The brute power of young men

In Famous people, Men, Youth on August 12, 2011 at 11:05 am


On Tuesday morning it seemed as though everyone in Britain had an emotional hangover from the trauma of the night before.

After staying up until 2 am glued to Twitter and the news, I felt so shaken I couldn’t face going into my office, and cocooned myself at home, to work in bed, eating biscuits.

When I did eventually have to venture out I found my elderly neighbour standing outside her house sobbing. She just couldn’t contain how upset she felt.

Later, as I drove around the seaside town where I live, I felt very nervous. It’s quaint and elegant in different parts, becoming increasingly cool and fashionable, with lovely independent shops and cafes springing up as they do in such places.

But it also has some pockets of severe urban poverty, where for several decades seriously deprived people have lived reproducing very young, bringing into the world generation after generation of a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, drug-taking, benefit dependent, illiterate underclass.

Vicky Pollard territory. Just the kind of place looting could kick off.

As I drove I was also very aware of there being a lot of young men out and about and I felt oddly threatened by them.

I’m a healthy woman, I normally look at young men in a similar spirit to the way I gaze in at the windows of Graff in Bond Street. I don’t want to buy it, but I like to check out the merch.

Give me a shirtless scaffolder to perve on, or the bare-chested love god who cleaned my windows the other week and I’m happy. It’s a passing comfort, like hearing your favourite pop song on the radio. But on Tuesday I saw them in a different light, not sexual – but powerful.

It was seventeen, or eighteen year olds I really noticed. Those hard bodies, all lean muscle and sinew, like perfectly oiled machines. It made me think about what it must be like to suddenly grow a physique like that.

I have a number of gorgeous little boys in my life, children of friends, who are the same age as my daughter. I remember them as cuddly little three year olds, who would sit on my lap for a story.

Now they are nine and have turned into gristly little packets with scabby knees. They’ll turn any stick into a gun and wrestle you for it, but they’re still little boys. I look at them and try to imagine what they’ll be like as men.

It’s really hard to make the mental leap and I have a friend with grown up sons who told me it’s the weirdest thing, the first time you go into their room and see a big hairy leg sticking out of the bed, where the scabby-kneed one used to be.

But while it’s strange enough to observe, what must it be like to experience such changes in your own body?


Of course I can remember my own frame suddenly sprouting new bits and changing shape, but I didn’t feel powerful from it. The opposite. It made me feel vulnerable because ghastly men started look and leer at me, shout things out, or even try to feel me up.

It was horrendous and I took to wearing voluminous smocks until I grew into myself and felt brave enough to face them down.

So how amazing it must be, without any conscious effort on your part, to suddenly morph into being the animal at the top of the food chain. It must be like being a Fiat 500 and then just turning into a Formula One car.

You may not have any money, a car, a girlfriend, or even the vote, but suddenly you’re the fastest, the strongest, the toughest. The top predator. Everyone is scared of you. What a power surge that must be.

It’s why a lot of cultures have initiation rites and ceremonies to mark it. They acknowledge a transition, a shift in the power structure, that affects the whole community and instill a sense of responsibility in the young men who have grown into their new power.

I think we have abandoned all that, to our peril. Initiation for an increasing number of young men in the UK comes via being accepted into criminal gangs. Even in less extreme cases, it’s through binge drinking.

And that’s what made the events on this week in London, Birmingham and Manchester  so terrifying to me. Those mobs of young guys had suddenly and collectively understood the power they hold just by growing up and being fit.

The sooner the rule of law is shown to be more powerful than sheer brute force and numbers, the better.

I’m still feeling shaken. And I’ve posted this shameless perve fest of pictures of Zac Efron to console myself…

  1. thanks Maggie, the pictures made me feel better as well after a crap day, a little bit like eating cake or shopping Brora’s new Autumn line…

  2. i can’t relate to this at all, even though i am male, and my body went through the teenage changes, i never felt powerful or strong.

    i wasnt sporty, i didn’t work out and i was chubby, so i never had the “manly” body no matter how much my body changed.

    i know what you mean though because i used to avoid the football at all costs in P.E. because it gave the other boys an excuse to tackle (bash) me – and they were alot bigger and stronger than me.

    and i love zac efron. i have the zac efron calendar 😛 but looking at him and his body i am instantly 14 again wishing i could look like the popular kids.
    its a little bit pathetic but high school never leaves you.

    sorry i know thats not about the riots – just my thoughts 😛

  3. Will comment later — this is the only way I can figure out how to get the posts sent to my email! Aha!

  4. Maggie, really interesting post, particularly your comparison of how women feel in their new bodies compared to men – I do remember when I realised my own little brother was actually a man and not the little kid I chased around the house. However, I was completely uncomfortable, and frankly, baffled, by the pictures of both Zac Efron and also the African/indigenous tribes – I don’t want to over analyse the juxtaposition but it’s a little disconcerting..

    • Zac pics to illustrate a young man’s physique – and to cheer me up. African and Aboriginal pics to illustrate coming of age rituals. No disrespect meant! x

  5. Thanks for a very insightful post – I wish you hadn’t had occasion to write it. Many of us from far away were holding our collective breaths with you.

  6. Dear Maggie,
    Yesterday on JJJ radio the London unrest and the situation in Somalia was being discussed by a group in the studio including journalists, a representative of Medicines sans Frontieres and a 19 yr old English guy (university student) here on holiday. When the young man was asked his opinion of the behaviour of the trouble-makers in London his response was (I paraphrase) that many young people in England feel like their lives (but this part I quote) “have been wiped away; there is no future for us”. One of the others in the group replied “yes I can understand how the uneducated and unemployed might feel that way, but you are at university, things can’t be that bad for you” the young man was very dismissive “you think that because I’m at uni there’s going to be a job for me? My sister graduated 2 years ago and nothing, she can’t get a job”. There was much negativity about the London Police in general and David Cameron (“he’s related to the Queen, he’s aristocracy, he went to Oxford, what would he know? and now they’re just cutting everything …”).

    Very young to have such a sad view of his future; and he did sound angry and no doubt his body has been doing some growth and hormonal somersaults over the last 10 years or so, and yes he may look like a young god, but I don’t think like he sounded like a rioter. So where will all that energy, frustration and anger be directed? Where will it turn up? One thing I know for sure, daily exercise and having something to look forward to always helps.
    PS I was in the water at Bondi at the time Zac was having his surf lesson in one of your shots (adorable and a good sport and the abs aren’t bad either, are they?)

  7. It is a very sad commentary on what is going on and all that is wrong in our cultures. I can see such riots happening in the U.S., especially as those now in power want to cut cut cut and do little to promote education or job creation.
    Like Bernadette, I’ve listened to several programs about the riots, on NPR and on the BBC. A journalist from the Guardian said 1 out of 5 youths are unemployed in London. What can they do?
    It is a very difficult situation to figure out. Certainly vandalism is not good. This same journalist said the police had faced job cuts, too. I don’t think Cameron sounds sympathetic to those who were hurt or that he lacks empathy for those not privileged.
    It seems likely to me that as the rich get richer and the poor poorer and the gap widens — sorry, so many cliches here, there are bound to be more riots and problems.

    At some point, perhaps more people will begin to understand that unchecked capitalism has many, many serious flaws.

    And, speaking of fashion, I think the way young boys/men dress in the U.S. is a good example of how they feel. It is a scary, almost mean look. They look like thugs even if they are not thugs. NO fashion sense … well, I was trying for a bit of levity.

  8. I think it is important to acknowledge the changes in our culture that may have caused some of the displacement young men may be experiencing. You raise an interesting point about a rite of passage. The lack of this that may lead to young men having little or no idea about what it actually means to be a man. How can we expect them to behave if we don’t show them how? In Australia most of the role models for men are sports hero’s , who, if they aren’t in court for drinking, assaulting women or other similar offences they are certainly in a very privileged position. But what if you can’t kick a ball? Who do you look up to then? what if you have never seen a good example of a man- really spent time with a man then how would you know? I am not talking about a program that sends boys off for the weekend for a rite of passage, many of which are very good, but what about giving these young men a male mentor and role model in their life from a very young age.

    We continue as a society to allow children to stay in homes that are neglectful and violent. People do not want to get involved yet when these children grow up and become violent we all stand back and point the finger and act surprised. I am by no means excusing what has happened over the last few days but society as a whole needs to take responsibility for children and support new parents who are struggling with getting it right by showing then how to. Poverty and appalling living conditions breed anger and contempt but they don’t have too.The right interventions and support for new parents and young children is what is needed. Waiting until they are 18 and trying to get them in to programs to help them is mostly leaving it to late.

  9. Way to go Maggie.. loved all the pics and very interesting read.. thanks.. have a great safe weekend ..

  10. As a man in his early 30s now, I spent most of my teens and early 20s being very angry…at many things, sometimes for good reason, but most often for no reason I could explain. Hormonal somersaults, railing at injustice I saw and felt, turmoil of events in my life, but most of all, a sense of powerlessness; a sense that I was not in control of my own fate. It took me a long time to come to grips with my emotions – most people who know me saw a marked change in my attitude once I reached 30.

    While I don’t condone the violence, looting, rampaging and disregard for the rest of society that the last week has seen, I can understand how anger can be misdirected, and how it can show force and violence outwards. For me, the anger was directed inwards, and I hurt myself, my self-esteem, my sense of value and confidence. I just hope that for some of these young people, they have a chance to stop and reassess where they are in life, what they can do, and how they can help themselves, rather than lashing out and causing terror and inflicting pain on others.

    One of your best articles Maggie – I’m sorry it’s under these sad and sometimes frightening circumstances. As I read this from sunny Sydney, I can only hope that brighter times are ahead.

    • Thanks so much John. My husband talks about exactly the same thing. Says he used to pick fights for the sake of it. Then he suddenly grew up and relaxed. He said doing national service (he’s Serbian and they still had it there…) really helped him get over it, but he’s a very sporty chap and loved the hard marching and all that. He acknowledges it was terrible for the weedier guys. x

  11. Tim Flannery, in his book Here On Earth, talks about evolutionary reasons why young men take such huge risks for immediate gain and uses the examples of Somali pirates and young men from poor, urban, drug infested communities. Basically, if you feel you have nothing to live for, or even a good chance of being dead before you turn 25, then you are willing to take enormous risks now (eg by rioting, looting etc). Tim feels this is deeply ingrained in our brains from our distant past where life was short and brutal. It seems to be this way again for many in our society. Check it out at
    and go to Chapter 15: Discounting The Future.
    (Toby – this is audio!)
    Some of Tim’s comments are frighteningly prophetic when listened to in the context of these riots.
    Fantastic post Maggie.

  12. Maggie it is really great to read your thoughts and feelings about how these riots have affected you. My reaction to it all, has been to think about the novel “Lord of the Flies” and its themes of how group think can take over and what a thin veneer civilisation is at times. It is horrifying to think that people’s homes were set fire by their neighbours, without regard to their safety. I can understand why your elderly neighbour was sobbing with bewilderment and grief, this must be a society she does not recognise.
    Why these riots have occurred and what follows from them, I will leave to far more informed commentators to give their views and opinions.
    Don’t fear young men, yes, they may have brute force but they also have the capacity for kindness, love and rational thought. I know this as I have brothers who demonstrated these qualities in spades when they were young and continue to do so.
    Anyway, I think Zac will look a lot better in 20 years just the way Rob Lowe does, he is way too pretty at the moment!
    Keep safe, keep blogging and hurry up and finish that book -please.

  13. I read a lot of philosophy and when I read this blog I read it with gratitude. I love the use of pictures to create an aesthetic dimension so we can’t really not feel, in our bodies, what Maggie is saying. Here she steps forward, working the genre to a new end. Maggie’s clarity about what she’s feeling about the crisis is notably coherent, quite sane, and touched by the pathos of being in this body, in this place, at this time, and so it touches us all. Indeed, the beautiful men pictured here, or their kin, are always already in our minds, from the Greeks forward: they reveal something essential about humanity (just as beautiful women do). Maggie’s stroke of genius is to discover for us how being in a trim, fit, powerful body as a young man, and having no other claim on anyone’s attention (the crisis of work is a global crisis and attacks the very essence of purposeful living), is tragic. It is disturbing at a level much more profound than the social crisis. This blog essay is elegant and unforgettable. Thank you, Maggie.

  14. I loved this post Maggie as I have an 11 year old boy and the riots did make me wonder how little boys turn into these young men. At the moment my son and his friends are at a ‘golden age’. Too young for extreme attitude (‘whatever’ is about as bad as it gets), they are passionate about life, their sport, and funnily enough their mums. These sporty, muscly boys are quite partial to a public cuddle with their parents – maybe they are so confident right now they don’t care if someone comments? They are a joy to be around. Hormones are just around the corner, as their female classmates are proving, so what then? Does the confidence these boys have because they are good at something and come from loving homes keep them safe from a spill over into aggression and frustration when the world doesn’t go their way? I’m certainly crossing fingers it does.
    P.S I loved Paula’s comparison to the ‘Lord of the Flies’. So true.

  15. What a great post.
    You make some excellent points. Men can be forces for destruction and creation.

    In traditional tribal societies there is a lot less freedom than in modern urban ones. Tribal laws can be very strict, but with this stictness comes a sense of safety and security. Many tribal people are fearful and bewildered when they experience a city for the first time, and prefer to return to their tribe if they can. Those that don’t often fall victim to the ills of modern life. Tribes also have a great sense of community and one-ness. Everyone is related, has a shared history and a shared future. While the struggling are cared for, they are cared for until they are back on their feet and contributing to the tribe again – everyone contributes in his or her own way — there is no sitting back on welfare, laziness is not tolerated.

    But how can these values be translated to a major city? The price of freedom is…? Eternal vigilance? The only thing we can work towards is a greater sense of community in our cities and towns. Many immigrants feel ‘apart’ form the rest of the community. When ethnic groups inter-marry and inter-mingle communities are strenghtened and social mobility increases. Separate-ness is never good. I am sure building government housing in large ghetto-like chunks doesn’t help either.

    I really hope things get better in England.

  16. Thanks Maggie. This is one of the few things I have read that has given me an understanding of why these things were happening. Although it may not have happened here in Oz, we are still facing these issues. The only reason I think we don’t have sucha problem here is 1. the weather; and 2. so many different sports codes! AFL, Rugby, League, Soccer, Hockey, cricket, and then all the ironmen & lifesaving and so much more.

    • I think that’s a really good point about the sport. Margaret Thatcher allowed schools to sell their playing fields to property developers… Also we have terrible rates of teenage pregnancy. Most of the kids involved were the children on children. Others involved would already be parents….. it’s not going to get better any time soon.

  17. Maggie – I usually really love your work, but I must say I found this post disturbing. You make some astute points about masculinity in postmodernity, and the problems of inter-generational poverty.

    Yet your solution seems to be – hey let’s make sex symbols of young men. Wow, let’s put them in the same position of objectification that you describe so well when you were a teenage girl. Surely making this men subjects, rather than objects, might not go astray.

    I kinda get this was light-hearted, but I just didn’t find it either funny or soothing.

    • Sorry Lisa! Yes, I was being silly posting the pics of Zac Efron, but I just like looking at him. I also like watching him act and most particularly, dance. But it wasn’t suggested as a solution – my suggestion for that is that these underprivileged young people, hopelessly undereducated and lacking stable parental guidance, bombarded with unachievable consumerism and ‘lifestyle’ through TV need some kind of structure to hang their lives on. The pictures of Zac were just to cheer myself up. And they did.

  18. I listened with fascination as my newly transgender sibling described the recent shift from female to male, and the sense this now gave him of being “the animal at the top of the food chain”.
    He was quite bemused by the sense of entitlement seemingly imbued to men that he now had access to… and the uniqueness of experiencing this with a full understanding of the feminine perspective.
    He expressed the sense of responsibility that he felt….to live in a manner that wielded that privilege responsibly.
    What a head trip that must be!

  19. This is a really interesting piece.. I remember changing very early on and being perved at and feeling really freaked out.. different for boys though it seems!

    I feel like a dirty old woman but my oh my young Zac sure is very easy on the eye.. thanks for the perve!

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