October 16, 2023   6 mins

What has feminism ever done for the emotional lives of men? There is a story that says thus far, very little indeed. Its main character is a generation of so-called Lost Boys. Betrayed by a feminism which overstated their privilege and mocked their vulnerability, these boys now turn to online pornography and Andrew Tate. Feminists might complain, but isn’t it sort of our fault? Certainly, there are some who feel that corrective action is needed.

A lot of the most vocal feminists of recent years are obsessed with helping men. In her 2018 book, self-styled Guilty Feminist Deborah Frances-White declares that feminism “must fight for men who are being pushed into lonely desolation by the patriarchal pressures”. And in her recently published On Our Best Behaviour, Elise Loehnen tells women to spare a thought for the boys: girls might have to suppress our feelings “to function in what otherwise might be dysfunctional relationships or a dysfunctional society”, but “at least we’re allowed to cry”.

For years, it is implied, feminists have focused on women and failed to acknowledge that patriarchy hurts men, too. And men cannot be expected to sort this out for themselves because, well, they’re just men. Rather like remembering birthdays, making doctor’s appointments or caring for elderly relatives, sorting out the patriarchy is something that women must do because women have always done it, therefore making us better at it. In her book, What About Men? — in which she argues that “we’ve neglected our boys” — Caitlin Moran writes: “The advantage women have is that we talk about the patriarchy, and we know how it disadvantages us”, whereas “men haven’t yet started the conversation.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that no one has made these particular observations before — that feminism has thus far ignored men’s inner lives. Of course, one could also argue — with some legitimacy, I’d say — that women ought to be allowed one solitary political movement just for them. But the point would be moot, because the reality is: there have always been feminists expressing concern for men’s emotional lives. The fact that this gains so little acknowledgement is symptomatic of neglect, not of men, but of female intellectual legacies.

There is an entire PhD thesis to be written on “feminist takes on why men aren’t allowed to cry”, with a special section devoted to “why we keep forgetting this issue has already been noted”. In 1983, for instance, Andrea Dworkin made a speech at an American convention that was entitled, the National Organisation for Changing Men. There she acknowledged the shame and impotence felt by many of the ‘good’ men around her: “Everything makes men feel so bad: what you do, what you don’t do, what you want to don’t want to do but are going to anyway.”

It is a measure of the defeatism that dominates this particular strand of feminism that its early adherents were already offering a critique of its limitations. Granting men more space in which to emote might provide them with more healthy ways in which to interact, but it is not the same as transforming power relations between the sexes. As Adrienne Rich wrote in 1976, “men are increasingly aware that their disorders have something to do with patriarchy. But few of them wish to resign from it.” Her suspicion that “the majority of ‘concerned’ or ‘profeminist’ men secretly hope that ‘liberation’ will give them the right to shed tears while exercising their old prerogatives” does not seem particularly off-target. Half a century on, many men might wish to cry about what unfettered access to porn has done to them; far fewer are keen to take on the industry itself.

Do men actually want to save themselves from patriarchy? Dworkin, at the National Organisation for Changing Men, talked of meeting men who would tell her, “what you’re saying about me isn’t true. It isn’t true of me. I don’t feel that way. I’m opposed to all of this.” It’s the Eighties equivalent of #NotAllMen, a phrase now so widely mocked that it feels incorrect to write it without a hashtag. Yet Dworkin’s response was not just to laugh or shame. “I say: don’t tell me. Tell the pornographers. Tell the pimps. Tell the warmakers. Tell the rape apologists and the rape celebrationists and the pro-rape ideologues.” She asks men to take responsibility — to challenge one another — rather than simply offering up their apologies to women.

Today’s popular feminists see men more as victims than agents. Moran blames the ascendance of Andrew Tate on teenage boys hearing phrases such as “‘Typical men!’ or, ‘Ugh, toxic patriarchy!’”. Amia Srinivasan, in 2021’s The Right to Sex, concludes that “a feminism worth having must, not for the first time, expect women to be better — not just fairer, but more imaginative — than men have been”. Here, the helplessness of the Lost Boy merges with a presumption of over-sensitivity and moral inferiority. I wonder if, when Moran and Srinivasan write these things, they really grasp that men can read them too. If men react badly to suggestions that they are useless as a sex, what benefit lies in finding other, albeit more benevolent, ways to say it? Men are granted no dignity, no capacity to change on their own terms. They are portrayed as weak and petty, so why should they even try?

There is also something deeply and depressingly gender-normative in the expectation that women be better than men. Again, this is something that feminists seem to have forgotten — even if their predecessors analysed its implications. Rich already pointed out in Of Woman Born that, “the women’s movement is still seen in terms of the mother-child relationship”; feminism is seen “either as punishment and abandonment of men for past bad behaviour, or as a potential healing of men’s pain by women”. Either way, it “will ease men into a more humane and sensitive life. In short … women will go on doing for men what men cannot or will not do for each other or themselves.”

Rich wanted this infantilising dynamic to change. But half a century later, Moran is insisting that men can’t be expected to act independently because, “it’s so much easier for women and girls to show love and support for each other”. We are, apparently, just better at this sort of thing, so it’s on us to help men be more human. If this is irritating for women, it is profoundly insulting to men.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of a position that dismisses earlier feminists as insufficiently sympathetic to men is that there are far more parallels between today’s fix-men feminism and genuine misandry. “To be male,” wrote Valerie Solanas in The SCUM Manifesto, perhaps the one (known) work of the Second Wave that might genuinely be said to be man-hating, “is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples”. Solanas wrote off men as beyond help; fix-men feminism takes a similarly disparaging view of half the human race, while patronisingly offering to save them. The hostile response of many men to Moran’s book shows that pity is counter-productive; men are not so emotionally illiterate that they can’t understand they are being belittled.

This rhetoric is dangerous to women, as well as irritating. Fix-men feminism validates the excuses abusive men have used for their mistreatment of female partners — how can he be in touch with her feelings when he’s not even in touch with his own? — while providing good men with a reason to feel victimised. The reason why “I Can Fix Him” has become such a popular parody meme is because we know it isn’t true. The woman who imagines herself “fixing” the Joker is funny; the one who imagines fixing a real-life Tate acolyte is less so. It is not safe for women in toxic relationships to feel they are responsible for men’s responses, nor is it safe for men to be told that yes, if they hate women, perhaps it is because feminists have driven them to misogyny by neglecting their needs. Many men who hurt women really do feel powerless, but placing their redemption in the hands of women is hardly likely to inspire them to change.

Moran has said that her book is written in part as a response to the anxieties of mothers of sons. (She has two daughters.) I have sons, two of whom are teenagers, and the challenges they face offer a constant reminder of the way in which the myth of masculine invulnerability sells both men and women short. Men are not forced into a state of heroic independence, but there is shame, and often rage, when they are forced to acknowledge their reliance on women. I do not see how telling them they are needier than they already are can resolve this. In her 1979 essay Man Child, Audre Lorde described the importance of “teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him”. “Men who are afraid to feel,” she wrote, “must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly ‘inferior’ capacity to feel deeply.” We can hardly eradicate this toxic maternal dynamic by replicating it.

The problem, then, is not that feminists do not care enough. If we respect men — if we do not see them as helpless, stupid children, dumb Ken dolls, or “a bit like dogs” — we ought to consider them up to the challenge of a feminism that does more than oscillate between mocking and pandering to them. Fix-men feminism views itself as realistic, “muggins here” taking charge because men can’t be better. In truth, it lowers expectations, restricting opportunities for growth. “He can’t change unless he wants to” might be a cliché, but it’s one that today’s feminists would do well to take on board. It may be that the best thing we can do for men is not to make our movement all about them.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.