Monday, 14 May 2012

On a certain kind of despair 3: attraction and approval

My first two posts on despair in terms of gender attracted a few very kindly answers, and particularly from kindly women who are, I think, primarily concerned to assure me that they don't dislike me because I happen to be a man. I firmly believe them and am grateful to them though I think their approval is founded in exceptionalism, their arguments hinging on their opinion that there are nice men who have a bad time because of the assumptions about maleness that I had been writing about. And I like and respect them for their views. It's just that their understanding of male niceness is conditional on men being funny, or useful or a bit crazy or a bit dim (no introspection) in other words on not quite being men with traits that might once have been recognised as virtues, either because they never were virtues, or, in so far as they were virtues, men didn't actually possess them. I mean in the way that the men who went down with the Titanic were really worthless because they only did so because the captain was pointing a single pistol at them all. They possessed no virtues: the captain was the exception.  I am individually comforted by the kindness. I promise not to go out and self-harm right away.

Looby then writes an interesting comment regarding his gender upbringing in the seventies:

Specifically, its most unwelcome effect was to vilify any expression of sexual or physical attraction on the part of the man. It froze attraction in guilt and political opprobrium. Glances at an attractive woman in a sexy skirt were surreptitious and reprehensible--a sort of asceticism, the gains of which eventually became unclear as it very slowly dawned on us that almost all women appreciate compliments on her appearance or dress done with aplomb, wit, or delicacy. 

I wouldn't bet on it, Looby. The safest thing may be simply to say that they look 'well'. The rest can be considered intrusive. You can't really say anything about appearance unless invited to do so and then you have to know what to say and must do so with aplomb, wit and delicacy, all of which you undoubtedly possess.  Other than that the only proof of attraction is Mae West's gun-in-the-pocket homage, which is, you must remember only homage, and that such homages must be handled with even greater aplomb, wit and delicacy. Quite who wields the power in that relationship - Mae West or the gun - is never easy to establish, but power it is.

The story of attraction between the sexes will never be fully told, partly because the stakes are too high in terms of vulnerability, hypocrisy and self-esteem, and partly because, I suspect, it would require the greatest tact and precision in language and the world is not set up that way. The aplomb, wit and delicacy Looby talks about are not natural to war zones and despite forty years of war I don't think it is quite safe to emerge from the bomb shelters even in hard hats,  brandishing white flags, when every week I can read articles or hear views about how dreadful we are as a gender. Individual virtues we may be allowed: collective ones, never.

Looby ends on a more positive note:

I'm hopeful a more honest and sympathetic view of male-female relations will emerge. I see my 13-y-o daughters interacting with boys on an entirely different and more confident way than I remember. They expect more from men but that's no bad thing.

My suspicion is that Looby's daughters may be interacting with boys in freer and easier ways but I wonder about the boys they are interacting with. The girls may be expecting more of them, but how are the boys to understand what that more is and whether they are capable of giving it when they have no idea what to do with their virtue-free boyishness in conditions where such boyishness as might once have been regarded as a virtue is now recalibrated as vice? The boys won't tell us what they feel because they instinctively understand - I don't accept that it is entirely learned behaviour - that the kind of confidence they will need to get through life cannot begin with tears. 'If only you were more like a girl' is not advice that can be taken because, as many have pointed out, you will never quite be a girl: you can only be a failed girl. Boys will brazen things out, nor do I think that is a bad thing. All energy is convertible and self-discipline can be life-saving.

I don't think people recognise the need in males for female approval, starting with their mothers. That gender approval is only incidentally forthcoming, and only in terms of exceptionalism. The need for female approval is deep. In sexual terms the best praise for a man is the female climax: failure to produce it is not a female failure but a male one. I don't think you will find alternative opinions to the fore today. The virility test is key in a man's self-respect. Virility requires self-confidence. The rest is guilt and an unfocused violence, or a retreat into non-contact.  Self-confidence requires self-respect but there's only so much you can do for yourself. Boys in gangs work on the principle of mutual respect - respect is the favourite word - and the need to gain it by whatever means. Those are dangerous waters, and often, after an an initial splashing about, people go under.

My hunch is that now they start underwater and cannot rise to the surface. That, at least, is my concern, having occasionally felt in danger of drowning myself at various points.

It is a tempting to try to write the story of attraction and desire as best I can, though it would be extremely difficult, maybe impossible. The reason for the despair was only last week after all. The sand on which one is trying to draw fancy diagrams is in fact land-mined. Naturally it will be assumed that your design in starting is because you want to speak against women, and however I deny it, the IED charge of misogyny will be just a foot away in any direction.

That's hard because I like my kind women - I always have, and individual women are generally, if not always, wonderfully kind - and am mindful of, if not entirely bound by, their approval. I like individual women very much indeed and am happy to recognise that that is part of the package of being a woman.


Mark Granier said...

'... individual women are generally, if not always, wonderfully kind.' Yes, they are. And I like seeing women doing *men's* jobs: taxi-drivers, cops, electricians, Dire Strait's 'conductress on the number 19'... Such appearances make the world seem more flowing, more give-and-take, more sane. My mother was perhaps the kindest and gentlest person I've ever met. As our son noted, she always smiled, despite her non-stop, lifelong arthritis. Individuality is what saves us from our (group) selves. If we must have gods, why not individual gods, unique to each person? On that note:


If there’s a Sisterhood of Woman
then there’s a Brotherhood of Man,
then I know men who are my sisters
and women who are my brothers.

Mark Granier said...

I should add to the selection of 'men's jobs' those of politician, president, prime minister, etc.' Of course, such positions tend to attract those (women as much as men) with a taste for Eau de Puissance. Not always though. Among my heroes/heroines are Mo Mowlam and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Diane said...

Such dangerous territory, George. "The best praise for a man, etc." Mainly because it is the easiest praise in the world for a woman to 'manu'facture.

I'm writing a book, "Flying Under the Radar" that might eventually be interesting -- the secret love lives of women over age 50. Their "secrets" are pretty amazing -- much in the recorded interviews about these women's experiences of men as lovers.

I think you are stunningly brave to blog on these subjects. A brave, brave man!

George S said...

OK Mark, passport stamped. With those four lines you may pass through into the land of the accepted.

The thing is, your statement of the position assumes that there is a strong opposition, possibly on these very pages, but that you - and perhaps I too if I may assume your assumption - are thus sorted from the rest of male kind. Because we constantly have to be distancing ourselves from them, don't we?

I would like to live in an atmosphere where one didn't constantly have to be producing one's credentials. I get fed up with credentials. I don't ask other people for theirs. I just want to say: if you're really interested, don't listen to what I say, look at the record. Go on, be the honest police. If you're not really interested and you just want me to tell you what I feel like thinking, you know those magic words that tell you I am watching my step,, tell you what, let's just forget the idea of meeting. We can get along without each other. That is not a criticism of your poem or your sentiments. It's a criticism of the need to produce them on request.

I am not really interested in the articulate in these posts -I am chiefly concerned with what is unarticulated and is very hard to articulate - especially among those who are not naturally articulate.

As Diane says under your comments - it is not safe territory. But a half-way honest debate, conducted in warm, friendly, clear, delicate and precise terms, would be welcome, if only to reduce both sets of generalisations without stopping generalisations altogether, because, ideally, people generalise from particulars rather than the other way round.

And thank you, Diane. I will look forward to the book.

George S said...

Eau de Puissance is an acquired taste, but it's usually handed to people in cut glass bottles when entering on office.

Eau de Respect is what most people want. It's not always easy to seek out.

Annie said...

love is a dialectic

Mark Granier said...

I take your point George, though the poem (if it can be called that) was certainly not intended as a PC passport, but on the contrary as a kind of criticism of that very thing that you objected to: group-think. Too glib perhaps, or too easy (or safe), it probably fails miserably. Because I certainly wasn't intending to distance myself from my gender but from the whole absurd notion of gender-clubs: men=sisters was my embrace of maleness, though of course I can see that it might not come across that way :)

George S said...

Annie, you may or may not be right (it would interesting to see you demonstrate that), but I wasn't talking about love, which is another area, contiguous perhaps, but not the same. I am talking about things as simple as respect and recognition. We don't need either to love or to be in love to grant such things.

Personally I am of both the 'love' and 'in-love' persuasion though I bear in mind Rochfoucauld's sour remark to the effect that love is a code.

George S said...

Mark, apologies. I get a little testy on this subject now and then. The politeness grows antennae and nails. You're quite right - it's not a passport and of course, how could I disagree with you? I don't. But the thing about group think is that the underlying assumption is that we belong to a bad group. The group has no virtues, and every time we are plugged back into it we become a drag on the universe.

My first instinct when told that men are worthless is to ask the person who claims that to be the case to look round the room and to switch the light off and on, or consider the way they had come to be in the room and what they had passed on the way, and then to consider how far men were not involved in inventing, designing and making the things they take for granted. That is putting aside the music, art, books, photographs they use daily, etc etc.

The calumny about the group is just that: calumny, and I am sick of pretending that it isn't.

Mark Granier said...

'The politeness grows antennae and nails.'

Understood George. Meanwhile, to quote pompous old Pound (in another era, another universe):

'The purring of the invisible antennae
Is both stimulating and delightful.'

The Plump said...

Ideology and sex don't mix. The demonising of masculinity is the result of some feminism morphing into puritanism (always was there if you study the history and always resisted by libertarian feminists. Olive Banks' history of feminism refers to it as the 'moral superiority of women strand').

This from a review of a book I think I would like to read:

"The only weapon against genital demands was moral will," he writes of Augustine's teachings regarding sex, "but the smart money was always on the gonads."

Now I am off to the pub with a book of poetry to prove I can multi-task.

George S said...

Plump - Something or other is always morphing into puritanism, which I think was defined by someone, Mencken, I believe, as the haunting fear that someone somewhere might be happy.

The moral superiority lark: The trick is to treat anyone pointing the term at you as morally inferior, then everyone knows exactly where they stand.

Why not just read some poetry to the barmaid and cutout the middleman?

Alison Croggon said...

Hello George. I've read these posts with some fascination and sympathy. It strikes me that you are asking for exactly the same kind of freedom that most women ask for - the chance to be regarded as a complex and individual human being, uncategorised by limiting expectations of gender. There's a way in which that's very simple, actually, however complex it gets in wider social terms, and it's just about respect.

Isn't part of the solution at least to untangle masculinity from patriarchy? They are not the same thing at all. I personally adore masculinity - my life would have been a lot less exciting without it. Patriarchy, the systemic exercise of gendered power, is something else entirely, although the two are often confused: for some men, patriarchy is the ultimate expression of masculinity, even though the same system actually victimises most men. (Those men who aren't considered to be "alpha males" in the unforgiving ladder of hierarchy that patriarchy constructs). Often, especially when patriarchy manifests in misogyny (the forcible controlling, say, of women's bodies as in forced marriage, abortion laws, and so on and so forth, or even in the horrific misogynistic comments you often see on blog posts that are designed to make women shut up) patriarchy seems to me to be the complete opposite of what I think of as masculinity, an expression of cowardice and weakness rather than strength.

I will always be a feminist, and all my life have fought against the things that seek to denigrate or disempower me simply because I am born the "wrong" sex. But I have never understood the argument that claims that this means that I must hate men or dislike maleness. Au contraire, I like men (speaking generally - meaning, given the spectrum of human difference, as much I like women). I've even loved a few. And I like my men male. Maleness doesn't mean bashing women or weaker men any more than being a feminist means that you hate masculinity. Maybe the wider problem is how to move beyond these destructive simplicities.

charles said...

I remember years ago - oh, 1980s - a woman at table praising the unsung heroism of men: who generation after generation spent the best part of their lives leaving the house early to go to dull or backbreaking or humiliating jobs, who brought home the bacon, who generally died at a much younger age than women. A mild sense of shock (as in a Bateman cartoon) at hearing this. Possibly someone then said, Yes, but - which did need saying, because heroism isn’t the monopoly of one gender, we all have it hard.

I sometimes feel I’m in class 4C - considered in the staffroom to be unteachable, the yobboes (though of course with one or two nice individuals). Expectation can be a damning/liberating thing.

George S said...

Alison, you arguments as ever are deeply intelligent, subtle, generous and honest. I understand the difference you are indicating.I simply wonder - wonder now, in response to you rather than apropos the quandary as a whole - whether there is not a range of patriarchies, and whether some patriarchies are quite so clear cut.

I am pretty sure my family was a matriarchy while my father's place of work was a patriarchy even - perhaps especially - back in Stalinist Hungary where, however, my mother had free creche services while she worked. I am sure home was a matriarchy, just as when I pass any house with its curtains open, I feel sure that the look of the house will have been the work of the woman while the look of the workplace will not have been the work of her husband - and from this can follow - I don't mean necessarily follow - many other postulates about relative freedom and happiness. Furthermore, while my father was in a patriarchal institution, he himself was not the patriarch. What he did was much more strictly governed than what a housewife-mother could do, especially one who had the means to employ domestic help.

That does not invalidate the notion of power denoted by the term patriarchy, of course not, nor does it ever excuse the denial of education, rights and privileges of a supposedly just and democratic society.

It might perhaps involve investigating how the denials came about, and here is where life gets very interesting, because at this stage someone or other posits an essentialist argument that it is because men are a certain way which forces women to be a certain way.

That is where the matter lies, I think, in the twin aspects of:

1) the assumption that men at large are beneficiaries of social life at the expense of women;

2) That at bottom there is some essential wrong in the male at large.

I want to question both these propositions - propositions that have been the climate in which I grew up and continue to live. I don't really think the life of the average man has been one of freedom at the expense of the average female in all respects. I don't know how far the relationship of people to work, or any other obligation that feels like work,is determined by the particular social or economic system in which they work - in my understanding work in any of the previous existing socialist states was not significantly better, though you could argue that in terms of gender relations it might have been an improvement here or there in this or that respect.

I suspect we are, at bottom located in existential circumstances that may be ameliorated in one way or another. I am entirely in support of those ameliorations.

George S said...

That is roughly the position I am trying to defend, Charles, without ready recourse to the term 'hero'. I would just like that man in his dull, difficult job, not to be regarded as the opposite, as an irredeemable waste of space. The 'yes but's are fair too in that his wife is just as potentially 'heroic' as he is.

Class 4C is where we are automatically consigned, and where most boys in real life are increasingly consigned. I don't think they are not part of me.

panther said...

Rochefoucauld moved in circles that reeked of Eau de Puissance. I will remind myself of this if and when I have the heart (or the cynicism) to read him again.

In a world like that, you either wear the Eau de Puissance yourself, or you become soured by it (as R. did) or it overwhelms you rather like carbon monoxide, invisible and deadly.

George S said...

This, sent by email to the blog:

The binmen rolled down the window. 'My colleagues & I want to tell you that you look very attractive.' My eyes welled up. 'That's the nicest thing I've heard all week.' I was on my way to the psychotherapist. Depression began to melt away.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, patriarchy in the sense that feminism uses it extends way beyond the family - ie, it's systemic, rather than about individuals - and it's regulated by those distinctions you make here - that women hold sway in the domestic sphere while male authority exists in the public world. Why else is it still so controversial for women to work? When those distinctions are socially enforced despite the inclinations of the individuals involved, it causes all sorts of bitter inturnings. I'm thinking here of my grandmother: during the war my grandfather was in the Middle East for years, and she ran the family business as well as taking on all sorts of other public work, as many women did then. When my grandfather came home, she was very firmly put back in the house. And, according to family rumour, not without a lot of conflict: she was not the sort of woman to be confined to domesticity. I've always thought that it's not surprising that she became a bit of a monster. She was indeed a matriarch in the sense you mean here, forced to sublimate her own ambitions into her sons. She certainly had no time for women, who were potential competition and had to be confined like she was. Frustrated ambition, misdirected energies, etc.

I find your assumptions about the household authority kind of interesting, though. It's not always the case. Because Daniel are I are both writers and work at home, so are outside all sorts of common social pressures, we are able to work things out according to our inclinations rather than imposed necessity or expectation. Daniel is by inclination much more domestic than I am. Also he's always organising the look of the house (he says it's like set design). It's not at all unusual where I am - urban Australia is pretty relaxed about these things, on the whole - and among the people I know (mostly theatre artists). So, admittedly, we're privileged. Daniel's background is working class, and his parents worked things out through practicalities: both had to work, both had to help in the house as they had different shifts, etc. Interestingly, he says he was shocked the first time he struck a middle class Protestant household where the bank manager father came home and read his paper and wasn't allowed to be disturbed. It suggests that equal households aren't a new phenomenon, though.

The fact that most men are disadvantaged or even victimised by patriarchy (and its cohort, capitalism) in the ways you outline here doesn't mean that male privilege is a furphy. It certainly exists, mainly in banal and mostly unnoticed ways: the female subject is still routinely marginalised and even erased by the unexamined assumptions that place the male at the centre of legitimate experience, in practically every area of life. If the place of men is such a locus of anxiety in present society - and I think it's uncontroversial that it is - it's unsurprising if some men hold on to male privilege with such panic; it's an article of faith for some men that for a man to be superior, a woman must be inferior. If that is the belief, then a woman's demand for equality is felt as an attack on masculinity, perhaps on the whole self, rather than a simple request to be regarded as an autonomous human being. Yes, I know there are some feminisms which argue that women are superior to men, and that men are inherently "wrong", although in my experience that's very much a minority position, and simply reactionary. I personally don't know any women who think like that, although I've read some: most women, like me, have husbands, partners, sons, brothers, male friends, and most, like me, rather like them. It's why I've always liked black feminism, which understands that gender relations are conditioned by all sorts of other social pressures - race, class, economic status. But this is getting rather long and I'm not sure I've answered your questions. Well, it's complex.

George S said...

Granted systems are systemic, Alison, but we experience on an individual level too. So I give my sense of the family situation and you reply with yours. It's natural to do so. I offer my observations of what I deem to be general and you answer with observations on exceptions that may less exceptions than I thin they are. I might be wrong, you might be wrong.

It is true that in wartime women did what was considered to be men's work and did so very well, but what was to happen to the soldiers returning home? After their experience, would they be expected to enter unemployment? Maybe so. Maybe that is what should have happened. It would have been a hard position to maintain.

I expect the patriarchy you describe where the man who is out working during the day comes home and relaxes - remember he is relaxing at regulated hours and that while at work the statistical chances are that he will not have been an authority figure but someone within a strictly limited ambit - is true. According to the same archetypal pattern, after supper he retreats to his den or shed to do some harmless tinkering to exercise that part of his mind that is his and not his employer's or his family's (he is after all the responsible bread winner on the old pattern). This is the world of the fifties and sixties advertisements and family sit-coms. I expect it reflects something substantial.

I also suspect that patriarchy of the sort you describe was a middle-class Protestant trait. Working class men were probably more likely to go down to the pub, partly in order 'not to get under the feet' of the family, chiefly in order to enjoy the comfort of banter and the consolations of drink and sometimes the tragedy that followed from that.

You say male authority exists in the public world but the great majority of men have no authority. They work for others and even middle management is answerable to authorities beyond it. It is not a paradise of exercised power.

It may be that the female subject is marginalised still, probably because the place of work was mostly male in the past. I doubt it would have been the case in a chiefly female work environment. It may well be that the male mind (but why? because of its essential wickedness?) marginalises women at the centre of its own experience.

Life now clearly offers women more choice than it did only a generation ago and I am delighted it does so. I do after all have a highly intelligent and sensitive grown up daughter whose happiness is vital to me. To be restricted to the domain of the house ('domain' is the word I was using some time back in thinking of my mother) is limiting. Its chief limit lay in the fact that it was so general. It limited both the expectations and the possibilities of the female intellect and imagination. I fully agree with that. I have nowhere written, said or even thought that that was a desirable situation and believe that anything that improves it is for the better.

But I am not thinking of women here. I was thinking of your average Joe male, the one in the spheres of public power with less chance to exercise it than had a traditional woman in her domain. At least she could rule there, make the daily decisions, do as much as she could or wanted to in determining her immediate circumstances. He had no domain only the limited patch of ground on which he worked.

It may be capitalism we are talking about, though we would need to point to distinct contrasts for the better under state socialism. I agree that capitalism motivates and perpetuates ruthless hierarchies (hierarchies under law, in principle at least) that socialism doesn't, at least on an ideological basis - which is why I vote socialist; anything that gives the powerless more power.

And I could offer you pretty well day after day examples of the attitude that men are worthless in themselves. The people who argue this probably are in a minority but they are daily audible. They get me down at times.

Yes, it's complex.

Mark Granier said...

Is it still controversial for women [in 'Western' societies] to work Alison? Most of the women I know, including my wife, are bread-winners. Few here seem to think it in the least controversial that women should work in what were traditionally men's jobs, in the business world etc. Women in such positions are still in the minority, but that's another matter.

Re matriarchies, I was brought up in one; I never knew my father and was raised by my mum and grandparents (grandfather took a back seat). My upbringing was exceptional of course, but I have often thought about how underrated matriarchies are. Domestic politics are at least as vital as the other kind, and perhaps have an even more transformative influence.

As for men feeling worthless, I've mentioned this before, in similar discussions with George and others, but it seems pertinent to raise it again. Is it not curious that almost everyone knows what a misogynist is while very few know the female equivalent: misandrist?

havantaclu said...

My father used to speak about the matriarchal society in early 20th century South Wales. He described how, on each pay-day, the 'mams' would be sitting on their front-doorsteps (well whitened) with their aprons covering their skirts. As each man (there were usually two or three - Dad and the sons) came in from the coalpit, they had to toss their pay envelope into mam's apron - and woe betide any man who had opened his envelope before it reached mam's apron! The same was true for any girl in the household who went out to work. Mam would check how much money had come in, having already reckoned up how much she would need to run the household in the following week. Any surplus was equally divided between the men and girls - some weeks they wouldn't get anything, at other times it would be enough to go to the pub for a couple of nights, or to save for their'bottom drawer.' But mam was judge, jury and executioner. Dad spoke of one upstanding fellow of his acquaintance who went into work with a black eye on the day following payday - administered by mam, of course! (He'd opened his paypacket, and received no pocket money that week either.) But if the men couldn't afford to go to the pub, there was always the male-voice choir. Dad used to sing in one - and later in a London choir to which Aneurin Bevan was a major contributor.

Dad wasn't a miner - he was in the electrical power industry - but he lodged at a miner's house and was subject to the same discipline.

He used to say that those women were often firmer than their menfolk, but that they were more strictly egalitarian in their methods than some of the men.

So, Mark, that was a matriarchal society in the early twentieth century. I think that, in some working-class areas, they were quite common. And every man grew up with respect for their women, and every woman with justice in her heart for her men. Not in all working class areas, however - I suspect that where there had developed a feeling of being devalued e.g. with the old weaving communities, the only way that men could retain their self-respect was by subscribing to the patriarchal idea that a woman's place was in the home.

It is mutual respect and understanding that should be the goal of every individual, both male and female. And an acknowledgement that each gender has its faults, but none that makes it inherently worthless.

George S said...

It is a little like that, Jeni, in most places. As I remember the Punch cartoon from the early part of the last century, the black-faced miner comes home and is greeted by his wife who says: Here I am slaving over a hot stove while you're down a nice cool mine.

Of course I am fully in agreement with your last paragraph - and I imagine everyone in this comment column would be.

The Plump said...

Once, when still young, I went clubbing with some gay and lesbian friends. As I was dancing away, a man in tight pink trousers pinched my bottom. It was the first and last time I have been treated as a sex object. It was great.

George S said...

Yeah, but it doesn't last.