This morning I had the pleasure of emailing my colleague Ziauddin Yousafzai to pass on my congratulations to his daughter Malala and to congratulate him and his wife Tor Pekai as well. Today Malala (along with the older child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi of India) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Some have said she is far too young to receive this most prestigious of all prizes. But beyond a personal tribute to her courage, smarts, and sheer tenacity, I believe the award will show other young people not only the huge impact they can have but also how desperately they are needed to rid the world of its ills. (And besides, if you had heard the story of how, in a private meeting in the White House, she challenged President Obama to stop dropping drone bombs and start sending more aid to schools and hospitals, you’d have no doubt about her ability to stand up to those with power in the name of peace.)

The prize is also a tribute to Malala’s parents. Malala has often said she was inspired by her father Ziauddin, a teacher who stood up to Taliban threats and opened a school for girls and boys. On a number of occasions, Ziauddin and I have talked about how important it is to respect our children’s ideas and independence as much as safe and possible. But in their case, the word “safe” seemed ruled out from the start. Ziauddin tells me he never imagined in his wildest dreams that the threats against him would be carried out against any of his children.  As a parent whose moments of fear for my children’s independence centered around small everyday things like the first time they took the subway or streetcar on their own, it is not only impossible to put myself in the shoes of Ziauddin and Tor Pekai but, really, awe-inspiring.

Finally, the award is a rebuke to fundamentalists of all religions who want to turn back the clock and deny basic rights to girls and women. It is true, not all of them want to deny girls the right to an education. But all seek to maintain women as second class citizens and control over their own bodies and their own lives.

And, now that I think of it, it is the fundamentalists of all religions who bring inter-group conflict and war. Any challenge to them is, indeed, a boost for peace.

To Malala, her parents, and brothers: my most heartfelt of congratulations!

 

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Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is my research associate. You can find her on Twitter @manishaclaire

The new Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy has been a “surprise” hit at the box office, earning over $100 million in North America since its release last week.

On the surface, GOTG showcases a new kind of superhero in Peter Quill, whose happy-go-lucky attitude (played with charm by Chris Pratt) stands out in a movie where almost every other character is hell-bent on revenge or a quick buck. On a quest to retrieve a magical orb from an evil overlord named Ronan, Peter is joined by a band of misfits including a talking raccoon and a giant magical tree, a vaguely alien being named Gamora and Drax, a man who wants to avenge his family’s murder at the hands of Ronan.

Actually, the movie’s plot isn’t important for this post, but then again, it’s not really important for the film either. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the soundtrack isn’t the only thing that’s vintage—the movie’s treatment of masculinity is disappointingly retro.

Over at Salon, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw talks about the ways GOTG portrays and promotes its female characters, arguing that while there are certain things that are laudable about the film in this respect, it feels engineered and ultimately doesn’t override the low-level misogyny that is played for laughs in the movie.

Much as Baker-Whitelaw thinks that GOTG fails women, I think it fails men as well. For a movie that supposedly represents a quirky new direction in superhero/space opera movies, GOTG relies on outdated and potentially destructive ideals of manhood.

As viewers, we don’t see how his mother’s death affects Peter as he grows up. The small references to his past are limited to a product placement (the Sony Walkman) he carries around with him, with tapes given to him by his mother, and we are supposed to take that as a sign that he hasn’t yet dealt with his grief. But any sadness he might have expressed is shoved aside to make room for him to show off his womanizing (by forgetting about a woman he just slept with), his virility (by making a weird black-light joke that goes on too long), and his fearlessness (fighting evil with a smile on his face). Any time he feels sad about his mother, he keeps the thought to himself, sometimes going out of his way to hide things from his friends (like his mother’s last gift to him, which Rocket the genetically engineered Raccoon finds on the ship). Being able to compartmentalize his pain is apparently how Peter can get on with his life, rather than dealing with his feelings in a healthy way.

Drax is another character who has experienced a great deal of sadness in his life. His wife and daughter were murdered by the evil Ronan, and his sole mission is to kill Ronan in retaliation. In one scene (perhaps the most emotional in the whole movie), Drax gets drunk and makes a reckless decision that almost kills everyone on the team. When pressed about why he did it, he starts to explain his feelings of deep pain and sadness at losing his family, and how those feelings cause him to act the way he does. Rocket Raccoon has no patience for this, snapping that everyone has “stuff,” and that the best way to get over it is to funnel his sadness into murderous rage, targeted to Ronan. Rocket’s remark is in character for him, but it shuts down any possibility of exploring Drax’s character, and also tells viewers that the most effective man is one who doesn’t access his feelings (unless those feelings lead to a climactic bit of violence).

For GOTG’s male characters, managing sadness (or rather, eliminating sadness) is achieved through anger, or rage, or a complete emotional shutdown. Wouldn’t it be more powerful to see a male superhero face his feelings, rather than see him punch them into submission?

 

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A version of this post originally appeared in The Telegraph (London, UK) on January 30, 2014

It’s been many years since I’ve heard anyone utter the words, “Act ladylike.” But it’s hard to go more than a few hours without hearing some version of “be a man”.

I couldn’t even escape it this week while seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II when a hanger-on tries to cheer up the embattled king by making fun of his enemies as “boys with women’s voices [who] strive to speak big.” It’s been a long, long time since simply being a male was enough to make you a real man.

That’s because we give “real men” real rewards.

There’s a cottage industry of women and men who now bewail there are no real men left, that men have become feminised, and that men are the real losers in the feminist revolution.

I’ve spent the past 35 years saying all this is nonsense. After all, we still live in a world where men earn more money and pull most of the political, religious, economic and cultural levers. And when it comes to the exercise of violence, whether against women or other men, men still have the franchise, if not the total monopoly.

The rewards for being “real men” are admiration in the world of men, freedom of movement, a voice of authority, respect, and tangible privileges at work and at play. In fact, we’ve had a de facto affirmative action programme for men that stretches back about 8,000 years — the programme known, simply, as patriarchy.

But the astounding thing is that the very ways that men have constructed societies of men’s power also bring enormous cost to men ourselves. Men die younger than women, are less likely to ask for help when in physical or emotional need, are more likely to be addicted to alcohol and other drugs, be killed in workplace accidents, and commit suicide. Men live in enormous fear of being exposed as weak. As not being real men.

All this is because our very notions of masculinity are made up, ephemeral. From an early age we bathe boys in notions about a masculinity that requires the suppression of a range of feelings and human possibilities. At a certain age, we require that boys set up emotional boundaries from their friends. Almost from the start, we say that the tasks of nurturing and caregiving are not for them.

Boys and men strive to live up to these impossible ideals. But the more we do, the more we must create an emotional distance from women, from children, and, in a strange way (since the world is dominated by elaborate men’s clubs) from other men. It is a recipe for enormous isolation.

That is why I have long felt that we men have a two-fold task.

One is that, if we want to truly get to the roots of what ails us, we need to embrace and actively support gender equality. We must actively challenge all forms of men’s power, whether in the workplace, our places of worship, the sports field, the kitchen, nursery or our bedrooms. It’s not only the right thing to do. Simply put, women’s emancipation is also key to our own happiness because the ways that we men have collectively constructed and individually internalised men’s power is not only devastating to the women we love but, in a different and paradoxical way, is devastating to men ourselves.

And so we must fight for gender equality and against all forms of abuse and violence against women. This has been an area of my own volunteer work in co-founding White Ribbon, a campaign to engage men and boys to work to end violence against women that has spread to seventy or eighty countries.

At the same time we need to transform what it means to be a man. To embrace the diverse possibilities of manhood…of humanness. To raise our sons to not be afraid of emotions or of being outed as not real men.

Perhaps there is no more important place to start than the transformation of fatherhood. I don’t want fathers helping out. I want fathers doing an equal share of parenting. And so, I’m putting time into a new international network, MenCare, which has the goal – dramatic but, I believe, realisable – of men doing fifty percent of the care work on the planet.

All this was why I was in London last week to speak at the Southbank Centre’s “Being a Man” festival.

Simply to say, yes, let’s talk about our experiences of being men. But, actually, let’s stop forcing destructive and self-destructive versions of manhood on each other. Women, men, children, and the planet will be much better for it.

To watch my talk “Men and Feminism” at the Being a Man Festival, click here!
For my talk on men’s violence, click here!

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White Ribbon Campaign

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the White Ribbon Campaign, men working to end violence against women.  What started as an idea three of us discussed around a kitchen table has now spread to 60 countries.  Visit www.whiteribbon.com or campaign sites around the world.
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