Talking about "men" in general is typical feminist brainlessness. Men are all different and the differences between them are great. Is a professional footballer and a celibate priest the same?
I can think of nothing that is true of all men. These days some "men" do not even have penises. According to the screed below, men "make endless jokes about their balls". I have NEVER made such a joke. And do I have a "fondness for super-skinny jeans "? I have nothing like that in my wardrobe. The generalizations below are just stupid and entirely counterfactual. Nothing is to be learned from them.
And even if she confines her universe of discussion to men's relationships with women it does not help. One example of how reality is more complex than any feminist allows: I regularly open car doors for women but I have long been tolerant of my girlfriend going out with other men. What generalization covers that? There is none. I am an individual, not an "example" of anything. My attitudes are mine, not anybody else's
So do I have problems? Sure do. I sometimes fall in love with wildly "inappropriate" women. That is not common so what does it tell you about "men"? Nothing at all. Despite my XY chromosomes, I don't exist in the sad little world of feminist stereotypes
Caitlin Moran has some questions for men. Why do they only go to the doctor if their wife or girlfriend makes them? Why do they never discuss their penises with each other – but make endless jokes about their balls? Is their fondness for super-skinny jeans leading to an epidemic of bad mental health? Are they allowed to be sad?
Published earlier this month, Moran’s What About Men? sees one of the nation’s most prolific feminist writers turn her attention to the problems facing men and masculinity. Marketed as a deep dive into the modern man, the book interrogates a range of issues, from mental health to sexuality. It’s a noble pursuit. And yet, it’s one that has been ruthlessly torn apart. Critics have labelled it everything from “patronising” to full of “flagrant stereotypes”. One reviewer described it as “rhetorical essentialism that lucratively pigeonholes men and women even at the risk of misconstruing both”.
But in 2023, a time when misogyny is rife online and the likes of Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson are upheld as stalwarts of masculinity, Moran’s questions are the kind we need to be asking more than ever. Why is it, then, nobody wants to answer them?
Moran has since responded to the backlash in an article in The Times, claiming that she’s been confronted by two different kinds of critics: “The first were all like, ‘How dare you suggest men have problems with communicating their emotions? That is an incredibly old-fashioned and patronising generalisation’,” Moran writes. “And the other half were like, ‘How dare you suggest that men should communicate their emotions? We’re not biologically designed to be emotional – you’re just trying to turn us into women.’”
Even this response, though, came under fire, with further critics arguing that Moran seemed to misunderstand why so many people were troubled by the book. That, rather, What About Men? flouted individualism to instead present men as one universal body with shared belief systems and behavioural traits, all of which seemed wildly outdated. And that the implication of her book was that men are in trouble and Moran is here to fix them.
According to gender studies academics, there are several issues with this thesis. The first is that men might not really be in trouble at all, at least not in the way Moran suggests. “Historians have found people worrying about [the] ‘crisis of masculinity’ throughout history,” says Dr Ben Griffin, associate professor in modern British History at Girton College, University of Cambridge. “But if a crisis is perpetual, it’s not really a crisis – it’s just the way of things.”
The real problem, he claims, is that masculinity cannot be discussed in such singular terms. “If we asked a football fan, a vicar, and a banker to define ‘manliness’, we would probably get three very different answers,” he says. “When people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’, they are usually complaining that their preferred variety of masculinity seems to be losing prestige or influence relative to other forms of masculinity.” Today, we have ideas of masculinity coming from all angles, whether it’s in sociology, pop culture, advertising, charities, TikTok, government campaigns, or around a table in the pub. “Amid this cacophony of competing voices, it is harder than ever for any one form of masculinity to establish itself as culturally dominant,” says Dr Griffin. “To some people, that looks like a crisis.”
A lot of men hear phrases like ‘toxic masculinity’ and they simply withdraw. Or worse, it serves to confirm their sense of victimhood, so they chase insalubrious gurus who provide cheap hope and unhealthy ideology
That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t issues that need solving. In her book, Moran cites a range of shocking statistics, among them that boys are more likely than girls to be medicated at school for disruptive behaviour, less likely to go on to further education, and more likely to become addicted to alcohol, drugs or pornography. Men also make up the vast majority of the homeless and prison populations. And on top of all that, the leading cause of death for men under 50 is suicide.
Other concerns have also emerged of late. Since the pandemic, there has been a notable rise in penile enlargement surgeries, for example, a trend that highlights society’s obsession with defining masculinity in sexual terms by placing social currency on penis size. “A different kind of ‘crisis’ talk occurs when men find themselves incapable of performing their preferred variety of masculinity,” explains Dr Griffin. For some, this might be aligned with sexual prowess and performance. Any sense of a shortcoming could then lead someone to feel as if it’s not possible to do the things that make you a “real man”. But then another question emerges: what does?
It’s this lack of identity that seems to be at the heart of some of the biggest problems facing men today. “We don’t know how we are meant to be anymore,” says Max Dickins, comedian and author of Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem. “What Moran’s book represents is a stylish exemplar of a discourse that has become stuck. The think pieces [and] the books all tend to have the same form: ‘Here are men’s problems!’ ‘The reason for said problems is that men are stuck in a box of toxic masculine norms!’ If only men could behave more like… women!’”
Of course, the fact any book is prompting further interrogation into these issues is largely a good thing. But perhaps something has to change about the tone of that interrogation if we’re ever going to make progress. “We need a shift that encourages men to get involved in the conversation, or at least, stops casually insulting them,” says Dickins. “A lot of men hear phrases like ‘toxic masculinity’ and they simply withdraw. Or worse, it serves to confirm their sense of victimhood, so they chase insalubrious gurus who provide cheap hope and unhealthy ideology.”
In her response piece, Moran speculates that one of the reasons why her book prompted such a backlash is because it was written by a woman. “It was the first question on [the] first night of the tour that resolved my confusion over the backlash,” she writes. “‘You joke that you wish a man had written this book,’ said a man in the audience. ‘But how could he? Can you imagine a man saying, ‘What about men? Pay us attention! It’s our turn now!’ We’d be torn to bits. It had to be a woman who said it first.’”
It’s a fair point, one that highlights how far we have to go in order to achieve meaningful change. After all, no one’s denying that Moran’s book isn’t at least attempting to do something important. But perhaps the response illustrates just how complex an attempt it is given how charged conversations around gender can be; whatever you say, and whoever says it, there’ll inevitably be a group of people armed to attack or discredit your argument.
That being said, Moran’s book went straight to Number One on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Evidently, and despite people’s protests, there is clearly an audience for her perspective. And progress is being made, even if it might not feel like that. Would a book like this even have been published five years ago? And if it had, would anyone have wanted to actually read it? Would Moran fill out rooms of people on a nationwide book tour, all of whom had paid to listen to what she has to say about men?
The truth is that there are always going to be certain belief systems holding people back, no matter how hard Moran or anyone else tries. That’s just the nature of conversations around masculinity. “In general, it’s a good thing for people to recognise that there is no one way of being a man,” says Dr Griffin. “It might also be useful to acknowledge that the same man performs many different masculinities in the course of a day. The individual who is a devoted family man caring for a dying parent might be a ruthless businessman in the office and a clown in the pub.”
The important thing that’s often missing from these conversations, both online and off, is nuance. Accepting that one person’s definition of being a man is different from another’s, and that no two men perform masculinity in the same way, is key to becoming a more progressive and inclusive society that can benefit all genders. But getting there could take some time.