Lost about lost men

Like many of you I read the article in Washington Post about men being lost. I don’t disagree with Christine Emba, particularly the point about men behaving weirdly, and I don’t bring any expertise to these thoughts beyond 50 odd years of being a man. But I don’t get why men are lost? I get why grifters such as Jordan Peterson want to push the idea of a crisis in masculinity, their careers depend on it. But in reality, what’s lost is the restriction of having about two different ways of being a man, replaced with myriad possibilities.

While I do understand it will be different if you live in rural America, say, where there are definite hardened social constructs on what being a man entails, in general it is much less restrictive now. You don’t have to drink, you can enjoy spending time with your kids, you can like knitting or cooking. You don’t even have to be interested in cars!

To hopefully illustrate this, I’m going to give two small examples form my own experience of ‘what it used to be like’. These are extremely minor, and I could easily have chosen more violent ones. But it is their very mundanity that reveals the extent to which the over-riding pervasiveness of maleness use to be like.

It is 1993, I am living in Middlesbrough doing my PhD, sharing with three male undergraduates. They are decent blokes, fairly typical of young men at the time. Example 1: I had two French, male, researchers visiting and on a Saturday night I took them out to the cinema. My housemates were aghast. There wasn’t even anything good on at the cinema. Why on earth would you go out on a Saturday night to the cinema and not to the pub/club/students union where there was beer and women? They mocked me about this every Saturday for months. Example 2: I was alone in the house when the others had gone back for Christmas. The friend of one of them popped around and ‘caught’ me reading 100 Years of Solitude. This was such an aberration that he mentioned it to all of them, and again it was worthy of comment “he was reading! Something about solitude!”

I was heterosexual, liked beer and football, so I was just about forgiven these heinous transgressions, but it was a close run thing. The point is that even if these minor aberrations were worthy of comment, it highlights how narrow the range of possibilities for activities was. I like to think that these would not even register as strange for most men now.

So I find it strange when people say there aren’t any role models for young men now. I’m assuming they mean cis-het men, who conform to some traditional characteristics of masculinity, So even within those constraints, off the top of my head how about Barack Obama, Andy Murray, Idris Elba, Ryan Reynolds, Stormzy, Gary Lineker, Marcus Rashford. That’s just to pick obvious celebrities – I’m sure in any particular niche there are role models who are unarguably ‘male’ (whatever that means of course) without, you know, being arseholes. Even in the very traditional world of country music you can choose Jason Isbell over, say, Jason Aldean. So when people ask “where are the good role models for men?” we should answer “everywhere!” (in the same way Gary Oldman employs here):

If men are lost, then it should be in the same way that I’m lost when trying to find something to watch of an evening. I have 5 subscription channels, as many terrestrial ones, and thousands of hours of on demand TV – near infinite choice. Now, that level of choice can be overwhelming. But it is far more preferable to a time when we only used to have three terrestrial channels showing Seaside Special, Jim Davidson and something featuring a vicar. I get it, this choice can induce anxiety and we seek ways to minimise that. Just as cults can be attractive because they take away the complexity if life by telling devotees what to think on almost every matter. But that price is too high. As Laura Bates highlights in frightening detail in her book Men Who Hate Women, the various aspects of the manosphere are very bad news for women, but they’re also bad news for men. The men who get sucked into these lose an opportunity to explore all the different ways they could explore masculinity and their own personality.

In her article Emba says “In the conversations I had with men for this essay, I kept hearing that many would still find some kind of normative standard of masculinity meaningful and useful”. Why though? As with TV, 24 hours of only seaside special is no way forward for anyone. We shouldn’t frame it as men being lost, but rather more as the opportunity for men to discover many different options. And then, we can all just be normal men:


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