Dada Daddy: Jennifer Thatcher on What Masculinist Revisionism Could Learn from Feminism
Thatcher, Jennnifer, Art Monthly
AT THE VERY MOMENT THAT WOMEN'S STUDIES IS DROPPED FROM THE UNIVERSITY CURRICULUM IN BRITAIN, A RASH OF BOOKS ABOUT MASCULINITY APPEARS ON THE SHELVES. An optimistic interpretation might imply that the women's movement has been so successful that it is handing over the theoretical reigns to help men achieve a greater degree of self-understanding. However, Goldsmiths professor Angela McRobbie, commenting on the issue in the Guardian in March, proposed a different, more unsettling context for the change in focus from women to men: 'Often it seems feminism has become a kind of private passion, a way of working through the intractable issues of the day in regard to sexuality. But so denigrated and devalued is the women's movement that it is often hard to dislodge the assumptions that it routinely required hostility to men.' In other words, McRobbie is suggesting that, instead of being ignored with cheerful indifference by a super-confident next generation of post-feminist young women, 'women's issues' (childcare and domestic duties, equal pay and work opportunities, sexual harassment) have come to be seen as individual matters rather than as providing an opportunity for public debate--an unexpectedly retrograde reversal of the 'personal is political' mantra.
The rise in masculinity as a research area in cultural studies departments over the past decade (nothing so crude as 'men's studies'), on the other hand, seems to suggest a desire for a very public debate concerning the 'crisis' affecting men. Indeed, media role models of self-conscious masculinity have moved on since the 90s from the ambivalent figure of Gazza the crying footballer, who was as mercilessly mocked as he was lauded for his very unBritish emotionalism, to male politicians today, who, having previously got away with cooing over the odd baby close to election day, are now expected to shed a just-discernible tear at the appropriate photo op; one week in April alone produced a double whammy from London mayoral candidates Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson: 'Teen street killing tale moves Boris and Ken to tears' ran the headline in London Lite. Anglo-American prime-time TV frequently gives us access to the confused and traumatised sub-conscience of outwardly successful men, who privately turn to therapists and mistresses to compensate for not living up to peer pressure and expectations. Among the increasingly sophisticated range of types, there's the killer-with-a-conscience (The Sopranos), the overworked male executive with work/life imbalances (Mad Men), the liberal intellectual comedian (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and the time-travel fantasies about when men were more like 'real men' (Life on Mars).
The vogue for vulnerable (and preferably also good-looking) men is also gaining momentum in the art world. Sam Taylor-Wood's 'Crying Men' series of 2004 turned famous actors emoting into art-world pin-ups, updating the New Man fantasy of the 1986 Athena poster Man and Baby with the pink-shirted metrosexuality of Hayden Christensen. Likewise, Bill Viola fans watch actors, both men and women, emote excruciatingly slowly, while fellow video artist Jesper Just uses the high production values of cinema for his obscurantist, mostly exclusively male narratives. If Germaine Greer's recent vilification, also in the Guardian, of women artists who use their bodies in their work--conveniently forgetting she also got her kit off for the camera in her feminist heyday--attracted relatively little criticism itself, today the male narcissist is everywhere indulged: Dutch artist Philip Akkerman has been painting himself, and only himself, for the past quarter century, producing an extraordinarily diverse range of representations that takes inspiration from the art-historical canon. Where his ouvre is rightly praised for its brand of obsessive-compulsive existentialism, one need only consider the barrage of criticism Tracey Emin has received over the years to note that sustained attempts at self-analysis by women are more likely to be treated as attention-seeking exhibitionism. …