"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Monday, May 07, 2007

Feminist Masculinities

Sara over at F-Words had something interesting to say recently regarding the fact that Andrew Sullivan thinks our modern culture is a"male loathing" culture. Sara's main point here is this:
Are there really enough - and influential enough - feminists who dismiss "maleness as such" that they have created a whole male-loathing culture?
I tend to agree with Sara here, and I think her question speaks volumes as to where Sullivan gets things wrong. More specifically, I think Sullivan is laying the blame for complex and changing conceptions of masculinity at the feet of feminists. It's understandable on some levels as to why he would do this: Feminist critique is one of the central ways in which we all started to question traditional male masculinity. Implicit in Sullivan's line of thinking, though, is the idea that, because feminists helped to start the ball rolling, they are responsible for giving us some 'positive' conceptions of masculinity as well. He says:
The point I was trying to make is that some feminists have tried to problematize maleness as such, without making the significant distinctions my reader rightly highlights. The choice is not "real men" or "metrosexuals." It's more complicated and interesting than that.

And, of course, it is more complicated and interesting than that, oftentimes. But that doesn't draw away from Sara's criticism (that saying "some feminists" is question-begging); nor does it dissuade me from wanting to ask: Who should be redefining masculinity, and how should it be gone about?

Who Should Define Masculinity?
In some ways, this question in something of a non sequitur, or something of a category mistake. What masculinity means is defined, implicitly and explicitly, by all of us, all of the time. This is part of the fallout of what I think is a very strong force in feminism: The dissolution of essentialist perspectives. That is, we don't find masculinity here in the world--we create it. (Actually, it's a combination of both finding and creating, with the caveat that there was no original point at which we found masculinity before we also acted on the concept. The point still stands that any one take on masculinity isn't The Essential Masculinity.) Perhaps more directly to the point, the fact that Sullivan has to talk about what masculinity is at all is in part a result of feminist critique around whether or not it makes sense to think of facets of identity like 'feminine' and 'masculine' as somehow essentially defined, or whether it makes better sense to see these facets of identity as constructed, though pervasive.

Even though feminists may have been instrumental in getting people to understand that traditional masculinity wasn't writ on high, foreverandeveramen, that doesn't mean that feminists alone are responsible for coming up with alternative masculinities. It seems reasonable that feminists could and would have some good things to contribute to a discussion of alternative masculinities (and, it turns out, they sure do!), but there's no reason to believe that it's up to them alone.

That said, I do think that men who identify as feminists have a responsibility to investigate and create alternative masculinities. I don't think they can do it alone, and I don't think they ought to try. Still, from a practical perspective, it makes sense for men to think deeply about traditional masculinity, and to come up with possible alternatives to it (among which might be something like and abandonment of the concept). Given that masculinity isn't just for men, people of all genders will have something important to say about masculinity: But that doesn't leave men off the hook.

Do We Need Alternative Masculinities?
Still, I think that Sullivan stumbles onto something that does need to be addressed, something which has been addressed here on Feminist Allies and other places: Given the critique of traditional masculinities--and given one's own acceptance of that critique as justified in various ways--what are we to look toward as alternatives? Sullivan says:
Masculinity comes in many forms; and it's a sign of our culture's weakness that we tend to see it only in terms of violence, machismo, homophobia, disrespect for women, and so on.
Now, while I certainly don't by any BS about "our culture's weakness", I do think that we need to make alternative masculinities more explicit, and that we have to address the fact that a lot of men who come to dig feminism find themselves struggling with the concept of masculinity, and with their changing feelings of self-worth. In the comments on Sara's original post, Amanda Marcotte notes that only male feminists struggling with their own internalized misogyny have negative things to say about traditional conceptions of maleness:
The only feminists I know who tend to deride maleness are male feminists who are uncomfortable with their own internalized misogyny. I don't think that's "maleness", but it can feel like maleness if you are the trained male in question.
And while I think that Amanda has a point that misogyny can feel equated with maleness when you first start thinking about this stuff, I think that more needs to be said about it. One of the reasons that it can feel like maleness=misogyny is because of a lack of talk about what masculinity ought to be. There's lots of talk about what it shouldn't be, of course, but less about what it should be. Also, I think it's important that when men first do start to recognize their internalized misogyny, if they find feminism to be something worthwhile, they are going to feel uncomfortable with their own internalized misogyny. They had better, at least at first, or they're probably not understanding at least the facets of feminism that reveal misogyny. And, without some positive nontraditional masculinities to learn, feminist men can come to be stuck with feelings of self-loathing, and the sort of misunderstanding about what it means to be a man that Sullivan is trying to point out. So, even if Amanda's implicit point that it's mostly feminist men who are responsible for equating 'maleness' with 'misogyny', we can see where feminist men might come to do this, and why. And again, the reasons point to the fact that feminist men (and other feminists) have some work to do to create alternative masculinities.
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