Monday, 13 February 2012

Titanic Man

Like many of you, I grew up with images of classic films where the men are expected to give priority to vulnerable women and children. These men were portrayed as sterling, stalwart individuals who put aside their interests for the interests of the vulnerable. For the purposes of this article I have called these men “Titanic Man”. We all know the scene where the SS Titanic, holed by an iceberg, is sinking. The ships officers call out “Women and children first!” The few panic striken men who seek self-preservation and push their way into the lifeboat queue, possibly even dressed as women, are clearly depicted as craven cowards. In the lounge the all male band plays on, while other men calmly sit down to smoke and drink, and await their fate. The “Titanic Men” are the paragon that society espouses for men generally, and ideal that all boys should aspire to be. Thus at the beginning of the 20th century the male ideal was a man who sacrificed his life for inherently vulnerable women and children.
Despite heroism of “Titanic Man”, I find myself questioning the rationale for this ideal. How and why in a society where men were principally the sole breadwinners, and where men held all the power, and there is a surfeit of women and children, is it in the interests of society that men should be sacrificed.
In the early 20th century Britain was a place where widows and orphans were vulnerable, as they had been in previous centuries. In a world where men’s wages far exceeded those of women’s, and that many women had few employable skills, the loss of a husband could be a tragedy from which a family might never recover. The majority of men on the SS Titanic would have had wives and children back home who depended upon their ability to earn money.
On the decks of the Titanic, we are shown the men who as individuals stand aside and let the women and children survive. The men stand there stoically as the last life boat is lowered, and resign themselves to a freezing end in the North Atlantic.
Behind the majority of these stoical male figures positioned across the decks of the SS Titanic existed a very large number of women and children dependent on their husbands’ and fathers’ wages. As the SS Titanic slipped below the waves, these women and children were rendered widows and orphans. Despite their losses, their voices remain largely unheard and certainly never given tongue in any of the films. Even if we put aside the emotional impact of these losses for widows and orphans, the economic and societal impacts of the loss of these men is considerable.
In a society dominated materially and legally by men, the loss of a male head of household is a tragedy almost beyond measure. In an environment where women cannot hope to earn enough to replace their husbands earnings, widowhood would result in perpetual impoverishment and dependency upon charity. For the orphans not only do they lose their father, and important figure in a patriarchal society, but they also lose opportunity. The impoverished child lacks access to learning and the materials for learning. They are likely to be compelled to leave school and go to work at an early age, whereas they may have remained in school and have progressed beyond it if their father had lived.
If on the other hand a woman perishes beneath the Atlantic waves, she may leave behind a widower and children but in a world where there was a surfeit of women her husband has a greater chance of remarrying. As a man he has greater earning capacity and could buy child-care services in the form of a maid. If a child died, it was of course tragic but not catastrophic. One only has to view the registers for the late 19th and early 20th centuries to be aware that infant and child mortality was extremely high compared with the 21st century. Children are however dependants and the economic loss of a child is negligible compared with that of a man at this time.
If we look beyond these simple familial associations and consider that in a world where men are the captains of industry, the loss of key male corporate figures could have consequences far beyond the realms of their families. Imagine the capitalist industrial innovator whose imagination and management skills have forged new industries, and upon whose capacities are built immense industries. If these men die, the need for transfer of power to the successor management is inherently problematic. They might not have immediate and identified successors who can quickly grasp the reins. In this case the banks may lose faith and call in their loans. The consequence could be the collapse of the enterprise, and for the employees and their dependents it could mean long term unemployment and poverty in a world without a social safety-net.
Thus we find ourselves with this bizarre paradigm. In a society in which men created virtually all the wealth and upon whose wealth creation women and children are dependent, the epitome of masculinity is the man who sacrifices himself regardless of the consequences for himself and his dependents.
Titanic Man was an irrational model at the beginning of the 20th century, and remains so. In today’s world, where women demand equality, men should not be expected to put aside their interests for self-preservation and the interests of their dependants for the interests of some anonymous woman or child. Yet we still as a society cling to the notion of “Titanic Man”. While we might debate whether men should continue to display deference to women by opening doors and surrendering seats on public transport, we still expect men to be stoical. The vast inequality in state health care provision in UK between men and women exemplifies this. No one looks back to the days of National Service and raises the profoundly inequality contained in it where it only applied to men.
Coward remains a pejorative term when applied to men. In fact it is rarely if ever applied to women. Yet if women are men’s equals then the expectation of self-sacrifice should be the same. We retain at the heart of our society the notion that men should be able to put aside their urge for self-preservation and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good. Where women do carry out traditional male roles, such as in the armed forces, and die in the course of that, they are distinct exceptions and eulogised for it. While we might have current media and thus political attention given to the men that are injured and killed in the armed forces, they do not receive the same degree of attention and there very few of them compared with earlier larger conflicts. For those of the post-war generation they will recall that the casualties (physical and psychological) of WW2 received very little care and concern, often bordering on aggressive intolerance.
“Titanic Man” is a Victorian / Edwardian anachronism that needs to be swept away. Men should not be expected to put aside their desire for self-preservation and self-interest any more than women. Women might like to cite that they sacrifice themselves for their families by doing a disproportionate amount of housework, but they have a major self-interest in making sure that their homes are tidy and clean. Indeed their allegedly disproportionate contribution to the household provides them with significant influence where they define the standards and style for the home they live in. No amount of housework is quite as demanding as being willing to go to your death for the sole benefit of a stranger.

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