Monday, 18 February 2013

Masculinity in the dock

By Bill Dixon

A jury at Nottingham Crown Court are told that a Derby man was responsible for the death of six of his ten children in a house fire when a plot to frame his ex-girlfriend went tragically wrong. Five male members of staff at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester are accused of abusing the young women they were paid to teach. The world’s most famous disabled sportsman, a Paralympic champion and, uniquely, an Olympian too, is in custody in Pretoria facing allegations of murder after the woman in his life was shot four times. Also in South Africa, a 17 year old girl is gang-raped, mutilated and left for dead by an unknown number of men.

Only one of these men – Chetham’s former director of music, Michael Brewer – has been convicted of any offence and you may well ask what links events in council-owned semi in Derby last May with behaviour at an elite music school over the last 40 years, the shooting of a minor local celebrity in a luxury home on an exclusive, gated golf estate and a brutal attack on a very ordinary working class young woman who seems to have spent her last few hours at a sports bar. For some observers Mick Philpott’s domestic arrangements make him an archetypal member of what Charles Murray famously called the underclass. The men responsible for attacking Anene Booysen in the farming town of Bredasdorp may turn out to be, like her, black and not very well off. But if class or ‘race’ are relevant here, how do we explain the behaviour of not one but five brilliant musicians in prestigious and relatively well paid jobs? And what about the national and international sporting icon that is (or was) Oscar Pistorius?

The common factor of course is that all these alleged offenders are men. And they are accused of either killing or abusing children or women, often, as in the case of the Chetham’s teachers and the Bredasdorp rape-murderers, very young women or girls. We do not know whether the allegations made against these men are true and may never know exactly why they did what they did. But one thing is clear from what we have been told thus far: the ability of these men to exercise power over a woman or women more generally is likely to be deeply implicated in their behaviour.

According to the prosecution, Philpott was a ‘very controlling and manipulative man’ who wanted to punish his ex-lover for rejecting him. The teachers at Chetham were confident that they could treat their young pupils as they pleased, and molest them more or less at will. That several of them went on to successful careers elsewhere suggests that their confidence was not entirely misplaced. Anene Booysen would have had no chance when she was set upon by a group of older, stronger men. Precisely what happened at the Pistorius residence in the early hours of Valentine’s Day remains a mystery. But the omens are not good and it would be no surprise if Reeva Steenkamp was not the victim of mistaken identity but the latest in a long line of women to have stepped out of line too often or too far and paid the ultimate price at the hands of a very angry man.

None of this is to say that men are to blame for everything that is wrong with the world. Being a man myself, I hope not. But it has been a very bad week indeed for certain kinds of hegemonic masculinity.

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