Nigel, you’ve heard of him, you probably even know a few of him. He’s the bloke-y type, that goes with the flow, never really makes any decisions, does what’s expected, needs a bit of looking after, and never really grows up. This vision of the boy who never grows up is everywhere in modern media, from Peter Pan to XTC’s (and now Nouvelle Vague) Nigel, to any role Ben Stiller has ever played.
Nigel is the omega male. And he’s an image a growing number of men are paying attention to because they don’t like it. And they don’t like that to women, that sorry image has become “most men.”
Alex Linsley and Marc Quinn started the Man Collective at Oxford University to combat this image. They held a Gathering this month to acknowledge the source of the omega male, and to find a strategy to do something about it.
Marc describes the omega male like this, “there’s not much going on.” The omega male feels a certain responsibility to finish university, get a job, a house, a car, kids. He does it, Marc feels, because that’s what’s expected of him, regardless of what he actually wants.
Jessica Grose at Slate wrote recently “The image of the American woman has gone through several upheavals since the 1950s, but the masculine ideal seems fixed in cultural aspic: Think slick ad executive Don Draper in Mad Men and the WWII heroes in the Tom Hanks-produced HBO series The Pacific. So his confused, paralyzed counterpart is cropping up in ever-more variations on TV and in movies: the omega male.”
Psychotherapist and men’s counseling specialist Paul Morrison explains, “Now that the demands on men from global consumer society have grown more complex and confusing, the institutions that held men in their roles with a certain kind of dignity, the role of a breadwinner had a certain kind of dignity and also had a kind of responsibility attached to it… those institutions, trade unions, community organizations, no longer exist. We’re in an era that’s very confusing. Men’s self esteem is either what you own, what you wear, what kind of car you drive.”
In other words, it’s the 1950’s male but without the sense of dignity. The rituality and gathering inherent in men’s identity changed as feminism changed women, it also inherently changed the “otherness” of men. But that change has gone largely unacknowledged and unexplored. And so we get the omega male.
“A lot of people seem to stay lads for a long time, through their 20’s their 30’s,” Morrison says, “They lack that moment where they become adults. In school a lot of boys have fallen behind or dropped out, not having a self-motivating community the way girls seems to.”
Because women talk to each other. Feminism resulted in a shared, communal dialogue amongst women (leaving aside, for a moment the various types of feminisms that emerged, the lesbian and bisexual and transgender discourses that came later). Feminism made women a group.
Men as a group, experience a deep sense of shame, but they don’t feel the same sense of belonging to a group that women do. The participants at the Gathering concluded that shame used to be healthily dealt with in traditionally men’s institutions.
Where does this “shame” come from? The answer varies by age.
The older men, those born nearer the last World War likened the origin to “horrific” images of men returning home maimed, concentration camps. The images created a sense that violence is “what men did.”
And feminism, but not overtly. The men at the gathering were careful to iterate (and not just for the benefit of the two women in the room), that feminism has worked wonders to galvanize women. But men’s sense of shame was subconsciously shaped by women’s “subversive” reactions in the first stages of feminism, explains psychotherapist and specialist in men’s counseling, Paul Morrison.
He says in women’s minds, they created an internal picture of men that, “ ‘amongst ourselves, we know that men are really stupid, we’ll prop up their egos by letting them think they are really in charge when in fact we’re in charge,’ as far as the home goes. It was a way for women to maintain their self-esteem, when actually they were second class. And then that picture of men as actually being stupid but nevertheless kind of being allowed to appear to be in charge became a dominant image in TV sitcoms and film and comedy-- that men were klutzes, incompetent, emotionally illiterate.”
As traditional institutions have eroded to make way for social equality, nothing has replaced them. Women and minority groups have social constructs of community and academic studies. Where as men have failed to form the same cohesiveness, except in the role of the other.
One participant talked about his experience assessing Brighton and Hove’s health agenda. In Brighton and Hove, 40% of men can be characterized as fit and healthy, the council wants to make this 70% by 2020. “They are committed, which is fantastic, to that goal,” he explains, “Brilliant! They’re committed to increasing physical activity from 40% to 70% of men! What’s their strategy, then? The commission means to target women, old people, young people, black people, white people, green people, disabled people... people called Brian and Kevin, but no men! And yet they’re going to increase it from 40 to 70% of men but they’ve got no strategy to do it? Why?! Oh, because men do sport.”
Another participant says that what is needed is “a collective exercise of men awakening… We need mentors.”
He continues, “It’s easy to see what happens when we don’t have mentoring... they’re out in the streets throwing bricks through windows and doing all sorts of stuff. And they’re angry, they’re angry because a natural process hasn’t happened, a natural process that a boy should be contained, held by men and it is not. It’s a wild energy and he’s angry, I believe. As we get older, we hold that in and we conform but we’re still angry and it comes out sideways.”
Men feel the same about cultural norms and expectations, feel the same pressures that women do, the participants acknowledge, but men haven’t dealt with it very well. Several participants noted that shame causes internal anger; “I’m petrified of my own anger” says one. Men’s counseling, they lament is something that’s not often thought of because “men” are the dominant face in society.
Throughout there is recognition that many men’s worries about self-reliance, status, and strength are shared by women. One participant points out, “the reality is that women’s lives are also governed by restrictive roles and expectations.”
And men’s roles are changing more today as more men are making alternate lifestyle choices that finds them as primary caregivers. In addition, young men in first generation immigrant communities face greater pressures to move with in a cultural sphere their families aren’t familiar with, while dealing with men’s issues.
Andrea Cornwall, masculinities expert, at the University of Sussex comments, “One of the most important insights from several decades of research and activism on issues of masculinity is that there is no single masculinity rather, in any society, there are a range of ways of being a man that are valued differently by different social groups. Some masculinities are associated with enjoyment of unfair privilege, discrimination against women - and often also gay, bi and trans men - and the perpetuation of a highly unequal gender order. Others are associated with men playing a more equal role in domestic work, being less dominant in the public as well as private arena, and being less sexist in the ways they view and treat women.”
The Man Collective is in an early stage of activism. At the Gathering, the discussions focused on understanding the problem, the challenges in front of them, the image of men they hope to project, and how to begin to approach other men.
“I want other men to wake up in the morning and have a life they are joyous about,” Alex says.
Making that happen will be quite a task, especially with the negative backlash Alex experienced for setting up a group in the first place. Even though men’s groups have existed since the 1970’s, the participants repeatedly expressed the feeling that they were part of a “secret society,” which to them is almost a success because they aren’t trying to be “brash about it.”
But going forward they will need to be less of a “secret society,” and present a face that is non-threatening to the gains women have made, but also engages men in a empowering but non-privileging manner.
Cornwall comments, "A challenge for the new generation of men's organizing as men is not just to promote ways of being men that are more egalitarian, but also to seek to make male privilege and disrespect for women uncool and as socially unacceptable as it has become politically unacceptable."
A key to moving forward is re-establishing mentoring roles for men, by men. Alex and Marc have done that with the Man Collective, incorporating previous generations of the men’s movement, many of whom are already working as mentors. The next steps the Collective is feeling out, but it will include getting “men” to acknowledge that anger is a healthy feeling, using mentorships to show young men how to deal with their anger in healthy ways. They plan to start by encouraging men to get to know their own stories, and share them with other men.