Fintan O’Toole: 'The worst masculine trait is violence … men hit people more than women do'

How to be a Man: Patrick Freyne talks to The Irish Times columnist about boyhood, feminism and balancing family and work life

Fintan O'Toole talks to Patrick Freyne about what it is to be man and how feminism played a crucial role in his own formation.

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How to be a Man is a series exploring masculinity and the challenges facing men in Ireland today

As a child what did masculinity look like?
I remember the first time we got a television… Muhammed Ali or Cassius Clay, as he then was, had just beaten Sonny Liston and was roaring `I oughta be the king of the world.' And I think that was what a man was. A man was ‘king of the world’. There was a definite sense that men had privilege and being man was better than being a woman and being a boy was better than being a girl.

Was masculinity something you found difficult to fit in with?
One of the first things I remember actually [was] we were out at Seapoint beach in Dublin.. I was going into the sea and I didn’t want to go into the sea. And it was nothing to do with the sea, it was the fact that my mother had put me in a bathing costume that was slightly frilly. I remember vividly it was a green thing… and it had frills. And I was embarrassed because it was a girl’s costume and I had this hideous sense of embarrassment… And I was two.

There was no mystery about it. You were told every day what boys did and what girls did. There was a kind of certain grey zone up to about seven when boys could play with girls if there were no other boys around [but] seven was the age of reason in the Catholic Church so by the time you were seven, you had to become a little man.

[From then on] you didn’t play with girls, you didn’t mix with girls, you certainly didn’t play with girl’s toys and you didn’t cry… You reached this point where showing emotion, certainly showing any tender emotion, was a female thing and it was shameful for a boy to be doing that. It showed you hadn’t developed properly.

Was there a distinctly Irish form of manliness?
The extra layer in Ireland was the sheer number of priests and Christian brothers … Being celibate was very definitely a way to be a man and in a peculiarly Irish sense it was the best way to be man because you didn’t have to deal with women at all. The ultimate man was the parish priest and the only female he had to deal with was the housekeeper who served the tea.

And you can’t separate from the models of masculinity that were around when I was a kid, the absolute terror of homosexuality…. probably the worst thing you could be was a girl, but since you obviously weren’t [a girl] the next worst thing you could be was queer… I’d say 95 per cent of the insults when I was a kid were accusations of homosexuality. Your masculinity was very much shaped by not just being a man, but being the kind of man who was different from some imagined homosexual…. There was so little outward homosexuality. You had a vague notion of John Inman from Are You Being Served on the television and that was about it. A homosexual was an effeminate man and therefore effeminacy itself was tied up with perversion, with lack of normality, with inferiority. There was no question – this wasn’t difference, this was a sense of being a pariah and nobody wanted to be like that.

How did feminism affect your life?
If I were a believer, I would get down on my knees and thank god for feminism… You had this bundle of weird, unresolved, contradictory neurotic notions of masculinity and then feminism came along and said ‘actually these things are all invented – it doesn’t have to be like this.’

Feminism was the greatest liberation for men of my generation because it meant you could start to question these roles and all of these ideas you had been given. Particularly if you didn’t feel comfortable with those ideas. I mean, I was never much of a manly man anyway, so feminism was a great relief apart from anything else. It meant you didn’t have to try to live up to this stereotype that you were not very good at.

How was your life different from your father’s?
Feminism in Ireland wasn’t just theoretical. It meant that things like contraception [were] available which completely revolutionised sexual behaviour. It meant you could have sexual relationships without the absolute terror of pregnancy.

I think feminism, apart from anything else, gave people permission to talk about their sexuality, to talk about their feelings and to talk about who they were and what they wanted. So, I imagine [our] relationships were an awful lot more open than our parents were.

And there were things that people don’t associate with feminism at all that were utterly mind-blowing, like actually being at the birth of your children. It was inconceivable that a proper man would be anywhere near the birth of the child [previously]. To be part of the process of your children being born, what more profound thing can happen to anybody? None of that would have happened without feminism.

How were you with nappy changing and housework?
Well I suppose in any relationships you would get two very different versions of this but I think I was great [he laughs]. I wouldn’t have dreamt of not changing nappies.

Nature has this joke which is played more on middle-class parents than on working-class parents, which is called “breastfeeding”. Breastfeeding imposes on young mothers a very particular set of obligations which can’t be taken away.... But you try to do as much as you can. And you hope you did your bit.

Politics is still very male dominated…
It’s not just politics…. We in the media like to point quite rightly at the Dail and talk about at the huge underrepresentation women, but if you go to a literary festival with well-thinking people who would all think of themselves feminists, how many panels are there where there’s not even a token woman? I still haven’t had the courage to go to one of those things and say ‘I’m just not doing this.’… Maybe that’s the point we have to reach.

Do you ever feel unmanly?
No…. The way you could be unmanly was to do with your body. It was to do with being crap at sports and I was never very good at them anyway, so you kind of get used to that. But also as you get more middle aged you just don’t care about those things anymore… You’re just in this sort of dying animal anyway. It’s probably just as true for women as it is for men at this age.

Do you ever envy younger men?
Maybe everyone looks back at their own time and thinks that their age was better, but I actually think [my generation] went through a fairly privileged time… That first wave of feminism was really, really liberating.

There’s been a huge backlash [against feminism]. There’s been an enormously structured, serious, well-funded, well-coordinated backlash that’s done through advertising, through movies to undo a lot of the work that was done challenging gender roles

Now, if I was gay, you’d have a totally different perspective on this because undoubtedly for gay or lesbian or transgender people there’s been an enormous change and it has been largely change for the better.

But looking at my own kids, I think that when they were in college things were so much more sexualised and so much more neurotic around gender roles, particularly for women, of course, but you can’t have women stuck in these gender roles without men, even in a slightly more privileged way, also having to deal with them.

What’s the worst male trait?
The worst most damaging masculine trait is violence… the fact is, men hit people more than women do… Men are still encouraged in all sorts of ways to express themselves violently and that’s not just physical violence, it's psychological violence, it’s through domination. It’s through the idea that you can’t be a man unless you’re in some sort of dominant position. That’s innately violence. It produces not just the desire but perhaps the need to be in charge of someone else, particularly women.

Is there such a thing as a ‘new man’?
I think there is such a thing as a new man, actually. I do think if you look back at the mainstream of masculinity, probably most men do behave differently… They probably are more thoughtful and considerate around others and think about their relationship with women in different ways… But I don’t think the broader expectations have actually left us. Until we start changing the way we work and the way we reward work, we’re really not going to get over those ludicrous gender stereotypes that we’re stuck with.

How do you balance family and work? Are you ever asked that?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked the question of how you balance your responsibilities as a father with your work. But every single woman in a position I’m in will be asked it all the time. There’s still this huge burden of care that’s placed on women that men can avoid and that changes everything about work and ambition and career and about power and domination.

And, you know, until we get to a point where those sorts of questions are as normal for prominent men as they are for prominent women, we certainly can’t be too smug about how much things have changed.

Is there a picture of you in that swimming suit?
I’ll ask. When you get to my age you’ve no shame left.

If you would like to add your voice to this series email howtobeaman@irishtimes.com

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