On International Men’s Day this year (November 19th), advertising and marketing company M&C Saatchi released a White Paper titled The Modern [Aussie] Man. The Paper was the result of eight months of one-to-one interviews with 140 men, primarily aged 27-55 years, from a broad cross section of Australian demographics, workforce and geography.
Seventy men were influential leaders, marketers and role models from business, sport, military, popular culture, hospitality, philanthropy, academia, men’s health and wellbeing, education, media, advertising and fashion. Seventy were everyday men from around Australia, including construction and white collared workers, sales assistants, baristas and bartenders.
To quote from the Paper,
“The Modern [Aussie] Man study is not, and was never intended to be, a definitive summation of Australian men’s character, anthropology and imperfections. Nor is it the creation of a new set of male archetypes. Its aim is to draw a line under historic truths and modern day perceptions, and help move society to a new place of heightened awareness and mutual respect.
“How? By discovering whether Australian masculinity behind-the-scenes differs from the stereotypes of sporty, resilient, self-mocking, laid-back, unromantic and outdoorsy. Are Australian men making progress in the development of gender parity sensibilities, while retaining strong, positive manliness? Are the majority sexist dinosaurs? Or have they succumbed to female will and turned into emasculated wimps?
“This study investigates what is going on in a significant sample of Australian men’s heads, to contribute to the wider discussion about how both genders can create a world where there is mutual equality and respect.”
The Paper generated a great deal of discussion in the mainstream media and blogosphere – both positive and negative.
The Equality4Men blog by England’s Glen Poole contained a great article titled Men are too scared to talk about gender issues says Advertising giant… and the Herald’s Sam de Brito wrote a balanced op-ed titled Ladies, why so serious? The report also received good coverage by SBS, news.com.au, The Good Men Project, Channel 9 News, theDaily Telegraph, and the Financial Review.
Three very hostile attacks were found in the Fairfax ‘Daily Life’ blog, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian. In defence of the Modern [Aussie] Man, the major myths created by these attacks need to be dispelled.
1. That the Paper is misogynist
Here are some quotes from the Paper’s take on men, women and feminism. I’ll let you make up your own mind as to whether it comes across as misogynist or not.
“The majority of Australian men are highly respectful of women [and] advocates for gender equality.
“A father’s experiences with his daughters are different to those with his sons, but are just as treasured. Unlike his father’s generation, which spent less time with daughters, he tries to spend equal time with both. He understands that girls need more of an emotional component to play, while also sharing feelings, talking and imagination activation. As daughters become tweens or teens, Modern [Aussie] Man shifts his engagement style from playing to talking.
“No-one recognises more than the Modern [Aussie] Man that men and women each have distinct differences and strengths. He is supportive and encouraging of the opportunities this brings to women and understands that it will always be a juggle for both genders. He only asks that women and brands respect men’s sensibilities in the process. It’s the same thing that women ask of men. It’s called mutual respect.
“Modern [Aussie] Man is an underground feminist. He is supportive of women having parity and respect in society, work and at home. He is a genuine enthusiast, but is unsure of what more he needs to do to support women’s equality yet still retain his own sense of purpose and laid back disposition without offending women’s sensibilities. He doesn’t believe that societal gender equality should mean the dilution of gender differences, yet he feels that this may be inevitable if men and women aren’t encouraged to be the best versions of their gender.”
2. That the Paper ignores ‘the patriarchy’
The White Paper acknowledges Patriarchy Theory by making it very clear that “men have never lacked gender privilege or rights” and “the male gender has historical dominance in powerful places in a work environment.”
But it also makes it clear that, after 40 years of feminism, women’s studies, offices and ministers for women (with little corresponding masculism, men’s studies, or offices and ministers for men), men – surprise, surprise! – have the right to a voice and an opinion on gender issues just as much as women.
It can also be argued that Patriarchy Theory (which has many critics) isn’t the only way to understand gendered power relations. There are many other ways that are far more useful and effective when looking at men’s and women’s issues. The simplistic feminist narrative of gender privilege for men and gender oppression for women excludes many social spheres where men lack power and suffer discrimination, as well as those arenas where women carry a great deal of power and privilege.
One of the Paper’s key findings was that,
“Modern [Aussie] Man believes that women are taking the (much respected) fight for equality into their personal relationships. He feels that women are resetting the gender imbalance in the outside world by subconsciously asserting a reverse gender imbalance in the home/ relationships, singularly taking control of a myriad of everyday decisions.
“These decisions – ranging from holidays, weekend plans, cinema viewing choices, when it’s time to relax, allocation of chores, going shopping (as a couple) or what to eat – may seem insignificant in their everydayness, but Modern [Aussie] Man believes the home and personal relationships should be the heart and champion of mutual respect and equality. In his mind, this should work both ways, but currently it favours women.”
If it’s not OK that men have arguably asserted more power and status outside the home than women, is it OK that women appear to now be asserting more power and status inside the home? Do two wrongs make a right? Surely fairness and social justice dictates a more equal balance of power in all arenas.
3. That the Paper is homophobic
The report does predominantly focus on the lived experience of straight men in Australia (as the vast majority of Australian men are straight). While the paper doesn’t talk specifically about gay men, it also doesn’t talk specifically about many other important masculinities – single men, divorced men, Jewish men, rural men, middle-class men, disabled men, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, etc.
The reason for this is not homophobia (or anti-semitism, racism, etc), it’s simply that the Paper didn’t seek to study the differences between different groups of men, but to study the commonalities between men, as men, in terms of their shared masculinity. As the Paper says,
“The purpose of the Modern [Aussie] Man study is to identify what defines Australian men, how they perceive themselves, what are their behavioural and emotional triggers, and how best to engage them.
“The data determined the cluster analysis that resulted, through the identification of obvious patterns which became the ‘self-perception’ markers. With the self-perception markers identified, a structural framework for painting the multi-dimensional portrait of the Modern [Aussie] Man was layered up.
“All seven characteristics identified in the findings were evident in conversations with every one of the 140 men, expressed in differing degrees by different individuals. Importantly, all conclusions and insights were drawn from the men themselves. Their perceptions were also their reality.”
Most of the key characteristics identified by the paper are present, on average, in most Australian men, whether they are straight or gay, single or married, whether they live in the city or the country, whatever their race, religion, ability or socio-economic status. Of course there will be individuals who don’t identify with some of the characteristics found in the Paper, but even those individuals would be hard pressed to argue they don’t know men who fit the picture of masculinity painted by the Paper, even in part.
It is a pity that the authors of the Paper didn’t at least acknowledge the many and varied masculinities that exist across the spectrum of Australian manhood, even if studying the differences between them wasn’t the exercise being undertaken. Perhaps part two of the M&C Saatchi project (if there is to be one), might take on this task. This would certainly serve to counteract one of the main criticisms the White Paper has received.
There are sections of the Paper that would not be relevant to gay men, but one would be hard pushed to argue that makes it homophobic. Such parts include some of the section on fatherhood (other parts would indeed apply to gay dads), some of the section on shopping habits, and the heterosexual language used when discussing relationships and families (which refers exclusively to wives, female partners and girlfriends). This focus upon heterosexual gender relationships was chosen not to deny or exclude the experiences of gay men, but because the paper seeks to examine contemporary relationships between men and women.
It could also be argued that in terms of advertising and marketing, the ‘pink dollar’ has been extensively researched and is fairly well understood, whereas straight men have largely been ignored until now because they were seen as uninterested in themselves.
4. That the Paper is just a marketing exercise to help sell stuff to men
Of all the criticisms levelled at the Paper, this one probably has the most validity. Yes, the Paper helps brands to market their products to Australian men based upon the average man’s actual values and perceptions of himself rather than outdated stereotypes about masculinity that might have guided them in the past. What’s wrong with that? If this leads to one less advertisement featuring a bumbling ignorant Dad, or a male victim of domestic violence as a source of laughter, it would be a great thing.
But the Paper is more than just a marketing exercise. By revealing the depth of character of Australian manhood and the healthy place of Australian masculinity, it offers the chance (for those brave enough to take it up) to start a new conversation about gender relations and gender equality based upon the lived realities of men’s lives rather than the picture painted by outdated stereotypes or feminist narratives.
5. That the Paper ignores the negative impact of ‘traditional masculinity’ upon a range of social indicators
Simply put, this wasn’t one of the aims of the Paper, nor should it have been. If the Paper’s aim was to “identify what defines Australian men, how they perceive themselves, what are their behavioural and emotional triggers, and how best to engage them”, why should it focus upon the behaviours of a small minority of atypical men who abuse women, engage in criminal activity, harass or sexually assault others, etc? These are real and important issues, but they weren’t relevant to the aims of this study (which to its credit still clearly acknowledged that some ignorant, domineering and sexist men do exist).
Also outside the scope of the Paper were many other important male issues – violence against men, male suicide, men’s short life expectancy, the underperformance of boys in schools, etc. The Paper also didn’t explore whether these are caused by ‘traditional masculinity’, ‘traditional femininity’, biological differences, psychological differences, a failure to focus on the specific needs of men and boys or other social determinants – and that’s quite OK.
6. That the Paper claims men lack a voice in society
A common misunderstanding is that the Paper claims men lack a voice in society. It says nothing of the sort. What it does say is that,
“Modern [Aussie] Man has developed gender issue laryngitis that stops any talk about his thoughts, concerns and issues around either gender, for fear of being labelled sexist” [my emphasis].
Having worked in the men’s health sector for 10 years, a constant refrain I hear is ‘why don’t men open up and talk about their feelings more?’
The Modern [Aussie] Man White Paper contains the voices of 140 men from right across society doing exactly that, and what is the response? To be attacked and pilloried in the media as “paranoid woman haters.”
The three hostile articles cited above demonstrate perfectly one of the points the Paper tries to make: most men just keep quiet about gender issues for fear of being shamed, shot down and shut up by the likes of their rhetoric.
By effectively telling men that their feelings and concerns about gender issues are unimportant, the authors of these articles ironically appear to be trying to reinforce one of the most unhealthy components of the traditional male role: to endure hardship without complaining or asking for help.
The report, like Australian men and women, isn’t perfect. It is the first step towards the possibility of a new conversation about contemporary manhood and gender relations. One that doesn’t start from a place of negativity as so many have over the past 40 years, but from the lived realities and perceptions of Australian men. As the report says, “masculinity is in a good place here.”
This new conversation, should we take up the challenge, would see men and women working side-by-side to address women’s issues as well as men’s issues. It would see men and women listening openly, not defensively, when gender grievances are raised by the other sex. It would renew the long fight for gender equality while celebrating the differences between the sexes.
I’ll leave the last word to the Modern [Aussie] Man White Paper…
“Hopefully, women [and men!] will appreciate this as an opportunity to move closer towards mutual respect, equality and understanding.”