I’m a pensioner activist living in the U.K., still very much engaged in struggles around personal and political change in the men and masculinities field. I’m also wanting to play a part in challenging and changing the ageism that I find in gender politics.
I’m pushing 70, next February to be exact. Actually, I am not ‘pushing’, more like cautiously advancing after I collapsed a few weeks ago. These collapses in my life( I had a major one in 1986) are scary as hell, arising from an asthmatic breathlessness, heart problems and linked panic attacks while going up a twin-flight staircase when physically and emotionally exhausted. But these breakdowns, if you survive them, aren’t just negative. They also call into question everything that I assumed I knew about in terms of who I thought I was as a man. They also represent a painful mixture of bewildering chaos and also, sometimes, a gradual willingness to learn from inhabiting a different precarious, fragile and insecure body very unlike the speedy and vigorous bodies of some young men.
It’s through these older men’s confrontations with gendered, embodied selves that provoke a questioning of dominant models of masculinity. In a way, it’s the very fractured marginality of older men that allows them to take up new vantage points on the old, gendered and ageist norms of the culture and society they live within.
However, what I’m sensing at nearly 70, is a huge blockage and set of cultural barriers in the work on men and masculinities, despite some recent efforts, in breaking away from the relative silencing and othering of older men’s lives. There is still an obsession with youth culture and an over-emphasis on young men and middle-aged men’s lives at the expense of investigating the rich complexity and contradictoriness of older men’s lives and their potentially subversive contribution to men and masculinity debates.
Centrally, there has been an inadequate theorisation of the older, masculine subject in research. Older men have certainly not been valued in their own terms. Three, key aspects of this undervaluing are :
1. The internal complexity of the older, masculine subject, made up of contradictory desires, fantasies and shifting emotions, hasn’t been fully acknowledged.
2. Older men aren’t passive, static subjects. Although from a distance, older men’s lives seem hardly moving at all, in fact their lives are characterised by rapid, dynamic changes in their embodied selves.
3. Older men aren’t a homogeneous group. As you would expect, there is great cultural diversity and differences to be found in the separate lives of older men. It’s important to recognise how age and disabled relations intersect with gender relations and other social forces like class, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation etc.
It seems to me that for too long, older men have been positioned as the objects of the gaze of others, often younger and middle-aged, academic researchers rather than older men speaking for themselves about their intimate, bodily sensations and lived experiences. Perhaps it’s the right time to start changing some of those habits? So if you have older people’s stories to share and reflect upon, or any other comments please join in.
David Jackson : September 14th, 2009
I just have to quote Audre Lorde in saying "If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community."
The relationship that I have with my 95-year old stepfather is important to me, even if there are factors beyond the 55 year gap between us. I can see, in some ways, how his younger life has conspired to enforce one rigid pattern of outmoded masculinity into his worldview, so that, not being a labourer, not actively constructing material objects with my hands, but, rather, being a poet, I find myself fearing that I am a disappointment to him.
And when I see him being the perpetrator of domestic violence, verbal, social, monetary, against my mother, I find myself looking at the bases of my relationship with him as problematic. I love him, yet I cannot countenance his treatment of women, and I am in a bind where I cannot say anything about what I haven't personally seen, without adverse affects on my mother. So that, in keeping silent, I cannot protect her, at the same time as I am protecting her from potentially worse.
Underneath all this is the awareness that I am less concerned about what he thinks of me, and more about what I owe him, and what I can do to make his transition to death as unproblematic, and as unpainful as possible. I just don't want to see him suffer the way that he is.
It gets more complex, as inevitably it well, and there are so few areas for me to explore what he means to me, as my stepfather, and as a man, and how he impacts upon my sense of my own masculinity.
David, it's a delight to hear your voice on XY. I've long been a fan of your work. Your 1990 text 'Unmasking Masculinity: A critical autobiography' has been an inspiring and influential account of how profeminist men can and must critically examine our own gendered lives as an essential element in our personal and political work.