One of the important roles for male feminists is to use our male privilege as a means of cutting through some of the most cynical dismissals of feminist positions. When anti-feminists can’t say “well she’s just saying that because women are trying to oppress men”, they have to find more convoluted (and increasingly less probable) explanations for their reflexive dismissal. By providing obvious counter-examples to the meme that feminists are just women who hate men, male feminists have the opportunity to ‘signal boost’ the messages from other feminists.
But a role that I think is increasingly relevant (or, at least one that I am becoming more aware of) is that of providing male critiques of the way in which masculinity myths fail to serve men. There are no shortage of harmful myths about how women ‘should’ be, and we should be combatting them vigorously – they often place women in situations that are disempowering and often dangerous. At the same time, there is room in feminist discourse to turn the analytical tools of gender critique on all constructs of gender. Today I want to walk through two examples of doing just that:
What it felt like to me was warfare. It was a holy war, in fact. These people who said they loved me, and could only demonstrate that love by humiliating and torturing me, often reminded me that they were acting on behalf of the divine, making right the crookedness that I seemed to be bending into. Like all zealots, they were insusceptible to reason. They were acting on what appeared on the surface to be instinct, but was actually something far more insidious: directives that they believed they were getting directly from Allah/Yahweh/Jehovah/Jah, his name changing as the text did.
The goal wasn’t merely to make me tough so that I might be able to handle myself in a world where the color of my skin marked me as a target. The conditioning was also employed so that I could meet some standard of being that suited the heteronormative objectives of my captors. After all, it was my white eighth grade teacher who called my mother to tell her that she should be concerned that I was a little bit light in the loafers and that, perhaps, some rigorous athletic activity or bullying from other students might straighten me out before it was too late.
I have been told that I have to understand that since white men won’t let black men be Men, it only makes sense that straight black men are sickened by the sight of queer black men, particularly those who are demonstrably feminine or otherwise make their queerness known. Always, the definition by which Manhood is ultimately defined is not some objective, pre-existing, immovable, biological, scientific standard (although they will attempt to convince you that it is), but rather some constructed, limiting, shifty, suspicious, patriarchal paradigm that defines Manhood as one’s ability to control, dominate, and exercise punitive power over those deemed “weaker,” and those deemed weaker are always those who are female and/or feminine. It is an inherently misogynistic foundation upon which this construct is built. Queer men are bothersome reminders of submission and castration because empowered women are bothersome reminders of the exact same thing.
The problem is patriarchy.
The language in this post reinforces my conjecture that religion is every bit a social justice topic as gender, race, or sexual orientation. Understanding the intersections between these things is crucial to understanding any one of them individually. We cannot, as atheists, properly critique religion without understanding how it behaves in a non-uniform way when it oppresses different groups. Similarly, we cannot understand gender or race without also understanding religion, despite the many self-identifying anti-racists who try to do exactly that.
Read the above, and compare it to the following:
My hometown is like hundreds of thousands of others dotted across the American West. About 10,000 people, working class. When the show “Ax Men” came on The History Channel, I was fascinated. Here were the people I grew up with, western men who do dangerous work for not very much money. The landscapes are stunning, the Cascade Mountains from which the logs were being extracted are green year round and drop precipitously to the sea. And the men out there, logging, are brave and hard working, spending great lengths of time away from their families in order to provide.
These were not things that boys back home were supposed to do, and yes, I took shit for it later that day. Boys weren’t supposed to cry (men are strong, not weak), we’re not supposed to need support from anyone, in particular not our mothers (men are providers, supporters, not those in need of support). And on top of all of that, I baked, I sewed (men are supposed to work, not concern themselves with matters of the home), I played sissy upper-class sports (real men play football, basketball, baseball), I worked really hard at school (real men use their bodies, not their minds), and I cared about it all enough to cry in public.
Losing his job meant losing his role in his family, in his society, in his country. If a man is by definition a worker, provider, protector, what does he become when he fails to provide or protect? I watched my friend’s father become consumed by his apparent failures. I watched a lot of men struggle to redefine themselves as logging and farming and building things with their hands become no longer profitable.
Because when masculinity gets conflated with personhood, to challenge masculinity is to challenge humanity. No wonder so many men respond so violently to those that dare question their manhood. No wonder so many men respond with such despair when economic systems violate their ability to provide. No wonder so many men who feel dispossessed respond with fists or guns or acts of sexual violence or words that bludgeon and bruise.
The above pullquote is incredibly long, granted, but it highlights the contours of a crucial facet of this discussion: rigidly-defined gender oppresses men as well. I had a disagreement with an audience member over this issue in Chicago, but this is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of. Patriarchal masculinity hurts women, absolutely, and also those who are non-normative men – gay men, black men, men who simply have divergent interests – but it is vital to understand that it hurts normative men too. The author describes the way in which failure to provide for a family (often through no one’s own fault) is not just failure to be a provider – it is also failure to be a man, and therefore a failure to be a valid male person.
The task falls to male feminists to learn to identify and advocate these ideas, pulling from our own experiences as the above authors have. Like religion, the entire philosophical edifice of gender needs to be critiqued and pulled apart in order to rob it of the power to hurt us in the many ways it does. Not in exclusion to discussions of how patriarchy hurts women, but in addition to it.
If you missed it, I teamed up recently with a panel to do exactly that.
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