A few years ago, I sat through an enjoyable lecture by the artist Grayson Perry about the familiar evils of rigid ideas of masculinity: war, imperialism, misogyny, alienation. The lecture was part of a festival called Being a Man (or BAM! for less evolved members of the tribe). Perry ended his comments with a scribbled series of demands on a whiteboard for a new bill of men’s rights, with which it was hard to argue. “We men ask ourselves and each other for the following: the right to be vulnerable, to be uncertain, to be wrong, to be intuitive, the right not to know, to be flexible and not to be ashamed.” He insisted that men sit down and mostly talk quietly to achieve these aims and was given a rousing standing ovation.
The need for men to be vulnerable, to open up about their insecurities – to become, in cliched terms, more like women – is certainly one antidote to what has become widely understood as the current crisis in masculinity. Thinking about that lecture afterwards, though, it felt a bit limited as a solution. There is no question that mansplainers and manspreaders could do with a fatal dose of humility and doubt. But what about that generation of young men who already feel marginalised from a consumer society, who have been denied most of the markers that traditionally help boys become men: decent jobs, responsible dads, stable homes of their own and, often in consequence, meaningful adult relationships. Would opening up about doubt and vulnerability in itself allow them to achieve self-worth and purpose?
Nina Power’s provocative and rigorous book addresses some of those questions from a traditional feminist perspective. When she asked her male friends the question in her book’s title, “What do men want?”, most of them played up to stereotypes: “to be left alone”, “pussy”, “a shed”, “Nigella Lawson”. While she analyses the predictable adolescence of such responses and what might lie behind them, she is more interested in the aspiration of a single one of her mates: “to be a good man”. What, today, might that look like?
Power, an academic philosopher whose previous book, One Dimensional Woman, was a critique of the limits to choice for women in a capitalist world, begins with a few truisms that our political times have made controversial. “Certain things should be clear from the outset,” she writes, “to be a man is not in itself a bad thing.” And then, in a statement of considerable bravery, at least in certain social media circles: “I believe that the difference between the sexes is real and important on every level of our collective being… sex has a historical as well as a biological reality. It is destructive to everyone to pretend that is not true.”
The history, she insists, is as important as the biology. While it is at best naive to imagine that any society can, overnight, usefully be reconstructed on gender-neutral grounds (however desirable that outcome), it would truly be absurd to imagine that “everything that our ancestors understood [about men and women] is irrelevant”. Rather, she insists, “we would do well to revisit old values and virtues” in order to “live together better”.
In this context Power examines some of the extreme manifestations of the broken relationship between the sexes. She looks at the economic and cultural circumstances as well as the disturbingly warped psychology that produce “incel” (involuntary celibate) groups, or the MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) movement. In addressing this damaged thinking she refuses easy essentialist answers about toxic masculinity or any simplistic notions of patriarchy. She will not, for example, wholly dismiss the appeal of a figure such as Jordan Peterson, who offers the promise of basic structure and meaning in profoundly unstructured and meaningless male lives. If men are to reclaim an idea of “virility” – in its original Greek sense of acting with virtue, of living with grace and due responsibility – it will, she argues, not be done by hashtags alone. “Our age often promotes, inculcates and celebrates infantilism and complaint,” she writes; #KillAllMen will get women – and men – nowhere.
Another book, on a similar subject, from the same publisher, is not quite so convinced. Ivan Jablonka’s history of masculinity became something of a surprise bestseller in France. Jablonka adopts a much wider lens in analysing the problem with men, one that begins in the division of labour in paleolithic societies and runs through the ultimate mansplaining prophets of the Abrahamic religions to take in pop music lyrics and English boarding schools. “Once the end of men has been diagnosed,” Jablonka writes, in spirited translation, “men can be reinvented as fair and just.”
In contrast to his long prehistory, men, he believes, are suddenly “capable of renouncing the brawny male, the brute, the swine in us. And when we have made cracks in the masculinities of domination, out of them will come human beings rid of their little game of virility.” Jablonka presents himself as a humble conduit for that revolution. “What am I doing here, amid the feminist struggle?” he wonders, “is it possible to fight the patriarchy as a man?” His 354 pages make the profoundly confident Gallic case for that new humility – but Nina Power’s slimmer volume makes a much more urgent claim to any spare man hours.
What Do Men Want? Masculinity and Its Discontents by Nina Power is published by Allen Lane (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply