"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

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What Men Can Do: Build Better Boxes

I've (still) been (slowly) reading Susan Faludi's 1999 book, Stiffed, after having seen some interviews with her regarding her newest book, The Terror Dream. Again I am amazed that there really are many more resources for feminist men than I had previously thought possible, and I've been ignorant of a good deal of it. Perhaps it's just my own level of general ignorance(!), or perhaps I've bought too much into the antifeminist notion that feminism is 'all about women' for way too long.

Stiffed seems to be one long, reasoned examination (with examples!) of how traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity may harm men, together with the threads of several interrelated questions that run through the book: Why have men not revolted, in the way that some women have, against the bogus demands of traditional gender roles? And some corollary questions: Why do so many men appear to blame feminism for the ills that feminism has gone a long way toward explaining?--Why do so many men want to kill the messenger?

So far I think Faludi gives us lots of good questions, and I'll be curious to see what her answers are. But the questions themselves, and the background of the questions she illuminates for us, are intriguing. She gives us a quick summation of one way of looking at the growth of the feminist movement:

More than a quarter century ago, women began to suspect in their own lives "a problem with no name." Even the most fortunate woman in postwar, suburban American, maneuvering her gleaming Hoovermatic across an expansive rec room, sensed that she'd been had. Eventually, this suspicious would be expressed in books--most notably Betty Friedan's The feminine Mystique--that traced this uneasiness back to its source: the cultural forces of the mass media, advertising, pop psychology, and all the other "helpful" advice industries. Women began to free themselves from the box in which they were trapped by feeling their way along its contours, figuring out how it had been constructed around them, how it was shaped and how it shaped them, how their reflections on its mirrored walls distorted who they were or might be. Women were able to take action, paradoxically, by understanding how they were acted upon. "women have been largely man-made," Eva Figes wrote in 1970 in Patriarchal Attitudes What had been made by others women themselves could unmake. Once their problems could be traced to external forces generated by a male society and culture, they could see them more clearly and so challenge them.(pp13)

As women began to recognize the social forces that shaped them, and to recognize that these social forces were more often than not both institutional and also shaped by men more than they were shaped by women, they began to form a movement. But, Faludi tells us, the ways in which men were harmed by these social forces weren't examined enough--partly because of the perception that it was men who had contributed more to the creation of said social forces:

Men feel the contours of a box, too, but they are told that box is of their own manufacture, designed to their specifications. Who are they to complain? The box is there to showcase the man, not to confine him. After all, didn't he build it--and can't he destroy it if he pleases, if he is a man? For men to say they feel boxed in is regarded not as laudable political protest but as childish and indecent whining. How dare the kings complain about their castles?(pp13)

I'm not sure that Faludi is encapsulating actual feminist thought about things here, or just giving us a psychological picture of how things were and are for some. Still, as a feminist man, I sometimes struggle with this very notion--there's no doubt (in my mind) that in some senses, I have 'more power' than many women have, by virtue of being a man--but of course this generalization doesn't immediately get me outside of the box that traditional conceptions of masculinity place me in. I didn't build the box, even if men-in-general are the main contributers to the box. No matter who built it, I still have to live within it, and I still have to find ways of breaking it up--and having some privilege as a man doesn't make that easy.

I think most feminists recognize men get ambushed by bogus conceptions of traditional gender roles, though I also think helping men understand all of this isn't on the top of most feminist to-do lists; many feminists simply have plenty of other work to do. And I don't have a problem with that: I think that men who identify as pro-feminist or feminist need to do the work involved--we need to talk with other men, we need to resist some traditional conceptions of male masculinity (and femininity), we need to listen to women and work with them. We don't need to place the problems that traditional conceptions of masculinity cause us at their feet (or worse, blame them for the problems).

And, of course, many men are doing this. This is exactly the sort of things that are being done by the men we profile on Fridays: Groups like Men Can Stop Rape and Men's Resources International are working to redefine masculinity, in part, so that this box we're in starts to go away, or at least is built differently. But it's important for us to recognize that it's too easy to 'explain away' the work that men have to do--to simply point to patriarchy and imply that men can just leave the shackles of traditional masculinity behind because in whatever sense they are the patriarchy, is to ignore the realities of the situation, the complexities of the interactions between institutional conceptions of masculinity and individual men. Faludi's book goes a long way toward reminding us of the difficulties that we, as men who are pro-feminist and feminist, have to overcome.
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