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Will male roles change after #metoo?

Swedish manhood enters into crisis at irregular intervals; the male role may now be about to change once again in the aftermath of the #metoo protest.
Gender historian Emma Severinsson hopes that the boys of today will learn to show feelings – and gender scholar Jens Rydström adds that men need to get better at talking about problems.
Despite Sweden’s ground-breaking role on paternal leave and gender equality, current male gender roles remain narrow in many ways.
Gender historian Ema Severinsson. Photo: Maria Lindh

From childhood, we are fed the image of the strong, decisive man as an ideal. Bulging muscles and aggressive dominance are rarely combined with a capacity for empathy and sensitivity in advertising, TV or films. Men are still responsible for almost all violent crime in Sweden, and Emma Severinsson finds great value in allowing boys, just as much as girls, to learn to show feelings and talk – non-violent strategies for managing difficult life situations.

“Consider the #metoo campaign. Even if it deals with extreme cases, its sheer scope shows that there are structural problems we must try to solve. Boys need to be raised to be empathetic, allowed to be vulnerable; they need to learn to express their feelings and to talk – so that they get access to what girls have today”, says Emma Severinsson, who believes that gender-informed teaching is something to pin your hopes on in this context.

Gender scholar Jens Rydström. Photo: Kennet Ruona

Jens Rydström thinks that the power perspective is the most important part of the campaign.

“What is important about the #metoo campaign is that it shows how power is exercised through sexual harassment in the workplace. I hope it can contribute to a change there. On the other hand, I am critical of naming and shaming – as in a popular court with no chance of defence. And the punishment is often not proportionate to the crime.”

In the 1980s, Lund researcher Jan Einarsson studied how boys and girls of middle school age spoke to one another. It proved to be very different. Whereas the girls’ most common speech situation was close conversation between two people, the boys often talked in somewhat larger groups.

“The boys used language hierarchically, to say the worst swearwords or win verbal disputes”. In this way, according to Einarsson, women have learnt to use the language therapeutically and to become better equipped to manage the crises of adult life”, says Jens Rydström.

A survey was conducted in 2008, in which children were asked whom they preferred to talk to when they were upset. Dad only came in fifth after mum, a friend, someone else and no one at all. However, Jens Rydström thinks things are moving forwards and that men have become increasingly better at talking with each other and with their partners about soft issues.

The male role has entered into a crisis at least three times over the past hundred years – in the 1920s, the 1970s and the 1990s. Each time, this was due to structural changes in society – and each time it led to changes in relations between men and women.

After World War I, the western world longed to enjoy life and to leave war, poverty and inequality behind. The 1920s were a time of progress, in particular for women who got the right to vote and established themselves on the labour market, as cars, planes, electricity, film and radio arrived on the scene. Emancipated women cut their hair short, dressed in short, straight dresses and feathers, danced the Charleston and above all, earned their own money.

In her research, Emma Severinsson has analysed the weekly press from the 1920s. Newspapers and magazines describe women as pushing progress forward. Women represent that which is new and modern whereas men are often described as stagnant.

“Man was no longer at the centre and his privileges were threatened. Previously, women had been encouraged to be good companions to their husbands and to support them by showing an interest in them and their interests. A good wife was encouraged to be well-read so that she could discuss subjects with her husband when he came home from work”, says Emma Severinsson.

Now the male role was being challenged – he was expected to show an interest in his wife’s life, he was supposed to be a companion in a companionable marriage. Despite this, the man was not expected to share the work of running a household and raising children.

“I think both my father and my grandfather had it easy, they had time to have fun with other men and were well-served at home. However they were not very close to their children and that is a high price to pay”, says Jens Rydström.

Almost a hundred years later Åsa Beckman, a literary critic, wrote a widely shared and discussed column in Dagens Nyheter about men who are not interested in anyone but themselves. She encourages women to go on question strike: if your man doesn’t ask you anything about your life, stop asking him about his.

In the 1970s, with an economic downturn and unemployment, the male role was questioned by the new, cuddly man of the men’s liberation movement. Solidarity, love and student revolt. Now men are getting closer to their children and are expected to be the equals of women – not unlike the current ideal, but more provocatively in the 70s version.

“The ‘new man’ was incredibly despised. He looked after the children, gave hugs and explored his feelings”, says Jens Rydström.

Homophobia was strong in the 70s and 80s and the men’s movement soon veered towards “finding your inner man”, tending instead to reinforce an aggressive male role.

After the 80s’ return to the macho man – focused on money, power suits and careers – came the 90s with affirmative action and the entry of women into politics on a broad front. That was a time of crucial changes in men’s lifestyles once again – men were picking up their children from day care, taking parental leave to a higher degree and expected to share responsibilities at home.

Today men’s lives are more equal to women’s in many ways and they spend more time with their children. So far, they do not suffer from stress-related diseases to the same degree as women, which could be linked to the fact that women are still the project managers at home to a higher degree. But if men go the same way as women, they do of course also risk burn-out to a greater extent.

Probably, future manliness needs to include more responsibility for the “little life” at home in combination with less work out in the big wide world, in order to avoid falling in the women’s trap. Jens Rydström thinks that the greatest benefit for men in recent decades has been to gain greater access to their children.

Divorced fathers no longer become so-called “seldom-dads”, whose contact with their children is only sporadic.

“In cases of divorce in the 70s and 80s, it was still common for the child not to spend much time with the father. Now, alternate weeks are considered the natural norm, which is a major change in the male role”, says Emma Severinsson.

In the light of #metoo, the dominant alpha male’s ratings have dropped and perhaps a new, kinder type of man will be more valued – in contrast to the type that grabs what he wants and doesn’t listen to others. Perhaps kindness will start to be seen as an indispensable part of an attractive, sexy man.

“But it is always difficult to analyse what is happening right now, we don’t yet know what the consequences of #metoo will be”, says Emma Severinsson, as Jens Rydström nods in agreement.

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