Thursday, September 20, 2007

Feminism Helps Men: New Lenses, New Mirrors

One of the great ways that feminism helps men is to give us another set of lenses for looking at the world. This means not only incorporating the perspectives of others and another set of theoretical frameworks when trying to understand the world; it also means having some new lenses and a set of theoretical frameworks for understanding ourselves. Sometimes I wonder about the need for feminist men to not only find ways in which feminism helps men, but also to explain to other men, non-feminist men, how feminism helps men. Sometimes I wonder, about this or that particular aspect of feminism: Isn't it enough that it's true? Or: Isn't it enough that it helps women?

But the practical side of my brain tends to take over, eventually, and I start worrying about how we're actually going to change the world, what the best paths to do that are--so I begin to think that, yes, if feminism does help men, we should shout from the rooftops the ways in which it does. Should selfish motivation be the primary motivator encouraging men to use feminist lenses, to do feminist work? One would hope that it wasn't always, but perhaps selfish motivation is the only way that some men, some of the time, are going to come to begin to examine feminist ideals. And if some of those men are reached, then I say it's worth trying. (I also think that attempting to appeal to those men is primarily the responsibility of other men--women have enough on their plates.)

And certainly, lots of men see some types of feminism as harming men, rather than helping them. Though this is almost always some version of 'kill the messenger' mentality, it's somewhat understandable where some of these ideas come from--there is lots of privilege to renounce, lots of power to give up--at least on the face of it, for men, so messages about patriarchy . But of course it's much more complex than that--and what men give up now because of their role in patriarchy, because of what they have to do in order to be seen as Real Men (and therefore to keep their privilege), because of the way that traditional male masculinity beats them down, is often hidden. One way that feminism helps men is to point out the damage that happens from the social enforcement of rigid gender roles, damage that happens to both women and men.

The ways in which men are damaged by rigid, traditional masculinity are myriad, and in the coming weeks I hope to analyze some of them, but the one that sticks out most in my own psyche has to do with the traditional stereotypes of women-as-social and men-as-independent/autonomous. As with many traditional gender roles, these two 'sides' are defined in terms of their supposed oppositional status, as if being social and being independent were entirely disparate sorts of things. There is lots of feminist writing out there which debunks the very idea that these things are oppositional: I recommend both Relational Autonomy, an anthology edited by Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, and The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, by Martha Albertson Fineman.

The essays in Relational Autonomy read more like philosophy of feminism to me, and are in some ways more esoteric, but they tackle complex notions of agency from feminist perspectives quite well. The Autonomy Myth is a mix of sociology and feminism (in my mind) that debunks a lot of the ideas around so-called autonomy, pointing out the relational aspects of autonomy (i.e. 'the family' has often been thought of in political/social theory as an autonomous unit, but of course families depend to no small degree on 'the state,' and even what a family consists in is regulated by the state--who can and can't get married, for instance).

I could (and will!) mine these works for lots of ideas here, but my main point is this: Without the influences of feminism, these types of analysis wouldn't be happening the way they are. Without feminism, we might not understand that 'autonomous' doesn't mean 'without others'--we might miss some of the connections. And, in missing those connections, we get more caught up in false dichotomies and rigid gender roles.
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