Saluting the Flag: Gender Orthodoxy in 21st Century Britain (and Not Even This)

Further orthodoxy, although of an older sort, appears in Jack Underwood’s dismissiveness of masculinity. This is characteristic of a generation of liberals (like myself) who cut their political teeth supporting Feminism before Transgenderism arrived on the scene: people in their 30s or older, really. Thus, Mr Underwood talks of “the limits of patriarchal language and imagination… its erasures and violences”, “the absurd yet enduring alpha-male fantasy of hetero-patriarchy”, how he finds masculinity’s “toxic forms repellent” and how “the fear of being afraid that we cisgender heterosexual men carry inside ourselves is most commonly and violently re-directed at those who are not cis, heterosexual men.” He also admits to fearing if he had a son, he would grow up to be a rapist. 

That’s all well and good, and I would agree that these unpleasant traits are characteristic of maleness and patriarchy at their worst. They are the deserved caricatures of traditional patriarchal societies, when all the complexity and individual variation has been bleached out by generalising. It is to our shame, as men, that our society is recognisable in such generalisations.

However, sweeping statements are the abstractions of theory and statistics, and assumptions cannot be made about individuals on the strength of them. That is prejudice. When Underwood talks of “we cisgender heterosexual men” and uses phrases like “most commonly”, he is suggesting that conformist fear and potential violence is universal. That is deeply unfair to all the lovely, kind men I know.             

Mr Underwood also says, “I know that my class and my whiteness have afforded me more pathways and easier access to cultural spaces where I do not have to perform a strictly normative version of my gender.” In trying to acknowledge his white male privilege, Mr Underwood seems to imply that less privileged men are forced to enact a swaggering and violent form of toxic masculinity that he has been thankfully freed from. In other words, poor folk, he suggests, are violently misogynistic and sexually bigoted, whereas he has the privilege not to be. This is unfair and is society’s fault, he implies, so it’s not prejudiced for him to point it out! Isn’t this a form of sorrowful, compassionate superiority?

All these confident pronouncements are delivered as articles of faith, without any evidence to support them. They are presented in the face of all evidence to the contrary, such as the fact that nearly all human societies, throughout history, have maintained the significant distinction between men and women, no matter how culturally, chronologically, and geographically separate these societies have been. He ignores the profound biological changes caused by sex hormones, especially during puberty, and the distinctive physical, phenological differences that these changes give rise to, from bigger average size and physical strength among men, to penises and vaginas, to breasts and body hair, to the bigger noses and jaws of men, to women’s menstruation and the ability to carry, give birth to, and feed babies. 

Marked biological differences could give rise to markedly different behaviours. Why not? The brain is a biological organ. I have a son and a daughter, and work in a co-educational comprehensive school, and my experience is that boys seem much more likely to be more active, physical and (sometimes) physically aggressive than girls, who are more likely to negotiate their environment and relationships verbally. The physical differences could also give rise to significant different behaviours and roles – in heterosexual sex acts, for example, and in the consequences, and subsequent reactions to these acts. Male sexuality is inevitably projected and invasive while female sexuality is likely to be receptive and discriminatory. Women are also biologically incapable of running away from unwanted pregnancies. 

I’m sure these dissimilarities are at least partly socially conditioned, but there is every reason to believe biology plays its part. After all, social conditioning, especially among the very young, can be indiscernible, and therefore may not always be occurring, whereas biological differences are glaringly obvious from birth.

Jack underwood makes no mention of any of this, nor of the influence these differences may have on behaviour in assigning social roles or social behaviour. All this is so markedly at odds with the thoughtful tenor of the rest of his book that it sounds like he is hurrying through a checklist of orthodox thought to avoid being purged by the secret police. He reminds me of a writer in Stalinist Russia fearfully trying to show his loyalty to the state! 

Perhaps this section is as performative and insincere as the paeans of those oppressed Soviet writers. I hope so. 

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