Last week, a hapless Scottish opinion columnist did something a lot of men (myself included) have done or will do at some point in their lives – he made some ignorant remarks about gender in a very public way.
Rather than gratify him by repeatedly referring to his meanderings, I’ll use them as a jump-off point to explain why Brian Beacom’s rant is not only unhelpful to women, but also to discussion about the other side of the gender coin: masculinity.
In this age of growing awareness of the myriad challenges many women face, I am trying to reason as honestly and openly as I can. I feel it is my responsibility to look beyond the first emotional impulse on any given issue and try to see the bigger picture.
Admittedly, this hasn’t been an easy road, and especially true where gender is concerned. It took me a long time to reconcile the personal experience of feeling frightened by women as a kid with the political and cultural reality that many of the challenges, prejudices and threats women face are – like many of the roles assigned to them by society – a direct result of their gender.
The notion that so many women feel powerless, threatened or afraid was hard to map onto my own experience, where women always appeared to be in charge – sometimes ruling with an iron fist. Realising the personal and political are not mutually exclusive has been bumpy and sometimes frightening. In the age of social media it requires almost no effort to be extremely uncharitable, whether dishing it out or on the receiving end. Beacom makes a mockery of those of us who are grappling with matters of gender and masculinity, sometimes counterintuitively.
It takes a lot of work (and even more humility) to resist hardwired reactions to a cascade of conflicting social media posts, blogs, articles and news stories. Where, often, men are discussed in generalities that do not account for the specificity of our experiences and where we are often commanded to “talk about our feelings” and “stop making it all about us” simultaneously.
It was hard for me to accept, for example, that my mother’s aggression and violence towards me was, as I have heard it said, simply another form of toxic masculinity – that her abusive behaviour was rooted in trauma she experienced at the hands of men when she was a young woman. I had a lot of baggage to unpack and as I did so, much of it on public platforms, I was accosted on occasion. Sometimes my assailants had a point. Sometimes that point was drowned out by social media hyperbole. Ironically, the people who were most helpful, compassionate and understanding were other feminists who valued a willingness to examine my own attitudes and behaviour over a carefully constructed avatar that always knew the wokest thing to say.
I licked my wounds and kept going. All around me I could see once powerful men being recontextualised as predators and abusers. One thing they all had in common was a seemingly sincere belief that they had done nothing wrong. It struck me that, just because I didn’t regard myself as ever harming, harassing or abusing anybody, this didn’t automatically mean I hadn’t. But this is a difficult thing to confront, especially in the public domain, when you are caught in the crossfire between two types of men who are always engaged in the discussion around gender.
In one corner, we have the woke bros. They are a good lot. They use whatever means available to echo the sentiments expressed by progressive women. They observe the day’s contested gender story through a feminist lens and are keen to be seen publicly standing in solidarity with whatever their comrades think. You’ll find them right across the political spectrum and, ostensibly, they were born with all the correct opinions and attitudes installed – because we never hear how they came to be so woke.
Also, you rarely hear anything from them about their experiences as men, in relation to women. Nothing about what they struggle with, or those attitudes and behaviours in their private lives that haven’t always so conveniently aligned with their public proclamations. Apparently, we are to believe these guys have never intruded on a woman’s privacy out of emotional insecurity, never gratified themselves to ethically nightmarish porn and never harboured a hateful thought or said or done something that berated, hurt, pressured or harmed a woman. Some of them even want us to accept that we live in a patriarchy that infects all who emerge from it with misogynistic impulses, but that they, themselves, are strangely unaffected.
Maybe I’m just jealous because I am so evidently flawed. But while I am sure the many women with whom the woke bros stand in solidarity are thrilled to see their allies batting for the right team, the woke bros are virtually useless when it comes to engaging sections of the male population who, like me, have not been so perfectly configured, men who perhaps sense that they must change but require guidance from other men on the path – as opposed to Twitter pointers from men who only speak publicly about other behaviour and not their own.
Then we have Brian Beacom types. Men who’ll go to the grave believing the song and dance they made about gender equality was a valiant cry from the wilderness – and not the agonal gasp of a privileged but increasingly irrelevant perspective. Somewhere between the woke bros and the Beacoms, sit men like me, trying to carve out a new lane where a more honest and potentially vulnerable conversation about masculinity must take place. Which is what must happen if the struggle for gender equality is ever to arrive at its final destination.