Recently, Australia has started manufacturing a new range of products which are creating plenty of gainful employment for newspaper feature writers, specialist bibliographers, therapists and academics. The generic name for these products is ‘Men’s Studies’. The practices that go with the title are disparate and slippery. They vary from the consciousness-raising style of small-group talking and touching (if it moves, call it a feeling), through to a more theoretically ordered uncovering of capitalist hegemony in the school and on the sporting field. What these approaches tend to share is a sense that feminists are ‘onto something’, that there is a crise de conscience of masculinity (and that the crisis is justified and not before its time). In particular, the emerging literature — whether it takes as its father Lacan, Gramsci or Maslow — seems to concentrate on the desirability of men’s attempting to explore the non-violent, collaborative aspects of their practice. In other ways, the approaches are probably very different. But they seem to share an envy of the way that the constructive expression of emotion has been associated with women. Some of the men’s groups that have appeared in response to feminism have tended to concentrate on the body: in effect, using feminism as a new way to come. The line is something like: ‘We thank feminism for the challenge it has laid down and all that it has done, and can continue to do, for us.’ ‘Masculinists’ have also developed anti-feminist positions on divorce and abortion, based on putative ‘men’s rights’.
There are two significant intellectual elements to this response. First, there has been a rapid recolonisation of the academic/discursive terrain that feminism had established and occupied. Secondly, ‘gender’ as an area of study is. no longer simply to consider such matters as inequalities between men and women, or even more complex questions around the interpellation and unity of the speaking subject. It must now encompass (however subtly) the matter of how men can cope with ‘the modern woman’.
I want to talk in particular here about two volumes of popular Australian sociology which have recently purported to tell us what Australian men are like and how they deal with ‘feminism’. The books are Sandra Jobson’s Blokes: An Endangered Species? (1984) and Kevin Childs’ Men on Women (1986).
These books share a number of characteristics of ‘popular sociology’. The fact that they were both produced outside the academy has various stylistic corollaries: no footnotes, ‘easy’ prose, no theory and so on. But they are also situated within the field of commentary on society, and they clearly employ many of the established research techniques of oral history/ethnography: a silent, non-complicit but interpretative interviewer; notions of ‘representativeness’ in a small survey population, which is subjected to ‘profound’ questioning; and a desire to repeat the authentic voice of another.
Blokes and Men on Women are organised in dissimilar ways. Jobson presents excerpts from interviews with 200 different men. Many of her subjects are institutionally positioned as social commentators (e.g. academics and other people who are paid to speak) whilst others are off ‘the street’. She selects brief and apposite quotations on particular topics, strings them together with some linking commentary, and calls this a chapter. Such writing tactics follow the standard practices of what might be called empiricist categorising: the interviewer asks a variety of questions, organises responses by issues and produces the real. There is no sense that interviews are conducted under specific and definite conditions. The information that they contain — or, rather, the edited versions which we are given — provide the ‘real’ views of the men quoted, in a transcendental and non-dialectical way.
By contrast, Childs chose to conduct lengthy interviews with just sixteen men, all of them publicly prominent. He concentrated on ‘women and how men feel about them’. Although once more we are not blessed with the line of questioning — he presents each chapter as a stream-of-consciousness essay by a ‘personality’ — it is safe to assume that sexual politics were largely hidden under the cover of ‘feelings’, and thereby ignored. Childs never problematises his men. They appear to operate in a vacuum, free to express the ‘feelings’ that he implicitly endorses. If a man talks about an emotion, the statement is inviolable (perhaps because this is deemed to be such a dramatic breakthrough in itself that the rules of behaviour modification require a reward). It is to be recorded without comment, with a silence that deafens.
Of the two books, Blokes is less specifically concerned with women. It is presented as a lather jolly, affectionate look at the rich tapestry of life that is the Australian male. The publishers, Pan, classify it as ‘Humour/Sociology’ (an interesting couplet: tautology or binary opposition?). The title has an air of celebrating larrikinism, a mood reinforced by a cover illustration of a jovial, corpulent beer-drinker at the beach. Conversely, Childs’ book is described as men talking ‘about their involvements and collisions with women’. As well as claiming that it is suitable for academic study in sociology. Penguin sees fit to categorise it under the heading of ‘Biography’. But biography of whom? Of the genus ‘woman’ by ‘sixteen well-known Australian men’? Or of those same men, by Kevin Childs? Subject and object are conflated usefully here, however unconsciously. It is a pity that no such practice informs the rest of the book. Throughout, pronouncements are protected by a cloak of humour, simultaneously self-abnegating and yet controlling (for example, the laboured double entendre in the title Men on Women).
Jobson’s interviews provoked a range of responses on feminism, or what she calls ‘The Worm in the Apple’. Stephen Alomes is cited as noting that the women’s movement has been good for men. He welcomes its problematisation of oppressive assumptions about the need for constantly congruent male roles of leadership, competence and infallibility. But these changes are not wrought by feminism per se. Rather, they are the consequences of men appropriating feminist critiques. Phil Beard is closer to the mark with his sardonic accusation that many middle-class Australian men are prepared for their female partners to work because they will accumulate more material possessions as a result. This instrumental involvement is also evident in the self-styled ‘masculinist movement’, which Blokes represents as a reaction to feminists rejecting men’s offers of support and sympathy. The movement displays all the fervour and instability of the would-be converso who has been turned away. There is an assumed consanguinity of men and women here: ‘We’re all embarked on the same project of living, you’ve pointed out a few problems with the way blokes operate, let’s work together and become more aware.’ Notions of colonisation and difference are papered over.
This ignorance is not confined to would-be fellow-travellers. Mike Gibson, Sydney broadcaster and columnist for the Women’s Weekly, is ready to acknowledge that men have dominated this country’s visible social life. But he complains that women ‘don’t get out and enjoy Australia. I mean you could walk down this walkway … today and I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people walking along there will be men’. This is to ignore, quite devastatingly, the politics of space. Fear of rape, the separation of private from public spheres, and males’ opposition to their lovers’ getting around independently are three reasons for women’s absence. The pressure to be on display when ‘out’ further complicates the breezy, carefree stroll down the cheery little laneways that obviously mark Sydney out for access by women. Former Olympic swimmer John Konrads suggests a similar ignorance, but does so more dearly, when he says that most Australian men do not ‘care’ about feminism.
Reductionism is another discourse that arises from a limited understanding of feminism. Edmund Campion maintains that ‘in some ways Catholics were quick to respond to the women’s movement, that is, the idea of pursuing your own vocation’. He classifies feminism as a labour market intervention pure and simple. Sexual politics is secreted behind a placard of liberal humanism which could have been painted by John Stuart Mill. Here, Campion is limiting feminism to reformism. It is just a mechanism for removing unwelcome obstacles to the effective functioning of the individual will in the ‘Positions Vacant’ columns. In other words, once people are free to work where they wish, feminism’s task will be over. This assumes that the united subject has a (God-given?) path towards employment, a ‘calling’ as it were, which is not only inevitable and universal, but more important than — and separate from — sexual practices, language, family structures and so on. If we all followed an appropriate Equal Employment Opportunity policy, there would be no need for feminism.
Other interviewees are overtly hostile to feminism. Bob Ellis sarcastically suggests that Bob Hawke ‘was black-listed by the women’s libbers, until they realised how attractive he was’. There are two messages here. First, feminism dulls the senses: it blinds women to their penile destiny. And, secondly, women are ultimately reducible to the orgasmic motive. They will regain their sight in the face of ineffable pleasure, as exemplified by a craggy Hawke. Ellis is also critical of feminism’s impact on the noble institution of matrimony. He alleges that it is because feminism has lent credence to assaults on the validity of the family that men leave their middle-aged spouses for young women, without any residue of financial provision. Consequently, he asserts, ‘the marriage contract has become a disposable tissue’. By destabilising the family, feminism becomes responsible for men exploiting women; a claim which is at least ingenious. If there are more middle-aged peripatetics wandering the globe than before, it is probably the consequence of a variety of developments. Not the least of these would be the circulation of Hefner’s ‘Playboy Philosophy’, with its equation of sexual exploitation with sexual freedom.
Hostility also finds expression in apparent amity and concern. A sheath of affection disarms any possible criticism. Company director Harry Douglas thinks ‘women are really good in maternity wards … they can’t say boo to anyone for a while. But’, he adds, ‘I do like women better than fellows’.
In Men on Women, Childs acts as a ghost-writer, providing a space for a series of highly individualistic discourses by important people. So Morris Lurie is free to dabble in psychologising: women fail to love their male children because they were not loved by their own mothers, or at least not ‘unconditionally’. The male’s revenge is to repress women by excluding them from the professions and suppressing their public life. Lurie is certain that ‘if my Mum treasured me, bit me on the bum, just wanted to hold me and give me that love that is totally without strings, why would I want to take another one of her and bind its feet?’ Feminism is one link in a chain of oppression that has been forged out of denial: denial of love by mothers. And women are therefore responsible for their own enslavement. How, then, did feminism arise? It is presumably an unreflexive displacement of anger onto men when it is women’s own behaviour — and subconscious motivation — that should be questioned.
James Reyne and his ‘closest friends’ (presumably masculine) ‘are not so much pro-female but have a sort of love and respect for women. They are just the greatest sort of people and, if they are good people, they are really worth nurturing and respecting.’ He thinks of feminists as ‘women with big breasts and overalls’. One of his female acquaintances went through a ‘heavy feminist stage’, until she ‘found a man she [was] happy with’. He criticises utterly ‘unreconstructed’ men, but has some sympathy for them. He encourages women to recognise and accept that such men will never revise their attitudes because the ‘way of life that surrounds them leads to frustration, paranoia and intimidation’, specifically in the struggle to obtain and keep worthwhile jobs. If only women could see that they are oppressed because men are put down by the system of work, they would be less angry. So let us all consider the wider issues. Reyne’s understanding that finding a ‘good chap’ will minimise radicalism is a throwback to the liberal humanism of Edmund Campion. We hear echoes too of Bob Ellis’ accusation that women disliked Hawke until they allowed their pores to open. And while Jack Hibberd might be yet another who professes to prefer women to men, he too expresses hostility when confronted by feminism. He remembers the Pram Factory in 1970: ‘I always took the line that your theatre had to be as good as your politics … I was going for the broader political issues, and the major political issue for the women was the voice of women in the theatre and the status and position of women in society’. Hibberd begins by drawing a distinction between form and content, implying that modes of presentation have priority. The next moment, he alleges that the measure of legitimate theatrical influence is the health of one’s politics (which cannot be feminist). Once more, the unifier papering over the problematic is that it is only one incident in a larger narrative of struggle.
On the appropriation front, Michael Leunig hails feminism because ‘it changed males as much as it changed females’. Alex Encel announces that he ‘rather liked’ what Germaine Greer had to say, but that feminism now has been modified by experience. It has achieved little and is thoroughly deradicalised. While this is arguable in certain sectors, it is an over-generalisation, discounting gains in legislative equality, trade union policies, culture and so on. But then a fixed meaning precludes the possibility of a mobile assailant.
From the Midday Show on daytime television, Ray Martin informs us that ‘The women’s movement has gone too far in Australia … the pendulum has not come back the way that it has in America’. The presumption is that there can be a ‘right amount’ of feminism, the essence of a golden mean. Again, women should rejoin the fold. Of course, the fold is itself an origami product, a negotiated pattern. Another ABC donation to commercial television, George Negus, follows in Edmund Campion’s tracks. He, too, reduces women’s gains to equality in the labour market, which in any case flies in the face of evidence that job segregation by gender is on the increase. Negus is critical of parts of the women’s movement for endeavouring to radicalise rape crisis and women’s refuge clients ‘who are intellectually and emotionally ill-equipped to handle liberation … thrust … upon them’.
On the other hand, Colin Lancely ‘can’t work out what they [feminists] want from society’. Perhaps ‘they want apartheid where they are wimmin, spelt with an ‘i’ (that’s another thing I hate about them, the way they have bureaucratised the language)’. Society is constructed here as a benefactor, an object to which feminists apply for succour. And language has a worthwhile essence which operates neutrally until it is infected by politics. Later, he reveals a fear of a trend towards division, towards separate development.
It’s distressing to read these books, but not only because of the values that they voice. Many of the views probably are representative, and it’s worthwhile to have them exposed. But they are ‘exposed’ as legitimate opinions which deserve to be restated without criticism. Apart from the methodological problems of denying the significance of interviewers, questions and settings in presenting the ‘findings’ of oral history, both texts are at fault for positioning readers in a particular way.
In effect, we are to learn about feminism from great men. For all Jobson’s attempts at representativeness, her interview subjects include a high proportion of prominent men. Child’s book is based around fame. The assumption is that Ray Martin, Bob Hawke and James Reyne, for example, are talking about a fixed signifier when they say the word ‘feminism’ and that their social positioning makes their opinions important. They may differ in age, familial relationships, occupations and ideologies, but their agreement on what it is that they are discussing is never questioned. What unifies them, by stark contrast with the reader, is their status as ‘famous’. Selling points for books become qualifications for knowledge. It is part of their fame that they are not to be argued with by ‘their’ authors (who in fact become presenters). What’s more, they are taking ‘risks’ by talking about their feelings. And just as their presenters have given them an unmediated voice (or apparently so), we as readers must respect the vulnerability they have shown.
These texts signify an important shift in ideological and social relations in the field of gender politics. They represent a particular movement towards the ownership of territory, a movement which is deeply ideological in method as well as intent, by way of privileging the individual experience of stars by an unvoiced mediator. As such, they are disturbing and important documents.
Image: Tara Winstead