The quiet renaissance in male culture

THE evidence is everywhere. On the radio, where popular new group Cake sing “I need your understanding, I need your love so much/you tell me that you love me so, you tell me that you care/but when I need you baby, you’re never there”, and The Whitlams croon about the aphrodisiac effect of loneliness.

It’s on the TV where Mikey Robbins and Paul McDermott of Good News Week fame attract mixed audiences with their matter-of-fact progressive attitudes to gender relations. It’s on the silver screen, in films like The Brothers McMullen and Good Will Hunting. And it’s in best-selling non-fiction and fiction like Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father and Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars.

A renaissance in male culture, in which male artists and public personalities are mapping new ways of relating to women and to one another, has begun. Many of these developments are nothing short of radical.

Standard screen depictions of male friendships are characterised by aggressive, sometimes even violent, interaction between the male protagonists. If the sound of a film like White Men Can’t Jump is lowered, the facial expressions and body language of Billy (Woody Harrelson) and Sidney (Wesley Snipes) makes it impossible to tell if they are friends or enemies. But even without the sound, it is impossible to mistake the relationship in Good Will Hunting between Will (Matt Damon) and Chuckie (Ben Affleck) for anything other than the Australian Oxford’s definition of friendship: a relationship in which one is jointed to another in intimacy and affection.

This change to the definition and description of male friendship is the most startling, and to my mind most moving, aspect of the male renaissance.

In many ways, the traditional power topography of male-female intimate relations has given way under the pressure of women’s organised and individual insistence on change. These demands, and their accompanying validation of female emotional and sexual power, have been articulated and codified in alternative and mainstream female artistic output.

The same, however, can not be said of the change in men’s relationships with one another being mapped out in the male cultural renaissance. Feminist analysis and interest in male-to-male relations has been scant, because feminism is a movement about women and because the power analysis central to feminist thinking provides little insight into the shortcomings of male-to-male relations.

Instead, these changes seem both by and for men, with women either benignly absent or featuring only peripherally.

In Romulus, My Father, Raimond Gaita walks us through his relationship with his father and his father’s best friend, who joined together to raise him when his mother became incapacitated by mental illness. Gaita’s style is appealingly understated as he uses the everyday experiences of his turbulent life to reveal how his father Romulus lived – and was in essence defined – by the moral codes he passed on to his philosopher son.

In Buy Now, Pay Later (off the Whitlams’ best-selling album Eternal Nightcap), Tim Freedman urges his friend Charlie to abandon his heroin habit and return to caring about and being cared for by his friends and girlfriend. Everything about the song’s characteristics and performance – from the lyrics to the tempo of the music – seek to emphasise, rather than use false bravado to disguise, the pain and disillusionment Freedman feels as a result of his friend’s drug-enforced emotional absence.

The central protagonists of the new male renaissance are mostly, though not exclusively, members of Generation X (Gaita, for instance, is a Baby Boomer). Gangland author Mark Davis might argue that this partially explains the indifference of the largely Baby Boom cultural ruling class to the sort of generational change seen in the renaissance.

But many in Generation X also see little in the renaissance about which to crow. Their matter-of-fact attitude is summed up well by my 29-year-old partner’s disinterest in the central theme of this piece: that the progressive approach that Generation X males take towards male-female/male-male relations is worthy of note. “That’s just the way things are now,” he says impatiently, “what’s there to talk about?”

Perhaps. But the men of Generation X seem to appreciate the depth of revelation and intimacy possible in their relationships with women and other men. And, as any good behavioralist knows, if positive behavior is to stay positive, it needs reinforcement.

But this is only true if the behavior is being performed to please another. And perhaps this is the nugget of the low-key way Generation X men regard their new relationship approach: that they are doing it for themselves.

They have not changed to earn pats of approval from their fathers or mothers, previous generations of feminists, or the women they live with and love. Rather, they act as they do because this is the way to unlock the deepest and most satisfying intimacy potential of their relationships – be they with women or other men. And that is its own reward.