men, masculinities and gender politics

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Gender Mending: Men, Masculinity, and Feminism

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To what extent is it appropriate or possible for men who resist patriarchy to participate in the feminist movement?

By Jenn Ruddy

Briarpatch Magazine, March 2006. Reprinted with permission. URL: http://briarpatchmagazine.com

“You can see in the very movements of their bodies, forced painfully into the narrow space of permitted masculinity, moving inside an invisible cage, how the supposed winners of the gender game suffer just as much as the others from their hollow victory. Constantly terrified of each other and everyone else, themselves most of all, they take their fear out on the rest of us, perpetuating the climate of fear and violence—but when the terrain of affection itself has been occupied, when every gesture has been appropriated by the language of coercion, how will we approach each other for support, for sanctuary and for healing?”(CrimethInc., Days and Nights of Love and War)

THERE IS A LONG-STANDING DEBATE within feminist circles concerning the role that men could and should play in ending sexism. While some feminists endorse biological essentialism by arguing that, as an oppressed group, only women can seek to empower women, others maintain that men who oppose patriarchy in thought and action have a crucial role to play in the feminist movement. To what extent is it appropriate or possible for men who resist patriarchy to participate in the feminist movement? And how can these men contribute to improving gender relations?

Over the past few decades, this debate has become increasingly widespread, with critical studies of men and masculinities on the rise and more men identifying as feminist/pro-feminist. Although Take Back the Night marches first began as women-only events, it’s become virtually impossible for organizers to avoid the contentious question of whether or not to allow men to march in solidarity with women as they collectively “take back the night” once a year. Are men inappropriately intruding on the feminist movement and women’s space? Or is it a sign that the feminist agenda is succeeding at getting men to take some responsibility and join in the struggle against patriarchy?

In her book Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks takes the feminist movement to task for not making room for men in a movement that is indelibly linked to everyone. She writes, “Without males as allies in struggle, feminist movement will not progress.” And how could it? In a society that ascribes rigid codes of socially acceptable behaviour to the categories man and woman, everyone suffers the consequences.

hooks defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” By defining feminism as an anti-sexist movement (as opposed to one solely focused on the status of women), hooks recognizes that men, as well as women, suffer under patriarchy. In a patriarchal culture, for example, boys learn early on that men are rewarded for being tough, powerful and in control, and that being a “real man” is associated with being violent. The consequences for women are severe—rape, sexual harassment and physical abuse—but violence against men is also part of the equation. According to Canadian Crime Statistics 2000, while male-on-female violence accounts for the majority of all violent crime, male-on-male violence accounts for a further 37.8 percent of the total.

By pointing to patriarchy as the culprit (without absolving individual men of responsibility for their actions), hooks’ definition of feminism allows for everybody to participate in the movement. According to hooks, men who resist and oppose sexist oppression ought to be considered “comrades in struggle.” In fact, hooks argues that a woman who identifies as a feminist while simultaneously practicing sexist behaviour poses more of a threat to the movement than an anti-sexist man.

Perhaps even more threatening, though, are media portrayals of feminists. Certainly, mainstream media have perpetuated the stereotype that feminists are man-haters and that demands for equality are extreme. Inaccurate media depictions of the feminist movement have contributed to the phenomenon of women refusing to identify as feminists. It is not uncommon nowadays to hear arguments for gender equality prefaced with, “I’m not a feminist, but….” Nor is it uncommon to see media images misrepresenting the feminist movement as a monolithic entity, when in actuality it is a movement comprised of diverse people with often-conflicting ideas. hooks notes that those feminists who do make an effort to include men in the movement are rarely, if ever, featured in popular media or taken seriously.

A group of one’s own

AN INCLUSIVE FEMINISM CERTAINLY recognizes the importance of women-only environments. The emergence of an autonomous women’s movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, for instance, was crucial to addressing the sexism that women encountered within the New Left movement. Despite its progressive agenda, the New Left was male-dominated and encouraged women to fill “traditional,” supporting roles. In many cases, feminists responded to the patriarchal structure of the New Left by organizing women-only consciousness-raising groups in which women gathered to talk about their personal experiences, problems and concerns. These groups helped women realize that their individual encounters with sexism were not isolated events. Rather, personal experiences came to be understood as common experiences resulting from systemic and structural discrimination.
Similarly, since 1997, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour has organized an annual four-day skills-building program for women in the labour movement called Prairie School for Union Women. The purpose of the Prairie School is to foster women’s leadership and personal skills in a safe, respectful and non-intimidating environment. Since many unions are male-dominated and women’s voices are often silenced or side-lined in a patriarchal society, Prairie School provides women with an opportunity to build their confidence and develop a critical analysis in order to become union activists and leaders within the labour movement.

Despite hooks’ call to include men in the feminist movement, she recognizes that women-only consciousness-raising groups are an essential component to a revolutionary movement. According to hooks, women’s consciousness-raising groups have been vital in helping women confront their own internalized sexism.

Likewise, men’s consciousness-raising groups have an important role to play in challenging patriarchy. One such group is the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) in the United States. NOMAS defines itself as pro-feminist, gay-affirming, anti-racist and dedicated to enhancing men’s lives.

But what exactly does “enhancing men’s lives” mean and how does it relate to the feminist project of ending “sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression?”

For starters, unlike other men’s groups that cast men as victims while refusing to acknowledge women’s oppression, pro-feminist groups like NOMAS recognize that in order to be true allies with women in the feminist movement, men need to look inward at their own relationship with masculinity and patriarchy. In the same way that women’s consciousness-raising groups provide women with a safe space to talk about their experiences, pro-feminist men’s groups provide men who oppose sexist oppression with a supportive environment in which to discuss how and why adhering to a rigidly defined gender role is harmful to them and those around them.
According to hooks, self-examination is “the necessary step” for anyone who chooses to participate in the feminist movement. She writes, “The enemy within must be transformed before we can confront the enemy outside.” And for hooks, the enemy in each of us is “sexist thought and behaviour.” To the extent that men’s groups and academic studies of masculinity encourage men to look critically at (and take responsibility for) “the enemy within,” these trends are a welcome development in the feminist struggle against patriarchy.

Tough guise: performing masculinity

MURRAY KNUTTILA, A PROFESSOR OF sociology at the University of Regina, researches a variety of issues related to men and masculinities, including what he refers to as “hegemonic masculinity.” Maintaining that masculinities are performed in a multitude of ways, Knuttila defines hegemonic masculinity as a set of social practices that characterize the dominant form of masculinity in contemporary western culture. In other words, hegemonic masculinity is behaviour modeled on the actions of stereotypical Hollywood men like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose social practices embody toughness, competitiveness and self-reliance.

Rather than thinking of masculinity and femininity as character traits or essential identities, Knuttila understands gender to be a way of engaging in social relations. Consequently, there is no such thing as one type of masculinity because not all people who “act” masculine behave the same way. Like femininity, there are varying degrees of masculinity that differ among, and even within, such identifiers as sex, class, race, age, sexual orientation and so on.

Knuttila argues that gender is socially constructed and that there is no clear link between biological sex and behaviour. Pointing to anthropological studies, Knuttila maintains that the social construction of gender is evident in the fact that women in some societies are systematically aggressive and competitive while men in those same societies are more nurturing and passive.

For both hegemonic masculinity and its counterpart, emphasized femininity, the social pressures on men and women to adopt these behaviours are embedded in nearly every institution of society. Probably the most effective institutions for teaching and policing gender identity are popular media, including billboards, magazines, sitcoms, music videos, movies, pornography and advertisements, all of which are notorious for perpetuating harmful stereotypes of race, class and sex.

Another place where gender is monitored and enforced is on the playground, in the form of bullying. According to anti-violence educator Jackson Katz, speaking in the film Tough Guise: Violence Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, insults like “fag,” “sissy” and “wimp” are used to box boys into a narrowly defined role that plays out in a “tough guise.”

Masculinity on the couch

KNUTTILA, WHO IS ALSO A RESEARCHER for the Saskatchewan Population Health Evaluation Research Unit, argues that social practices associated with hegemonic masculinity are very unhealthy for boys and men.

“Men who practice hegemonic masculinity exhibit their masculinity through fighting and violence. And some of that fighting and violence is visited upon their loved ones…but a lot of it is visited upon each other,” he says.

While physical violence is probably one of the more obvious by-products of hegemonic masculinity, the emotional damage takes its toll as well. Having conducted interviews with male corporate executives in and around the Regina area last summer, Knuttila and his colleagues noted that several men began to cry as they talked about their masculinity and what they had missed out on in life, including playing a more active role in their children’s lives.

“To miss those moments is to miss one of the essential meanings of life,” says Knuttila. “I think that men’s psychological, spiritual and physical health suffers from that need to control, that need to dominate, that need to hang on to power.”
The social pressures on men and women to adopt these behaviours are embedded in nearly every institution of society.”

This is not to say, of course, that men are not responsible for their actions or that they don’t benefit from patriarchy. Knuttila, who identifies as pro-feminist, recognizes that most men do benefit from living in a patriarchal society. Whether it be that men, on average, make more money than women, or that their opinions are more often respected and their work more valued, Knuttila believes that men, to varying degrees depending on such factors as race, class and sexual orientation, have easier access to social status and social prestige–an advantage that he and others refer to as the patriarchal dividend.

“The patriarchal dividend represents the benefits that accrue to men generally by virtue of being men in a patriarchal society,” he says.

But these benefits don’t come without a price.

“The interesting thing about the patriarchal dividend is that we pay for it too,” says Knuttila, pointing to the fact that men in Saskatchewan die ten years younger than women. While there is still much research to be done in this area, Knuttila says the life-expectancy discrepancy could be because men who practice hegemonic masculinity tend to take dangerous risks at work and at play; they tend not to relax because they are constantly trying to dominate and be in control; and they may lack the social support networks that a healthy emotional life requires.

The centre cannot hold

Bruce Wood is a mental health practitioner who has also grown concerned about the lack of support services available to men. He and one of his colleagues became aware of a number of suicides by adult men who didn’t have access to community services–either because they didn’t know where to go or because they refused to ask for help.

In order to determine if there was a need for a men’s resource centre in Saskatoon, Wood teamed up with four University of Saskatchewan students in the Leadership Advantage Program in 2004 to survey the community. After holding a series of public forums, the results indicated that there was indeed a desire for a resource centre through which men could access information, meet and talk with one another, and participate in educational workshops. In February 2005, the Saskatoon Men’s Resource Centre was founded with a male-positive, pro-feminist, gay-affirmative and anti-racist mandate to help men become healthy partners, fathers and community members.

The primary goal of the centre is to serve as a clearinghouse for agencies that offer services in the physical and mental health fields, as well as other areas such as parenting, anger management, sexuality and so on. Due to lack of funding, the centre does not currently have a physical location; rather, the services it provides are offered via Internet, telephone, newsletters, and monthly public forums. To date, the group has hosted a number of forums on various topics, including male violence against women, parenting, depression, and support for gay and transgendered communities. Last year, the Men’s Resource Centre successfully lobbied Saskatoon City Council to have December 5 declared White Ribbon Day–a campaign that encourages men to show their opposition to male violence against women by wearing a white ribbon or signing a pledge.

“Hopefully our active involvement in the White Ribbon Campaign was a demonstration that we see issues like male violence against women as serious, significant and something that men need to speak out against,” says Wood.

But not everyone agrees with what the Men’s Resource Centre is doing. According to Wood, the Centre has received criticism from all directions. Anti-feminists don’t like that it’s pro-feminist; the minimal attention it has received in the mainstream media has largely been cynical; and many people think it’s a centre exclusively for gay men. One response to the survey about the possibility of creating the Centre was, “Real men don’t need a men’s centre.” This response is reflective of society’s attitude toward male vulnerability. In a society where men are expected to be in control, in charge and independent, it’s socially unacceptable for them to admit that they may need help. This could be yet another reason why men are dying younger than women. According to Statistics Canada, the majority of those who have not seen a doctor in five years are men, as they are more likely than women to give a low priority to physical and mental health.

This is precisely what the Saskatoon Men’s Resource Centre hopes to address, and regardless of the criticism, Wood says the Centre is committed to its mandate.

“I think that our existence and our goals, to some extent, demonstrate opposition to patriarchy in that we want to see men doing something about the challenge of helping other men change, explore alternatives to rigid gender roles, provide public information about alternatives to rigid gender roles and also expose the dangers of men continuing to adhere to rigid gender roles,” says Wood.

Beyond the binary

ACCORDING TO JACKSON KATZ, WE NEED to find a different way of defining what it means to be a man. And while this would be a good start, perhaps we need to take it even further. Perhaps what is needed is the eradication of the binary gender system so that what is—or what isn’t—between our legs at birth is not a social signifier of what we should be or will become. Dichotomies like man/woman or feminine/masculine exclude those who do not conform. They also prevent alternative possibilities so that when a woman behaves aggressively, instead of re-defining female behaviour, she is labeled masculine or told she is “acting like a man.”
Perhaps there is an even better solution. Rather than re-conceptualizing what it means to be a man or a woman, let’s not define it at all, other than to say the possibilities of identity and behaviour are endless.

This is, of course, much easier said than done and, unfortunately, the number of people who are committed to blurring gender roles (or even who identify as feminists or pro-feminists) is limited. In any case, because we live in a patriarchal culture that supports and reinforces male domination, when men attempt to perform their gender in ways that are caring, supportive, emotionally sensitive and gentle, they too risk becoming victims of patriarchy. Any feminist movement that is committed to an anti-oppressive agenda should have a vested interest in making room for these men. Or, rather, the feminist movement should make room for any person—regardless of sex—who is committed to dismantling patriarchy. Indeed, these people are comrades-in-struggle and they deserve an environment in which they can safely and comfortably practice an anti-sexist way of life.

Jenn Ruddy is a graduate student in political science at the University of Regina.