Manhood: a book about setting men free
By Steve Biddulph
Finch Publishing 1994
Reviewed by Chris Slee
"We are told it's a man's world, but the statistics on men's health, happiness and survival show this is a lie. It is arguable that our whole way of life has become so inadequate for, and so toxic to, men's needs, that every man is damaged ... "
Steve Biddulph cites a range of facts to support this view. For example, men live six years less than women on average. Biddulph argues that men have unique health problems caused by "pressure, loneliness and stress". He says that "men are a mess ... our marriages fail, our kids hate us, we die from stress, and on the way we destroy the world".
Biddulph acknowledges that women have been oppressed in the past, and that the feminist movement was essential for their liberation. However, he argues that, "you can't liberate only half the human race. The idea of liberating women from men assumes that men were somehow the winners in a power struggle ... It's much more realistic to say that both men and women were trapped in a system which damaged them both".
He adds that "the challenge we face now is to make comparable changes in the empowerment of men to those that have begun to happen for women".
Many of Biddulph's insights on the problems of men are valid, however, his views on the causes of, and solutions to, these problems are inadequate and misguided.
It is certainly true that both men and women are "trapped" in a system that damages them both. But it is also important to recognise that relations between men and women still involve unequal power — despite the gains of feminism.
Men still hold most positions of economic and political power. On average, men continue to be paid more than women. The family institution still entails the economic dependence and domestic subjugation of women.
Biddulph correctly points out that "most men have been subservient too, to a dehumanising system". However, he is not at all clear on the nature of this system.
The reality is that most men, as workers or as small business people, are subservient to those who own society's wealth — the capitalists. Biddulph does not mention capitalism; he does not examine how the problems he is concerned with are shaped by the economic and political structure of society. The closest he comes to this is to deplore the impact of the Industrial Revolution on men's situation.
He idealises the position of men in pre-industrial societies: "The Sioux hunter, the Zulu warrior, the Aboriginal elder and the medieval craftsman lived glorious lives".
He attributes many of modern men's problems to the fact that boys today don't have enough close contact with their fathers and other adult men. Men work away from home, leaving women to look after the children.
In traditional societies, by contrast, men were responsible for the education of boys, teaching them not only the skills they needed in daily life, but also "the tone, style and manner of being a man". Similarly, women were responsible for educating girls. He gives the impression that he regards this traditional pattern as the ideal. At times, he seems to be suggesting that the same principle should apply today.
Despite this, he says very little about existing all-male institutions such as boy's schools and armies — and what he does say is largely negative, focusing on the abuse and violence within them. He doesn't really explain why these institutions are so oppressive. To do so, he would have to look at their role in perpetuating an oppressive society — capitalism.
He does not see the need for fundamental social change. Instead, he advocates change at an individual level — men getting more involved in looking after children, especially their sons.
Bidulph believes in the need for a "men's movement", whose role is to help individual men to change their lives. The positive side of this is that it recognises some of the ways in which men's personalities have been distorted by traditional male roles.
However, in the absence of an outward-looking approach, that would include working with women, for progressive social change this movement will do little to improve the lives of most men.