A week ago I received a text from an ex-flatmate from university whose final year coincided with my second. I helped out a little with his dissertation, for which he got a brilliant first! Around the communal kitchen table, we often discussed gender, compulsory femininity, and how class interacts with these forces.
I once painted his nails while we watched My Mad Fat Diary and he became very angry when I didn't have polish remover. He said I didn't understand how much shit he was going to get from his friends, that any expression of femininity was out of reach to him as a working class man.
After completing a masters at Cambridge, he is now looking at masculinity for a PhD thesis. When we spoke on the phone recently, he was happily on way to a date wearing mascara. He intends to enrol in an American university to start a new life as a more liberated man who cannot be identified as working class Mancunian and thus pigeon-holed.
This is his text (adapted very slightly to omit personal details):
"Hey, hope you're well. I was wondering if you could help me think through something. I just read a feminist critique of a book about masculinities in which the author's attitude was it was absolutely important not to claim men are oppressed by patriarchy. I'm pretty convinced, however, that is exactly the reason men kill themselves: death is better than admitting sadness. It matters because I want to be certain of my epistemological footing before I write my PhD proposal. The best I can come up with is that patriarchy is like capitalism, in that there are winners and losers but ultimately America, for example, is more powerful than "insert poorer country". I'm sure you know far more about this than me, can give me a heads up please?"Today I got round to replying by email:
I agree with the feminist source you read re: men being oppressed by the patriarchy.
Men are not oppressed by the patriarchy. Do men experience disadvantages? Yes. Men feel emotionally restricted and put under pressure as breadwinners. But those disadvantages and limitations exist as drawbacks from a central purpose, which is to make men more powerful - opposing women's ‘hysteria’ and assuming financial control in the process.
Let’s use the body image discussion as illustrative of the wider debate. We say women are put under enormous pressure to be thin. Every woman I’ve ever met feels that pressure and our weight informs all interactions with each other and with men. Girls know from a very young age that being anything other than skinny means being of lesser value.
Men respond, ‘we also have to live up to expectations! When I look at a men’s magazine/comic/advert, I see a man with lots of muscles. That takes a lot of time, effort and resources, and can lead to men taking dodgy steroids, etc.'
1. Men are not *primarily* judged by their appearance to the extent that women are. The pressure is strong but a man who doesn’t have the physique of David Beckham isn’t seen as worthless.
2. Looking physically strong, having muscles, is a power fantasy. Men are encouraged to have muscles, which makes them bigger and stronger than women (and even more intimidating), whereas women are coerced into making ourselves smaller and weaker, to physically take up less space.
3. This power fantasy is a male fantasy. Men are encouraged to do look a certain way by other men. Who writes those comics and heads those advertising agencies? Men have built patriarchal structures; they didn’t just appear in a vacuum and they’re no mistake.
The discussion above can be extrapolated to answer your wider question of whether men are oppressed under patriarchy for being men.
A class based analysis is used for radical (not liberal) feminist theory. Men are the oppressor class. That doesn’t deny that individual men may be in worse positions than Theresa May. And you are not in a better position than Obama, despite your whiteness. Obviously, other axes of oppression are at play (cf Crenshaw on intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins on the matrix of domination).
But are men being oppressed by... men? Here I’d look at Connell on hegemonic masculinity and conclude that the hierarchy of masculinities exists to keep standards of masculinity high. Competing forms of masculinity mean that gender non-conforming men are marginalised and subordinated, but ultimately the process serves to reinforce gender and the power of men.
Look into Michael Kimmel and absolutely read Frye's ‘Oppression’ piece.I'll update if the conversation continues...