"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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Good Men?

I was really interested when I first heard about The Good Men Project--and I haven't read the book, but a look at the site is discouraging in many ways: I'm disappointed in its overall tone--seems to be pretty based on a gender essentialist framework that isn't (to my mind) particularly helpful. Some examples, from just a cursory look:

Snowden Wright has a long-ish article describing what are (to my mind) the horrors of rushing a fraternity during college, and then ends his article with a stereotypically "no regrets" attitude, even about his own misogyny:

But the pain wouldn’t last. We had been different people back then. On our way home, I thought back on the person I was during those years, rude and crass and smug, without any sense of regret or shame. None. Call me an asshole, label me a misogynist, wish me an early death. Doesn’t matter. I will not apologize for having one hell of a good time. Because that’s the point of college: not only to figure out who you want to be as an adult, but also to spend four years being the person you don’t want to be.

Tom Matlock (the creator of The Good Men Project), in an interview, is the dictionary definition of a gender essentialist:
“I actually disagree with your POV here, Henry. I don’t think it’s about transcending gender at all. I think it’s about men being men. We are different. Just look at all the various statistics about what men are doing and how it differs from women, from education to incarceration to parenting. And what we as men like to do, what interests us, what inspires us. I would hate to think that our mission is a great leveling of the genders. I love women. Because they are so different. I quite honestly cannot tell you how or why my wife does or says or thinks what she does. But I love her for it.
(Because, y'know, women just think differently!)

Andrew Ladd has a slightly more nuanced take on things, but still ends up playing up the stereotypically "male" traits as positive, by noting that being a good man often means being a sissy:
So what to make of all this? Should we all go back to acting like Don Draper? The Man with No Name? Bogey? No. I stick by my own sissiness, and those iconic men of the past century are hardly perfect either. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that what we talk about today as being “good” masculinity often is sissiness, with all the word’s pejorative connotations, and not the purely positive thing we make it out to be.
As if being a sissy can't be a purely positive thing...

Also, the creator of The Good Men Project, Tom Matlock, explicitly distances it from feminism:
The way Boston-based founder Tom Matlack tells it, the website owes its existence, at least in part, to one very important feminist in his life – his mother. “My parents don’t like it when I call it this, but I basically grew up in a commune,” he says. “My mother had a strident form of feminism and it influenced me on a personal level – I found it scary.”

Although Mr. Matlack understandably won’t label his project “feminist” – its mandate includes topics too broad to be boiled down to any one political agenda – he admits there is a relationship. “I think it’s feminism on its head,” he says. “Women were trying to get out of the home. Men’s challenge is the opposite: how to be at home.”

To my mind, any work that men do toward shifting from the traditional male masculinity models to a greater breadth of what it can mean to be masculine is great, but starting from a Men-Mars/Women-Venus perspective is bound to eventually leave out a lot of potential for change.


lisahickey said...

Hi Jeff,

Glad you are part of this conversation. I am publisher of The Good Men Project magazine. We don’t have all the answers – about gender, about manhood, about “good”. But we believe it’s an important discussion. And we want to have it in a way that men with a million different viewpoints can talk about it without fear of reprisal. That’s the “nuance” we strive for.

The examples of Men-Mars/Women-Venus perspective are there because that’s how some people see the world. And – as a women and a “I-would-be-a-feminist-if-only-there-were-a-better-word-for-it” – I like to know what the reality is. It’s hard for me to know what to stand up for if I don’t even know where I stand.

At The Good Men Project, we want the conversation to be all inclusive. That understands the truth as it is, so we can perhaps get to a truth as we want it to be. Or – could it be that there are things about men that don’t really need changing?

Again, as a woman – I hate – no, despise it – when people suggest I should act “more like a man.” I love being a woman. I love being feminine. And the only reason I dislike the word feminist is because of the reaction I get from (some) men when I use that word. Eyes roll, glaze over, spit flies. I need words that break down walls between men and myself, not build them before my very eyes.

The thing that feminism has done very well over the years – and Tom Matlack, The Good Men Project founder is the first to admit it – is to transform the image of women from a one-dimensional sex object (or an aproned apple-pie baking mom when that role was needed) -- into a multi-dimensional human who can be intelligent, funny, visionary, layered, interesting. But feminism allowed women to be a human with all those qualities who is not a man.

So I’m of the camp that it should be the same for men. That it’s ok for men to be men. It’s ok for men to *want* to be men. And that men can – and should – be allowed to talk about the things that define them. Even if it’s not always what we want to hear.

The Good Men Project is trying to tackle all kinds of difficult. Issues like pornography and addiction and incarceration and gay marriage and suicide and fidelity/infidelity. A feisty group of dads has their own section about the challenges of raising kids – day to day dilemmas that get solved better as a group who shares stories and helps each other.

All of this is through the lens of what it means to be a man, and why those topics have a particular relevance to men that they might not have to women.

But – just to be clear. We’re not anti-feminist. We are pro-men.

jeff said...

Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I'll write up a longer response at some point, but I have a genuine question first. Given this perspective, "[A]nd we want to have it in a way that men with a million different viewpoints can talk about it without fear of reprisal," could you point me to the articles on The Good Men Project site that are written from an explicitly feminist standpoint? Because that seems to be a viewpoint that is not represented there. Even the authors who hold themselves up as feminists seem to be undermining lots of different flavors of feminism. Which is, I think, harmful to men.

observer said...

"Again, as a woman – I hate – no, despise it – when people suggest I should act “more like a man.” I love being a woman. I love being feminine."

"But feminism allowed women to be a human with all those qualities who is not a man."

I'm late commenting on this, and on some level I don't even want to because I'm so bored of this topic, but ...

This sort of statement is so riddled with so many false assumptions that I don't even know where to begin. What does this even mean? If a woman decides to have a career, be an adventurous mountaineer, join the gym, or do any other traditionally-masculine activities, how does she "become more like a man"? Does her body magically transform into a male body? Do her breasts fall off? Does her vagina shrivel up and die? By using phrases like "like a man" and "like a woman" you're operating within a framework of gender essentialism to begin with, one that you aren't even bothering to justify.

And what does it mean to be "feminine"? Having a slimmer body than men's? Being a bit shorter on average than them? Dressing up in clothes that fit your body type? None of those things are lost when a woman takes on male-typical activities.

I think we also have to keep in mind that femininity is constructed in two ways in patriarchies: one is in the positive sense of qualities like care or compassion or physical elegance, and the other is in the negative sense of the *absence* of masculinity (so a man who doesn't measure up on the masculinity scale gets called a girl, a woman, or other misogynistic terms). Femininity in this latter sense is just a lack of existential courage and even, I daresay, dignity, and I can't imagine why any sensible, strong woman would want to embody femininity-as-the-absence-of-masculinity.

Lisa's views above just demonstrate how difficult it is for most people to conceive of men and women as just people and not as constantly locked into so-called "complementary" heteronormative gender roles. It just goes to demonstrate the massive regulatory power of heteronormative conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and how they regulate everything from our thinking to our behavior to our sexuality.

observer said...

"(Because, y'know, women just think differently!)"

Clearly Tom has never interacted with women who are academic philosophers and are brilliant communicators of complex, abstract ideas. It's like, what 1950's TV show are you living in, man?