By categorising masculinity as inherently bad, one forecloses all possibility of it becoming good
Here’s a problem for bright minds to solve: a well-mannered, highly respected, and commonsensical feminist thinker is forced to leave her teaching post and begins to distribute her ideas through right-wing media channels, including GB News and men’s rights podcasts. Has she suddenly become radical? Or instead, is there such a problem with left-wing media and the internet that the liberal hegemony no longer knows who its enemies are?
“Men and women exist. Occasionally, we even like each other.” Nina Power begins her new book with two sentences that, on the face of it, sound inanely simple. In fact, they are hotly contested in a world which is (Power argues) increasingly keen to pretend that sexual difference is unimportant, and in which men and women are increasingly separate, physically and emotionally. What Do Men Want? is a book that seeks to identify the caring and gentler aspects of men, to find a way for us to live together peacefully.
What Do Men Want? examines opposing claims that masculinity is variously “toxic”, “in crisis” and (as artist Grayson Perry has argued) “a blight on society” that “needs to change”. On the more extreme end of this spectrum, there are those who go as far as claiming that masculinity is so evil it needs to be done away with completely. The Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM for short) and Pauline Harmange (author of I Hate Men) argue that men are “not even good enough to exist in stud farms”.
Power’s view feels much more pragmatic. Our very existence as a species depends on men and women liking each other enough to bond. If, as many argue, masculinity really does “need to change” to, say, adapt to the modern world and modern labour, we need to recognise what is already good about masculinity. By claiming something to be inherently bad, one forecloses all possibility of the thing becoming good. Only by letting boys be good can we hope to raise good men.
Indeed, many men are already loving partners, brothers or sons. They are caring and self-sacrificing friends or kind strangers. Since Power’s book was published, there has been at least one more high-profile example of positive male leadership from a gym-hitting, wisecracking GenX-er. President Volodymyr Zelensky has become popular with a public that is highly suspicious of male leaders. Perhaps nowhere more so than in Ukraine itself, where decades of corruption were due largely to men exploiting their political office to gain personal wealth and status. As the Russians invaded, Zelensky’s gym workout TikToks were replaced by videos of him defiantly visiting the wounded without a flak jacket. His visible, physical displays of bravery have made headlines and upped his approval ratings to near-unanimity. All of these – his charisma, his sensitivity, even his sometimes silly and primitive TV sketches – are the traits of a “patriarch”, a word that Nina Power reminds us originally meant a protective and responsible man. A far cry from the severe, quasi-religious so-called “patriarch” that we find in Putin.
It is difficult to overstate the controversy with which Nina Power’s writing has been received. She has been labelled a “reactionary” and a “transphobe”, and has faced enough online abuse that some of her talks have required security personnel to protect her from harm. Such is the life of a woman with an idea to change society. Most (but not all) of this abuse is directed toward Nina Power’s stance on gender identity and sexual difference.
Unless you have been living in a cave for the last twenty years, you will have noticed an increased use of the word “gender” in place of the word “sex”. This may simply be because “sex” sounds like a naughty word. However, Power believes this has created a crucial blind spot in feminist politics. By ignoring or avoiding sexual differences, feminists are hobbled in their ability to speak out about the menopause, the prime age of conception and female-only spaces, such as prisons. Men too are facing an unprecedented fertility crisis.
Power has to continually remind Twitter users that gender is still an unsettled area of debate, even in philosophy. While “sex” is determined by one’s bodily organs, “gender” supposedly summarises the “performed” characteristics of a person that relate to masculinity and femininity – such as wearing one’s hair long or short, carrying a hand-bag, or wearing lipstick. However, since gender is fundamentally a socialised or performative identity involving other people, the philosophical jury is still out on what it means for an individual to have an “innate” gender identity. There are legal and ethical ramifications to simply identifying oneself with one gender or another. Keira Bell, a woman who became a trans man then de-transitioned, sued the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service for encouraging her to have sex-change surgery at age sixteen.
What Do Men Want? is interested in how we all got to this point of getting really angry with each other on Twitter. More than that, however, it is interested in how to forgive each other. Power thinks that the digital revolution, which once offered to bring us together, often ends up pushing us apart. We have become infantilised, with every desire and complaint satisfied at the push of a button. “The internet exists as a giant repository of all of the terrible things people are capable of thinking”. And there are terrible consequences for those caught up in the changing winds.
We have got used to thinking of the relationship between the sexes as a “zero-sum game”. We assume that wherever men benefit from a situation women must lose out, and vice versa. But as Power advocates for a revival of older, conservative values, she also seeks to reclaim an older form of feminism. In a time long forgotten, feminism existed to liberate men as well. Feminism sought to allow men and women to live together harmoniously, with happier wives and happier husbands, and happier children liberated from the oppressiveness of sexual segregation. Power reminds us that men and women still have many games to play which are fun for all of us: conversation, joking, flirting. Anything but the endless drudgery of swiping.
My personal verdict of the book is that it is an attempt to liberate conversation about sexual difference and masculinity, and to demonstrate what such conversation could look like when freed from the tyranny of corporatised cancel-culture. At times, the book is flawed. Sometimes it feels a little like a long series of hot-takes on the issues of the day, with no overarching argument. Sometimes, it feels a little too polemical, as though Power is pre-emptively battling off her critics rather than explaining herself. I’d rather it contained more examples of positive, healthy masculinities.
Overall, however, I like to think that will start a new conversation in progressive feminist thought. As Power writes: “To imagine that men and women can be better, and are fated most wonderfully sometimes to be together, is, in the end, to respect the strange marvel of human existence as a whole.”
Oliver will be discussing matters of masculinity with Nina Power further on Weds 6th April, online and in-person. Sign up here to attend. Bring your questions and challenges!