Booknotes: Of Boys And Men

nope not quite

Booknotes: Of Boys And Men

Previously on the HNTRW masculinity series:

Maybe I need to pull back a little and have a bit more of a think about what this whole 'masculinity' thing is anyway.

Sadly, Of Boys And Men (or Boys Man Man, as I have perhaps inevitably been thinking of it) doesn’t quite hit that either—but it is at least trying to do something a bit different. It’s one of those “a summary of research that allows its think-tank author to do the media rounds to promote it” kinda deals. The author in question was an advisor to Nick Clegg when he was deputy PM, so that… immediately coloured my impression of him, let’s say, but I’ll try and play the ball and not the (boys) man (man) as best I can here.

I am maybe looking for something that is both bigger and smaller than this: bigger in the sense of addressing more fundamental questions about the nature of masculinity, which is kinda dealt with a bit off-handedly here (or at least it’s not the point he’s trying to get at) and smaller in the sense of looking for personal applicability. This is smack in the middle: taking the big stuff as read and only really focusing on any individual stuff for the purposes of stories that’ll sell his suggested political prescriptions.

To take it on its merits, though: it feels like a decent identification of some possibly under-appreciated Men’s Issues in the West (it’s mostly US-focused but I’d say a fair whack of it is UK-relevant too) with some weird bits and some fundamental point-missing thrown in for good measure. It starts off with some (appreciated) groundwork-laying, which basically amounts to:

  • this isn’t some nonsense about how women need to get back in the kitchen, and the advancement of women's rights over the last 60+ years is good, however;
  • combined with significant economic and societal shifts over the same period of time, there are some trends in work and education and society at large which, while acknowledging men still enjoy advantages in many ways, seem to be impacting men negatively and need looking at, and;
  • these are structural problems to which a lot of what we might term the progressive mainstream seems to want individualist solutions when systematic ones might be called for. (Ironically, the more socially conservative elements of the right, normally all for pooh-poohing systematic solutions, does seem to want one here, but of course the systematic change they want is deeply silly and can be boiled down to “back in the kitchen, ladies”)

This seems good, honestly, and a bit more in-depth than some stuff you see: with, e.g. this piece in the FT the other day which is decent but still representative of the kinds of of pieces about The Man Problem you get at the moment, which can largely be boiled down to “[something about Andrew Tate (or Jordan Peterson if we’re going back a few years)], [something about social media more generally], [maybe a paragraph or two which gestures to some other kind of masculinity which pretty much amounts to “showing feelings”]”. That piece in particular is better than most, and it has the interesting angle of exploring the author’s equivalent of Youtube, the rash of 90s lads mags like Loaded. He makes the (I think) decent point that despite their inarguable sexism, they were different from the social media form of this stuff because once you closed the cover, that was it, you were done, and on to something else. They might’ve been bad but they were not the water in which you swam.

There is a perfunctory Peterson reference here, thankfully not a substantial one—though while pooh-poohing his sillier lobster-based claims, Reeves does refer to him as a “genuine intellectual” which is maybe the kind of thing that you could’ve skated on back in the day when he was getting profile for being rude to his students about pronouns and writing incomprehensible books about women being the dragon of chaos or whatever, but cuts a bit less ice after all the being hospitalised for his steak-and-benzos diet, crying over the idea of live music, recording Command And Conquer FMV-esque videos for the Daily Wire &c. He’s also got far more time for Charles Murray than anyone with a brain should but, again—both sides, I guess.

Anyway: “Prosocial masculinity for a postfeminist world”, is the short version. There’s a lot of repetition of “there can be more than one bad thing!” throughout the book, which is, I think, good. While not really identifying with a lot of his political both-sidesism, I’m inclined to agree that because some groups of people arguably enjoy structural advantages, that doesn’t mean that everyone in the group does, nor that they can’t suffer structural disadvantages in other respects. He also goes out of his way to make clear he’s referring to “cis-het men”—though honestly this feels like a linguistic habit; I’m not sure why the “het” qualifier is necessary for most of this.

There are some pretty boggling stats in here—US university attendance is nearly 60-40 women to men (though varying by subject; STEM being more male-weighted but with the gap closing). Men also underperform in earlier stages of education, something Reeves puts down largely to slower male maturation making focus etc more difficult. The thing that made me reach for a phone to check the numbers was that only 46% of women and 35% of boys graduate university in four years, which seemed absolutely insane to me—though I had a look and it seems like this is a particularly American phenomenon, and the UK is (for various reasons) an actually positive outlier in terms of university dropout rate.

He also talks about jobs: a lot of historically male-performed blue-collar jobs having been automated away or offshored (the kind of policy, I’d note, heartily supported by his class of policycrat—the phrase “there’s not enough being done for those left behind by free trade” does rather remind one of Thatcher’s tut-tutting at (in the words of Francis Urquhart) “the teenagers in the City with their Porsches and their Filofaxes”—this is what getting what you wanted looks like, pal).

A lot of this centres on the family: specifically, how mothers have been able to move into the traditionally ‘male’ breadwinning role (in whole or in part) while fathers have struggled to expand into the caring roles; unmarried women seem to do better than unmarried men. This is less the case for families at the top of the income distribution where marriage has transformed (tacitly) from a largely-dependent economic relationship to an equal partnership for the rearing of children.

Men also have fewer and narrower ‘sources of meaning’, and those are being chipped away at. Men have fewer friendships, fewer close friendships, find it more difficult than women to escape poverty (2x as likely to be poor as adults if from a poor home), a lot of things like college subsidies seem to really help women but not really men.

The closest the book gets to a conception of masculinity is that men are (on average, he makes a point of stressing) more aggressive, risk-seeking and sex driven, and also that they prefer things to people. This is possibly unfair but had I turned the page to find a Brookingsly-worded assertion that women be shopping, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I appreciate that this isn’t the focus of the book and is by and large a pencil sketch, but if we’re talking about trying to foster a positive masculinity here then dispensing with a base definition in one page of thinly-evidenced but boldly-stated assertions is… interesting.  Honestly, this is true more generally—perhaps unsurprisingly for something so think-tanky, the book’s basis in data is solid, but its theoretical underpinnings seem a little more tendentious.

(As a sidenote on this: he quotes a study talking about Donald Trump as a “man’s man”, which (as many podcasts have noted) is a profoundly weird thing to say about a guy whose real love seemed to be New York media gossip. In his framing, though, it’s the first time it’s made much sense to me: if the role of man is as a provider, he, as a publicly rich man (maybe not really if you dig into the books or whatever, but as a totemic figure) is that.)

There was a section discussing the loss of a societal script, and how dislocating that can feel. Some people are able to improv through The thing about a script, about a “normality” isn’t that it’s the thing you must do—though in negative manifestations it can be—it’s that it’s a thing that will generally work. If you are someone who doesn’t fit into the script, having the script be obvious and identifiable—giving you something to ‘push off’—can make it easier to find your own version of what an alternative script might be. It doesn’t always (I have found), but it can do. I would be interested to think about what a less aggressive conception of social scripts might be.

He makes a point about the poor definition of toxic masculinity which is ok—it can certainly be one of those “whenever someone does something like this that I don’t like terms—but he fundamentally misidentifies it. He seems to think it’s one of those things like “intersectionality”—an academic term that got mainstreamed and seems to have lost some of its specificity, but it’s actually from the mythopoetic men’s movement—the Iron John lads—who he mentions elsewhere in the book. Again, this is the kind of fumble that typifies the book: the numbers might be solid but you still need to know what to do with them, still need to have a robust understanding of the surrounding facts to develop a framework to fit them in.

You get some bits that come across a bit… well, there’s a line (quoting someone else but still included!) which talks about intersex people in a very… not overtly hostile but (imo) creepy way (idk if I’d like to be referred to as an “exotic glass sculpture”); there’s some stuff about T-levels, but it’s clearly not what the author really cares about, and the idea of womanhood being more “robust” than manhood because of its roots in biology or whatever.

Reeves also spends a bit of time talking about the idea that certain jobs have gender splits that do not reflect people’s “genuine desires”—i.e. the male-female early-years education split is something ridiculous like 1:30, but if people’s real-true-genuine desires were able to be enacted in the job market, the number would be different. Now, I think it’s true that under different circumstances, the gender split of certain professions would be different, but the job market, like anything else, is an artificial construction: people are good and bad at different things but they don’t have some innate “natural job”—though Reeves seems like he came out of the womb wearing a lanyard, so I can see why he would think that. (At one point he speculates that, were he born in Sparta several millennia ago, he would have been more physically aggressive. This is possibly me showing my toxically masculine side, but one suspects he would’ve been one of the babies they left out to die of exposure.)

I think that leaning on this “genuine desires” stuff weakens the thing as a whole, as there are plenty of other ways you can (and elsewhere he does) approach it. A much more straightforward and, to my mind, stronger version of the argument would run: due to a complex combination of factors, not many men are early years educators, but it would be to everyone’s benefit (and there are data to show this) that kids do better when they have teachers of different genders; it would be a good thing, therefore, to have a more even gender split in early years educators, so that’s something we should encourage with policy, incentives, whatever. That’s it, no need for all the faffing about genuine innate preference or whatever.

The end is largely policy suggestions that seem broadly non-terrible but have less than zero chance of happening because they would require colossal amounts of spending that I cannot envision being forthcoming. He also talks about getting more and better vocational education, a policy that literally every politician I’ve ever heard on the subject seems to like talking up but no-one ever seems to actually enact.

Ultimately I didn’t find this as frustrating as Mask Off because it was actually trying to do something different and contained some genuinely interesting numbers. It drips with a deeply annoying “both sides” liberalism but since the majority of that was confined to specific chapters of the book, it was generally pretty easy to ignore. It was harder to get over the feeling that it was a pitch to be on The Ezra Klein Show (this was a joke but then I checked and hey, what do you know?).

But it still wasn't what I was looking for. NEXT TIME: Adam gets annoyed at a French philosopher.

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