The Fear­some Fe­male is now a dom­i­nant cul­tural force. Great: but why are the men so hap­less and de­spi­ca­ble, asks Bryan Ap­p­le­yard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

When a re­spected friend gives you a book he “thinks you might like”, it can be a ter­ri­ble mo­ment. It’s even worse when he says the hero “is a bit like you”. The book, this time, was Joshua Fer­ris’s To Rise Again at a De­cent Hour. It was ap­palling, all dull prose and bad jokes; it was go­ing nowhere and I never fin­ished it. (It won the Dy­lan Thomas prize and was short­listed for the Man Booker, so I should have known what to ex­pect.) The hero, in­evitably, was a to­tal jerk — an ig­no­rant, wit­less, ni­hilis­tic, woman-hat­ing cynic, af­flicted by some weak sense that he was miss­ing some­thing about the world.

It was his voice that made the novel un­read­able (and made me worry about my friend’s as­sess­ment of me). Such a voice had been done bet­ter in su­perb prose 30 to 40 years ago, in the early nov­els of Martin Amis. Coarse, self­ob­sessed males stalked those books, mak­ing me laugh and un­der­scor­ing the un­moored con­di­tion of con­tem­po­rary mas­culin­ity. Af­ter that vir­tu­oso per­for­mance, why on earth would any­body want to do it again?

En­ter Fer­ris. Or, rather, en­ter Fer­ris, fol­lowed by nu­mer­ous other nov­el­ists, ad agen­cies, film­mak­ers, ac­tors and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers, all of whom seem to be suf­fer­ing from a de­bil­i­tat­ing case of sex­ism and un­o­rig­i­nal­ity. The Hap­less Male, hav­ing been both harm­less and hap­less in all those Hugh Grant films, has be­come some­thing much more sin­is­ter. He might be an in­ert melan­cholic suf­fer­ing from what psy­chol­o­gists help­fully call “covert male de­pres­sion”, or a wrecked, vi­o­lent, bor­der­line apha­sic, like Colin Far­rell’s char­ac­ter in True De­tec­tive 2, or a pa­thetic vic­tim, a per­pet­ual Ben Stiller or Zach Galifianakis.

TV advertising is the form most hope­lessly in love with the Hap­less Male. I’ve seen ad breaks in which ev­ery slot fea­tured one. Cur­rently in Bri­tain, there’s the pa­thetic wimp who has to give ev­ery­body a lift in his Suzuki S-Cross. And there was — it seems to have been re­moved but is, in­evitably, on YouTube — the vi­ciously sex­ist Sam­sung ad in which a wife ap­plies tech­nol­ogy to turn her fart­ing, ape-like couch potato into an all-pur­pose do­mes­tic ro­bot.

In fact, this last cam­paign was all but jeered off the screens by women. The same thing hap­pened to some Face­book ads for Hug­gies nap­pies that showed men as, ba­si­cally, crash-test dum­mies for nappy leak­age. That had to be with­drawn af­ter protests from men at the Dad 2.0 sum­mit (re­ally!) in Austin, Texas, as well as com­plaints from women.

In­deed, re­search has shown women don’t like to be told their part­ners are weak-minded id­iots, so the ads don’t work for ei­ther sex. But still the ad­ver­tis­ers plough on.

The rea­son is, of course, it’s easy. For­get ob­vi­ous ob­jec­tions such as gen­der equal­ity, sex­ism and so on: men are now the soft tar­gets for cre­atively ex­hausted imag­i­na­tions in ev­ery genre. Look at the ti­tle of a new book by co­me­dian Brid­get Christie: A Book for Her* (*And for Him, If He Can Read). OK, it’s a joke, but one that, if re­versed, would pro­duce a wave of out­rage that would prob­a­bly have had it with­drawn.

You see, cul­tur­ally, the sex­ual play­ing field has not been lev­elled by fem­i­nism — it’s not even a play­ing field; it’s a one-way street. Fur­ther­more, sim­ply re­vers­ing the po­lar­ity of prej­u­dice does not feel like progress. Or maybe the real in­ten­tion is re­venge for the op­pres­sive crimes of the male — but vengeance is em­phat­i­cally not progress. If fem­i­nism has to be un­der­writ­ten by misandry, then it has failed. Tele­vi­sion advertising is only the tip of a gi­gan­tic ice­berg of harsh and usu­ally lazy cul­tural as­sump­tions about a “cri­sis of mas­culin­ity” that is both comic and tragic.

Some have sug­gested hip­ster­ism may be fur­ther ev­i­dence of this cri­sis, the lum­ber­jack look — thick checked shirts and even thicker beards — be­ing an ex­ag­ger­ated form of back­woods mas­culin­ity to which men re­sort when they don’t know who they are. (We don’t, ever.) It is, of course, called lum­ber­sex­u­al­ity, the next stage af­ter the col­lapse of met­ro­sex­u­al­ity.

This belief in a male cri­sis was backed up by a se­ries of band­wagon-jump­ing “re­search” find­ings sug­gest­ing the con­tem­po­rary male was un­mar­riage­able, un­em­ploy­able, in­ed­u­ca­ble and, at the bot­tom end of the daft re­search mar­ket, couldn’t buy Christ­mas presents or do the wash­ing-up. More re­spectable in­sight has been pro­vided by psy­chol­ogy.

“There is, for males, no sense of place, and so no point of ref­er­ence for a gen­uine sense of self other than that sense of self that is at­tached to the roles laid out as so­cially ap­pro­pri­ate,” Michael J. Formica, a psy­chother­a­pist, wrote in 2009. “Fold into this the mixed mes­sages of gen­der so­cial­i­sa­tion fos­tered by the fem­i­nist move­ment, and men find them­selves not only not know­ing where they be­long, but also not know­ing who they are or even who they are sup­posed to be.”

Even once you have al­lowed for the force of fash­ion be­hind such think­ing, this is, I think, fair enough. So, in the wake of fem­i­nism, there is a real-world prob­lem for men; in­deed, that is pre­cisely what fired up Amis in the 1980s and, lat­terly, what Hol­ly­wood, spear­headed by Judd Apa­tow’s “bro­mance” movies, was on to, in films that show men find­ing iden­ti­ties in their own bond­ing rit­u­als un­til they are, at last, saved by women.

The most ex­treme ex­pres­sions of this were the three Hang­over movies, in which al­co­holic brother­hood, ab­ject so­cial fail­ure and sui­ci­dal ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity were seen as pri­mary sex­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics of the hu­man male, who can only be saved from his im­pulse to wreck by the strict so­cial ne­ces­si­ties im­posed by women.

Per­haps the most glar­ing ev­i­dence for the pre­vail­ing mood of cul­tural misandry is the rise of the Fear­some Fe­male to put the Hap­less Male in his place. This is not re­stricted to low cul­ture. In Lon­don lately, and in Syd­ney in re­cent years, there have been two pro­duc­tions of Euripi­des’s Medea (not an ev­ery­day reper­toire

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