Part of the problem with starting a new blog (or joining an already stellar one) is hitting on the right tone for the first post. Come on too strong and the writing appears forced (“ALRIGHT EVERYONE! HERE ARE MY WORDS AND YOU WILL LIKE THEM ALL AND YOU WILL KNOW HOW AWESOMEANDWITTYIAMBYTHETHIRDSENTANCEBLAKJSRSR!!!”), but exercise too much restraint and the blog post may read more like a detailed analysis of proper moisture content for haylage (yes, it’s a real word, and it’s 30-50%, by the way). I had originally written a fairly lengthy article about the current state of research on masculinities in the social sciences is but, you know, haylage. So here’s the plan: I’ve scrapped the post and written a new one, and done my best to lighten the tone a bit while keeping the core argument intact. I probably won’t have too many links contained in the body of the post, but I will absolutely put a small bibliography at the end (complete with Amazon.com links) for some of the more important works in the field.
The study of men and masculinities in the social sciences has been taking place since the very birth of the social sciences. Of course, back in the day just about everything that could be talked about with regards to society and social institutions was about men, by men, and for men. It wasn’t until the arrival on the scene of those uppity wimmenz with their ‘rooms of one’s own’ and their radical demands to be allowed to vote – or even be considered ‘persons’ under the law in the first place – that the analytical lenses of sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, etc. began to swivel to scrutinize women and women’s lives. And what they found was that women had it pretty bad. Horribly bad, in fact and perhaps it would be wise if some small amount of time was devoted to trying to understand why they had it so bad, don’tcherknow?
Thanks in large part to the work done by those pioneer feminist theorists and the many, many academics, intellectuals, activists, and agitators who followed them, women as gendered beings became the subjects of innumerable research projects and studies; women’s lives in the workplace, women’s lives at home, women’s sexuality and women’s struggles to feel included and welcome in society; all became topics of serious discussion and analysis. And the results? Well, nothing less than an almost complete dismantling and re-imagining of women and women’s lives in society. How society views women has, in many ways undergone some rather profound changes. There are of course recidivists and recalcitrant yokels out there who continue to view women as objects to possess and dominate, and the widespread acceptance of misogyny and gender-based stereotypes remain a significant challenge for us all to deal with and hopefully fix, but I think that it’s rather uncontroversial to say that things have gotten better of the course of the last century and a half. So what does this have to do with men? Well rather a lot, actually.
Once the study of women qua women had been firmly established in academic institutions, some theorists – mostly feminist theorists or those heavily influenced by them – rather naturally began to ask “if the study of women qua women has yielded such positive fruits, then would an examination of men qua men yield similar fruits?” While it was true that men had been the de facto focus of sociological and anthropological analysis for much of the history of the social sciences, they had, for the most part, been studied only in terms of their actions and effects on the world; they had never truly been studied as men. What did it mean to be a man? What is masculinity? How do particular behaviours come to be seen as ‘masculine’, and what does the valorization of those behaviours lead to? And thus was a whole new sub-discipline of gender studies born.
Early examinations of men and men’s lives were pretty shallow and not really all that profound. Men (and women) were seen in essentialist terms – that there was some ideal ‘form’ of manliness out there that all men needed to be measured against. The results of this mistaken belief were fairly tragic; gay men were ‘demoted’ to the status of non-men, or lesser men, as were the men and boys who preferred books and computers over footballs and firearms. ‘Weak’ or ‘girly’ men were shipped off to remote ‘retreats’ where they were encouraged to build fires, beat drums, and get in touch with their ‘primal’ man, as though the only man worth being was the functional equivalent of a cave man in a business suit. Popular culture, as is its wont, twisted and misapplied these early attempts and used them to justify everything from ‘primal scream’ therapy and mythopoetic conceptions of masculinity to the horrific ‘reparative’ therapies which sought to ‘fix’ gay men and make them into ‘real’ men again. In many ways, pop-culture is like that weird older relative that everyone has – the one who listens to science shows but doesn’t understand them and so attempts to fill in the gaps in their knowledge by creatively speculating about what they thought the scientists were implying. Moving on.
The study of men really took off with the arrival of a number of absolutely brilliant scholars in the field – most notably R.W. Connell, Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner. Connell’s work Masculinities is the most-cited work in the entire field and an absolute must-read for students of gender studies. Messer and Kimmel only slight less so. Connell’s theory of masculinities radically altered the way in which gender theorists understood the process of becoming gendered beings. Alright, I’ll admit that Judith Butler had more than a few things to say on the subject, but her writing was physically painful for me to read, alright? We all have our favourites, and Connell is mine. R.W. Connell’s concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ made heavy use of intersectionality and her resultant theoretical lens posited that there is no such thing as a singular male gender; there are dozens of competing masculinities, arranged into complex hierarchies of dominance and subordination, and all of them subjugated by – and measured against – an articulation of masculinity that is culturally dominant and rigorously – if subtly – enforced. These competing forms of masculinity are intersected by multiple vectors of privilege and oppression which make the entire structure chaotic, violent, and ultimately self-destructive. Put simply: the single greatest threat facing men today comes from other men. Let’s look at an example.
Consider ‘Alex’. Alex is muscular, athletic, white, heterosexual, and rich. Each one of these variables grants him a form of privilege over others in society, and when taken in aggregate, Alex’s position in the social hierarchy is pretty dominant. Because Alex is all of these things, they seem to him to be both natural and laudable; being muscular is better than being fat, being athletic is better than being lazy, rich is better than poor, etc. Because he believes these things, he may also believe that those who are overweight, poor, or whatever are beneath him – maybe even contemptible.
Whether he is aware of it or not, his attitudes and beliefs may cause him to seek out ways to reinforce the moral rightness of his own position while vilifying the positions of others. He votes for people who share his beliefs – including perhaps figures who would demand that say, a certain level of physical fitness become a graduation requirement for high-schools, or who believes that poor people are that way because they are either lazy or otherwise lacking in some necessary skill. Alex spends his money at venues and on products that cater to his particular brand of ideal man, and his consumption – and the consumption of others like him – spur those companies on to invest in ad campaigns that reinforce the belief that people like Alex are the ideal that everyone should aspire to. Everyone else – especially other men who fail to meet the ‘Gold Standard’ of Alex, are penalized for their ‘failings’; they aren’t as represented in pop-culture, or they are presented as clownish or villainous stereotypes to be mocked or reviled. This is all pretty simplistic, but you get my drift; while some men are portrayed as buffoonish and unintelligent/uncultured/boorish, they are often only done so in order to make other men look better.
The point I’m trying to make is that academic analyses of men and men’s lives are becoming increasingly common in the social sciences, and a lot of the research that is done can (and does) fit seamlessly with feminist analyses of women and women’s lives. The resultant body of data suggests that a better understanding of these sorts of social pressures can go a long way to helping men break out of the vicious cycles of toxic masculinity that threaten both themselves and everyone else. Patriarchy hurts everyone, and recognizing that can help men become better citizens and generally better people.
The Men’s Rights Movement does nothing to help us. Contrary to their wild-eyed assertions that ‘teh menz’ are the real victims in society, the data shows that while men have many, many problems, the vast majority of their issues still take place within a space of almost unparalleled privilege. No, men do not have it worse than women, PoCs or members of the LGBT communities. No, feminists are not out to destroy men or strip them of their ‘hard-won’ rights. No, the struggle for recognition and an equitable share of the fruits of civilization is not a zero-sum game with men at the losing end! Men are not losing out to anyone; everyone else is merely asking to share the same rights and privileges that men have always possessed. Yes, some men do have it pretty rough, and yes, some men might be judged unfairly by the justice system or by other members of society, but here’s the important part: your personal anecdotes or hardships are not the standard by which the rest of us determine the position of men as a social category. Barack Obama is a powerful and successful man; that doesn’t mean that racism is gone forever or that all black men everywhere no longer have to worry about discrimination.
White men are not oppressed.
Deal with it.
Butler, Judith, “Gender Troubles”
Connell, R.W. “Masculinities”
Connell, R. W. “The Men and the Boys”
Kimmel, Michael, Messner, Michael, “Men’s Lives: 9th Edition”