How worried should women be about plight of modern men? What with overcoming the imbalance in leadership, eliminating the gender wage gap, and figuring out how to address sexual assault, women have quite a lot on their plate already. Then again, it’s hard to deny that men are struggling. They are more likely to be imprisoned, to be homeless, and to be unemployed and less likely to graduate from college. Recently a new (and unexpected) champion added her name to the list of people officially concerned about men’s predicament: the feminist writer Caitlin Moran.
After ruthlessly and hilariously dissecting the joys, outrages, and indignities of being a woman, with such books as How to Be a Woman and How to Build a Girl, Moran has now turned her attention to the other side of the aisle, asking, in the title of her latest work, What About Men?
The book grew, she says, out of her increasing concern that the young men she encountered when giving talks were aggrieved about the lack of attention paid to men’s problems and trials, and in their search for identity, were turning to extremist groups and alpha-male idols, such as Andrew Tate, who claims women belong to men, and Jordan Peterson, who counsels that in the natural order of things the masculine represents order and the feminine represents chaos.
“I could see how angry and misunderstood these boys felt—how much pent-up emotion they had,” she writes. They were terrified of being falsely accused of sexual assault. They were afraid that they would not find meaningful work. They felt like they were regarded as a problem just for being male. So Moran looked into the state of modern manhood and came away with new compassion for the Y-chromosome crowd.
Moran spoke to TIME about what she had discovered about men, and offered some solutions to what ails them gleaned from her time in the feminist trenches.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Is it true that it’s easier to be a woman than a man now?
In one respect, in that we women are able to talk about problems of gender and men still seem not to have invented that technology in a way that isn’t damaging, angry, and women-blaming. That’s a technology women have already got: we can confess when we’ve got a problem, we can talk to each other about it. And then there’s this amazing centuries-old thing called feminism that means that even if your mother or your friends don’t have the solution, someone’s written a blog about it, someone’s written a movie about it, Beyoncé has written a song about it. Women have shared their problems and organized. Men don’t yet seem to have got to that point of being able to go, “This scares me. Does anybody else suffer from this problem? Let’s form a massive global campaign and bring in legislation that changes our lives forever.”
You just described something as feminism which feels more like just women being supportive of each other. Are they the same?
The feminist movement goes, “Let’s collectively not just change our own lives and solve our own problems, but let’s change legislation. Let’s change business. Let’s change the structure.” Each chapter in my book is a problem that men face that is specific to their gender. About half of their problems are things that could just be solved by brotherhood, you know, talking to each other and helping each other. But the other half do need some kind of systemic change, whether it be an education, in employment, in medical care, in mental health.
Moran’s Rule No. 2 is that the patriarchy is screwing over men as hard as it’s screwing over women. Is it patriarchy or is it changes in technology and global trade?
I think all men presume they’re in the patriarchy, and they’re winning. And it’s like, no, no, no. There’s 10 guys at the top of this tree, who are doing OK, but you’re being f-cked over as well because you’re the guy that’s scared he’s about to be punched when you go to school. You’re the one that’s been told not to cry. You’re the one that doesn’t have paternity leave. The advantage women have is that we talk about the patriarchy, and we know how it disadvantages us. Men haven’t yet started the conversation. So they’re only about 50 years behind us in terms of talking about gender.
Did writing this book you change your mind about men?
If you’re a 15-year-old boy, in the last 10 years, [female empowerment] is all you will ever have heard. Their dads know that this is a very recent and mild corrective to 10,000 years of patriarchy because they can remember a childhood of rampant sexism everywhere. The boys just don’t have that perspective. And so they are angry.
To what do you attribute the rise of people like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate?
The only people who are talking about masculinity at the moment are people like Peterson and Tate and that is why they are so appealing. I think that the offer of masculinity they’re making is not only unpleasant and retrogressive and damaging but simply won’t work.
The two things that they’re saying is one, if you are unhappy and anxious and worried about your future as a boy or young man, then what you need is power. I don’t know anyone in the world whose anxiety, depression, and unhappiness has been solved by power. What they need is something that sounds very similar, which is empowerment. You need to learn how to self-soothe. You need to learn how to deal with your anxieties and fears, and you need to learn how to form a close friendship group that will support you. You need to learn how to get the kind of education you need to learn to deal with the future. I wanted to write a book that encouraged the liberal and more progressive sort of wing of men to start talking about men again. There is a way to do this.
You write that the first problem for straight white men is that they are the default and therefore sort of invisible. But the thing about the default is that everything is built around it to fit. How would you respond to people who say society has been built around these guys, and therefore, they are the opposite of invisible?
If you cannot say “I’m a straight white man” without that immediately being seen as problematic, without that immediately having some shame about it, or some presumptions, then we’re in the situation that we were with people of color or people saying “I’m gay” 30 years ago. Society’s been built around what we think a man is, so all his strengths and advantages but all the weaknesses are protected there as well. There isn’t that questioning of things–for instance, male loneliness. It’s simply not part of male culture, to arrange to see your friends and catch up with them in the way that women do.
You advance the theory in the book that young boys’ fine motor skills develop later than girls’ and that sets them back emotionally. Can you elaborate?
The word heartbreaking is the one that I found myself using the most often in the book, because it’s like we’re setting boys up to fail straightaway. Boys’ fine motor skills develop later than girls. So very early on there’s a very negative association for boys with writing and therefore reading. By the time they hit their teens they’re reading stuff that’s much less text heavy—graphic novels, adventures, heists—whereas women are reading stuff about normal lives. Why is there no culture of books about normal boys crossing from childhood to adult? It seems like they need it. We need to change the way that we educate our boys to acknowledge there is a physical difference, a physical problem that boys have in schools. If we were going to have a new men’s movement, I want to start there.
Your advice for young guys who don’t want to be unfairly accused of rape is to make sure that sex takes place within a committed relationship. And your advice on porn is to be careful because it can mess you up. This is very similar to the advice given by, say, Jordan Peterson. Do you find it surprising that you are aligning yourself with a more traditional view of sex and relationships?
I enjoy the fact that it’s kind of the advice that we’ve given girls for years, but we’re now giving it to boys. My big inspiration for writing that chapter was that young men did not want to talk about the prevalence of sexual assault and rape for teenage girls, because they said it was more worrying to them that they might get falsely accused of rape. And so it’s running them through the stats: You are vanishingly unlikely to be falsely accused of rape, you’re more likely to be raped yourself. But if this is something that you are so worried about, then just let me give you some very straightforward advice. Make sure [your sexual partner] is someone you know, and trust, that you think is unlikely to start lying about you.
I’m wondering what you think your chances are, as a noted feminist, of getting young men to read your book?
My favorite thing is to find an area that’s taboo, shameful, dark, difficult, and awkward, anything that’s usually hard to start a conversation about, and to find a way of starting a conversation about that, where you can basically blame me. Mums can read this and they can find a sort of modern, relaxed, humorous, realistic way to talk to their sons about things like violence and extreme online pornography, which would otherwise be a difficult topic to raise in the middle of Christmas Day.
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