Last week, JJ Bola presented a talk introducing his new book Mask Off. The first point of awe has to be the wonderfully clever front cover which features two pink blobs on either side of a thick, pink line for soft phallic imagery. Bola also discussed his thoughts on the patriarchal apparatus within which masculinity is allowed to exist. In the sanctum of the iconic Housmans Radical Bookshop, we were surrounded by the works of both contemporary and classical radical thinkers in the form of novels, expository writings, passionate essays, memoirs, and colourful zines; a fitting setting for a radical discussion.
Born in Congo, Bola was a child refugee who had fled war when he came to settle in Tottenham, north London with his family. The amorphous nature of the subject of patriarchal oppression becomes clear when we talk about the decolonisation of masculinity. In Congolese culture, the holding of hands between men is considered to be very normal, whether he be your friend or family. However, in the gritty, urban environment that is Tottenham, Bola explains that this sentiment doesn’t translate very well. Homophobia was, up until recently, something generally tolerated through our vernacular with words such as ‘batty boy’, derived from Jamaican Patois, for any male who decided to overstep the macho code of conduct – perhaps he used chapstick in public or unfurled this friend’s bent collar. Compliments between men can be hastily followed with the quick escape clause of “No Homo”, just to re-affirm that their red-blooded desires are still strictly reserved for pussy. The inability for a man to compliment another man on the way he looks, without being derided for being gay, or to be able to cry after a shit day, or read poetry before bed, or admit that he thinks football is just a lot of shouting and beer, or to choose to slurp on the magenta waters of raspberry tea without being told that he should stop off at boots for his tampons, is the sad result of the Western, patriarchal vision for ‘real men’. The idea that a real man consists of a set of uniform rules and traits, erodes at his sense of individuality, his uniqueness and right to vulnerability; this is at least partly responsible for the higher rate of suicide in men. The sad truth is that a lot of women do find a man in touch with his feminine side appealing, which just goes to show that an overriding notion of masculinity, rooted in patriarchal standards, has decided to completely ignore what women want in their partners as much as it has ignored its effects on men. I implore you to watch the Friends episode, ‘Be a man’ and ‘The one with Ross’ teeth’. In both, Joey is the central character to experience a redefinition of his manhood, which is significant because he’s also the most masculine out of all the lead male characters. ‘The one with Ross’ teeth’ shows Joey in a conundrum between choosing his masculinity or his newly discovered feminine side, which is depicted by his interest in flower arrangement, his enjoyment of potpourri and artwork featuring cute babies. The episode concludes with Janine (his flatmate and feminine influence) moving all the feminine furnishing into Joey’s bedroom. Although this resolution is for comedic effect, it is also tragic in the sense that some part of Joey’s identity is concealed from his male friends and banished from his shared spaces. It also suggests that the women who have the pleasure of spending their night with Joey will be privy to this feminine side of him, and that is something he is clearly not worried nor ashamed about. So, is the need to appear masculine really for the sake of attracting women?
Tinder profiles for men tend to have a prerequisite of mentioning height. Studies have confirmed that women are far more likely to place an emphasis on height than men when it comes to dating. George Yancey, the study’s lead author from the University of Texas, says that “the masculine ability to offer physical protection is clearly connected to the gender stereotype of men as protectors…And in a society that encourages men to be dominant and women to be submissive, having the image of tall men hovering over short women reinforces this value.” As easy as it is to blame women for dismissing men who don’t work out, or whose foreheads can barely graze the tit of a 5 foot 8 woman, or can’t change a car-tyre, don’t forget that women have been subjected to the same amount of masculine visualisations that men have. If you’re still not convinced, Twilight. Edward and Jacob are two polar opposite presentations of masculinity. Edward is as cold as a corpse in a mortuary; Jacob radiates heat. Edward is pale and ghostly; Jacob is tan and golden. Edward is insanely rich and glitters like a million diamonds in the sun; Jacob lives in the woods and fixes old motorbikes. Yet, both can display supernatural amounts of strength and they are both intensely protective over weak Bella. But, did we love it? Yes, yes we did. Did we go to the cinema twice in one week to see it? Oh yes, and we even gave a round of applause for Jacob’s abs. Not only do women yearn to feel safe, but men feel obliged to have something to look after. You can’t help but wonder if fighting for Queen and country would hold quite the same quality of honour as fighting for a King instead.
Jordan B. Peterson, a best-selling author and professor of psychology, has inferred that “most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 per cent of men as below average in attractiveness…Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are”. There is no doubt that our primitive ancestors would have most likely consulted instinctual criteria when choosing their sexual partners. However, considering the fact that the people who are using dating sites are unlikely to be living in caves and dragging the limp body of a deer into them for tea, we can’t theorise on modern dating using primitive examples. Firstly, not all singles looking for love are of reproductive age, and not all women have reproductive capabilities. On top of that, not all human beings are even heterosexual. On the notion of women’s authority to say ‘no’ and deny men the opportunity to impregnate them, women have said no, or have certainly not said yes, which has not stopped men from getting what they want anyway. The issue of consent has not been considered or realised by Peterson in his idealised narrative for our evolution. Rape, as a concept, along with heteronormative traditions of marriage and family, had been recognised by our ancestors as we emerged from our more philistine social structures and began our arduous journey of self-realisation by the commanding hand of morality. Ordinarily, in the animal kingdom, non-consensual intercourse is acceptable behaviour for the sake of procreation. For the evolved, creative and industrious creatures that have emancipated themselves from the merciless laws of the animal kingdom, the inability to grapple with the idea of being denied sex indicates a degeneration in our DNA and a threat to our supposed dominion over Earth. Given that street harassment enters a woman’s life as a schoolgirl, it is unsurprising that women either actively or subconsciously seek protection, which then corresponds to the fact that women may then seek taller, more athletic partners. For the incel movement, which is typically characterized by angry, white, sexually frustrated men who pin the reason for their stagnant sex lives on the superficiality of women, the expectation is that the demand for sex should be automatically met by women with both submission and exuberance. This has lead to violent and even fatal results for women.
Bola did not entirely deride the idea of masculinity, nor make light of the fact that masculinity as the performance is in some settings, such ‘the ends’ of Tottenham, crucial to your survival. What masculinity means to a white man or a BAME man are entirely different things, and how patriarchal demands on their bodies and mind affect them are also different. It starts to become clearer that it is beyond the clichéd 90s jock, who is internally struggling with his sexuality and exhibits the worst aspects of masculinity: domination, intimidation and control. It is all those things but within a much more complicated framework. This does not, in any way, excuse the effects of the patriarchy on women or suggest that men have it worse; they don’t. Bola openly admits that there is not one man who could possibly say the patriarchy has not benefitted him. It is at this point that you realise that the patriarchy exists as a vicious circle, in which men are rewarded for investing in a system that also oppresses them (and women). At the same time, women are still fighting to de-politicize their bodies and gain autonomy over them – we’re talking basic human rights here, never mind the pay gap. And although some spaces must remain exclusive and sanctified for all those who identify as women, there is a strong case for a collective effort for the dismantlement of the patriarchy that is most likely to emerge from the feminist movement. JJ Bola quotes Frankie Boyle in his book, who equates anti-feminist men to throwing stones at the fire brigade who have come to extinguish your burning house. On twitter, Boyle tweeted, “Men, feminists are the only people who have a vision for you that isn’t wanking to a flickering screen in unbearable sadness. Go with it.”
If the patriarchy was ever to present itself to the world in human form to convince us (and Jordan Peterson) of its existence, it would be through the bloated, cantaloupe orange form of Donald Trump. What a perfect example of a man who feels the need to validate his masculinity and satisfy his sense of entitlement by marrying a model, twenty-four years his junior. The classic trope for masculinity: the trophy wife. Nothing says success, power and respect like a beautiful, young woman on the arm of a much older man. We could also look at countless other examples, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Morgan Freeman to Kelsey Grammar to Mick Jagger. Of course, Demi Moore’s relationship with Aston Kutcher also had a pretty sizeable age-gap but the derision of older women dating younger men, or ‘cougars’, is not faced by men in the same way. This isn’t to say that all of these relationships are hollow and entirely superficial, but there is a huge expectation for a largely successful man to have his ego enshrined in a slim, young woman’s body. Similarly, women feel compelled to pick a guy who’s got his shit together and is financially stable; another trope of masculinity which entrenches the tradition of the male provider. Is this what we have decided to become? Is this the evolved, industrious and creative state of being that we have aspired to?
Dissatisfaction with heterosexual dating has become inevitable. The gap between what we feel we should be looking for in a partner and what we actually get results in bitter disappointment. Either we feel that we deserve more, or that we are not good enough. Ultimately, we are trying to love our projections of what security and desire look like on somebody else, and that’s as much fun as cuddling a hologram.