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The fear of compliance: the cultural tales of the henpecked husband

23 Apr

Having undertaken research on power relations in heterosexual relationships I have realized how complicated these gendered power balances are. When you listen to contemporary discussions about masculinity being in crisis as a result of gender equality going wild, it seems that dominated men are the product of the last 40 years of feminist power gain. However, a little historical digging has revealed that the figure of the henpecked husband is both old and cross-culturally recognized. For centuries, the henpecked husband has worked as a masculine demarcation and ridiculed compliance as a sign of male weakness.

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Free us from bromanticism

17 Mar

The following piece first appeared in the Danish newspaper, Information. It feeds into an ongoing gender debate about gender roles, and particularly roles of men. This debate is not only scholarly, but takes place in all kinds of popular media. Every year around March 8, International Women’s Day, gender equality is widely  discussed in Denmark. Recently, a change in the debate has led to a greater focus on men as the ones with the actual “gender problems.” This seems to have drawn the battle lines between feminist and anti-feminists even more clearly leaving men and women in two separate camps with seemingly no common interests.  The piece is not trying to claim that men don’t have real problems, but that the debate is derailed and further it problematizes the “no-responsibility male culture” that has become a central position is the debate.

Free us from bromanticism

Contemporary male campaigners for men’s rights praise the right of the male to be self-realizing and without any heavy responsibilities. But this bro fantasy is miles from former patriarchal breadwinners whom these campaigners also pay tributes to.

By Christoph Ellersgaard and Anna Sofie Bach (visiting PhD student at Stony Brook)

‘Women have taken over power’ and ‘gender equality has gone too far’. This refrain is heard year after year when the international Women’s Day approaches. However, this self-appointed choir of men’s rights campaigners tends to forget that the so-called gender battle is not a zero-sum game: women’s freedom does not mean a loss of possibilities for men. On the contrary, women’s fight for equal rights has also created the possibility for men to break out of the traditional roles of masculinity. The identity problems some men struggle with today have more to do with the loss of their jobs than that the fact that they have been robbed of the male role. The solution is to take the gender battle even further – that is, to a place where it is not a battle between men and women.

In reality, the patriarchal male role of the past, which some men seem to mourn, has been strongly restricting and suppressive. The male breadwinner has carried a heavy burden on his shoulders from which he has been liberated. Further, it is doubtful whether the authoritative power that men of the past had over women made them free and happy. There seems to be little freedom in “putting the women in her place” as the Danish entertainer Mads Christensen and his gang often recommend in the popular radio show Mads and the Monopoly.

Still, it is this willfulness the men’s right campaigners of today seem to cling to in their fantasies of the ‘real’ man. The interpretation of what this means, however, is often miles away from the celebrated patriarchal breadwinners of the past

Self-centered irresponsibility
Today the right to self-determination is connected to the right to be self-centered, self-realizing and without any real responsibilities. Within the predominantly  “childman” mentality, which is frequently cited in the popular culture, self-deprecation always works as an apology for failing to take responsibility: as long as you can laugh about yourself it seems to be okay to act like a callous fool. For example, in the Danish movie “The Great Reunion” (in Danish “Den store klassefest”), you hear one of the characters claim “we are not getting any pussy with this one” referring to the main character’s car, a Citröen Berlingo. Because of the practicalities of the Berlingo – and the aesthetical challenges – the manchild campaigners have turned this car into the symbol of the castrated man who has given up his ‘natural’ needs to dominate through his consumption to ‘restricting’ and ‘effeminate’ considerations of moving easily from A to B.

Of course it is a real problem that many men feel caught off guard and powerless. They are angry and feel that something they have been promised (by virtue of their gender) has been taken away from them. And it seems obvious to blame the women as they apparently get everything nowadays. The so-called crisis of the man is ascribed to a feminization of society and the fact that women’s conditions in general have been lifted. The debate about loser-men and -boys following these claims has turned the problem upside down: The improvements of women’s conditions become the cause of men’s problems.

Testosterone is no excuse
However, the problems are often due to a changed labor market and the growth of a knowledge society in which you cannot easily survive on traditional masculine brawn. And right now modern capitalism is particularly tough on those jobs that have traditionally been dominated by (unskilled) men.

A large group of men have seen their livelihood and their position as breadwinners disappear. This is not the fault of women. These men are not the losers of a gender battle, but victims of a financial crisis. A crisis, which according to the latest numbers, has hit women equally hard. The engagement with a traditional macho-culture therefore seems a useless answer to this development.

If education is the key to the future labor market, we need a confrontation with the “manchild” culture that places boys and men beyond pedagogical influence. Letting the male gender be an excuse for an anti-school and -learning culture does not at all benefit the so-called loser men. If we excuse the acclaimed school problems of boys today with their levels of testosterone – as the girls’ lack of fitness for school in the 19th century was explained by their uteruses  – we steal their opportunities to break  free from the victimization and to work their way out of the omnipotent control of testosterone.

Multifarious male life
On the occasion of March 8, it would not be amiss to remember that today the life of the man is way more diverse than ever before. For this he can thank, among others, the women’s and queer movements. Men are able to undertake much more multi-facetted roles than before. They are able to have close relationships with their children and take part in their care and nursing without anyone frowning on them. Heterosexual men can also thank the women’s rights movement that their women are no longer economically tied service units but equal partners.

But the fight should not end here. There is still oppression in Denmark because of gender and we need to break this down. Men should not suffer with difficult feelings all by themselves, because men’s self-images are too tied to success just at an unpredictable labor market; the demands of the perfect body should not drive thousands of women and men to eating disorders; ancient status differences between so-called men’s jobs and women’s job should not create a pay gap of almost 20 %. This battle is way too big and important to be fought by only one gender.

Christoph Ellersgaard and Anna Sofie Bach are both PhD students at Department of Sociology at The University of Copenhagen. They are members of The Society for Critical Social Research which is a network of young academics wishing to use the social sciences to question contemporary society and its development.

This piece was originally printed in Danish. Translation by Anna Sofie Bach and Cheryl Llewellyn.

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