Blowing the Whistle on the ‘McLad Phenomenon’
The Scotsman, August 6th 2009
Scottish men don’t have good health, life expectancy or know how to open up about their emotions. They drink too much, are easily prone to violence, and are more likely to be the victims of violence.
Negative images abound about men in modern society and Scottish men in particular. From Rab C. Nesbitt to the male characters in ‘Taggart’ and the ‘Walking Wounded’ lost men in McIlvanney’s and Kelman’s novels, it all seems a bit grim. Is it really this bad and why do these portrayals feel so remorseless and problematic?
There are some terrible realities for many Scottish men. Life expectancy in large parts of the West of Scotland, the lack of employment for many young men, and the absence of male role models and mentors.
Where are the alternatives which show the complex, accurate picture of Scottish men? Individuals trying to make sense of the new roles in relationships? The pressures of commitment and intimacy. New work and employment patterns.
We are usually presented with a very narrow choice. On the one hand there is what could be called a ‘plastic proletarianness’: a cross between the cast of ‘River City’ and Tommy Sheridan, which adopts an exaggerated local accent, a lot of strutting, standing off and making aggressive statements. Sometimes this can have a ‘hard man’ edge, sometimes a ‘softer man’ side. What is shocking in this tartan toxic masculinity is the pervasive homophobia, racism and sexism which the most educated (as well as uneducated) men in Scotland think acceptable.
The alternative, and one not explored much in Scotland, is the post-masculine, metrosexual seen in people such as the Scots-Asian actor Atta Yaqob who starred in ‘Aye Fond Kiss’ – most personified by David Beckham. This is for some women the dream type of man, the ultimate ‘trophy husband’. He is toned, tanned, manicured and body sculpted to the level of any female model. He is careful to avoid any overt acts of male aggressiveness, and instead adopts an almost neutered public persona; this is a man if not influenced by feminist politics, then by ‘Sex in the City’.
This confusion springs from a society still reacting to the demise of collectivism and class, where people knew their location and role. Today things are more unsure and driven by status and appearance, so it is not surprising that many Scots men cling to what they best know, and for middle class men that means still acting and thinking they are working class. This entails stressing they have not ‘sold out’, no matter how successful they are, and that they are still at heart one of the boys!
Football is one of the prime ways this is articulated in public, and chief culprits in this ‘McLad phenomenon’ of grown men acting like ‘adult children’ has to go to the ubiquitous Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan, whose Saturday radio programme is filled with angry male listeners spouting bigotry, prejudice and belittling people. Football coverage – and in particular BBC Scotland’s coverage – taps into this ‘plastic proletarian’ and McLad world which allows a lost Scotland to find some kind of voice.
While this is not attractive and in many ways repugnant, speaking as an avid football fan, we need to ask why has football become so important in Scotland in recent years? It has come close to being seen as a public orthodoxy which you have to embrace for fear of being a social outcast and which shapes much of what it means to be a man.
The explanation for this can be found in the changes our society underwent in the last few decades and with it the loss of common reference points. Where do grandfathers, fathers and sons pass down the tales which unite families and provide a shared sense of story about past generations? They cant talk about the mines or shipbuilding given they closed decades ago. Football provides one of the last vestiges of connection.
The world of work no longer provides the same anchor and cross-generational stories it used to, and for many young men the lack of unskilled jobs leads to football providing one of the few constants. It can like gang culture, provide a sense of belonging and even rites of passage and becoming an adult.
What can strangers or friends talk about to fill public conversations and space? Very few people want to talk in too much detail about politics, and the death of socialism and decline of trade unions, has deprived us of many rich conversations about work, culture and the world. Football in an anti-political age becomes even more important.
Football allows men to express emotions, feelings and hopes, which are not permissible elsewhere. Despite widespread social change, the old image of masculinity still shapes much of Scotland, and many men fear stepping outside the safety of its conformity and familiarity. This means across Scotland many men find it difficult to reach out to the emotions and vocabulary of being different, open, and connecting with other men and women.
Many years ago I ran a men’s group in Glasgow for five years. The men were a mixture of middle and working class, with a wide age range, some successful, some less so, but there was a deep sense of puzzlement about what it was to be a modern man. Some of the men felt threatened by what they saw as the ‘demands’ of modern women: a bit of attention, respect, intimacy. There was a grasping for a sense of language and what it meant to be a modern man.
The caricaturing and pathologising of Scottish men hurts and constrains men and should stop. This necessitates challenging the dishonesy, McLad phenomenon and obsession with football. Middle class men need to stop pretending they are something they are not, and the media has to start taking its responsibility seriously to portray Scottish men in their complexity and diversity.
This entails breaking free from the ghastly ‘plastic proletarian’ role on one side, and the metrosexual, emasculated male on the other. We need to celebrate and reflect honestly the rich spectrum of Scottish men, acknowledge the positive and the negative, and find ways of identifying some real, grounded Scottish heroes and role models beyond celebrity. Maybe we can start by nurturing a very different kind of man from the pub bores who inhabit a large part of our TV and radio from this Saturday.