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What do men talk about?

Recently I participated in a workshop about curriculum review on teaching gender and security to military, police and prison officers in southern Africa. I became intrigued by how one facilitator on a session on “Men, Masculinities and Security/Defence”, subverted the “Bechdel Test” to provoke a conversation from the audience about how patriarchy silences and punishes men. Made popular by Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test is used by feminists to judge the representation of women in Hollywood movies by testing whether a movie passes three rules. The criterion is that a movie has to: 1) have at least two [named] women in it, 2) These women must talk to each other 3) And they must talk about something besides a man. Simple criteria to fulfil right? Well, of the movies nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards in 2013, only Zero Dark Thirty and Beasts of the Southern Wild convincingly pass this test. This means that out of nine nominated films, only two pass this seemingly simple test.

Remember, the Bechdel Test doesn’t tell us whether or not a film could even vaguely be considered “feminist”. But, using the Bechdel Test we can discern that the dominant means and transmitters of popular culture continue to represent women’s lives as primarily consumed by their relationships with men. Many movies fail to pass criteria two: in other words, when two or more women do speak to each other in movies, they are rarely speaking about anything besides a man.

The facilitator at the workshop then asked the question, if according to Hollywood, women spend most of their lives talking about men, what do men talk about?

The room went curiously silent.

“Men talk about their wives, they complain that their wives talk too much!” said a retired brigadier general. Another male differed and claimed that, yes, men talk about women, but often they share stories about female colleagues who are doing interesting projects at work. “We compliment them”, he noted. The conversation further went on to note that indeed while men talk about sports, politics and other prototype “men” topics, men also spend a significant part of their lives talking about women.

The significance of this question lies in the assumption that gender happens when women walk into the conversation. So, for the military, the impression is often that gender happens when the female soldier enters the room. But of course this is not accurate because the image of the glorified “warrior citizen” illustrated by the image of the military man who is celebrated as the “real man”; relies heavily on constructing a very narrow form of masculinity. This masculinity preoccupies itself with so called questions of “national security”, which often involve an obscene use of violence on behalf of invisible “women-and-children”.

Thus, the entry of the female soldier in the room does not so much introduce gender but rather renders visible how patriarchy constrains men’s choices in defining different kinds of masculinities, which do not rest on their ability to “protect” and “provide” for women. The female soldier as the disrupter of traditional military gender roles shows that women are capable of negotiating the terms of their own protection. The presence of women in institutions such as the military that are known to be the “last bastion of masculinity” — makes visible the fact that patriarchal culture has very low expectations of men.

The female soldier raises the question of what do men do when there is no war to be made and no protection to provide.

The reduction of gender into women only, silences questions of the violence of patriarchy towards men. Often, when the light is shone towards men, it is done in a manner that reduces men into simple perpetrators of violence who are only too happy to maintain the patriarchal “battlefront” without a critical engagement of the many ways in which those outside hegemonic patriarchal culture challenge this violent masculinity.

Debates in South Africa about gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, such as the “baby rapes”, present a narrow picture of what patriarchy does to men in the so-called “crisis of masculinity” thesis. The discourse here commonly alleges that South African men rape and kill women because the men have lost a sense of self due to poverty and unemployment. It not only paints women as a problem for claiming their autonomy, but further contributes to the criminalisation and dehumanisation of males, because it dangerously reduces gender-based violence into a question of bread and butter. This can for instance be further seen in the discourse around the violence of young men in civil wars that have shaped much of Africa’s international relations in the early 1990s. These (often) black men are painted as people who are so hungry that they will rape their sisters and grandmothers while plundering the continent’s resources.

This contrived engagement with masculinity seems to suggest that gender-based violence will decrease in our homes when men start getting jobs and cease to feel economically “emasculated” by financially independent women. This view does not help to ask the questions of what men would like to do within their families besides bringing the cheque home. It does not give room for the difficult but necessary conversations that have been happening with regards to race, where black consciousness brings to bear the reality that racism is present in the lives of the formerly colonised even when the coloniser has presumably left the room (coloniality of power). Hence the liberation of the mind is an important site for genuine liberation.

In this case, if Hollywood tells us that men — unlike women — don’t preoccupy themselves with talking about the well-being of women, what happens to our conversations about patriarchy if we start to pay attention to the conversations between men about gender in the absence of female characters? If as was the case in the workshop, we discover that men do indeed talk about women, and not only to complain that they talk too much but in more constructive and affirming ways — would we not demand that men talk more about women and gender in our public space?

What happens to our understanding of patriarchy if we render more visible the reality that men do not only talk about war, sports and the economy? How would this affect the ways we theorise and teach about patriarchy if we showed that patriarchy does not only misrecognise women by reducing them to wives/girlfriends/daughters, but it also misrecognises men by taking away their ability to negotiate their gender and thus leaves unchallenged the image of the “warrior citizen” as the ideal man?