The Pursuit of Gender Justice
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
Two contrasting views of modern masculinity By Anna Katharina Schaffner
Social Studies | Book Review | TLS
Men have lower life expectancy than women, and significantly higher suicide rates. They are more likely to be the victims of violence and are falling behind educationally. Certain “male” behaviours that used to be acceptable no longer are. Many feel lost and even demonized in what they see as an increasingly “feminized” culture. This sense of crisis is the shared starting point for Ivan Jablonka’s A History of Masculinity: From patriarchy to gender justice and Nina Power’s What Do Men Want?: Masculinity and its discontents.
The similarities end there. Jablonka, a French historian, is a man who passionately supports the feminist cause, while Power, a British philosopher, is a woman writing in defence of men and delighting in questioning many core feminist assumptions and aims. Jablonka marshals an impressive body of historical, anthropological, biological and sociological evidence in his compelling long history of masculinity, while Power’s book is predominantly a work of contemporary cultural criticism. Jablonka explores the past to make sense of the present and to establish the outlines of a more equal future. The historian’s job, he writes, is to trace “particular troubles back to the tectonic plates of society in order to understand the history that is passing through us”. Power, by contrast, is not interested in how we got to where we are, focusing instead on “how to live together amid the confusion and ruins of modernity”. Jablonka is on the left of the political spectrum, Power on the right. His main concern is gender justice; hers is reconciliation.
Gender justice, Jablonka argues, is a glaring blind spot in our democracies. Unlike other revolutions, the feminist revolution has not garnered the active support of many men because to argue for gender justice as a man is “to fight against oneself”. And yet – this is Jablonka’s central thesis – that is precisely what men should do. They, too, are victims of current conceptions of masculinity, and have as much to gain as women from gender justice. Chronicling the formation of patriarchal societies from the Upper Palaeolithic period to current neo-masculinist movements, Jablonka compiles evidence for one of the greatest moral scandals of our species, including gruesome sexual violence, genital mutilation, the fetishization of virginity and the worship of the sacrificial mother, gender poverty, unequal pay and the adverse economic and psychologic impact of the unequal distribution of domestic chores. A chapter on male feminism is intriguing. Not to mention short. There are few case studies from which to choose because, from “the very beginning, feminism has been the struggle of women”. Exceptions to the rule include John Stuart Mill, the Marquis de Condorcet, Charles Fourier and William Godwin. Yet the most influential male feminist was probably Henrik Ibsen, whose A Doll’s House (1879) did much to advance the feminist cause.
Jablonka homes in on the many deficiencies of the masculine as it is currently conceived. Yet, crucially, he sees this as a chance for renewal. The masculinity of “domination”, and that of ostentation, control and sacrifice, as well as the tyranny of virility and performance, injure men as much as women. In his final chapters Jablonka outlines his vision for new masculinities that “mesh with the rights of women and undo patriarchal hierarchies”, encourage the emergence of dissident masculinities that move beyond the archetypal hero, patriarch and saviour models, and are not anchored in performative virility. These masculinities have the potential “to transform everything: the family, religion, politics, business, the city, seduction and even language”. True gender justice needs to be based on the ideal of non-domination, as well as reciprocity, impartiality and reflexivity. Most importantly, though, Jablonka is crystal clear that equality “begins by putting an end to privileges”.
Power does not recognize these privileges. Nor does she believe in “this nebulous thing called ‘patriarchy’”. The aim of What Do Men Want? is to reflect on how men and women can live better together. We live in a “heterosocial” world, Power argues, in which “the sexes are mixed almost everywhere in cultural, daily and economic life”. And this is a good thing, because “we civilize each other”, “curb[ing] each other’s worst excesses”. “The graceful dance of men and women, regardless of their sexuality, is the stuff of culture.” It is, then, a question of common sense to find ways to overcome our mutual resentments and get on better – polarization along gender lines is as dangerous as polarization along racial or class lines.
Power believes the ways out of our impasse involve forgiveness, the taking of responsibility and a return to ancient virtues such as honour, loyalty and self-control, as well as the acceptance of our fundamental sexual difference and the reintroduction of playfulness into our interactions. She describes her book as “partly philosophical, partly observational, and partly a work of cultural criticism”. It is all that, but above all it is an intervention in the “culture wars”, which makes her core argument harder to swallow. Much of the book is taken up not by reflections on how forgiveness and the mutual overcoming of resentment might work in practical and psychological terms, but by arguments against identity politics, cancel culture, victimhood and constructivist thought. Power takes issue with the idea that only trans women or the “descendants of enslaved people” can suffer. Her point is that men suffer too, and that we should refrain from ranking our shared suffering. This is blithely to ignore the question of power relations, historical and present.
A believer in the biological reality of sex and sexual difference, Power argues that most men are really rather nice, with the exception of some who frequent her local swimming pool. There is much to be said for “mansplaining”: women, she argues, “like all sentient beings, enjoy a well-told story… Sometimes it is genuinely delightful to hear someone share their knowledge, even if it’s something you already have a good idea about”. And she does not believe we should think in terms of structures (patriarchy being one of them), but instead “more in terms of mutual respect”. I have always been puzzled by the disavowal of structural social inequalities, which can be empirically measured, by thinkers on the right. Surely the taking of personal responsibility can only get those with less status and fewer opportunities so far in a system that is skewed to serve those who already have these things? But, in Power’s view, redolent of Nietzsche, we live in the age of resentment, in a society marred by “infantilism and horizontalism”, both of which are “part of an ongoing attack and destruction of positive, older modes of being together”. One is left to wonder which of those positive, older modes of being together have ever worked well for women. Jablonka finds none.
Power can see only negatives in #MeToo, which she compares to the French Revolutionary Terror and describes in terms of anonymous and sometimes malicious mob justice via “paralegal means” such as “internet denunciation”, often simply based on “annoyance at a bad date or a thoughtless interaction”. By contrast, she jumps to the defence of incels. “These young men meet online, although their forums are frequently shut down, to discuss their predicament and to share memes”, she observes, before proceeding to argue that “When these young men come together to commiserate online they are not only sharing their resentment at being unable to find love, but are creating a community for outsiders”. Often verbally or physically violent misogynists are presented as an entirely harmless and really rather lovable bunch, comparable to members of an origami club. Power praises patriarchs – indeed, they are her answer to the question of what men want, namely father figures such as Jordan Peterson, who dish out stern but well-meaning advice and advocate good old-fashioned responsibility-taking.
All of this comes across as baiting and distracts from the valid questions that Power asks us to consider. How can we move towards reconciliation? Have we morphed into a society of misandrists, associating anything masculine and virile with toxicity? Power is right to remind us that not all expressions of traditional masculinity are bad (including loyalty, physical fitness, restraint), and that male suffering in our atomized and polarized techno-hedonist, capitalist culture is real and important. Ultimately, however, her approach, deliberately blind to statistics and history, and her denial that there is still much to be rectified before we can move into a post-feminist age of reconciliation and mutual respect, are unpersuasive. Jablonka’s argument for gender justice is both more radical and more promising.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent and Director of Perspectiva’s Emerge project. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021