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a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

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‘They need to touch materials with their hands. They need to form materials, need to make things with their own hands out of wood, clay, iron etc. They need to own tools and handle tools. Not doing it, not being permitted to do it, does something to men. They all know it.’

Sherwood Anderson

‘A man who can’t handle tools is not a man’

Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman,  by Arthur Miller

 

It’s often pointed out by feminist writers that women do more work than men and get little acknowledgement for it. The work of nurturing children, especially in early infancy, and the unpaid work of maintaining the family – remembering important dates, events and tasks – while, also, these days, pursuing her own career. In less affluent countries, their burden is often greater, as they work for a pittance outside the home, and for nothing, economically speaking, inside it, while ceding ‘head of the household’ status to men. Marilyn French detailed the systemic discrimination against working women thirty years ago in The war against women, and given the heavy patriarchal culture women still labour under in those parts of the world dominated by  the major religions, progress has been painfully slow. Here in the WEIRD world, however, there are some positive signs. It’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal even now that the WEIRD nations have largely recognised the artificiality of the ‘masculine mystique’. However, that recognition is an important step toward gynocracy.

Let me explain what I mean by the masculine mystique, since I’ve just thought of the term (so I need to explain it to myself). In Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a humane rendering of the quandary many men have found themselves in as the WEIRD world has become post-industrial, she quoted Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller on masculinity and tool use. The idea being mooted was that man was the tool-maker and tool-user, and deprived of those skills and opportunities, he felt emasculated.

This was about mastery. Without their sense of mastery, especially an exclusive mastery, one not shared by females, men weren’t really men. This masculine mystique needs to be punctured. In fact it has been punctured, but it needs to deflate quite a bit more.

Chimpanzees use tools. Bonobos too, but far less so, sad to say. One particular tool shown in a video I recently watched was a thin stick for poking into termite mounds and collecting a tasty and doubtless nutritious meal. The video presented adult chimps showing their expertise in this task, while the children fumbled and failed. Only later did I wonder – were those adult experts male or female? The commentator didn’t say, and surely this was unsurprising, surely all adults had learned this skill. Though chimps live in a largely patriarchal society, there’s surely no division of labour such that the females are expected to keep the forest clearing tidy, mind the kids and wait for the male to bring home the termites. And yet we’ve only recently come to terms, even in the WEIRD world, with female engineers, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers and a whole lot more. In other words, throughout our history, we’ve been much more patriarchal and frankly misogynistic in our division of labour, and its spoils, than chimps have ever been. The upper classes have intoned from on high that ladies should be powdered, manicured, stupidly shod and generally decorative, and those notions are far from having been laid to rest.

Let me offer another example, a favourite of mine. In the early seventies, I attended a youth camp in the Adelaide Hills. We were kicking a soccer ball around, and one of the camp leaders beckoned to a couple of female watchers on the sidelines to come and join in. They were reluctant and giggly and seemed almost deliberately hapless, swinging and missing the ball and landing on their rumps, and giggling all the more. I was irritated, as I’d seen this before, girls almost proud of their lack of co-ordination, a kind of learned helplessness. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I was attending an impromptu housewarming for people a generation or two behind me. It was during the day, and the young people, about a dozen of them, trooped outside to a vacant lot behind the house, with a soccer ball. I watched them from an upstairs window. They formed a circle, kicking the ball between them. There were as many girls as lads, but there was no difference in the skill level, it seemed to me. They were all able to trap the ball, bounce it up to their heads, and pass with power and accuracy. I was amazed, and even became a bit teary. These were young girls I knew, but I didn’t know they were into soccer. And maybe they weren’t particularly. Maybe they were just brought up in a generation that had broken from that long history of patriarchal expectation or demand. They had no interest in being ladylike women, at least not all the time.

What has happened? The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and the past few of them have received blanket coverage. Tennis really led the way, and then golf, and now women are becoming heroes in many athletic and sporting contests, with motor sports as the next challenge. It seems that, in sporting prowess at least, the trickle-down effect may actually be real.

And this particular trickle-down can also be viewed as the trickling away of the masculine mystique, the near superhero of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, the culmination of human can-do physical prowess. In many respects, the competencies required for the challenges in our future – the problems of global warming, reduced biodiversity, the exploitation, suffering and slaughter of other species, the reduction of poverty in our own – are not so much the competencies wrapped up in the masculine mystique package. They’re more like the competencies associated with creating unity, inclusivity, teamwork, as well as a more reflective, and dare I say sensual understanding of the world we have come to dominate, and, in our masculine way, to domineer. We can still be the can-do species, but what we have to do requires a different approach, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the world we’ve come to dominate, and which is now suffering from that domination. In a sense we’ve become the ‘earth-mother’ of the planet – we’re preserving other species in zoos and nurseries (good word), we’re waking up to our damaging habits, we’re looking for solutions that won’t entail more damage. All of this requires as much ingenuity as we’ve ever applied before. Warfare, competitive advantage, insularity and breast-beating human supremacy are not what is needed. We need something a lot more bonoboesque – a sharing of ideas, responsibility and passion, for each other (all others), and our world. And maybe, with all our failings, we’re inching towards it.

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am