Feminist masculinity?

Mary Daly famously said that men would have to find their own way through and then out of patriarchy; she herself could not be bothered to tell them what to do. Her focus was on helping women connect with the root of their own fundamental Being in order to conjure up the existential courage to become who they were supposed to be, above and beyonds the delimiting confines of patriarchal conceptions of womanhood. In all likelihood, she had to say this because she was probably asked on a regular basis what her feminist critique would mean for men.

You know, I get her response. In a way, centering feminist reflections around the needs and questions of men serves to reinforce a problematic schema in which men reside at the normative center of reflection and women reside on the margins. In this schema, women gain “legitimacy” if they prioritize the perspectives and concerns of men.

I think especially about this schema, and Daly’s outright refusal to fit inside it, when I find myself involved in intellectual conversation with men who have little sympathy for feminist concerns and little knowledge of it. If such men in question know me and what I’m about, they may end up shooting me a series of accusatory-yet-basic questions about feminist concerns, especially in theology. I suddenly find myself having to play the dual role not only of adversary but also of educator, all at the same time. It’s like being around somebody who wants you to hold his hand while he slaps you with the other. So I end up having to defend the legitimacy of feminist concerns and method to somebody who has never taken the time to learn these fundamentals and who perhaps asks questions from the baseless presupposition that feminist concerns are invalid and perhaps even dangerous. This dynamic happens not infrequently on our blog, although less now than it used to.

This kind of exchange can be infuriating, as it feels like an exploitation of my labor: men who proudly proclaim their ignorance or at least lack of familiarity with feminism and feminist theology (or, even worse: they don’t know that they don’t know) then insist that I, in that one exchange, answer all their questions and concerns as they have seen fit to articulate them. I have also seen this happen in discussions about race (where certain white people have seemed oblivious to the fact that critical race theory exists and cannot just be inferred through the use of imagination or trumped through the use of “common sense”). Perhaps this unfortunate dynamic tends to arise in response to the provocations of any subaltern group doing important, challenging theoretical work with practical implications.

Anyway. Men, you have really got to learn to educate yourselves about feminist concerns, especially if you want to be involved in conversation with feminist women. There are myriad books and articles to read that would catch you up on the history of feminism and of feminist theologies. For God’s sake, look at Wikipedia. Stop trying to make everything revolve around you. Go outside yourself and learn what’s out there. Then we’ll talk. Feminist theological concerns are vibrant and complex, so there is plenty of legitimate and even exciting conversation to be had. But after you’ve educated yourself. Don’t expect feminist women to nurture-induct you into the world of feminism, especially if you resist it all along the way. Feminism is not about hating men, but neither is it principally concerned with saving men, and especially not on men’s terms.

As the title of this post suggests, I am wondering about the possibilities of feminist masculinity. So, based on what I’ve said so far, I would take the suggestion to educate oneself about feminist and feminist theological concerns to be one facet of feminist (or at least non-patriarchal) masculinity. So there’s that.

But I want to make a different point now.

Perhaps because of feminists’ desire to avoid the reinscription of the male center/female periphery schema in the order of knowledge, feminists have not spent terribly much time theorizing about masculinity. That’s changing, and there certainly are critical studies in masculinity as part of the curricula for many gender studies programs (i.e., not just “women’s studies” programs). But obviously in comparison to the amount of thought given to whatever “femininity” is taken to be, “masculinity,” qua discrete locus, has flown under the radar. It’s treated as too discreet to be sufficiently discussed as discrete. (Homophone play!)

While we women are tired of having to tailor our concerns to the needs and questions of men, bell hooks argues in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004) that this reticence of ours to speak about masculinity also emanates from the way we have been socialized not to speak about men because we “obviously” don’t have the authority to be speaking about such things outside our purview (xiii-xiv). There does seem to be something a bit off the table about weighing in on what makes a man a man, what can be saved about masculinity, what can’t, etc. hooks articulates this lacuna especially as it pertains to the socialization of children, stating:

There is little work done from a feminist standpoint concentrating on boyhood. No significant body of feminist writing addresses boys directly, letting them know how they can construct an identity that is not rooted in sexism…Teachers of children see gender equality mostly in terms of ensuring that girls get to have the same privileges and rights as boys within the existing social structure; they do not see it in terms of granting boys the same rights as girls — for instance, the right to choose not to engage in aggressive or violent play, the right to play with dolls, to play dress up, to wear costumes of either gender, the right to choose (111).

So we feminists are doing good work to open up spaces for women and girls to have more of a sense of self-determination in how they live out their female identity, but we’ve been fairly hands-off when it comes to men and boys. But when you think about male-generated Catholic documents such as John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (thanks but no thanks, JP II!), the gender contrast regarding who’s comfortable speaking about whom does stand out.

But hooks makes a good point: to continue the good work of overcoming patriarchy, it would benefit both sexes for women and men to work together on that front. And a crucial piece of dismantling patriarchy involves dismantling not only misogynistic conceptions of womanhood but also misogynistic conceptions of manhood. In other words, we need to be able to talk about masculinity with a feminist optic. Because again, feminism really never was, and is not, “man-hating.” (Even Daly just wanted men to stay away from her and stop making her work to figure out what they should do.) On this point, hooks notes:

When feminist women told the world that patriarchy promotes woman-hating, the response was that feminists were being too extreme, exaggerating the problem. Yet when men who knew nothing about feminism claimed that feminists were man-hating, there was no response from the nonfeminist world saying that they were being too extreme. No feminists have murdered and raped men. Feminists have not been jailed day after day for their violence against men. No feminists have been accused of ongoing sexual abuse of girl children, including creating a world of child pornography featuring little girls (107-108).

Think about it.

So what would feminist masculinity look like? For hooks, in contradistinction to patriarchal masculinity, feminist masculinity would replace domination with partnership as the definitive paradigm (117).

Now, what interests me about this statement is not the resonance of interconnection and interdependency that partnership suggests. Those things are there, and I support that. Both women and men need to recognize interdependency and relationality as something like “anthropological constants,” for both sexes.

But what I find really interesting is that, for hooks, the partnership model suggests for men that the performance of domination and self-sufficiency is not what earns them real love in their various relationships. Rather, as hooks proposes, feminist manhood is partly about men realizing that they are already worthy of love: “Feminist masculinity presupposes that it is enough for males to be to have value, that they do not have to ‘do,’ to ‘perform,’ to be affirmed and loved. Rather than defining strength as ‘power over,’ feminist masculinity defines strength as one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others” (117).

As the last line here suggests, feminist masculinity never occurs apart from the renunciation of domineering forms of power-over, so it is a real sacrifice and reorientation of one’s desires and energies as a man. But, as hooks notes, such divestment of sinful and problematic power also converges with a re-centering in oneself and a reclaiming of one’s own inherent value in one’s (male) body and person. In this way, hooks can say that, among the many things that feminism is supposed to accomplish, one of them is helping men achieve true spiritual and emotional well-being, against violence, against aggression, against hatred. This will finally belie the patriarchal myth that domination and love can coexist (hooks 123). They cannot.

There’s more to say, but I’ll stop there for now. Perhaps women and men can think further together about the dismantling of patriarchal womanhood and manhood. What other aspects of feminist masculinity would you all like to see promoted?

25 thoughts on “Feminist masculinity?

  1. “Perhaps women and men can think further together about the dismantling of patriarchal womanhood and manhood.”

    The heart of feminism can be boiled down to one word: equality. It also stresses the importance of the individual within a larger collective.
    If the concept of patriarchy is removed outright, the benefits manifest in terms of business acumen, hiring practicing and how people will actually judge based on character and ability to perform rather than, frankly, lust or lack-there-of.
    Outside of business, it’s okay to be chivalrous if you’re a man or woman as long as what you’d do (holding open doors, picking up the tab, etc.) is the same thing you would do for anyone, regardless of gender. Likewise, it’s okay to be reserved and polite, as long as there’s not a gender-based pre-set about when someone feels the need to act that way. Removing the idea of what gender is supposed to be and focusing on an individual’s qualities instead relieves so much tension, is so much better for the mind and heart, and truly allows feminism to bloom in a way that’s not grating and actually establishes equality.

  2. This was so absolutely refreshing to read.

    I should also add that as a teacher of children, I do see gender equality as involving boys waiting their turn, learning to listen instead of over-talk, and taking equal responsibility for picking up after themselves and helping out in the classroom. It is not just about girls having an equal position, but about teaching boys to stop jockeying for power over them and over less assertive boys as well as about taking responsibility for themselves instead of hoping someone else will come along to do things for them.

  3. This was fantastic. Many thanks! I will say that the discussion about education at the beginning left me with many questions and wondering how you approach teaching undergraduate students. Do you often find yourself feeling slapped as you try to hold their hands? Does that feeling only come from your male students? As an educator, do you feel obligated to “break through” to them? Or is it better to let them educate themselves? Is it possible to see victims of patriarchy in those who now perpetuate it? Feel free to ignore these. I am now going to read this again.

    • Good questions. Well, my teaching experience so far has probably been a bit unusual in this regard, as the only classes I have taught have been explicitly on Christianity and gender. So I really felt a power differential there (with me having the most power, to use for good or for ill), as well as a a responsibility to find ways to educate them about how to think about gender in healthy ways. If I didn’t do that, then the class would have failed and I wouldn’t have been doing my job. But as I go on to teach other kinds of topics that don’t have to do with gender principally, I will have to see what kinds of classroom dynamics I orchestrate so as to deal with these kinds of questions in the right way when they come up.

      But the bottom line is that, as a teacher, I feel a professional responsibility to help educate the students, and I like doing that (and for the most part, they are receptive). To the extent that I have noticed resistance, it was from male and female students about equally, sort of. In terms of a “breaking through” to them, you know, I think definitively achieving that is probably out of my control (people, especially in college, are only equipped to hear so much at any given point), but I do think it’s important to provide them with the conceptual tools to make better intellectual choices.

      The frustration I describe in this post is directed more at men at my professional level (or above me) who rest comfy in their ignorance while calling on me to do a little intellectual dance around them.

      Incidentally, if you have any questions about pedagogy and gender (or sensitive issues in general that could come up with teaching) as you get ready to teach, I would be happy to get coffee with you at some point this summer and discuss it. I managed to pull off a pretty controversial class in a not-hideous way, so I could perhaps help you if you still have questions.

  4. Solid post. I’ve always believed Daly’s critique of patriarchal language games through her own creation of neologisms helped to foster awareness among the male population at BC. Teaching adolescent boys allows me the opportunity to model feminism as a social ally, to model care (Noddings) in a way that both nurtures and challenges normative categories that boys naturally use in gender conversations: strong vs. weak, smart vs. ignorant, beauty vs. ugly. By blurring these social and aesthetic binaries, I hope to give them a forum to recognize feminists are their closest allies (Dines) because they want the very thing the dominant male culture seeks: to be liberated from the constraint of artificial norms. Men obviously struggle more with this because they are asked to “see” invisible structures of privilege; hence, until many experience injustice do they realize this point. Young men must be provided with a forum to see that social labels unnecessarily dehumanize both men and women. Consider the growing paradigm shift of stay at home fathers and the socio-economic changes that have inverted false models of what fatherhood has (not) been for past generations.

  5. Just a footnote on Daly: when she was first denied tenure at Boston College, it was still a single sex institution and it was primarily men who petitioned against the school in support of her teaching. They could perhaps be called the first “feminists of masculinity.”

  6. This is an excellent post. Recently, I have considered writing an article on Orthodox perceptions of masculinity. Every time I read version of Orthodox complementarity, I am horrified by the portrayal of male/masculine, and wonder why more men aren’t deeply disturbed by the way in which their integrity and capability is undercut as a means of gilding the cages of women.

    I like hooks’s critique of earning love through a performance of power-over, and the argument that partnership as the definitive paradigm. For some reason, and perhaps this is my techie background, it makes me think of recent arguments regarding human evolution, game-theory and cooperation.

    • Maria, I think that would be a really great article. If you feel like weighing back in, how does hooks’s critique relate to evolution and game theory? I’m interested.

      • E,

        I have only loose connections in mind. Evolutionary biology has emphasized competition as a primary motivator for social groups and human ‘development.’ Game theory applied to evolution argues that actually cooperation has proven to be a far more effective method and spur for human development.

        If cooperation and partnership have some connection (and here I need to read more), then hooks argument seems to reflect/shape/support parallel arguments in different fields.

        Maria

  7. great points. Especially the image of holding someone’s hand while they slap you- I’ma steal that for use in the classroom. I think (hope? dream?) we as a loose grouping of similar societies are edging closer to the moment when a movement to change norms about masculinity achieves the complexity, influence, and rigor that feminism has, and I hope to be part of it both in the classroom as a teacher working with literary theories based on an attention to how sex/gender works in text and in my other life as a father, son, husband, and friend.

    I think this might be inflammatory, and I know a LOT of people who honestly disagree, but I just have to mention one thing: as someone with these kinds of hopes/dreams, I remain convinced that men cannot be feminists. Men have not the experience of being a woman, and of inhabiting the kajillions of different roles and ways of being treated that being a woman entails, that makes up the basic subject matter of feminism and its theoretical grounding. That’s not some huge problem- men have experiences unique to them, and obvs men and women have vastly more common experiences than ones unique to their sex/gender, though when you add class and ethnicity and geography and abled-ness etc. etc. etc…. but no. My point is this: I proceed towards the ultimate goal of the best possible life for all people, of whatever kind, as an advocate of feminism and not as a feminist, despite basing my entire professional life around theories and ideas feminists have nurtured, because I think it matters that we not try to erase the specificity of individual reality. I’m a man, and as dedicated an advocate of feminism as I can be, and feminists are women. Let the conflict (if anyone who cares has gotten to the end of this absurdly long rant) ensue!

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  10. Greetings,

    There is a line in these great thoughts that could use some further exploration:

    “As the last line here suggests, feminist masculinity never occurs apart from the renunciation of domineering forms of power-over, so it is a real sacrifice and reorientation of one’s desires and energies as a man.”

    How would this be articulated if we assume that masculinity is not already domineering? It seems that the analysis was thought or written from one perspective, e.g., traditional American masculinity, and I would like to invite E Lawrence to continue the thought from the perspective of typical non-domination. I ask because I am sure that achieving feminist masculinity would be quite different, etc.

    • Yes, that (i.e., “traditional” American masculinity) was what I had in mind when I wrote the post. If you have something to say about various subcultures of masculinity that resist this hegemonic model, I invite you to say something about that.

  11. I do not think that I could point to whole subcultures, but I would also point out that its far from the monolith it once was. It also occurred to me that it seems to presume heteronormativity. I just wanted to provoke thought and see if you had anything further to say, since inspiration is all that I might provide on the subject.

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