Why I feel sorry for the boys

The dead-end of traditional masculinity is imploding and someone has to clean up the mess. Another job for the girls
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The Independent Online
As Tammy Wynette sang, "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman". Not as hard though as being a man. I am glad I don't belong to that weaker sex. It means that my chances of survival as an infant were automatically better than a boy's, that I was less likely to have been excluded from school or to be unemployed for over a year; it means that my capacity for social and verbal skills was higher than a boy's; it means that I am less likely to kill myself or someone else or indulge in crime. All in all, being female these days increases one's chances of being more flexible, more resilient and cleverer than one's male counterparts but obviously I don't want to get cocky about this.

No, let's keep it a secret and instead fret about a few girls who want to be boxers and a few battered husbands. Let's worry that women are becoming too much like men rather than face the reality that men are too much like men, that becoming a man is in itself a problem, that the dead-end of traditional masculinity is imploding and someone has to clean up the mess.

Another job for the girls. A Labour Party consultation document, Closing the Gender Gap, by Estelle Morris MP, is aimed at tackling the problems of boys' underachievement. Every week new statistics appear in which girls are outperforming boys in yet another area. First it was thought they did well only in single-sex schools and then only in certain subjects at certain levels. Now it appears they are doing better at every level. The "Gazza factor" as one teacher put it, is prevalent among young men. Being seen to work is not cool or laddish enough. Morris's proposals are uncontroversial, suggesting ways of mentoring, monitoring, and disciplining boys. They are strategies to cope with some boys' mounting disaffection and underachievement.

Other female MPs have raised these issues in the House, but where, one wonders, are men who are man enough in this company of slimy over-achievers to stand up and admit to their sex's failures? Why is it that most conversations about gender are had between women?

We are, as the psycho-babblers would say, in denial. We are in denial about the social revolution we are living through and we are in denial about the changes it necessitates. We talk around these issues all the time, the relationship between men and women fascinates us all, but we don't get down to the nitty-gritty. We would rather talk about sex than gender because sex is ... well, sexy. We would rather talk vaguely of an underclass than look at a new underclass of young men that is constituting itself before our eyes.

"Boys must be made aware of the implications for them of a changing labour market and changing family patterns. They need to be better equipped to respond constructively to the challenges they face, and to maintain a greater commitment to learning as a life-long process - and education is the key", Morris writes.

Yet for boys to be made aware of these things, they need to see that grown men are aware of them; but public life is dominated, from the right and sometimes from the left, by the narrative of return. We will return to a time when men were men and women were not; we will return to a time of tough discipline and suitable role models; we will return to a time of happy nuclear families. This is pure fantasy and thank God for that.

None of this takes account of the huge economic and cultural shifts that are underpinning the gender gap. We expect more of girls these days and therefore they expect more of themselves. Some of this has to do with feminism but much of it hasn't. A particular set of politics has not produced this culture; rather a set of economic conditions, combined with profound ideological shifts, is responsible. Ideology, I realise, is no longer a fashionable word. The false consciousness beloved of Marxists is now seen as patronising and simplistic twaddle, yet the idea that once implicit ideologies are made explicit they no longer maintain such a strong hold on us is still persuasive.

Feminism in both its radical and populist forms gave women permission to talk about what it means to be a woman, the ideology of femininity itself - its pleasures as well as its constraints. To understand this means to understand how it is possible to change, to become different kinds of women; and over the last 50 years we have had to change because our lives have changed enormously.

The denial about boys' current difficulties stems then from the inability or refusal of men to make visible the ideology of masculinity. Boys after all are not entirely different creatures from men. Certain kinds of behaviour are on a continuum - ya-booing in the Commons, disrupting classrooms. How can we expect our boys to understand the world they are living in when many powerful men want to pretend that nothing has fundamentally changed and that problems are being caused by a few working-class yobbos? I am not asking for some Robert Bly navel-gazing; simply asking that men in public life acknowledge that they are part of the problem rather than the solution. I could be cynical and say that losing power is always difficult and that men must suffer for women's gains, but I don't believe this. I'm not a female supremacist and if we carry on producing hordes of moronic boys we will all suffer.

As always, culture pre-empts political discussion. The confessional tone of much recent literature - from Nick Hornby to David Baddiel - does not take masculinity as a given but as something more malleable. These are clever lads whose writing is underpinned by an understanding of what feminism is about.

The commercial rise of the lad is an attempt to find an easy and authentic version of manhood at a time when there is clearly no such thing. It provides the easy markers of a taste for "beer, tits and football" as the defining characteristics of late-20th-century man.

Many would-be lads are simply clueless. The popularity of what I call Lad Drag is understandable but it is a form a disguise, a suffocating identity that can be tried on, a wolf's clothing for these poor lost sheep. It is a dream of escape produced by those who have escaped, consumed by those who never will.

Laddism, however, is just as much a narrative of return as Back to Basics, except with more promise of a good time. Men need desperately to find a narrative of progress that is equally full of fun. In private many men speak of this; in public, however, men are strangely silent on this issue.

If those men in power cannot address a changing world, how can we expect powerless boys to be anything but disaffected. Meanwhile it is left to women to worry about this; but you can't expect us to do it for ever because, as you know, ruling the world is a time-consuming business.