Warren Farrell has set out to write a very brave book, one which feminists have been waiting for for many years. It would be the sort of land mark text The Female Eunuch or The Feminine Mystique was for the Sixties and early Seventies, a work of imagination and intelligence which would analyse and understand the ways in which men are socialised in roles that oppress and damage them, poisoning their relationships not just with women but with their parents, their children and other men.
In such a book, men would look inside themselves and see everything that was going to waste and would then look outside to the social and economic forces that controlled and defined them, creating prisons for the mind and spirit. Only when this book was written, some feminists believed, could men and women communicate with each other, and together assault the exploitation that drives people into poverty or forces them to fight wars that are mostly in the interests of multinational corporations. Men’s consciousness and women’s consciousness were needed, it was thought, to heal the pain each has caused the other.
That was the idea, this is the book. The Myth of Male Power is not the same kind of misogynist whinge that Neil Lyndon and David Thomas produced recently. Farrell was on the board of the National Organisation of Women in New York for three years, ran men’s groups and made a good living talking to women who dragged their husbands along, digging them in the sides to say, ‘See, even an expert says what a jerk you are.’ Farrell makes quite clear in his Introduction that he has not renounced his support for feminism. ‘I would be saddened if this book is misused to attack the legitimate issues of the women’s movement – issues for which I spent a decade of my life fighting. The challenge is to go beyond feminism and to cherish its contributions. And feminism’s contributions are many.’
Quite rightly, Farrell looks at the use of men as cannon fodder, which feminism has conveniently skirted, preferring to cast all soldiers as bloodthirsty head cases, murderers of innocent villagers, rapists, turning entire female populations into hookers. Because women have not, until recently, served in the forces, the literature of war has been the history of heroics, of the repression of feeling. You only have to go to Cu Chi, the secret tunnel system in Vietnam, to imagine the feelings of teenage boys, 13,000 miles from home, lost in a world of menace. Will any feminist, Farrell asks, demand that since 1.2 million American men have been killed in wars, only women should be drafted until 1.2 million American women have died?
Some of his arguments are startling and thought-provoking: until boys and girls are nine, their suicide rates are identical but between the ages of twenty and twenty-four the rate is six times as high for men and as they get older these statistics succumb to an absurdly inflationary spiral. It’s as if women make suicide attempts as a cry for help and men, conditioned not to fail in physical tasks, just go ahead and do it. Elderly women, he argues, are not the most susceptible to violent crime. Poor young men are. And in his most telling argument, he points out that the women’s movement sought equality not simply with men, but with white, heterosexual upper-class men. No one wanted parity with a black man born in Watts or Harlem.
The problem with this book is that Farrell does not explore a few well-chosen examples like this one. It’s as if he has brainstormed in his men’s group and included the most batty arguments that should have been rubbed off the board at the end of the afternoon. One quickly loses patience with being told, in a section titled ‘Man as “Nigger”, that ‘Slaves had their own children involuntarily taken away from them; men have their own children involuntarily taken away from them.’ Or, ‘The slave helped the master put on his coat; the man helped the woman put on her coat. He still does. These symbols of deference and subservience are common with slaves to masters and with men to women.’
I think the problem with Farrell is that he wants men to enjoy the status of victims. After all, you’re nobody in America unless you’re in recovery from something or other. Men, he seems to be telling us, are suffering from a massive case of denial, unwilling to confront the fact that they have been hurt, abused, and generally pushed around too long by women. Farrell may have covered his ass by his upfront support for feminism, but reading him, you wonder if there really is that much difference between him and Neil Lyndon or David Thomas. I found his arguments intriguing, but in the end simple-minded. Stay in denial, boys, until you can make a more thoughtful, intellectually sound contribution to the debate.