably well-adjusted man, I must own up to a certain obliviousness to the so-called struggles of my gender. I appreciate that there are men who feel aggrieved. I sympathize, but I can’t relate.
In fact, the only thing more astonishing than the notion of disgruntled masculinity is any discussion of gender at all. Maybe I’m living in a post-feminist utopia, but I don’t know many people who identify themselves by their sex (except when looking for a public washroom).
Which is why it’s so startling to open a book like What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future, a just-published collection of essays edited by American author and social activist Rebecca Walker. In it, she and other scribes explore the enormous and, in some cases, untenable expectations placed on modern men. In the leadoff piece, Walker recounts the day her 11-year-old son came home from school convinced that “girls will like me if I play sports.” What I see as an innocent remark, Walker views with utter gravitas—momentous enough to inspire a book. She sees her son’s realization as symptomatic of society’s disposition. Men must repress their gentler impulses in order to take up arms against each other in an unrelenting fight for dominance, a cut-throat competition that begins with school athletics and begets the narcissistic quest for the best cheekbones, the best job and the most money, and reaches its apex on the geopolitical scale with the most fearsome military. “This war against what is considered feminine that is wounding our sons and brothers, fathers and uncles, is familiar to women,” Walker writes, “but now we see that it is killing the other half of the planet, too. But instead of dying of heartache and botched abortions and breast cancer and sexual trauma and low self-esteem, this half is dying of radiation from modern weaponry, suicidal depression, and a soul-killing obsession with the material.”
Walker is not alone in her anxiety. Her book is merely the latest chapter in a growing literature beset by the waning status of men. Author Susan Faludi may have galvanized the issue in 2000 with her fulsome bestseller Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. She attributed the decline of men’s self-worth to the shrinking military of the postwar era and the rampant downsizing in corporate America, as well as the rise of feminism. The fact that men feel diminished has led to proportionately higher secondary school dropout rates and lower university enrollment rates compared with women. These are relatively new developments, but San Diego-based author Warren Farrell believes the devaluation of men is more entrenched. He likes to remind readers that in the military, a man is more likely to die in war than his female counterpart, and that prostate cancer, one of the worst killers of men, gets much less funding than breast cancer, a predominantly female affliction.
Farrell is widely thought to have fathered the men’s movement; his 1974 book The Liberated Man is the masculine corollary to The Feminine Mystique. A feminist during the rights movement of the 1960s, Farrell changed his ideological orientation in the ’70s to examine the unspoken plight of men. In his 1993 book The Myth of Male Power, Farrell outlined the 25 worst professions based on a combination of salary, stress, work environment, outlook, security and physical demands. He called the results—which included cross-country truck driver, sheet-metal worker and construction worker—the “death professions.” He found that of these 25 jobs, 24 of them were 95 to 100 percent male. Where feminists speak of a glass ceiling, Farrell talks of a glass cellar. “In the industrialized world, there has never been a time when men have been so unappreciated,” says Farrell. “For about 30 years, it hasn’t really been a battle of the sexes, but a war in which only one side has shown up. And women have been shooting the bullets and men have been putting their heads in the sand hoping the bullets will miss.”
Farrell has an affinity for pat analogies, and not everyone buys his reasoning. “Men have and still hold the power—political, economic, cultural—in every way. They own the property, they control the businesses,” says Kay Armatage, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Toronto. “So the notion of discrimination against men is ridiculous, as far as I’m concerned. However, you can argue that they pay a certain price for their power, for their ownership, for their domination.” Sending young males to war isn’t discriminatory, Armatage contends; combat is an activity men have always initiated and engaged in.
Whatever the reasons, there is evidence of a deep dissatisfaction among men. It’s generally accepted, for example, that men commit 80 percent of the suicides in Canada. The standard explanation is that men don’t like to talk about their feelings; if pushed to the emotional brink, they would sooner die by their own hand than reach out for someone else’s. (That said, a 1999 research study by Health Canada noted that “while men commit suicide more frequently, women attempt suicide more often but are more likely to fail in their attempts.”) The notion of men and their inscrutable emotions is a favourite subject of female advice columnists, but as the stats demonstrate, the cliché holds more than a whisper of truth.
Alan Mirabelli, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family, feels that more and more men are opting to talk it out. “[They have] realized that to bottle it up and carry the stress leads to a direct line to Prozac or the psychiatrist’s couch. And that’s not the way they want to live their lives. They want to find a way to enjoy life, and if that means being vulnerable to some extent but not carrying that stress, so be it.” It’s not a perspective all men share. The model is still the strong dominant male. Although there are more “sensitive males,” their liberalism is continually challenged by our culture—most often by advertisers, who ridicule men for weakness or indecision.
“Men get a conflicting message,” Mirabelli says. “On the one hand, women want them to be gentle, but at the same time, they want them to be strong. Which is it? Or is there room for both?”
The reality is that both sexes grapple with conflicting cues. “Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘Women are not born, they’re made,’” Armatage submits. “In exactly the same way, men aren’t born, they’re made. Obviously, those gender constructions for men and women are equally forceful, although in different directions.” One thing both sides agree on is that as a society, we default to outmoded stereotypes, that women are gentle and nurturing but also self-doubting and needy, and men are strong and protective but prone to infidelity and violence.
If you want to experience the frontier of male disaffection, spend a Tuesday evening with the FACT group. The advocacy organization Fathers Are Capable, Too agitates for equal shared parenting time, and each week it convenes a support group in the basement of All Saints’ Kingsway Anglican Church in Toronto’s west end. The room is garlanded with bunny paintings and alphabet charts; a Little Tikes climbing apparatus sits at the front of the room. During the day, it’s a childcare facility; Tuesday nights, it becomes a soapbox for collective rancour toward the family courts.
The dozen or so men—and one woman—assembled on this night sit facing David Osterman and Gene Colosimo, the FACT directors who typically lead the meetings. The faces are long and worn with misery; these are people whose existence is no longer defined by their career accomplishments or even their families. The measure of these men is how long they’ve been in court. One man, Terry Lear, has spent 17 years in litigation—so far.
The meeting begins when a newbie floats a candid question. “I need an honest opinion on what chance I’ve got if I go to court,” says the tall, gangly fellow, who looks to be in his late 20s. Embittered chuckles ensue. The man is separated from his wife, with whom he has an eight-month-old son. FACT’s position on the justice system is firm: judges inexorably grant custody to women, and lawyers exist merely to draw out the proceedings and pocket the exorbitant fees. The organization lobbies various levels of government to rectify this perceived injustice but, for the most part, all FACT members can do is console one another. FACT’s message can be distilled in two words: make do. Osterman encourages him to attempt a reconciliation with his wife rather than proceed to litigation.
The young guy is skeptical. Right now, he gets to see his son for only two hours a week, in his wife’s apartment, under her supervision. “You will get as much access as she allows you,” quips Colosimo, who has no patience for platitudes. “You’re the hostage, she has a gun, and you’re trying to work out a deal.” Over the course of the evening, Colosimo will dispense a litany of caustic refrains, many of which are imbued with a subtle misogyny. “Love is grand, but divorce is 100 grand,” he says, simpering. You can tell he’s used that one before; it elicits knowing laughter. His repertoire also includes “She got the goldmine, he got the shaft” and “It’s cheaper to keep her.”
An outsider might find Colosimo insufferably mordant, but his cynicism is earned. He separated from his wife in 1991, and the custody battle over their daughter cost him $80,000; his wife spent as much as $160,000. He kept up the child-support payments for a while, but his ex-spouse wouldn’t allow him access to their daughter. After two years, Colosimo stopped paying. In doing so, he became a deadbeat dad, but he felt he couldn’t sustain the arrangement. He hasn’t seen his daughter in 10 years, which is about as long as he’s been out of work. The lawyer’s fees and support payments had reduced him to penury, and the mental strain had driven him to severe depression. Three therapists told him he was unfit to work; he quit his job in appliance repair in 1993.
Colosimo puts on a doughty bravado in the meetings, but his wounded humanity comes out in the poems he has written about his estrangement from his daughter, who is now in her teens. “Divorce was quite a revelation/ Not just a split but devastation,” he declaims in the church parking lot after the meeting. “They took my child, my joy, my soul/ And left my life a gaping hole.” As he recites these lines, his gaze is almost pleading. Of all the issues plaguing the male sex, the perceived discrimination in child-custody battles remains the most damaging. In 1988, mothers won sole custody of their children in 75 percent of divorce proceedings; this past May, the federal Department of Justice reported that, for the first time, less than 50 percent of custody cases went directly to women. Most judgments opted for joint custody. This would appear to be an improvement, but FACT director Brian Jenkins says it’s misleading. The concept of joint custody is actually broken down into separate categories: “joint physical custody” and “joint custody with primary residency.” The former is a total sharing of responsibility, the latter means that although the parents make major decisions together, the child spends most of his or her time living with one parent. According to Jenkins, the parent who provides primary residency tends to hold sway; in most cases, it’s still the woman.
“Men who lose their connection to children lose their connection to society,” Osterman notes. As Colosimo likes to remind FACT members, eight men commit suicide in Canada every day. The likelihood of suicide rises considerably among divorced men. According to 1995 Statistics Canada figures, the national suicide rate among divorced men was 42.5 per 100,000, four times the overall men’s rate. The ideology of family courts can be debated endlessly, but the fact remains that a distressing number of men find divorce so financially and emotionally taxing that they consider death their only recourse.
The blinkered stereotypes that complicate child-custody battles are also perpetuated in mass culture. Look no further than Homer Simpson. Crude, insensitive, moronic and quite possibly the worst father in television history, he’s the icon of male inadequacy.
Two Canadian researchers, Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young, found enough instances of misandry—a more refined word for male-bashing—in television, film, comic strips and books to write a fairly thick tome. Published in 2001, Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture delineates stereotyping throughout the 1990s. Nathanson and Young take aim at movies like Sleeping With the Enemy, The Color Purple and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle for portraying men as either violent reprobates, hopeless patsies or women in a male guise.
“The people who make these movies aren’t necessarily trying to make that point, and the people who consume these products aren’t necessarily conscious of it,” says Nathanson. “You come out of a movie and you either like or you don’t like it. But very few people think, ‘Well, what does that say about me?’ That takes a level of conscious reflection that a lot of people don’t have. Some women have it, because they’ve been trained for 30 years to look for misogynistic elements. But for men, at least in the 1990s, it was a little harder to do that.”
One of their targets is the forgettable sitcom Home Improvement. In it, actor Tim Allen played Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, a sheepish joe who wielded tools at work and simply acted like one at home. Alternately macho and dim-witted, Tim continually shot off his mouth, only to be summarily scolded by his wife, Jill (played by Patricia Richardson). The spate of daytime talk shows also reinforced our worst fears about men. Whether it was Oprah, Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael or Montel, topics like domestic violence and male perfidy were recurring themes.
According to Nathanson and Young, misandry was first promoted in political and academic circles to redress a history of female oppression. Eventually it radiated out into the wider culture. Nathanson says the cumulative effect of these stereotypes is that they warp men’s sense of who they are. “If you don’t provide boys with a positive identity, then they’re going to embrace the negative one,” he says.
Ironically, amid the flurry of unwitting male stereotypes, our culture began to reclaim many of them. If some men were feeling ill at ease about their collective image, the Maxim-ization of pop culture did them no favours. Thanks to the outbreak of lad mags, increasingly loutish pop stars (Oasis, Kid Rock, countless rappers), crass television series like Beavis and Butt-head, guy-oriented talk-radio stations (Toronto’s MOJO) and even whole television networks dedicated to men’s programming (Spike TV), it’s become all right—downright amusing, in fact—to be boorish, hedonistic and blatantly sexist, all those qualities glibly associated with the male id.
David Shackleton produces a lad mag, of sorts—he’s the editor and publisher of Everyman, a quarterly journal devoted to men’s issues. What you won’t find in its pages, however, are airbrushed pictures of bosomy supermodels, tips on building adamantine abs or how to uncouple a bra with one hand. With its low-budget paper stock, black-and-white appearance and humourless, didactic tone, Everyman is not for every man. It’s a zine for disillusioned males, dealing with topics like divorce and family law. The periodical has a circulation of 500 copies, which Shackleton prints in his Ottawa home.
He became involved in the magazine in 1994—eventually taking it over from co-founder Andrew McDonald—after a shocking personal revelation. In 1987, Shackleton’s first wife left him. He concedes that the split was upsetting but inevitable. It was her methodology, however, that truly rankled him. Instead of laying out the reasons in person, she left the house with their dog—under the pretence of seeing the veterinarian—and then called to tell him she wanted a divorce. When he asked her why she had chosen to break up in such an impersonal manner, she said she feared he might get violent.
Having never exhibited an aggressive tendency, Shackleton was stunned that his wife of seven years had so profoundly misunderstood him. The more disturbing inference, however, was that all men have a propensity for brutality.
“Up until then, I’d been kind of living out the cultural script of, you know, career success, et cetera. I started to look around at the stereotype that men are violent. And what I saw was that the whole gender story that was in play in society was the story of female victimhood, and it didn’t ring true to me,” he says. “I felt that there was a whole piece missing.” Shackleton believed that any discussion of how men were feeling was viewed as either anti-feminist or simply petty. “I got a sense why we were so caught up in women’s experience about gender and why we’re silent and unresponsive to men’s stories. I found myself steering my life more and more into that work.”
In 1993, Shackleton quit a well-paying engineering job at Nortel Networks to devote himself to the male cause. “I decided the world didn’t need more technical products,” he says. “What we needed was some more social insight.” Shackleton, who has remarried twice, divides his time between publishing Everyman, hosting gender workshops and doing speaking engagements. (Male advocacy is not a lucrative field, so Shackleton supplements his income with desktop publishing and technical consulting of the sort he did at Nortel.) One of his recent speeches was at Stories of Healing, a two-day conference this past June organized by the Men’s Network and Kitchener-Waterloo Counselling Services. Held in the auditorium of a Waterloo, Ontario, community centre, the annual assembly is a forum for abused and otherwise beleaguered males, as well as counsellors, to share tales of personal renewal.
On the morning of the second day, Shackleton stood before a still-somnolent crowd and narrated his story. A tall fellow with a close-cropped white beard, Shackleton has a muted intonation; although he’s thoughtful and articulate, his voice will occasionally become tremulous. Outlining his points on an overhead projector, Shackleton explained that his investigation of gender roles has led him to one overriding theory. He doesn’t deny that historically, women have been victims of male tyranny, but he says that men and women actually have a mutually oppressive relationship. Men subjugate women with physical, economic and political power; women, on the other hand, subjugate men with sexual, emotional and moral power. Shackleton’s belief: for all of men’s overbearing qualities, women have the power to shame. You could sense a collective tension in the room. People stiffened in their plastic chairs. Shackleton is quite used to offending people, and he took the acute silence in stride. Even so, when it came time for questions, he gazed around the room with nervous anticipation. One man stood up to the microphone and extolled Shackleton’s wisdom and courage. The majority of participants, however, took issue with his essential point. Another male counsellor approached the microphone and said, “Among my friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s, I don’t know anyone who thinks that way.” Shackleton smiled uneasily and mumbled something about welcoming differing opinions. Event organizer Randy Scott ended the discussion on a cheerfully contrite note, thanking Shackleton for his time but offering nothing in the way of an endorsement.
I could appreciate the heartbreak that inspired Shackleton’s rhetoric, but his conclusions seemed misguided. I found it difficult to liken shaming to physical abuse in terms of severity. Perhaps the most awkward thing about Shackleton’s speech was that it dispensed fault at an event honouring personal triumph. “I was really hoping we’d moved past that sort of thinking,” muttered one participant when I asked her about the presentation. “We don’t need any more assigning of blame.” I have to concur. If men are feeling plagued by negative stereotypes, reacting with equally hoary female stereotypes seems, at the very least, counterproductive.
If you ask Warren Farrell, a battle-hardened women’s and men’s libber, he’ll tell you the way forward is to take a more mature approach. “We’ve had a women’s movement blaming men, when what we should have had is neither a women’s movement blaming men nor a men’s movement blaming women. We should have been having a gender transition movement moving from the old, rigid roles that were survival-based to new, more flexible roles.” That ultimately means unlearning the gender myths, particularly the fiction that men can’t articulate their feelings. For too long, they’ve been told, and dumbly accepted, that they’re incapable of doing so. For men and women, the key to transcending this ridiculous drama is to play against type.