You Are Not The Man You Are Supposed To Be: Into the Chaos of Modern Masculinity

Martin Robinson

Bloomsbury, £20

Review by Iain Macwhirter

“If I'm part of the patriarchy why's my life so sh**?” That would be a more accurate subtitle for Martin Robinson's investigation of modern masculinity – that trait which nowadays generally comes with the prefix, “toxic”. He is a white male millennial who grew up in the era of equalities legislation, yet is acutely conscious of men’s image problem in the era of #MeToo and third-wave feminism.

Calling him a dominant male seems a bad joke. His own life has been marked by alcoholism, breakdowns, unemployment, and a profound sense of personal and sexual inferiority. He doggedly agrees with feminist theories about “the patriarchy” and throughout this penitent book insists on his own complicity in it. Yet he can't help looking around at his own “generation rent”, who can't afford houses, have rubbish jobs and are being out-performed at every level of education by women.

Men are in deep trouble psychologically. "Suicide is the biggest killer in the UK of men under 45,” he writes, "an orange flame in the night sky illuminating a heaving ocean of self-harm, addiction, eating disorders, violence and anti-social behaviour.” Men die much younger than women for social rather than biological reasons.

“Ninety-five per cent of prisoners are male,” he continues, “along with 86% of homeless people and 73% of deaths from drug misuse.” Robinson obediently agrees with social media feminists that this is men's own fault – the result of “toxic masculinity”. However, if you replaced “men” with “BAME”, as in Black Lives Matters, those same statistics would be regarded as manifestations of structural inequality and discrimination. But Robinson can't go there because he would be attacked for being sexist, racist and generally a dork. So instead, he goes looking for the causes of men behaving badly.

It's a journey. He speaks to bodybuilders, boxers, ex-soldiers and lots of very manly men and discovers that most of them are pretty cool and often surprisingly sensitive. He goes to men’s groups like “Andy's Man's Club” in Hull and hears tearful men struggling with their demons. He listens at length to the artist Grayson Perry who, because he dresses like a girl, is allowed to talk positively about men and even say that National Service was a good thing.

He talks to evolutionary psychologists such as Robin Dunbar, who tell him that men have developed over the millennia to be competitive providers, and that much male risk-taking is sexual display – to communicate to potential mates that they have good genes and are powerful protectors. Articulate prisoners tell him that they joined gangs because they were searching for the male role models they lacked at home.

Robinson decides that “brave men are needed”, at least when tackling terrorists on London Bridge; that there is social virtue in masculine stoicism, especially in wartime, though it is less needed these days. He decides that his own need to be a provider for his children is not such a bad thing.

In other words, it's not men themselves who are to blame for toxicity, he says, but society, "the system”. He doesn't explore the implications of this for patriarchy theory, in a book that is largely anecdotal. Instead, we get the usual message: men just need to step up, express their feelings, stop treating women badly. Men need to cease “acting out”: pretending that they are what he repeatedly calls the “Default Male”, the socially-prescribed male role model that is “homophobic, sexist, aggressive and casually racist”.

Except it's never entirely clear that this Default Male still exists, at least as a socially-prescribed role model. I don't see an image of Neanderthal sexist manhood being promoted by the BBC, by Hollywood or by the advertising industry. Razor blade companies lecture men about how to be sensitive to women. TV adverts increasingly portray men cooking, cleaning or caring – which is of course a good thing.

No-one writes books promoting “white male supremacy”, and if any celebrity or teacher even hints at it, they lose their jobs. Instead, comedians like Robert Webb tell men “How Not To Be A Boy”. Sportsmen like Andy Murray and Freddie Flintoff tear up at the drop of a hat, or a ball. All good. But it raises the question of where this objectionable image is actually coming from.

Robinson tediously points the finger at Nigel Farage and the gammon: “the red-faced old gits in blazers”. But who seriously regards them as role models? Most of the hyper-masculine men he speaks to in this amusing, insightful and well-informed book just don't fit the toxic bill.

Robinson says he is writing about the evils of patriarchy, but he labours with the ontological question of what patriarchy is. Where is it? Who is it? He ends up saying that it's really the bosses: “It's the top 1% of men,” he concludes, “who are really reaping the rewards [of patriarchy]”. This ignores the fact that Britain's best paid executive in 2020 was a woman, Denise Coates of Bet365.

Anyway, the doctrine of heteronormative cis patriarchy, does not give white male millennials a get-out-of-jail-free card because they don't wear blazers or run companies. If he truly believes that history is driven by an irreconcilable conflict between men and women, then he was simply born on the wrong side. It's like predestination in the Protestant religion. Academic feminists largely stopped referring to patriarchy in the 1990s precisely because it obscured divisions of social class which have little to do with gender. It was Twitter and #MeToo that rehabilitated it.

I feel sympathy for Robinson. Feminists I grew up with rather liked men, even laddish ones, and saw them as allies so long as they supported equality and didn't behave like creeps or male chauvinists. That door has been closed to millennial men, whose principal role in the sex war is to apologise for themselves. Sorry Martin, you can cry all you like, but you won't be excused.