Is Masculinity in Crisis?


Mark Latham recently said that the old-fashioned Australian bloke had disappeared, and been replaced by ‘nervous wrecks, metrosexual knobs and toss-bags.’

When I researched Australian men in the period 1930 to 1970 for my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers, I found that men and women lived in different spheres. A man’s life was about performing (at work), protecting (the family) and providing (food on the table). Men worked all week and for working men, for most of the century, it was a six-day week. On Sunday they went to church, had a bet, had a drink, or played sport. Sport meant playing the kind of football played in your home State. And cricket. With a swim on a hot day.

There weren’t many choices for men.



Men were looked up to as fathers, husbands and workers. Being a man was something people respected. ‘A man’s life was work,’ one of my interviewees said. ‘And a bit of sex was his hobby.’

Women lived in another world. Girls studied crafts to help them manage a home though wealthier families might have paid for a girl’s piano lessons, deportment and studies of classical literature. Most women’s lives were marked out by the husbands they married and the children they had. Every father was afraid that his daughter might marry a man who gambled his money away or became a drunkard. Once she was married, that was usually the end of the matter.

Men of these generations were often monosyllabic, and not given to emotional display. Let’s not pretend they were wonderful to live with. ‘It would have been great to get a hug from Dad,’ one interviewee said. Sadly, Dad died before this happened.

Fathers usually gave their sons guidance about getting on in the world, finding a girl, and a score of other things. What our dads said was based on years of experience. We found this out the hard way. But men like me had dads who lived under the old rules. Our dads couldn’t provide the guidance that would help us survive the changed rules because, with the arrival of feminism, the way we lived changed dramatically in a hundred different ways.

Men today face a number of important issues:

Work is still central ‘What do you do?’ is still an often-asked question. Men who don’t work are looked on with suspicion and answer in a number of ways: ‘I’m between jobs;’ ‘I’m looking for a new job,’ ‘I’m seeing if I like being a ‘

Being healthy is a challenge. Men are told to eat better, trim down, work out. Visiting the gym is scary for many of us on the dark side of 40. Everyone else is trim, taut, terrific, wearing stuff that shows off amazing abs and strong legs. And that’s the women: you should see the men! Many men get sick of being nagged and want to just sit down and have a beer/smoke/pie with people who accept them as they are.

Many men are lonely. We hide it in a hundred different ways. Often, it comes out as anger because there are not many approved emotions for men (except around sport).

Faced with tension and stress, many men seek refuge in sex boasting of their successes. Gay and straight men alike are tempted to collect trophies. It seems to me that these behaviours reveal men who need reassurance.

Men struggle in their relationships. One of these is generational. Those of us in our 50s often have parents in their 80s or 90s, who require a lot of care. We can also have children at any age from 8 to 38, who look to us for many things: attention, support, understanding. Who looks after me, we wonder?

Many married men struggle to express their own needs, living as they do with women who are more verbally fluent. And women have feminism as a body of opinion that supports them and encourages them to state their needs. Men have little, apart from the silly stuff about men in the media.

Men struggle to have real friends who support and encourage them. We are raised to state our opinions, rather than listen and support others. We are raised to go out and do battle against the enemy, whoever he is. And it’s usually a he. Men have to learn to trust others, to learn what to disclose about themselves.

I am not sure that all these issues apply equally to all men. We do have more diversity now than we did in 1950 and even 1970. I can’t possibly cover all the complexities of culture, religion and class. And though we as men have many issues that unite us, there are many, too, that divide us.

How many of these ‘men’s issues’ are also issues for women? It’s unhelpful to be always contrasting men’s and women’s needs. They may be largely similar. Like many of the men I have interviewed, I would not wish to define women or limit their options.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Men and women each have private lives, but their choices are different. Leaving the gym yesterday, I overheard a snatch of conversation. ‘I can see that you’re pregnant,’ a guy said to a young woman. ‘Are you going to keep it?’ Like any decent person, I kept on walking. But there are clearly issues that men will never have to face having a baby or staying at work; when to put the baby into childcare; whether to maintain the relationship with the father.

Women have defined themselves in contrast to men, who are often seen as powerful, privileged and without problems. Men were once expected to protect women. Today we want men and women to be equal, yet somehow different. It doesn’t quite work: people are either equal, or they are not. Much of our thinking about gender is thus built on a contradiction.

If men are to move forward, they might try doing these things:

Speak up. Women can’t hear what men don’t say.

Have some ideas about feminism, and express them.

Learn to relate more effectively to other men. We have raised boys to be competitive, but it doesn’t always work. Men have to learn the art of compromise.

If men can listen, they function more effectively in relationships and at work. We must keep trying hard to be good listeners.

We have to express our feelings for loved ones. We don’t need another generation of emotionally frozen men who won’t hug their kids and partners.

Men have to take charge of their own health needs, what they eat, what exercise they do, seeking out doctors that are good for them.

The gender revolution started with men and women in different worlds. The arena for men was a public world; women lived in a domestic or private world. This has changed. But the gender revolution is not over. Perhaps it never can be.

Women tell us they like men to be meek and compliant, but they go crazy over models like Jake Wall. Women still want men to be physically and emotionally strong. And I suspect most men still want women to be feminine, Germaine Greer notwithstanding.

I don’t think masculinity is in any crisis despite Latham’s fears. Most men and women live together, as they did a hundred years ago. They still worry about running over-budget and whether the kids are doing well at school. The experts tell us that women want intimacy, and offer men sex; men want sex, and offer intimacy in exchange. At that level, things haven’t changed much.

Boys and girls still fall in love, and nothing can stop that!

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared on On Line Opinion on 2 October.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.