tumblr_lvrgvwUb8k1qibb1xo9_r1_400The binary of feminine objectifies women, as the binary of masculine dehumanises men argues Laura Cameron Lewis.

I want to share two memories:

As a kid, a crowd of bullies descend on me and my wee brother, we try to deflect them by being wide. They begin swiping at him and look about to pile in. Afraid and angry, I say, ‘dinnae greet, ya wee pussy’. He continues to cry, and so they laugh. No need for punches now. The awkwardness and humiliation cuts through the violence.

As a grown woman I intervene when a drunk guy verbally abuses a woman in a supermarket. ‘Oi, stop gien’ her abuse, leave her alone and stop bein an arsehole!’. I am not the hero I think I am, he turns on me and begins abusing me. No one intervenes. My boyfriend stands back and waits for it to end. I storm off down the road, outraged at my impotence, vulnerability… and his.

‘Why didn’t you stand up to them?’ ‘What do you mean, you were SCARED??’

Moments of crisis.

But in public the drunk guy wasn’t likely to actually hit me. He would have hit my boyfriend.

Moments of crisis, for men. ‘Manliness’ in such out of control situations, would have caused destruction rather than mitigate for it.

It was not a good survival strategy.

The world is inherently designed to belittle and prejudice men, unless they fit into a very narrow definition of masculinity.

Rational. Strong. Decisive. Muscular. Active. Brusque. The Breadwinner. Ladykiller. A Winner.

I don’t consciously think, or believe, any of those things about men that I uttered in those memories… I know that’s not what men should be. I know it’s fantastical and reductive. But I was frightened. It came out of my mouth because I was cornered and fight or flight kicked in. I wasn’t thinking.

I quite literally, don’t know where it came from. It came from the air. From the stories the world tells us about men.

Like most of you I’m sure, I work hard not to default to base definitions of people, but I can’t always beat my programming. As psychological researchers like John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth discovered, at moments of high stress and pressure we are most likely to default to our childhood cultural programming, patterns of non-attachment and alienation of others.

Like the best of us, during moments of high stress or fighting to meet impossible deadlines, my lizard-brain kicks in, and that’s when I’m most likely to forget all my higher impressions of my fellow-man and expect him to conform to the default image of masculinity.

But men are not machines, men are human. Men have every right to be scared – things are scary. Humans feel fear. Humans have the right to make their own decisions. Men have every right to choose not to fight. It is not right to be forced to be ‘manly’ when you know it would be to your detriment.

A man is not a ‘pussy’, nor a ‘loser’, nor a ‘girl’. A man is a human. He feels. And therefore he is. And he is worthy of love (not by being a model ‘man’ whatever that is) by virtue of being a person.

But like all of us who are part of western culture, I have been conditioned to understand things around me in binaries. My cultural programming prescribes a binary of misogyny, and that of course infers a flipside.

The binary, of misandry. The everyday misandry of western culture.

… and the binary question our society asks at every turn, is: Are you a winner?

About six months ago, I was in a room full of feminists (women and men), talking about gender. We heard statements about how women experience the brunt of poverty, how women’s economic and leadership role is largely invisible because it isn’t remunerated, how women’s rights, pay and representation in power is now worse than it has been in decades.

Then one of the speakers on the panel, a man who works with troubled young men asked one of the panelists, Jeane Freeman, ‘What can feminism do for these men?’

A collective intake of breath was followed by jaws hitting the floor, and then Jeane’s response, ‘what are YOU going to do?’

It’s a call we often hear when there’s a discussion about women’s rights… ‘But what about men’s rights?’

31ec4d41-9234-4e3e-b1df-de032b5e4cd4_zps3618cb05I wish the guy had an answer to Jeane’s question, what are men going to do about vulnerable young men? In lieu of an answer, I’ve got some suggestions. Because you see, although I’m a feminist, it doesn’t mean I’m not also concerned about men’s rights. I’m from an ex-mining family and the big sister of five wee brothers, spent my whole childhood watching them play football from the sidelines. I was the one hanging out of trees and getting told to git away and play wi the lassies; and I spent my young adulthood drinking with the boys and talking Big Ideas; and have since then watched my brothers battle deprivation, drugs, and the draft to Afghanistan.

Lets look at the plague of problems we are told our young men face: high suicide rates, addiction, violence.

Let me come back to how society defines a ‘man’: Rational. Strong. Decisive. Muscular. Active. Brusque. The Breadwinner. Ladykiller. A Winner.

I once wrote about leadership and how we have a problem with how we practice leadership because of what we think it looks like – It looks like a certain type of man that our troubled young men could never be, because they are already at a deficit by lack of financial capital.

Money makes the world go around and it allows men to move in that world. Grayson Perry describes him brilliantly as Default Man.  Most of us are not Default Man, our young men growing up in an increasingly disenfranchised economic down spiral and are less and less likely to ever be able to become Default Man. The world of Default Man benefits very few people beyond a tiny percentage of middle-aged able-bodied rich guys, and yet we are all forced to exist in a world that works by his rules.

To be a winner is by definition to ‘beat’ all others. So how many winners can there ever be?


So what about the rest of us?

What does a man do if he can’t be a winner?

If by virtue of fate you are not born into the most privileged economic group, no matter how smart you are and how hard you try, the average poor student cannot attain the same level of academic success as his or her richer peers – this has been evidenced by many studies including those by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Brookings Foundation.  Poor students can’t attain the same levels of success despite a level playing field in all other respects, so when you get into multiple unequalities such as deindustrialisation, undeveloped infrastructure, generational cycles of emotional abuse, ‘success’ becomes almost impossible. For a gender whose worth is predicated on ‘winning’ that’s a huge problem. People who are not rich have a very narrow set of possibilities for ‘winning’. Breadwinning today is near impossible. If you cannot enter the economic system and earn a good wage, you face destitution. It’s difficult to be Decisive, Active or Rational then, because you have few options and low self-esteem.

So what are you left with? If you want to be a ‘man’ you still need to be a winner.

Ladykiller. Strong. Brusque.
Aggression against others and violence against yourself. Not a fulfilling prospect for a long and healthy life, is it?

All the men in my life face problems because of our society’s gendered definition of success. To be successful is to exude that list of supposedly ‘male’ attributes, which as we know is impossible. No one can be that image of maleness every day, at every moment. Not being able to live up to those qualities, is to be devalued, to be less, to be invisible, to be the opposite… and be female. Men who are not ‘real men’ are ‘girls.

To be female is to be wrong, to be weak, to be malleable, to be inactive, to be yielding, to be worthless, to be pursued, to be a loser.
These are the binary opposites of: Rational. Strong. Decisive. Muscular. Active. Assertive. The Breadwinner. Ladykiller. A Winner.

Misandry is the other side of Misogyny. Misandry is not to take down men for ‘being men’ it is instead to insist that men behave ‘like men’ instead of allowing them to be human. Humanity is complex and multi-dimensionsal and ‘masculinity’ dehumanises men because men can only ever fail if they try to live up to those unrealistic values.

If you can’t win, society says you are in effect, a mere woman.

So what do you do if you’re a man or a woman and you need to be winning? There is little choice except to out-masculinise the other men in the game. Assertiveness becomes violence, Rational becomes dictatorial, Strong becomes destructive, muscular becomes hyperactive/aggressive, breadwinning becomes winner-takes-all, Ladykiller becomes sexual dysfunction and force. Winning becomes a zero sum game in which there are very few winners and many more losers whose anger and dysfunction is turned inwards to themselves, and outwards to everyone around them, in order to snatch whatever power they can because that’s the only way they can feel better about themselves.

If you don’t have power on the terms of Default Man, you don’t exist.
This is what our young men feel. That they don’t exist. That they’re not valued. That they’re seen as failures.

To try to exist in that world, to feel real, they seek power wherever they can. At the sharp end of all of this there are few strategies to wield power: Among men I know some have sought power of status through violence, a thugz lyfe in the drug and gang culture. Others seek it through the power of violence against themselves, suicide and self obliteration through drink and bad health. Others seek it through the power of the anonymity of the internet, becoming the gods of chatrooms and online games. Others still take that online life further down the spiral of extreme masculinity, trolling, violent pornography, inflicting abuse, causing suffering to others and suffering to themselves.

Feminism addresses these issues because it rejects the notion that everything women do is not valuable, it rejects the notion that gender characteristics are innate, and that supposedly ‘feminine’ behaviours are less valuable. Feminism is about a deconstruction and reformation of the structures and processes of debate, leadership, and power. Change your models of power, listen and collaborate instead of trying to ‘beat’ everyone else, and you liberate women and men.

I need this world to change because it is not the world I want for my daughters and it is not the world I want for my son. This is not the world I want for my lover(s). This is not the world I want for my brothers. This is not the world I want for my grandfathers, for my neighbours and friends. This is not what I want for boys or men.

I look at my baby son and I will never understand how we can think that boys ‘cry less’ than girls or that boys ‘shouldn’t’ need hugs, empathy and love. This is where it starts.

My boy will be brought up by me to cry whenever he needs to, to get and give as much love to the world as he can. He will be taught that he is important and clever and valuable and beautiful as he is, and that he doesn’t need to be a ‘winner’ at anything to prove himself. He’ll be given the same opportunities as his sister and he will grow up in a household where he will learn to look after himself and others and will learn as much about keeping a household as he will about how to keep a good society functioning in the wider world.

He will learn negotiation, tolerance, responsibility, respect, making space for others, balancing the needs of others with the needs of himself, how to follow his own purpose and interests, how to organise himself, how to help others organise themselves, how to love, how to accept love, how to cope with heartache and disappointment, how to rest and be calm, how to inspire himself to problem solve, how to ask others to give him space when he needs to focus. Many of these things would be considered to be more ‘female’ traits. But these are all the things that make a happy, confident human being.

Co-incidentally, these also all the things that are considered competencies of success in leadership of innovative businesses.

Hang on. Success??

When you actually research what makes a successful business sustain over the long term, or measure what factors make someone a good leader or a good employee, you find the characteristics that actually contribute to making a system function successfully, are actions that we would consider Female. Note, these are not the sole preserve of women, and not necessarily actioned by women, but they are not ‘masculine’ ways of being and behaving.

Jim Collins seminal business text ‘Good to Great’ describes ‘why some companies make the leap… and others don’t’ and throughout the book it evidences the surprising truth that heroic-looking leaders and what society would consider ‘masculine’ behaviours lead to failure, burnout, and speculation bubbles; and the behaviours that lead to long term business sustainability and success are those we consider ‘feminine’.

That’s the funny thing about narratives… I they stop us believing the truth, even when we know better from our own experience. We default to the narrative we’ve been given because… it’s a default. No matter how true it is that we shouldn’t box ourselves into behaving like Default Man to be successful, we can’t believe it. The collective unconscious of society decides for us, unless we try really, really hard to consciously work against our default bias and give more weight to the supposedly female values and ways of being.

The evidence shows it’s true. You don’t have to work to be a ‘man’ whatever that means, instead to work to be ‘yourself’ and not fight against your supposedly ‘feminine’ traits, they’ll help you. You’ve already got it in you and you are a winner already. It’s hard for us to believe. It’s even harder to make other people believe. When the whole world is rigged against you, you can understand why it might be less painful to opt for a Thugz lyfe.

There’s a film on youtube of a 17 year old boy in 1988, talking animatedly to camera about the abuse he gets from other boys for talking about love. He says they call him names and he doesn’t get why his pals keep treating girls so badly – that even thought all the girls tell him he’s ‘too nice’, he’s going to keep on telling them that he loves them. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful stuff. The 17 year old boy is Tupac Shakur. The school boy, actor and ballet dancer, who would grow up to be a gangster rapper. The film shows him in a moment of joy, apparently confident, with his ‘difference’.

Which is heartbreaking, because it’s completely at odds with how the story ends: five years later, Shakur and others were charged with gang raping a woman in a hotel room. Then when he was in imprisoned for it in 1995 he famously read many books by Niccolò Machiavelli, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and other works of strategy. Motivated, I imagine, to ensure he never ‘lost’ again. One year later Tupac died after being shot multiple times in a drive by execution. The killing was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier. Tupac has become a hero to young men like my wee brother who see their lives, and the inevitability of their demise, reflected in his lyrics.

It’s a problem.

So when our panelist asked , ‘what can feminism do for these men?’ He wasn’t wrong in wondering if feminism could solve the crisis of masculinity, but on posing the question as a responsibility for women he failed to account for his own responsibility, and misunderstood the stakes.

What men have to remember, is that since society values ‘winning’ and the ‘default man’, even disadvantaged men have a head start above women because they can at least look like that winner even if they don’t feel like it. There are still so few women in visible leadership roles that society turns these women into tokens, pariahs… the entire game is rigged against women to a much higher degree that it is for men. To ask that question of that room full of women who had been fighting their whole lives for equality, is a kick in the teeth, because dude, we are already down. Women are more disadvantaged than men are, yet, we do accept that poor white men are an intersection of disadvantage which is massive. What these men need, is what women need, which is for a guy like you to venerate the leadership qualities of women and act ‘like women’ yourself. Let women and ‘feminine’ men, create another value system that won’t marginalise the ‘losers’ and the ‘pussies’.

The ‘masculine’ cultural reverence of the winner serves a very practical purpose… it is the ultimate divide and rule tactic. Misogyny is the basis of divide and rule, ‘trickle down’ economics. The misogyny / misandry paradox is a class issue. Feminism will ‘do something for’ men, if men take on its cause, because only that will break the binary of squashing all men into a narrow frame of identity towards that zero sum game of winning. The binary of feminine objectifies women, as the binary of masculine dehumanises men. The status quo separates women and men into a hierarchy; women as properties to own or use and men as people that act and build the world. That hierarchy goes much further, it separates men into winners and losers, leaders and the expendables. We know that this kind of power is not sustainable: the 7% have become the 1% and become the 0.01%… almost all men have become losers.

He and he and you and we, will continue to be losers as long as we keep dehumanizing ourselves and each other, if we buy into the rhetoric of the ‘winner’ and try to become that rich man.

Compared with any woman from the same social group, all men look more like our default vision of strength, rationality and winning. Men have more sway and therefore effectiveness to change things, even if they feel they are not winning at life themselves. So, back to our man who asked the feminist to get feminism to ‘do something’ for these young men… my solution is this:

We all need to rewrite this heroic, ‘winner’ story which is damaging all but a few of us. Women have been trying to do that for a long time, with initiatives like ‘Herstories’ to show that women were (shock) important players in history; feminist economics by trailblazers such as Ailsa MacKay, making testimony of how good leadership works, and talking about the overwhelming evidence that soft-power and collaboration are much more effective processes. The solution is for men to rewrite power too and visibly practice a different model of leadership – to engage in their more ‘human’ behaviours. The binary thinking leads us to call these ‘female’ behaviours, because they don’t play the knock-out competition of ‘last man standing’. So If he (and we) were to eschew the lizard-brain programming and value our other ways of practicing leadership; like consensual decision-making, empowering others and making space for them to exert their own agency, he (and we) would then hold even more power to effect change.

In practice, this is very difficult to do – the more pressure, the more we default to our lizard brain, and our binary programming. Academic and writer, Lesley Orr, once told me that emergent groups are particularly vulnerable to regressing into disempowering patterns and unequal power distribution as pressure and deadlines gather. Groups with no formal structure and no internal democracy are typical sites for this regression and can very quickly become spaces where soft power leadership skills are dismissed in favour of brinkmanship strategies which favour the people that already ‘look like power’. Widespread self-nomination by ‘default man’ leaders aggregates in a cultural frame which devalues the skills and experience contributed by women, economically disadvantaged folk and minorities. It’s a paradox. Especially destructive, since it emerges precisely when we need empowering ‘feminine’ leadership skills most, at times of big social and institutional transformation.

If there was any solace to be found in the outcome of the referendum, it is that it at least gives us the opportunity to work on our internal democracies, and work against our programming to develop our leadership practice. If we want to value people and create a great society, we need to focus on our inter-dependence and create and practice an internal democracy which empowers others. As we examine social justice we need to develop a justice of power, those that have the most should give away the most.


This was first delivered as a speech at Changin’ Scotland on 29th November 2014