Thursday, December 22, 2005

Fatherhood and other patriarchal subversions

Adam Mars-Jones questioned the hypocrisy behind the apparent breaking down of masculine stereotypes in his Venus Envy. Navel-gazing British oddball Toby Young reviewed the book on his blog.

Mars-Jones's argument is that the stress placed on fatherhood by post-feminist men, far from being an attempt to relieve women of the burden of childrearing, is actually a defence of traditional sexual roles. By redefining masculinity in terms of responsibility rather than aggression, men have successfully accommodated the feminist critique within a patriarchal framework. Don't be fooled by all those men pushing prams, he seems to be saying. Babies are just the latest weapons in the battle of the sexes.

To illustrate this thesis he homes in on two works of contemporary literature: Martin Amis's Einstein's Monsters and Ian McEwan's The Child in Time. According to Mars-Jones, by combining a benign portrait of masculinity with a near hysterical attack on nuclear weapons, Amis is reacting to the feminist argument that the bomb is a wholly male phenomenon (a view Mars-Jones appears to share). This explains why Amis represents nuclear weapons as a visitation, a hostile virus, rather than an indigenous aspect of modern (patriarchal) culture. The subtext of Einstein's Monsters is that we can purge the world of its destructiveness without upsetting the sexual status quo; put more simply, the anti-nuclear rhetoric of the Greenham Common Women was a load of loony feminist nonsense.

The Child in Time, while a much more thoughtful book, is, if anything, even more reactionary. By having his hero, Stephen Lewis, deliver his own child, McEwan is attempting to usurp the privileges of female reproduction (the 'Venus Envy' of the title). According to Mars-Jones, in his effort to compensate for the marginal role of men in the reality of creation, McEwan comes perilously close to excluding women from the process altogether.

Now, Mars-Jones writes on Brokeback and assesses the distance the depiction of gay lifestyles has traversed in mainstream movies. It’s a personal and accomplished piece that touches upon the male fear of and condescension towards the feminine. On Brokeback, he is cautiously approving.

The film has been acclaimed for shattering stereotypes. Men who have sex with men need not have a funny walk; they can form deep attachments; they can fix cars and ride steers. All this is news to Hollywood, and good to see on the screen.

On the other hand, much of the fear of homosexuality is fear of the feminine. From this point of view there's something reassuring about men who hook up with each other without benefit of radical drag and gay pride marches. And perhaps just as important as the stereotypes shattered is the stereotype left unrevised: that gay men are isolated, trapped and doomed.

In The Observer.

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