The “The Modern [Aussie] Man White Paper”, released in Canberra today to honour International Men’s Day claims to start a conversation that steps “around the feminist minefield that stops academics, politicians and everyday men from saying what they really think.”
The paper claims to explore key traits and concerns of the Modern Australian man, “…a positive celebration of true masculinity” according to the Australian International Men’s Day Coordinator. It also comments on a perceived silencing of men’s voices in the modern gender debate.
As a young feminist, I find two elements of this paper particularly problematic. First, and most obviously is the portrayal of feminism, the gender debate and women. Secondly, and less visible, is the homogenous portrayal of men’s identities, visions and masculinities.
Foremost, the article blames the modern feminist movement for stopping “men from saying what they really think”. It argues that men “have developed gender issue laryngitis that stops them sharing thoughts, concerns and issues (around either gender) for fear of being labeled sexist”. Ironically, at the same time, it engages in offensive and unsubstantiated profiling of women, stating “men are disappointed that women lose their sense of humour as they get older”.
While women may dominate discourses on gender issues, it can be said that this is the only space wherein women’s voices and ideas are prioritised. It takes only a brief online search to highlight the vast areas of public life and discussion in which men are overrepresented. The article also fails to account for the fact that significant academic progress around ideas of masculinities were borne out of the feminist movement and continue to be supported by it. The feminist movement has always encouraged discussion around gender relations and identities, but has not shied away from shaming voices that perpetuate homogenous and unsubstantiated visions of gender identity.
There appears also to be a willful ignorance in the paper to the way in which modern gender relations overwhelmingly harm women. It states that “men break into a metaphorical sweat at the thought of buying women presents; always concerned about ‘getting it wrong’ and the subsequent consequences”. And while this is a significant issue, it makes no mention of men’s complicity in the alarming rate of women who have experienced sexual violence (1 in 5) and domestic violence (35% of women).
What is most problematic about the paper, however, is the presentation of masculinities. Instead of exploring the plethora of issues facing men and the many and varied masculinities that exist within our society, it presents men as a homogenous, ‘strong’ characters. When it could start discussions about issues relating to men’s health, sexuality and communication, it instead presents a narrow image of masculinity as “strong” and overwhelmingly homogenous and heterosexual. The paper claims to use a “significant sample” in the research, but only surveyed 140 participants, which is a small sample to make claims that it represents the views of “every man”.
There is an obvious need to start discussions about masculinity and the modern Australian man. These discussions do not need to be at the expense of the feminist movement – a consistent advocate for fairer and more nuanced understanding of masculinities for decades. The “Modern [Aussie] Man White Paper” is one that has much potential to start real discussion around masculinity and the place of gender discussion in men’s lives, but disappointingly falls short.