As in 2018, selected Sydney Writers Festival events were live-streamed this year to 35 sites, including Canberra’s National Library of Australia (#SWFLiveAndLocal). I had planned to attend most of Saturday’s events, but then our annual day-trip to our friends’ place in the country came up, and that’s unmissable, so I only attended the last event of the day.
This year’s theme is Lie to Me, which means participants “will discuss the white lies and deceptions that are necessary for survival, as well as malicious lies that are spun with darker intent. They’ll explore the ways that writing can be used to deceive others in an increasingly post-truth world, and look at the lies that we tell ourselves, each other, and those we collectively tell as a country.” A perfect theme, don’t you think?
Boys to Men: The masculinity crisis, Saturday 4 May, 4.30pm
Panel: Clementine Ford, Adam Liaw, Janice Petersen (Convenor)
Adam Liaw is a lawyer who came to fame as a winner of Australia’s Masterchef. The festival program describes him this way: “As the author of six cookbooks and host of the award-winning SBS television series Destination Flavour, his approachable and family-friendly recipes are influenced by his global travels, but remain focussed on the casual simplicity of contemporary Australian home cooking. In 2016 the Japanese government appointed Adam as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.” Not such an obvious choice, eh? However, he has been appearing recently on some ABC-TV current affairs programs and has impressed us with his sensible, thoughtful, comments. He didn’t disappoint in this panel.
Janice Petersen, the convenor, is an SBS journalist and news presenter.
Firstly, although the panelists didn’t say this specifically, the topic was a natural for the Lie-to-me theme, since so much of gender is constructed on lies – on assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about what makes a man or a woman. This session focused on these, and how they impact, particularly, contemporary ideas about masculinity. Convenor Petersen did an excellent job, asking such questions as:
- Why is masculinity in crisis?
- Why does the mentioning word “masculinity” seem “to set off a bomb”, engendering negative responses?
- What does it mean to have a son (as both panelists do) and do the panellists fear the influence of peers?
- Are men and women different?
Clementine Ford spoke, naturally, from a feminist perspective. She argued that masculinity is in crisis, defining toxic masculinity as men being unable to have platonic relationships with each other, being unable to express their feelings. She argued that boys bond over negative attitudes to women because they can’t relate to each over other things. Men, she said, are hostile to discussions about feminism because they don’t see that it works for all, that its aims are to free all people to be themselves. The problem is that although many men hate much about their lives, they don’t want to “see what patriarchy inflicts on them” (at work, say) because they fear losing the benefits of being “men” (such as being the boss at home!)
However, Ford also said that she doesn’t see “masculinity” as negative. She is invested in “healthy masculinity” and has faith in men, but sees the issue being masculinity and power propping each other up.
Adam Liaw spoke, he said, from a non-scholarly perspective, but I must say that I really liked the way he thought. He talked about how every society defines its own understanding of masculinity, and that in our society today, we don’t have a clear idea of what that is. He sees this lack of clarity as a structural problem, one that creates a high level of insecurity in many men. He talked about various male “role models”, like James Bond and Batman. James Bond doesn’t have close friends which is something men can relate to, while Batman is rife with problems, which men can also relate to. Modern men, on the other hand, can’t relate to Superman as they once did. In other words, men are now defined more by their insecurities than by positive ideas or values.
Liaw returned repeatedly to this insecurity issue, and it made sense. When Petersen asked whether men and women are different, Ford was initially a little flummoxed and referred to Liaw, who without hesitation said yes we are different. We are, for a start, physically different, but, he said, we should not weaponise gender. Our biological differences don’t, for example, translate into meaning that men are better CEOs than women. Liaw’s most important point was, for me, that the issue is not things like men spending more time with children – which men have always liked to do – it’s about overcoming their insecurity, meaning, for example, being comfortable with their partners earning more money than they.
I found the conversation about raising children interesting. Ford expressed a more ideological approach, one I related to because of my own child-rearing days. Indeed, it was hard not to feel a bit of “been there, done that”, since we second-wave feminists had tried exactly what she was talking about. In fact, when I look around at our sons, I think we did a pretty good job! They aren’t the men evincing the toxic masculinity that was being discussed, which begs the question in my mind about whether a few enlightened parents raising their children to be free (free to be … you and me, and all that) will effect the change we need.
Both Ford and Liaw, albeit they expressed it slightly differently, eschewed imposing gender expectations on their children – on what they wear, play with, etc. Liaw spoke of wanting his son to be a “good person”, a “good man”. He is not in favour of forcing “reverse” gender activities on children, but on encouraging all children to be able to do all things. (This was in response to a clip Petersen showed from an SBS Dateline film of an Icelandic school.)
Ford spoke of structural oppression (much as Liaw had earlier referred to structural problems). This results in such things as her being trolled if she speaks of boys doing anything “feminine”, like pushing a doll in a pram. It’s seen as her forcing a boy to be a girl, rather than as letting him explore life. We need to “dismantle gender” but Australians, she feels, can’t get their heads away from narrow definitions of what “men” and “women” are. Worse, they don’t actively condemn men for treating women badly. Much trolling comes from packs of teenage boys. (This reminded me of a recent interview I heard with a female Uber driver who said that one drunk young man was manageable, but in a pack they can become abusive to women, showing off in front of their mates.) Toxic masculinity!
If Liaw’s most important point, for me, was about overcoming male insecurity, Ford’s concerned the malleability of humans. If we have learnt, she said, not to smoke, and not to drink and drive, we can also learn not to be racist or sexist, but these latter mean giving up power – and we resist that.
The session ended with a brief Q&A, from which I’ll just share the last question. It concerned overcoming the sense of entitlement (which I understood as encompassing more than male entitlement.) Liaw said it starts with understanding our own weaknesses and biases, while Ford said it’s about listening to others, and checking our responses to what they say. Which is to say, I suppose, that we need to look past the lies we so easily tell ourselves in order to forge more truthful relationships with each other!
Postscript: Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!) has reported on some Friday sessions, which you may like to check out.