BOOK REVIEW / Hapless underdogs in a bitchy world: 'The Myth of Male Power' - Warren Farrell: 4th Estate, 6.99

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PEOPLE often wonder why, since women represent more than half the voting public, they are so unrepresented and powerless. At some point, perhaps, people will start wondering why, since women represent more than half the voting public, they don't take more than half the responsibility for the governments we get. Meanwhile, we have to endure noisy polemics on the subject of the gender gap. Most of these are by women; but men are beginning to get in on the act. This ought to be a good thing, though it is not clear whether the men who have picked up the sex-war gauntlet are anything like the ones we would have chosen, given a choice.

It is possible, indeed, to see all these gender- war polemics as little more than a lucrative and easy modern genre. Boy beats girl, girl beats boy . . . anything goes, especially these big, sploshy manifestos with urgent-sounding titles. But the doomy rhetoric of, for instance, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf at least has the advantage of speaking up for an obviously disadvantaged group. No amount of fudged statistics can persuade us that women occupy all the senior positions in society, or that women earn more than men, or that men get battered and raped by women. Yet this is Warren Farrell's thesis: that male power is really powerlessness, that the cultural pressure to occupy all the top jobs and play all the golf and go off with all the secretaries to Tahiti is really a ghastly plot by women to victimise the hapless modern male.

It won't wash. Farrell suggests that 'the expectation to earn more is actually a form of social discrimination against men'; he doesn't wonder whether this pressure, however intolerable, isn't preferable to an expectation of lower earnings. But then, anyone who can write that 'men are the new niggers' cannot really want to be taken seriously.

On one level, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex is an inevitable reaction to the wilder, all-men-are-rapists fringe of feminist polemic. It is also a response to the torrent of magazines telling women how to get men, how to tease them, how to please them, how to get rid of them, and how to juggle perfect orgasms with high-performing stock portfolios, while still having time to sun-dry their own tomatoes. Men might well be tired of apologising for the sins of their fathers.

But did it have to be so sour and humourless? The title says it all: shock-horror hyperbole posing as scholarship. Just as the most reckless feminism makes a mistake by taking 'male power' to mean the power enjoyed by a cross between a top barrister and a shipping magnate (the blokes on the factory floor, down the mine or on the dole have less power than an educated, affluent woman) so Farrell takes the most forthright, extreme and uninteresting feminist writers to be typical of what the average woman (whoever she is) thinks.

The irony is that the book seems like a well- motivated and genuine attempt to explore a vexed area; and Farrell does conduct quite a few useful pieces of research. He has a close look, for instance, at the survey behind the idea that 25 per cent of American women had been raped by the time they went to college, and finds that the question generating this figure went: 'Have you given in to sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because you were overwhelmed by a man's continual arguments and pressure?' Quite rightly, he draws a distinction between 'giving in' and being raped, and (again rightly) insists that we find a language to distinguish between the various types of forced entry. But this hardly needs emphasising.

One would have thought that such alertness to the ambiguities of statistics and the dubiousness of categorical judgements might have led Farrell to handle them with care, but no. His book is dampened by a steady drizzle of implausible numbers and wacky-sounding poll results. We can tell the author is not sure about them because they are couched in cod-serious tabloid grammar: 'FACT: Women do not experience more depression; they report more depression . . . ITEM: With the exception of rape, the more violent the crime, the more likely the victim is a man.' With the exception of rape? It is hard to see how, in an argument about sexual violence, we can ignore its grisliest manifestation. It's a bit like saying that except for the rain, the weather in Britain is fabulous.

Again, Farrell might be right to see the gender conflict as a war to which only one side has turned up, but this is only a sarcastic way of confessing to an authentic male worry: the twinge of jealousy men sometimes feel when confronted by feminine solidarity. Farrell, however, just like some of his female opposite numbers, prefers accusation to self-examination. It's a real waste, because this is a serious subject. The overdue and incomplete advance of women in the public sphere needs to be matched by male inroads into domestic life, and it is up to both sexes to figure out a way of making these inroads safe and productive. In these abuse-phobic times it is hard to imagine women renouncing their dominant role in child care; but women are in the army now, so men need to make up numbers in the nursery.

To be fair, Farrell does keep repeating the perfectly admirable belief that when one sex wins, both sexes lose. He claims, too, that he is arguing for a holistic approach to the sex trap, for what a physicist might call a unified theory. He wants to move beyond a situation in which women blame men for everything bad that happens, and ends by looking forward to a time when women are not sex objects, men are not success objects and everyone loves everyone. The pity is that he doesn't take himself at his word: he is too busy trading grudges. One of the most depressing things is that his book will no doubt enter the self-referring media loop and become a prime exhibit in a fresh bout of grudge-trading going the other way. People might even be inspired to persist in their boring habit of blaming all the world's ills on maleness, and then we'll get many more books as mad and bad as this. And then someone will write Backlash IV, and so it will go on.

The Myth of Male Power is a joyless whinge that is wholly blind to the merry and unruly aspects of the sexual debate, the ordinary busy liveliness of human affairs. Farrell is a self-appointed cheerleader anxious that men should explore their inner maleness before it is too late. His shrill, topical book is an appeal to victimised masculists everywhere. It is hard, however, to see people gathering anywhere near his banner: the taking of sides creates sides, and not everyone wants to see the world across such a crude gender divide.

Farrell is pretty keen on Robert Bly-style get-togethers in the woods, but some men will be offended by the presumption that they are not capable of 'emoting' without playing pat- a-cake in a moonlit forest. Speaking purely for myself, I've taken a quick, confused look into my inner maleness, and the only word that comes to mind in response to all this urging, I am ashamed to say, is: bollocks.

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