Masculinity Studies as Man Hating
Organizations such as A Call To Men, discussed in this week’s RM episode, get their talking points and veneer of respectability from an academic discipline known as Masculinity Studies. It is a relatively new branch of identity studies formed by American sociologist Michael Kimmel in 2013. It involves research on and analysis of masculinity from a feminist perspective, involving an at best limited, at worst entirely deformed and hateful, view of men.
The case of Masculinity Studies definitively disproves the faint hope that feminism is salvageable or could be reformed to accommodate men’s issues. When you start with false premises—women’s oppression under patriarchy, gender as a social construct—you end up with an irredeemable theory.
A few years ago, an article was published in The New York Times called “A Master’s Degree in … Masculinity?” about Kimmel’s role in promoting a feminist-compliant masculinity. Kimmel is the author of, among other books, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (1996), Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (2008), and Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (2013), the latter a book in which he takes pains to disassociate himself from, and belittle, the men’s rights movement. All of the titles except the first clearly suggest his contemptuous attitude toward men and masculinity.
Kimmel is a superstar in the sphere of high-powered, socially acceptable discussions of gender. He lectures all over the world, liaises with government ministries, and was the first man to deliver the International Women’s Day lecture at the European Parliament. He is beloved by public figures like Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, and when we read about his version of masculinity, we understand why.
What does it mean to be a man today, according to Michael Kimmel and his feminist friends? According to the New York Times article, men are “in crisis”—a statement that might at first appear a marked contrast to the standard feminist emphasis on male privilege.
Unfortunately, the list of what constitutes the crisis is not helpful: “mental illness, suicide, terrorism, rape, mass shootings, jetliner crashes [and] young black men being killed by the police.” The list deliberately mixes together very different kinds of crisis, some of it – “terrorism, rape, and mass shootings,” for example — focusing much more on men as perpetrators of violence and destruction than on men as victims of structural social inequality or discrimination. Yet it might still seem at this point that at least men are being taken seriously as people with problems that deserve to be addressed.
Unfortunately, the rest of the article makes it clear that masculinity studies as Kimmel has developed it at Stony Brook University, where he has founded a Center For the Study of Men and Masculinities, is really classic man-blaming feminism, but with a more exclusive focus on masculinity as a destructive way of being requiring a complete (feminist) overhaul.
The article actually comes out and says, presumably with Kimmel’s endorsement, that men are the source of the world’s problems: “If we had a better understanding of men, scholars wonder, how many of the world’s ills could we solve — or, at least, attempt to?” That probably tells us all we need to know about these so-called studies. But let’s look at how the article gets there.
It begins with a cameo of a discussion about the differences between the phrase “good man” and “real man.” Kimmel gets some men and women together and asks them to tell what they think when they hear those phrases. Not surprisingly, participants have different associations, just as they would if the phrases were “good woman” and “real woman.” The discussion leads Kimmel to proclaim, rather unconvincingly, that “American men are confused about what it means to be a man.”
Anyone reading this who has heard for the past forty years about the problems women face in our society—supposedly real, objective problems like rape and sexual harassment and job discrimination and the wage gap—are likely going to think, ‘If that’s men’s biggest problem, they don’t need a bunch of university courses to help them with their ‘confusion.’ Men’s issues are made to seem very trivial.
Then Gloria Steinem is quoted at the first International Conference on Men and Masculinities. Here’s what she had to say about the study of masculinity:
“Men’s life expectancy increases by three to four years if you eliminate causes of death attributed to masculinity, such as death from violence, death from speeding and death from tension-related diseases. What other movement can offer men three or four more years?”
The quotation seems sympathetic at first, but on closer inspection we see that what she is saying is that men are their own worst enemies. Masculinity equals violence. Masculinity equals stupidity in cars. Even “tension-related diseases” are caused by “masculinity”—presumably men’s obsession with work and status. Her statement about men’s problems is really a slam at masculinity.
Kimmel’s own remarks constantly circle back to the problems that men purportedly cause in our society rather than to the problems they face. He mentions rape and sexual assault no less than four times, and a great deal of the discussion places a high priority on men becoming more like the ideal partners, fathers, and political allies that feminists have always said they need to be, by for example taking on a greater share of housework and childcare. The closer we read, the more it seems that Kimmel’s whole message is that the male failure to realize that feminism is “good for them too” is the main, perhaps the only, source of men’s problems.
The article has not a word to say about any of the structural issues that men encounter in society: their lack of equality before the law when it comes to criminal sentencing, for example, the bias against fathers in family court, men’s lack of reproductive rights, the lack of funding for research on male diseases, the lack of due process in cases of claimed rape and sexual harassment, and many more.
Kimmel says nothing about any of this, too busy making nice with his feminist colleagues and telling men that they are the problem.
If Masculinity Studies won’t look honestly and comprehensively at the systemic problems that men face—the problems that men themselves are identifying as factors behind mental illness, incarceration rates, and male suicide—and if it won’t acknowledge the role of feminist thought and activism in contributing to those problems, it can’t be a positive force in the analysis of men’s lives. It’s a funny kind of advocacy for men that tells them to own up to their role as the source of world evil, and any “call to men” based on such premises is bound to hurt men rather than help them.