By Aaron Payne
“Does it rock the family boat if the woman earns more? No, it drives the boat into an iceberg, because the man will feel as if his penis is dropping off.” These were the words used by novelist Tony Parsons in a recent article in Grazia. Asked on to Radio 4’s Women’s Hour a week later, Parsons expanded on his point: “Somewhere deep inside my manly soul, I’m a breadwinner. That’s what I was born to be, and that’s what I am.”
Parsons’ appeal to a very old-school type of masculinity reminded me of an article written by Jonathan Rutherford for the New Statesman in March of this year. In it he argued that the Labour Party desperately needed to reconnect with men, for “in little more than one generation, the pillars that supported traditional masculine identities have collapsed… increasingly men can no longer follow their fathers and grandfathers in the role of family breadwinner.”
Both Parsons and Rutherford, unfortunately, are guilty of mistaking perception for reality. In truth, the notion of the male breadwinner is a fiction – it is a false ideal by which men have measured, and continue to measure themselves. In the period of the twentieth century prior to the Second World War, most families had at least two wage-earners, and often relied on female children to supplement household income. Indeed, working-class families supported entirely by the father’s earning’s were likely to live in poverty. During the 1980s, in a sea-change of sorts, working mothers became the rule, rather than the exception. Men have rarely if ever actually fulfilled their ‘traditional’ role as the breadwinner. But despite these economic realities, so evidently contrary to Parson’s and Rutherford’s beliefs, the myth of the male breadwinner remains pervasive: Parsons received some strong support from male listeners via text during his Radio 4 interview.
It is more important now than ever that men like Tony Parsons and Jonathan Rutherford are challenged, and that they are challenged by other men. It is for men’s own sake that they must relieve themselves of the Atlas-like pressure to support their families. There are roughly three million people unemployed in this country. British industry is a pale ghost of what it has been, and for better or worse, we are now a service economy. Women’s wages continue to rise and increasingly men will be faced with a situation in which they are as likely to earn less than their female partner as they are to earn more. It is crucial, with Tony Parson’s emasculated man lurching shame-facedly towards us, missing penis and all, from the horizon of an ideological, government-imposed austerity, to challenge the notion of the male breadwinner, and to expose it for the fallacy that it is. Unemployed men should not have to feel emasculated by their inability to provide financially for their families. Men earning less than their female partners should not feel, somewhere in the back room of their ‘manly soul’, that they’re not the man they ought to be.
The self-imposed pressure felt by men to provide for their families is confining, emotionally harmful, and alienates men from the very family that they seek to protect. Selina Todd, History Fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, has recently completed a project concerning post-war Britain and the working class. Interviewing elderly men from a variety of class and working backgrounds, and reading the personal testimonies of some fifty more, she found that the only regret shared between them was this: that they’d spent too much time working, and too little time with their children. Tony Parsons, that fine example of ‘real’ manliness, may yet find himself in an identical position. I sincerely hope that the rest of Britain’s men do not.