Lindsay Clowes

Biology is not destiny

South African men’s lives have changed remarkably little over the last few centuries — according to the bulk of my undergraduate students. Such an understanding seems common knowledge in the communities from which most of my students are drawn. Since time immemorial, the dominant narrative goes, South African men have “always” been breadwinning heads of heterosexual households. While socio-political and economic contexts have changed, patriarchal relationships between men, wives and children have, in this view, remained pretty constant.

In contrast my students imagine women’s lives to have changed dramatically. Racialised and racist processes of colonialism, imperialism, industrialisation, urbanisation etc created a diverse array of opportunities. My students draw attention to women’s increased access to education — even tertiary education and to women’s access to paid work — even careers — outside the home. My students note that many women are not economically dependent on men, and that, in theory at least, women control their own fertility. While a few always note that, if women’s lives have changed so dramatically then men’s lives must have changed too, the dominant understanding of masculinity is of something fixed and static across time and space, emerging quite simply, out of an (unruly) body part. In this view biology is destiny — at least for men.

Femininity, in contrast, is understood as responsive to contextual shifts, as a socially produced artefact — as gender. Masculinity is then positioned in opposition to this, as an authentic expression of nature/biology (rather than culture), that has little or nothing to do with gender. But seeing biology as destiny denies men the opportunities to reach the potential of their full humanity. It also precludes the possibility of change in the future. This has to be a major concern for all of us living in a country in which every single man, woman and child’s opportunities and potentials are regularly and seriously compromised (and even ended) by the men with whom we share our lives.

If, on the other hand, we see masculinity as something that has changed dramatically in the past, then the possibilities for the future are much more positive. And, as history shows, the ways in which particular societies expect men to behave has changed enormously. What counts as a “real” man is contextually and historically specific. In ancient Greece high-status men were expected to enjoy same-sex relations with younger men as well as their wives. In early modern Europe men were intimately involved in childcare to the extent that they could be seen as the primary parent. Once a child was weaned it would be turned over to its father — boys in particular — as it “took a man to raise a man”. In the US it was only in the early 20th century that the childcare articles in newspapers and magazines took the innovative step of relocating to the women’s pages. There is little that is novel in contemporary trends (sometimes described as the “new” man) towards hands-on fathering.

“Breadwinner” is also a relatively recent masculine construct. To cut a long and complex story very short, the concept or identity of the male “breadwinner” emerged through centuries of change in Europe, out of communities in which agrarian production was men’s work, through processes of industrialisation and the emergence of a middle-class whose defining feature was the home-based wife and mother: As more and more women became housewives so more and more men became breadwinners.

Closer to home there’s little evidence to suggest that most men in Africa have ever understood themselves as “breadwinners”, despite “developmental” change predicated on the colonial imports of the male “breadwinner” and female “housewife” that saw men’s access to and control over land substantially increased. And yet in Africa food production fell — precisely because it was (and remains) primarily women’s work. Despite what can be described as “affirmative action” for men in terms of enhanced access to agrarian resources, traditional gender dynamics have combined with poverty and global inequalities to mitigate against the emergence of the identities of both “breadwinner” and “housewife” on any substantial scale in the global South. In South Africa apartheid and male migrancy further compromised the development of these roles.

Across the world history demonstrates how the fluidity and flexibility of what “real” men should (and shouldn’t) do undermines claims that men have “always” been this or that. And yet the myth of a timeless masculinity that somehow exists outside history and culture endures. But biology is not destiny — men are just as capable as women of being fully human.

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    • Momma Cyndi

      “men are just as capable as women of being fully human”
      TJO! that is way more than just a bit harsh!

    • ian shaw

      Pretty soon men will be able to give birth.

    • I can’t wait

      Yay! I for one can’t wait for men to give birth! LOL

    • Lindsay Clowes

      Stereotypes of patriarchal masculinity prevent many (perhaps all?) men from living to their full potential.
      ‘real’ men aren’t supposed to show emotions other than anger or rage.
      they are supposed to be strong and stand ‘on their own two feet’ – apart from the rest of humanity.
      Men’s lives are cut short because eg they aren’t supposed to show physical weakness because that would be ‘unmanly.’ So when they get sick they tend to ‘soldier on’ rather than obtaining medical advice
      And violence, taking risks with cars, guns, alcohol, cigarettes etc is ok for ‘real’ men.
      None of these behaviours are natural and all of them are harmful to men (as well as everyone else).

    • Rory Short

      A thought filled post! Stereo types of whatever kind especially when unconsciously absorbed by an individual impoverish not only the individual concerned but the whole community which is deprived of the richness that would flow from an individuality unrestricted by stereo types. It seems to me that the default position for most adult human beings is the unconscious ingestion of one or more stereo types. Thus a major task in our lives has to be the uncovering of such unconscious stereo typing and the shedding of it so that we can be free to be ourselves.

    • Mr. Direct

      It is physically impossible for men to “soldier on” through man flu ;-).

    • DLC

      I think one of the problems in the whole debate around masculinity is the mistaken notion that risk taking, violence, impulsivity, mysogyny, etc are the behaviours of men. My understanding is that they are the behaviour of boys in the bodies of men. Boys today either are not allowed to, or refuse to grow up. Personally, as a recovering SNAG, I get tired of the whole feminist refrain about men getting in touch with their emotions, and trying to be more ‘like women’. What we need is to be more like men, adult men: to have a safe place to give our energy free rein, to get in touch with our inner warrior – not the thug, gangster or street fighter, but like the master of martial arts who is so intimately connected with his strength, skill and emotions that he does anything to avoid a fight. We need proper mentors, and of course a safe place to weep, to yell, and grieve – like men. So much of this was taken from males during the industrial revolution, the world wars, Apartheid, and now the information age to name a few. Men have become cogs in the military-industrial machine. Fortunately, there are now countless men’s groups that are addressing these problems by giving men the space to start taking responsibiltiy for their lives, and control of their impulses. Real men are not opposed to feminism; in fact they embrace it. They know who they are, and can stand equal with women, rather than feeling the need to grovel, dominate, or lash out. Even aged 45, that is my current…