Thursday 16 May 2013

Diane Abbott – Britain’s Crisis of Masculinity

The article below is a summary of the Demos lecture delivered by Diane Abbott MP today.

Diane Abbott MP believes that we are facing a crisis of masculinity within our society, a crisis that has for too long been ignored. We have witnessed seismic shifts within the labour market and societal and familial structures, all of which have had impacted on men and the very notion of masculinity. The male breadwinner, providing for his family by labouring during the day whilst his wife stays in their home and looks after their children, is an image that once rang true but now is a historical relic. Whilst this is in many ways a positive thing – women are now able to play a role within society that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, the consequence for some men has not been as favourable. With the traditional markers of masculinity lost, what does this mean for men and boys understanding of just what it means to be a man? 

Economic instability

The current economic crisis has left men inhabiting a fragile space. But the change began decades ago, with the loss of light industry and manufacturing eroding job security and prospects for men with few formal qualifications. And even for the current generation of recent graduates, unemployment and crippling student debts has trapped many in a state of extended adolescence- living with their parents and unable to financially support themselves. As Abbott put it- men are growing up too soon but becoming an adult too late.

Family values replaced by hyper-consumption and marketisation.

The attributes that define masculinity have switched - earning and providing replaced by taking and consuming. In today’s society, the ability to flaunt consumption has become a defining feature of masculinity. A crude individualism dressed up as modern manhood is now an essential aspect of being a man. 

Masculinity, Abbott argues, is shaped more by marketing than by family values. Our culture has become increasingly pornified, setting out a very restrictive set of qualities for what is acceptable for a man to posses – strength, hyper-sexuality, and power. 


For Abbott, Sex and Relationships Education has an important role to play in challenging this marketed vision of manhood. Through SRE, we can challenge these gender stereotypes, enable young boys to have a safe space where they can discuss perceptions of masculinity and femininity, and are able to learn about sex without relying on the distorted representations found in porn. 

Abbott is seeking to challenge a sense of fatalism around men – that this is just how they are, that boys don’t achieve well at school because, well, that’s just what boys do. In accepting this as a reality, we are failing vast swathes of our population – and not just men. Cultural notions of masculinity have huge implications for women. This is not a men vs. women debate and those of us concerned with women's role in society and the family must also be concerned with men's role within those spaces.

Given the last two days of coverage on this speech, masculinity is clearly an issue that is worthy of headlines. Let’s hope that these discussions filter down from the newspapers and in to general discourse. To challenge this model of hyper-masculinity, hyper-sexualisation and hyper-consumption, we need to start talking about it.  

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