When a video was released showing Donald Trump boasting about how he liked to kiss and grab women, many believed his run for the White House was over. Instead, he defeated Hillary Clinton and has gone on to govern the US, cocky and unrepentant.
In parallel, the #MeToo movement emerged. It continues to call out – and cut down – powerful men who have bullied, harassed and assaulted women (and young men, too). In another sign that old gender rules are shifting, homophobia also appears to be in retreat throughout the West.
Traditional masculinity is evolving, says Monash sociologist Steven Roberts. He argues that this is particularly apparent if you direct your gaze away from the top of the power pyramid, to the place where young working-class men live and work.
In his book Young Working-Class Men in Transition, Dr Roberts interviews young men in the UK who are employed in what was traditionally considered women’s work – service jobs in the hospitality and retail sector.
He found these men were more likely than their middle-class counterparts to share domestic chores with their partners – for the practical reason that working-class families need two incomes to survive and cannot afford to hire domestic help.
“My book recounts these amazing, detailed, emotionally driven accounts of people’s lives,” Dr Roberts says.
“The literature tells us that working-class men don’t emote, because they are so stoic and hard. They would never tell you anything that really matters. But people are talking about the death of children, their happiness with the homo-social bonds they have – telling their mates that they love them ... this kind of thing is happening.”
He recognises that these green shoots are sprouting at a time when “masculinity is at a crossroads”.
“We also have all this other stuff that is happening with toxic masculinity, and the alt-right, and incels [involuntarily celibate men who are angry at women],” he says.
The contradictions in the contemporary landscape are a sign that gender roles are in flux, he says, and can also mean that positive changes are under-recognised.
For instance, some academics argue that working-class masculinity is responsible for an array of social problems, he says.
“Working-class men are positioned as homophobic, they are anti-feminine, they are the problem, let’s focus on them.”
He agrees that the previous generation of working-class men had difficulty adjusting to the new economy when the jobs they traditionally occupied – in mining or manufacturing, for instance – became obsolete.
“There’s a relatively famous piece of work from England with the subtitle ‘I can’t put a smiley face on it’. It’s all about how these men, who were in these jobs for many decades, couldn’t make that transition to serving at Macca's, even if the pay might have been similar.”
The service jobs that were available “required a whole new set of skills, that they were never taught to develop”, and which these older men did not “associate with manliness at all”.
You call that a day's work
Dr Roberts grew up in a coal-mining community in Kent. He recalls that when he had a retail job as a university student, his stepfather, who was employed as a casual labourer, “gave me a bit of a hard time about how I couldn’t be tired after a day’s work, because all I had been doing was standing around folding jumpers”.
But he's inclined to be generous to his stepfather’s point of view.
“Society doesn’t give many opportunities for working-class people to have a sense of pride,” Dr Roberts says.
“So absolutely they are going to say, 'Look how bloody hard I've worked, my fingers are bleeding and I've tried so hard to provide for my family ...'. It makes sense to me that people would find pride in those kinds of things. But it’s not to say that it’s a truth that everyone should adhere to.”
The interviews in Dr Roberts’ book were conducted in the UK, where class differences are, generally speaking, more easily identified than they are in Australia. But he believes class also remains a potent force in this country, despite being less visible. And the economic challenges for those on the bottom rung are similar.
“In advanced societies you have a hollowing out. The middle-level semi-skilled jobs have disappeared. And then you get an opening up of so-called good jobs and of so-called bad jobs.”
The service economy, with its casual work that can fluctuate throughout the year, is one of the few avenues open for young people – whether they're leaving school, studying, or graduating from university.
While a previous generation of working-class men may have pointed with pride to the muscles or scars they had acquired at work, young working men have had to develop a different set of attitudes to survive in the workplace.
“There has been a shift in the way men think, feel and enact their masculinity,” Dr Roberts says.
“There is a relationship between the economy and the individual. So when there was a world that had a far smaller role for men’s emotional capacity, of course they didn’t use that emotional capacity as much.
“And young men in the ’70s would have learned how to be men from their dads almost exclusively, because their dads were in jobs, occupations, which demanded a particular kind of manliness.”
But not only the workplace has changed since then – families have changed as well.
Dr Roberts, for example, was largely raised by his mother, who was a victim of domestic violence.
“My mum was really important for me,” he says. “She taught me the scope of being a person, rather than the narrow scope of being a man.”
Feminism also played its part
“In the ’70s there was a huge generation of interest in masculinity, and how men were gendered. So that research has filtered through to the way people think about themselves as individuals. You can be something other than what everyone else says you should be because of your genitals. That’s not the way it used to be.”
The young men he's interviewed in the service sector still find ways to “invest in manliness”, Dr Roberts says. One young man, for instance, is a football fanatic and spends his money and time travelling to international matches where he's “part of this collective mass of mostly men”.
“Another guy talks about being a part-time DJ, as well as working in the retail sector. And he uses this as a way to ‘get women’, to enhance his attractiveness.”
Although most of his interview subjects are heterosexual, “they talk about having gay friends”.
“They talk about homophobia not policing their friendships with men any more. So where their dads' generation might not have gone past the handshake, most young men hug. It’s about who your friend is, rather than what gender your friend is.”
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