August 17, 2005

Domestic provision and disempowerment

Follow-up to Public life and scrutiny from L'Etrangère

Part 2 of 'Masculinities and Unemployment chapter

Simon: Nature – and this is what people don’t take into account sometimes – nature of a man is to defend a woman… There’s something inbuilt, there’s a gene there… in general it’s the man who looks after her…
Ben: There’s something inside men that makes them want to provide for his wife. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying women are soft, because they’ve got things to do, things like having a baby – but the thing is it’s nature that the man protects her and the children.
Simon: It goes back to the caveman days – a woman would stay at home while the guy goes out with his spear to fight the sabre-toothed tiger and the vagabonds or whatever.

Traditionally, employment means that a man will earn a wage and bring this back to the home. Simon and Ben employ a traditional discourse in relation to the sexual division of labour: that men belong in the public arena and women in the private, domestic sphere, and that men should provide for and protect their wives and children. In presenting this traditional version of masculinity, they draw on arguments about a ‘natural’ sexual division of labour – it is “something inside men” that “makes them want to provide”, “something inbuilt”, a “gene”. Ben evades criticism and accusations of sexism by asserting “I’m not saying women are soft”, but simultaneously constructs both the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as inflexible and essentialist. Through his reference to “the caveman days”, Simon uses ‘history’ as a further rhetorical device to establish the authority of the ‘provider’ discourse, implying not only that this gender order is natural, but also immutable throughout time.

In adhering to an essentialist construction of gender relations, unemployment may be interpreted as an assault on masculine pride, for this discourse not only links the position of (male) breadwinner to economic independence, but also to social status and ‘respect’. A sense of disempowerment and emasculation manifests itself in patterns of discourses around domestic provision, with the men voicing feelings of anxiety, guilt and resentment as a direct response to their inability to provide. Furthermore, the connection between failing to provide and feeling less of a man coincides with talk of losing ‘your’ woman:

Ben: Relationships are more insecure nowadays… the missing word’s trust. When you’re unemployed, don’t forget that you are then at a low, a low point in your life, so anything that your wife does – when she’s out at a job, you wonder who’s she seeing, who’s she talking about, somebody talks to her. And then you get paranoid.
Sam: Yeah, for men, there is a guilt associated with unemployment.

In voicing these feelings, however, they consciously position themselves outside discourses that equate unemployed masculinity with vulnerability and insecurity, speaking about the situation in abstract rather than personal terms:

Sam: It’d stick in my throat. If I was unemployed and couldn’t get work, to rely on a woman earning on my behalf.
Simon: An awful lot of husbands don’t want their wives to have a career because they still want to be the biggest wage packet in the house.
Ben: This doesn’t apply to everyone but my wife goes out to work because she wants to go out to work… no man likes a woman going out to earn for him. And if they’re honest enough he’ll tell you. They might tell you otherwise…

Sam utilises the conditional tense when talking about unemployment – it would stick in his throat if he had to rely on a woman to provide for him. Ben consciously constructs his situation as ‘different’ from the experiences of other unemployed men whose wives may be forced to work to support the family by employing the language of freewill and choice – his wife “goes out to work because she wants to go out to work” (my emphasis), not because it is necessitated through circumstances beyond his control.

They discuss the issue in abstract, generalised terms and refer to their situations in the third person. This partially serves a rhetorical function, suggesting that ‘other men’ who are perhaps less honest or self-aware “might tell you otherwise”, but it also forms one means of coping with the social objectification that occurs through the process of being categorised as unemployed. This is an attempt to reconstruct themselves as legitimate ‘knowers’ and subjects rather than objects lacking agency and volition, a means of resisting and refusing the potentially emasculating effects of unemployment. However, this represents only an individualised coping strategy, rather than collective and co-operative action, and therefore poses little challenge to the prevalent discourse of masculine provision and the sense of disempowerment this may entail for men who are unemployed.

Unemployment is not the only way in which hegemonic discourses of masculinity may be challenged, and indeed the challenges posed by material changes in the labour market – an increase of women in particular labour markets and subsequent transformation in meanings surrounding men’s and women’s work – intersect with male unemployment to produce changes in subjectivities. Ben and Simon employ the language of pragmatism and necessity when talking about the entry of women into the workplace, constructing it as an economic necessity and suggesting that men and women alike are ensnared by social structures that pervade and influence daily existence:

Ben: Necessity. A lot of it’s to do with necessity. A woman has children, she’s got to work and get employment and she’ll take the job that men won’t take.
Simon: Yeah. Now women have got to work.
Ben: Yes. The thing is now what’s changed that is, is the house market. Because they now need two wages, they don’t need one. It’s a reality… They both need to work – both man and wife need to work to live.

Ben positions women in an inferior section of the labour market to that inhabited by men (“she’ll take the job that men won’t take”), which diminishes the threat that such changes in employment patterns pose to hegemonic versions of masculinity. Thomas takes up this point in a pro-feminist discourse, arguing that feminisation of the labour market does not necessarily represent true gender equality, but rather that sections of the job market where women are mostly concentrated tend to be those where people are underemployed and undervalued:
Thomas: That might be exploitation of a group i.e. women who are fifty one percent of the population. And they desperately need to earn money, and therefore they’ll take a job that we as males would not take…I think there is an awful lot of pressure on women from their husbands to take a non-career job, such as a checkout, rather than be a professional manager. I suggest that that happens, and is widespread.

Whereas attributing changes in gendered employment participation to the ‘reality’ of economic necessity does not unduly upset the traditional gender order, a greater threat is posed by women moving into sections of the labour market traditionally viewed as male, especially given that men do not feel that they can afford to move into traditionally female areas:

Ben: The nurses were resenting because the men – if you look at the nursing professions, most of the managers on the nursing side of it were women. They resented men coming into their profession – women don’t like men infiltrating their area. Likewise, I’ll never agree with a woman coming into a more physical job. What’s a woman want to be a welder for?

Here Ben represents the shift as an invasion of one sex into the other’s domain, adhering to traditional symbolic values that construct ‘men’s work’ as physical and ‘women’s work’ as caring and nurturing. Some of the other men expressed resentment at changes in the nature and content of men’s employment, reflected by accusations such as “women bring the salaries down”. It is thus not only unemployment but also changes in the labour market that threaten hegemonic discourses of masculinity, blurring a gender order hitherto perceived by many as clearly demarcated and irrevocably separated.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Arianna


    25 Oct 2006, 18:38

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