The Male as Male in All His Masculine Male Complexity of Manliness

Back in the day when I was an undergraduate at the U of T, I took a class called Men, Gender and Power, 1500-1800. Said class was taught by the brilliant (and no longer retired!) Dr. Barbara Todd, and it dealt with the construction and performance of masculinity in early modern Europe. Dr. Todd talked about how masculine identity has evolved over time, how it was interpreted and performed by men who had little status within early modern patriarchy – working-class men, men of colour, enslaved men, men who had sex with men – and how the range of acceptable masculinities has shifted but ultimately narrowed over time. Prior to taking this class, the word patriarchy had just been an abstraction, and not one that I took very seriously: like many young women, I thought it was something that those silly feminists made up so that they’d have an excuse to complain. By the end of those twenty-six weeks, I understood that patriarchy is far more than a straw-man argument; I had seen the way it granted some men great power, as long as they were born into the right class and as long as they severely limited their self-expression. I had observed clear examples of the often arbitrary social construction of gender, and I soon found ways to relate that to my own experiences of gender, of patriarchy and of sexism. Strangely enough, studying men had turned me into a feminist.

The fact that it took a class on masculinities to get me interested in gender is worthy (because women’s issues with gender are so frivolous, of course, whereas men’s issues are Serious Business All The Time) of a post in and of itself, but what I want to talk about here is the purpose and the value of studying men and masculinity. Dr. Todd created this course because, like many feminist scholars, she felt it was important to highlight that gender is not something exclusive to women – and that by treating it as such, we only further reinforce the whole “men are people, women are women” ideology that has kept patriarchy going for so long. Moreover, she understood that patriarchy has generally benefited a small subset of men, and wanted to examine how other men, those men who belong to marginalized groups, relate to, and are affected by, masculinity. It was a great course. As I stated earlier, it probably made me a feminist, and it probably also made me a specific kind of feminist: that is, a feminist who spends a lot of time thinking critically about masculinity and how Patriarchy Hurts Men Too. A great deal of my feminism is rooted in the belief that dismantling patriarchy and the gender binary will benefit everyone, even those who currently benefit from patriarchy itself.

This is, more or less, why I find the idea of “Male Studies” so ridiculous.

Feminists aren’t annoyed (I won’t say “outraged”, because I don’t think anyone cares quite that much)* about Male Studies because we don’t think men are worth studying, or because we think it’s a threat to female academic supremacy (which is imaginary, by the way – most university faculties, even in the liberal arts, are still hugely male-dominated). We dislike it because the study of men and gender already exists, and Lionel Tiger and company are simply choosing to ignore it. Not build upon it, not contribute to it, but ignore it completely, because apparently looking critically at the social construction of masculinity is too damn feminist for them. This, apparently is what diffferentiates Male Studies from the established discipline of Men’s Studies, which exists on nearly every university campus, often as a subset of Gender Studies: Men’s Studies is based in feminist theory, and Male Studies is not. Apparently Tiger & Co. think they can talk about gender without any reference to the theories that have formed the basis for all studies of gender. Instead, their theories will apparently be pulled out of evo-psych, and, most likely, their asses.

This is what gets me. For one thing, feminist theory isn’t a monolith. It contains many strands that are, in fact, very friendly to men and very interested in how gender norms affect men (again: Men’s Studies. Seriously, it exists). And even if you disagree with a theory, even if you disagree with every single aspect of it, you can’t just refuse to reference or draw from it at all. That’s not academically dishonest, it’s just academically stupid. Francois Furet may have hated the Marxist historians, but at least he conceded that, having done the bulk of the research about the French Revolution, they knew something about it. He even cited Georges Lefebvre every once in a while. (I’ll stop with the French Revolution references now.) This is how scholarship works: sometimes, even if you disagree with someone, you have to acknowledge that they know more than you do. Even if, sometimes, those people are women.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Male Studies will actually turn out to be thoughtful and interesting and not at all an essentialist pile of crap. I’ll pick up a copy of their journal when it comes out, and if I’m wrong about this, I’ll be pleased. At this point, however, I can’t say I’m feeling particularly optimistic. Phrases like “the male as male in all his complexity” or “the notion that male and female organisms really are different”** lead me to suspect that intersectional analysis or deconstruction of gender roles isn’t high on their list of priorities. Fortunately, though, other people are already doing that, and most of them are actually worth listening to.

* Yes, I realize I am writing a blog post about it, but please keep in mind that I have way too much time on my hands.

** And don’t even get me started on the essentialism here. Trans men: they don’t exist, apparently.

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  • macktivist  On April 18, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Well duh they don’t want to actually draw on the theories of feminists! This is more of a talking point-political move than anything else. These “Male Studies” have no actual basis of scholarship to draw on other then “Wimmins sure are different than us!” circlejerking.

    • Brett K  On April 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm

      Yep, pretty much. Call me a crazy man-hater if you must, but as far as I’m concerned, refusing to engage with a century’s worth of groundbreaking scholarship = not a real discipline. Sorry, dudes.

  • Bakka  On April 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I did my undergrad at U of T, too, but I did not see this course or I would have taken it because it sounds very interesting.

    One thing that gets me about “Male Studies” is that they accuse feminists of being ideologically driven, but then they give their own ideological statements that they treat as dogma (“men and women really are different” and this difference matters for their behaviour). I find this ironic because gender studies usually does question their premises (which means the ‘ideology’ is held non-dogmatically). I don’t see ideology as a problem per se.

    Wikipedia defines it as “An ideology is a set of ideas that directs one’s goals, expectations, and actions.” This does not seem to be problematic since any project needs to begin with a set of guiding ideas to be investigated. In contrast, holding an ideology dogmatically, does seem problematic for scholarship, since then you are holding the ideology true even in the face of dis-confirming evidence. Wikipedia defines dogma as: “Dogma is the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization: it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from.”

    I wrote more about why I find this field problematic here.

    • Brett K  On April 19, 2010 at 5:46 pm

      I don’t know how long the course has been around – I took it in 2007-08, but it’s entirely possible that it was only a couple of years old at that point. I’m pretty sure it’s only offered in alternate years, as well, though I can’t be sure. In any case, it was a great course, and I know it got a lot of people (like me! and also a lot of dudes) interested in feminism and gender history.

      And I’d argue that most disciplines are ideologically driven in some ways – women’s/gender studies just gets singled out because the ideologies that most often drive it tend to threaten the status quo. Straw-man arguments also tend to portray gender studies as driven by a single, monolithic argument, whereas in fact, like any other discipline, gender studies contains a number of different theories and ideologies. If anything, “Male Studies” is far more ideologically driven since it doesn’t appear to accept a multiplicity of viewpoints – it’s pretty much all essentialism all the time, whereas scholars of gender have a lot of conflicting ideas when it comes to essentialism.

      In short: I completely agree with you. Thanks for linking to your post, as well – it was really insightful. Male studies seems to have generated a lot of really great feminist critique – so it’s not *all* bad, I guess, even if the discipline itself promises to be an essentialist clusterfuck.

  • Bern  On April 19, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Your comments and those of the subsequent posters clearly reflect your collective lack of understanding of Male Studies. I find it amazing that feminists expect any reasonable man to buy into their “solution” to men’s issues via “Men’s Studies”. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, Feminism & Women’s Studies wouldn’t be the first political movement to claim they are just “here to help” their previously called out enemies. All men need to do is agree with you and everyone will be happy, right? Turns out not so much.

    Male Studies is here to acknowledge the fact that in spite of all of the victories women have gained over the past forty years feminists still believe they are full time victims. There is no amount that can be given up to feminists that will ever satisfy them. Hence men in general and most specifically men who originally bought into women’s legitimate need to be treated more fairly finally see the end game. As most of you know, most men are pretty cool and fair minded, but now that it’s clear that there is no end to your demands it seems men are finally getting that actually it is a war of sorts. Male Studies is an important component of educating men as to the facts versus signing up for your feminist political agenda.

    Stay tuned. It will be interesting.

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