Everyone needs a positive identity to thrive as a person. And identity isn’t just individual: we all belong to groups based on gender, race, religion, and so on. You might view your identity a certain way, but you’ll find yourself in the position of feeling misunderstood if society views the identity of your group differently. Or affirmed if social attitudes shift. Society’s shift from seeing gays and lesbians as deviants to average citizens is one example.
The problem with men, according to Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young, is that today’s world leaves
men unable to make even one contribution to society, as men, which is distinctive, necessary and can therefore be publicly valued—that is, unable to establish a healthy collective identity specifically as men. The result of this emptiness is a growing tendency to give up either by dropping out of school and or by committing suicide. Ideological feminists have thrown down the gauntlet, on the other hand, by ascribing to men a highly negative collective identity. The result of this misandry is an increasing number of men who believe that even a negative collective identity is better than no collective identity at all.
Misandry is hatred of men. That society promotes hatred toward men is a dramatic claim that contradicts the current cultural narrative. I agree that misandry can exist on an individual level. Regarding society in general, however, I would rather make the more cautious claim that contempt for men (which is milder than hatred) is socially acceptable in a way that contempt for women is not.
For example, in a recent Huffington Post article about photos exploring “a version of masculinity that is more expansive, and more vulnerable, than the kind often represented in mainstream culture,” a reader commented, “As pointed out in the splendid documentary THE MASK YOU LIVE IN, ‘masculinity’ is nothing more than rejection and repudiation of that which is considered feminine.”
I’ve seen The Mask You Live In. I’m not sure the filmmakers would make the absolutist claim that masculinity is “nothing more” than a rejection of the feminine, which implies that masculinity has no positive aspects of its own. But this is a common notion in progressive circles. And this line of thinking can easily lead to the belief that to be a man (i.e. being masculine) is to be a hollow shell.
In the past, both women and men had essential roles that for the most part were biologically driven. Before modern machines most men did physical labor. With their greater upper body strength, men were far more adept at this than most women, especially considering that women in the past were pregnant far more often than women today. Thus it was men who built the pyramids, cathedrals, and roads; who did the heaviest farm labor; and who provided physical protection from natural disasters and warring neighbors.
In the modern era we no longer need men to be beasts of burden. And most men are glad about that.
But what unique role do men play today?
Women’s unique role has always been the creation of life. And that’s still true today. But what about women who can’t have children, don’t want to have children, or who do have children but don’t want motherhood to define their identities as women?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow described our hierarchy of needs. The basic idea is that you must take care of essential physical needs such as food, shelter, and safety before you can worry about psychological needs such as love, esteem, and self-actualization.
Self-help books fly off the shelves because people in modern American society are so obsessed with finding their true selves, and this quest is a direct indication of how dramatically the average economic standing has risen compared to past generations.
Today, a positive identity is based on social roles rather than the physical roles associated with basic survival needs. Even if a woman defines her identity in terms of motherhood, being a mother is still something more than that. It’s about the kind of mother she is.
But a key point that Nathanson and Young make is that identity can’t just be individual. Identity exists in a social context, so in addition to being distinctive, this group identity must also be necessary and publicly valued. Even if an individual woman doesn’t want to have children, the fact remains that women collectively are essential to the continuation of the human species, and this is publicly recognized and valued. Just think about how big Mother’s Day is compared to Father’s Day.
Men’s negative collective identity is based on the fact that human violence (especially war) is overwhelmingly a male endeavor. The problem is the attitude that all men are to blame. In fact, the world’s violence is perpetrated by a minority of men, and men are also the majority of the world’s victims of violence. Most men go to war without choice. Sharing certain anatomical features with the one exploiting you doesn’t mean you’re to blame for being exploited.
Still, the claim that human beings would be better off if men were reduced to ten percent of the population doesn’t generate the outrage we’d find if this were said about other groups.
But now that scientists can create artificial sperm, I wonder if it could soon be possible for two women to have a biological child. Certainly this would be a great opportunity for lesbian couples. Of course, because there would be no Y chromosome in the mix, any offspring would be female. That, combined with the possibility of sex selective abortion (which in Western cultures would likely favor females), could theoretically tip the sex ratio in women’s favor over several generations. Though this scenario is quite unlikely.
But what if science could also make women unnecessary? The artificial womb (a machine that gestates a fetus) could be a reality sometime this century. That men might be able to have children without needing a woman, just as women today can become pregnant through a sperm bank, raises any number of questions about what societal shifts might occur.
One shift, though, would be that women might no longer have a distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution to society. Perhaps this is why some have called artificial wombs misogynist (though they don’t carry this to its logical conclusion by calling sperm banks misandrist). Other critics try to distract from progressive’s anxiety with fevered speculations of how the right wing might react.
It would put women and men, however, in the equal position of having to forge an identity not from biology, but from something culturally constructed. As such, I doubt artificial wombs (if they even happen) will be as much of a threat to women’s identities as some might fear. Feminism has already made headway toward women’s identities not being narrowly defined by motherhood, and artificial wombs would help complete this process.
Men are the first to face the identity crisis of how to be socially valued even if they’re not biologically necessary because machines that replace brawn were easier to invent than gestation machines. And men, unlike women, have not benefited from seeing it coming.
I wish I had a straightforward answer for the male identity crisis, but I don’t. It’ll have to work itself out organically.