"Secret Men's Business": New Millennium Advice for Australian Boys

By Pearce, Sharyn | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2001 | Go to article overview

"Secret Men's Business": New Millennium Advice for Australian Boys


Pearce, Sharyn, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay offers a feminist critique of theories of the mythopoetic men's movement involved in the current debate about "boys in crisis." The essay argues that texts such as Secret Men's Business, by Australian author John Marsden, hinder rather than help boys and gender relations.

John Marsden is one of Australia's best-known and most-popular writers for children and adolescents. In 1998 he published Secret Men's Business, a book of self-help advice for boys, whose title refers overtly, flippantly, and disrespectfully to secret women's business, a term for the sacred and mysterious lore relating to Australian aboriginal women. "Secret Men's Business" has also been offered as a subtitle by the new misogynist "men's magazine" Ralph, with similarly deliberate intentions of being offensive, provocative, and specifically racist. My essay explores the ideas and the literature that lie behind the publication of Marsden's book, much of which is related to backlash politics, and in particular to the recently ignited controversy over the impact of feminism upon the traditional forms of masculine comportment and socialization.

The 1990s in Australia have seen a plethora of books concerning masculinity. Theorists treating masculinity like Bob Connell and David Buchbinder, educationalists such as Pam and Rob Gilbert, and countless popular writers and journalists have all contributed to the debate about what afflicts men today. In particular, the adolescent male is frequently, even customarily, positioned in the popular press as threatened, with the suicide rate among young males skyrocketing in many countries, including Australia and New Zealand. In an age when many girls appear to have profited from the advances of second-wave feminism, and have propelled themselves into spheres previously considered exclusively male domains, boys are frequently considered to be marooned, deeply disoriented, and confused about identity, sexuality, direction, and purpose.

As the media so insistently portrays it, some twenty years after the feminist movement there is a new generation of assertive, high-achieving girls who appear to be swamping boys socially and academically, and these confident, assured, and purposeful girls contrast with males who lack role models and are exhausted and disempowered in a climate of gender dislocation. And yet other socio-economic factors are clearly also at work; most notably the effect of the implementation of the policies of economic rationalism, which have ensured that jobs traditionally held by males have become increasingly economically irrelevant or obsolete, while many of the things that have sustained masculine identity in the industrial age, like lifelong employment and pride in a particular skill or craft, have disappeared. Another important feature of the new face of masculinities in the 1990s stems from the fact that, whereas in the comparatively recent past Australian boys had really only one example of manhood to aspire to, now, as visual extravaganzas celebrating diversity such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras so eloquently demonstrate, the choices are diverse, theoretically at least, with heterosexuality being challenged as an assumed "normality" among men and boys. However, socio-economic and cultural factors like these are all too often forgotten by many cultural commentators and journalists in a simplistic, oppositional analysis that focusses attention upon so-called new gender inequalities.

Given the enormous media interest in masculinities, it is highly understandable, then, that a fascinating phenomenon has occurred in recent years. Men's self-help manuals, like Steve Biddulph's Manhood and Raising Boys, have become runaway best-sellers in the Australian market, usurping the literature of self-help that had previously been directed mostly at women, to encourage them to be good wives and mothers, for instance. To date, Manhood has sold over 130,000 copies, including an astoundingly successful first print run of 40,000, and the book has had apparently a much wider audience than these figures would indicate, many copies having been passed on enthusiastically to family members and friends (Sweetman). …

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