In his new book, The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century, essayist and novelist Stephen Marche explores the ramifications of evolving gender roles in both the personal and cultural realms. He spoke with Maclean’s about the shifting definitions of masculinity and fatherhood, the “pornography paradox,” and how the rise of Donald Trump is emblematic of the “hollow patriarchy.”
Q: Your book reads like a memoir, a treatise on shifting gender roles and a love letter to your wife. How do you define it?
A: That’s a pretty good description. I was trying to get at the reality I was seeing in my life—and lives of people around me. There is really good sociological research into this stuff but we don’t often think about in the everyday. The politics of our moment is really a politics of intimacy. So it doesn’t make any sense to talk about this stuff unless you’re revealing your own intimate struggles.
Q: Men’s voices have been largely absent in discussions of gender and domesticity. Why?
A: Almost all the voices in history have been men, but on this one question of gender, men don’t talk about it. This has nothing to do with women; it has to do with men. I’ve been promoting this book, I’ve done somewhere in the vicinity of maybe 30 interviews, but have yet to talk to a single man. Yet men’s gender problems cause them a lot of suffering. There is a massive spiking suicide rate in middle age for men and a cultural attitude to male friendship that is destructive. Men are failing to deal with gender. Look at the result: Donald Trump is president. Men are enforced into a kind of silence about their gender; they’re supposed to not think of it as a performance. That’s the definition of manliness—that it’s not a performance; it’s being yourself, authentic. Whereas women have understood gender as performance. Men have not yet made that quantum leap, or rather they’re making it in many ways, they’re not thinking about it.
Q: How are they making that leap?
A: Men talk about masculinity through sports and clothes. They don’t talk about gender, they talk about LeBron James and whether it’s okay to wear lipstick and eyeliner. They’re not getting to the question at hand, which is, “What does it mean to be a man when the traditional values of masculinity are eroding incredibly rapidly?’
Q: You define this as “hollow patriarchy.”
A: That’s the core insight of the book. The problem with the way we discuss gender is that it tends to be “Let’s sympathize with women” or “Let’s sympathize with men.” When you look at how men and women are living together, there are two processes at work. One, women are rising in the middle class; their earning potential is rising compared to men. It has been underway for 100 years, and nothing is going to stop it. On the other hand, women are denied iconic positions of power—equity partnerships law firms, Hollywood salaries. So men are losing power in their daily lives, but manliness is still iconic of power. This creates incredible turbulence around masculinity and incredible confusion around gender norms that’s only going to accelerate.
Q: You call fatherhood “the last indisputable definition of masculinity.” Yet when you were primary caregiver for your son, you felt stigmatized.
A: Yeah. I really felt the generational difference: guys my age got it, guys my father’s age did not. When you ask single men in their 20s, “Do you want children?” they want children more than women do. Again, economics drive this. If you’re a 29-year-old woman, having a baby is going to seriously blow up your career. If you’re a 29-year-old man, it isn’t. So why wouldn’t you want kids if you’re a 29-year-old man? I think it’s clear that inequality is dividing along these different kinds of marriages and families. When you look at the biggest study of the American dream, the number-one correlate for upward mobility is having two parents in a home. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female. The reasons that we talk about it is either conservative garbage about “traditional families” and how we should go back to Leave It to Beaver, or the left-wing wing response that it’s all social change or it’s structural problems. And actually the family is still the core social unit. Culturally, traditional masculinity was a removed father. That was a false conception of masculinity and the proper relationship between a man and his children. Look at The Iliad, there’s all this stuff about men loving children. The King of Sparta was the most brutal warrior of ancient Greece, and the only thing he liked to do was horse around with kids when he was back from slaughtering. One thing that feminism revealed is that being a distant patriarchal figure was not something men wanted to be. They want to be more involved in the lives of their children, and you can see that once they’re allowed to have that connection, they crave it.
Q: You quote your mother, a doctor, saying the greatest advancement she saw in shaping gender intimacy wasn’t the Pill, it was Lamaze, in which men play an active role in the birth.
A: Men were then involved in the whole life of the flesh. So rather than being just earners, you have this biological, emotional, hormonal connection from birth; and then being in the home, which was the domain of women, suddenly becomes men’s domain too. It’s not just equality in the workplace, it’s equality for child-rearing. Women become breadwinners, men become caregivers. That’s the birth of intimate marriage.
Q: Given increasing gender fluidity, should we even be talking in terms of masculinity?
A: We have to talk about it as masculinity and femininity because feminist theory—gender theory in general—has tried to divest these categories of meaning. And the truth is they have enormous meaning; on a biological level that is inescapable. The first things that babies can notice is sex; the first thing that you can tell about a person when you see them walking down the street is their gender. So, yeah, I think it is actually important to talk about it as masculinity.
Q: You discuss gender equality as key to economic competitiveness, writing about quotas in Japan. Yet we tend to talk of equality in terms of social justice.
A: You cannot have an advanced economy while holding women back from the workplace. In economies in which women work, men and women in relationships make about the same amount of money, or women make more. Women are 40 percent of breadwinners in America, and that number’s been rising.From that simple, fact everything flows. The more money women make, the less violence, the less sexual crimes against women. Everything horrific and misogynistic declines. But then what you’re dealing with here is “What does it mean to be in love with people who are your equals?” And that’s a very beautiful thing that we should cherish, but it’s also incredibly tough in some ways.
Q: You describe feminism as the inevitable outgrowth of capitalism, not a social-rights movement. Women on the front lines might object.
A: This is not to discount the legislative work or the intellectual work. Culture is always the echo of economic realities; that’s what Marx teaches. Feminism is a clear example of that. We’re in Trump times—we’re in the time this misogynist hate clown is the leader of the free world, and when Putin has made abusing your wife legal, and transgender bathrooms have just been disallowed in school. There are all these political setbacks. And there’s no question that those setbacks are very real and need to be treated as civil-rights issues. But you know, if you look at the last time there was a backlash of this kind, it was during the Reagan, Bush years. [Author] Susan Faludi called it the “backlash.” And that was when the pay gap closed the most. And then from that, you have the feminism of the ’80s and the ’90s. We have to understand that the economic trends are inevitable. They’ve been underway for 100 years, and we’re playing catchup, and we will get there.
Q: Traditionally marriage has been alpha husband, beta wife. Now that many women out-earn men and have greater financial equality, there’s this thinking men therefore have to be beta. How do you see that shift playing out?
A: The research points pretty clearly to the rise of companionate marriage, and I just think it’s going to keep being popular, for the very simple reason that it’s basically the only way to afford a family life in the 21st-century in advanced economies. It’s one of the major reasons for the spike in income inequality. Surgeons used to marry their secretaries. Now they marry other surgeons.
Q: Women increasingly out-earn their partners. Yet the U.S. elected a man who wants to dial the clock back. Isn’t that a backlash to the very trends you’re writing about?
A: It’s complicated. You have two things happening: You have the cultural and economic reality of men falling apart and traditional masculinity falling apart. And one thing you can say about Trump is that he is not a traditional patriarch. He has a wife who’s not even in the White House. And you could say the same of Duterte in the Philippines and of Putin. They’re parodies of masculinity. They’re hyper-masculine, but they’re also totally unsure of their masculinity, and they parade it around. I mean, look at the fact the president of the United States cannot tie a tie. My father took me aside and taught me how to do this when I was eight. He can’t shake hands. These are the basic building blocks of traditional masculine style, and he’s a parody of it. What we’re seeing now is not just a backlash against feminism. When you look at guys like [Jesse] Helms in the ’80s or even Reagan and Bush, there was a real political backlash against feminism. This is different. This is a parodic recreation of the destruction of traditional masculinity. Look at these hollow men. Look at Steve Bannon who wears sweat pants, who doesn’t shave. Or Yiannopoulos who is just a clown. This is toxic masculinity. It’s new. To see it as a return to the past is a mistake. It’s the breakdown of traditional masculinity, rather than its retrenchment.
Q: You reject male feminists. Why?
A: In the book I say I’d never call myself a feminist, and that the world doesn’t need male feminists. To me, there’s two definitions of feminism. One is that you believe that women are equal human beings; that’s not really a philosophy, it’s just obvious. And the other is that you’re actually fighting for women: you’re promoting women and working towards the betterment of women. So I don’t really mind it when Trudeau calls himself a feminist because, you know, he did the half-female cabinet; that’s something to be proud of. On the other hand, when you look at that recent Russian spousal abuse law or attacks on abortion in the U.S, you have to say that’s a human rights issue, and feminism is just human rights.
Q: So feminism has outlived its purpose?
A: I cannot imagine why a woman would ever call herself anything but a feminist. But a man calling himself a feminist, what does that mean? The answer is he wants to be taken as a good guy. Your choice is between saying you’re a feminist and raising a flag at a “Take Back the Night” rally and being a men’s rights activist, which is basically the only two ways men have of talking about gender right now, I mean that’s just ridiculous. That’s just two extremes that are totally useless.
Q: Anne-Marie Slaughter spoke of the need for a “men’s movement,” separate from “men’s rights” groups which you criticize. Do you see that as an answer?
A: We’re stuck between two things. One, the economy is changing everything. And men need to deal with that. Our response to it has been rage, stupidity and conscious avoidance of dealing with what the reality of being a man might be outside of empty concepts from ancient history. Meanwhile, studies show that men are not taking women’s job, which are good jobs. Being a nurse is an excellent job.
Q: But it’s what the economist Nancy Folbre defines as “caring labour,” which is not adequately compensated.
A: Exactly. So what is about to happen is that men who define themselves as breadwinners are going to have to leave the traditional iconography of masculinity behind if they want to be breadwinners. And we have absolutely no cultural or social way of doing that yet, and it’s a potential disaster; there’s just so much anger and outrage and constant attacks from all sides of the political spectrum, mostly from horrific misogynist websites. But the position is also very hopeful. When you look at research and trends, things are improving on almost every front, even housework. Male housework involvement has not changed since the ’80s, since like 1985. It’s very mysterious because men’s engagement in child care and in cooking has gone way up. The division [between how much housework men and women do] is declining across all advanced economies—not for the reasons that people want, which is men are doing more, but because women are doing less of it, but even then, the trend is getting towards equality.
Q: There’s a chapter on pornography which is destined to be controversial. You reject the handwringing about porn, and also discuss what you call the “pornography paradox. Could you elaborate?
A: That’s probably my favourite essay in the book. No one would publish it because the conclusions are too shocking. One [paradox] is that pornography follows in that wake of women’s liberation. The first instances of hard-core pornography were in late 18th-century in France, “the Golden Age of Women.” The next wave in the 20th century comes from Sweden, one of the first countries where women voted. Then Germany, again, at the forefront of progress. Then America in the ’80s, when women were closing the pay gap. And Japan, same thing. So that’s one paradox—as you get closer to equality, you get more pornography. True patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia do not allow pornography because women are not allowed to turn their bodies into a commodity; women are chattel.
Research has found the arrival of pornography in a society leads to a decrease in rape, which doesn’t make any sense because there’s also a huge amount of research that men exposed to pornography become more violent and more misogynistic in the immediate aftermath.
Q: You write that the average 14-year-old boy who is at a formative age sexually has seen a woman anally penetrated with a baseball bat. They see women literally as a sexual object; how is that not going to imprint their attitudes to intimacy?
A: That is the $30-million question. I don’t know what the consequences will be. I talk to my young friends with Tinder, where basically they can have sex with a stranger by swiping on phone. And to me, from when I was a kid, that sounds like paradise, right? It sounds like, how could we not be so grateful for technology? They don’t experience it that way at all. And I think it’s nearly impossible to tell what technology actually does to people. What I am sure of is that the pursuit of intimacy is the key, and that is what people want. And it won’t change how aggressive sexuality gets. It won’t change how much pornography there is. It won’t change how easy it is to have casual sex. People are still chasing an intimate relationship. One of the things about the easier sex gets, the less intimate every sexual act gets. In the Victorian period, a kiss was like a f–k. And now, you know, when actual sexual acts become so easy, their intimacy declines and their meaning declines. I think it actually gets harder with the more pornography there is. The pornography paradox is very real. I won’t deny that I find this stuff absolutely terrifying. I think it’s totally unclear where it’s going.
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Q: Your wife, Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life magazine, provided footnotes offering her perspective or rebuking you at times. How did that come about?
A: Sarah was editing my book and she would leave these long, impassioned notes saying, “You’re totally wrong about this.” And I felt like if we’re going to be intimate, let’s go all the way. Let’s talk about money in a marriage. Whenever I read a book about a marriage, I always feel I’m being lied to.
Q: So you need both voices?
A: That was the idea. Marriage is not one point of view: it’s a constant back and forth over different perspectives—a healthy marriage, anyway. And marriage is an an inherently contradictory state. It involves the fusion of two people into one thing. And it’s also love, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s got glory in its drudgery. Marriage is this black box which is the key to all social and political problems; the family is the unit.