The annual discourse of International Men’s Day once again illuminated us on November 19th with its heady mix of sexism and bad-faith politics. It’s a meme rather than a day of dutiful political activism.
You only need to glance at social media on International Women’s Day on March 8th to see why the date isn’t celebrated. Instead of the spirit of liberation and progress, IMD is used by men to reinforce patriarchy, rather than disassemble it. Ben Bradley MP spoke in the House of Commons to do just that.
His call for a ‘minister for men’ was not a passionate plea for equality. It was anti-feminist irony. The examples he employed to push his agenda were typical of ultra-right conservatives upset with their influence being erased. The ‘white working class boys’ line is a favourite of writers such as Brendan O’Neill and Jordan Peterson, managing to bait a culture war whilst completely misrepresenting facts.
Ben Bradley spoke of the positive values of fatherhood, going to the football, and ‘holding the door open for a lady’. These are not meant to show their value in society, but belittle those who would rightly criticise them as sexist.
We should mark International Men’s Day with a much more dynamic definition. Men are victims of patriarchy themselves, however much dinosaurs like Ben Bradley wish to ignore it.
In September, the ONS reported that male suicides are at the highest rate in two decades, forming three-quarters of the total number. But instead of trying to find out the causes of these premature, heartbreaking losses, it’s sexist voices who use this statistic as a descriptor of a society that puts men to the bottom. That is simply untrue, a fallacy spouted by men’s rights activists.
November hosts adverts and campaigns to educate men about health and social issues. This year saw KP Nuts partner with the official Movember campaign to raise awareness of testicular health. Their advert was exactly what drags men’s issues down a litany of toxic symbols from beer-drinking lad culture.
It’s patronising to expect men to resonate with this format every time they’re told to talk about their health.
Men’s issues can’t be solved with a moustache and a pint of beer. Ben Bradley isn’t the only Conservative MP with backwards views on gender equality. Philip Davies MP has built a political career off the back of his sexism, and much like Bradley, he uses men’s problems as fair reasoning to dismiss feminism.
If your activism for men’s issues such as cancer care or mental health therapy requires you to be sexist, the whole argument is corrupted.
In 2014 on the Channel 4 programme Embarrassing Bodies, a male sports team was used to invite better discussion about their genitals. They stripped off and laughed about the affair with the country watching. Was this an effective way of teaching men about toxic masculinity? Or just a voyeuristic opportunity?
It muddies the core message which despite being well-meant, was completely let down by the same frustrating misuses as Ben Bradley and Movember. You can’t try to challenge why men don’t talk by enforcing the same patriarchal symbols that pin it down.
It’s fair to say that Ben Bradley hasn’t been painting a good portrait of himself in recent weeks, not that it has taken much effort. His response to the free school meals scandal, along with that of other Conservative politicians, certainly countermands his advocacy for white working-class boys’ welfare.
But we don’t need a minister for men. Special representation to the people with the most political power would be a step back for equality, not forwards.
When men’s health and social problems have been adopted as a weapon for men’s rights activists, it’s not about welfare but the subjugation of women and equality.
Instead of weaponising men’s suicide rates or access to therapy, if those in power like Ben Bradley could look at the reasons why men don’t check their bodies or find mental health care, they’ll find their toxic beliefs on men’s health are the symptom of that wider disease we call patriarchy.
Men’s issues are important, of course. But, sadly, they’re being championed by the wrong men.