Why Masculinity is a Feminist Issue

If you’re at all familiar with this blog or with me, you no doubt know that I am an avowed feminist.  And a feminist of a very particular sort.  For me, it is absolutely crucial that we address both the epistemological and material ways in which women are continuously disempowered and often outright oppressed in our culture.  Indeed, women, in my mind, are still the primary recipients of the goals of feminism, precisely because they are still the group that faces the most types of oppression.

However, as a feminist I also believe that men have just as much to gain from a feminist critique of patriarchy as women do, and it is for this reason that I ardently believe the study of masculinity should be (as it has recently become) a central component of feminist analyses of patriarchal culture.

Why do I believe this?  For one thing, feminists are already equipped with the analytical tools and knowledge to take on the seemingly hegemonic and indestructible cultural construct of masculinity in nuanced and politically radical ways.  It is not enough to simply argue that it is a construct—a masquerade, if you will—although that is certainly an excellent starting point.  One need only look to the work of such scholars as Judith Butler (in both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter), Steven Cohan (whose Masked Men, building on Butler, argues that even the seemingly hegemonic construction of masculinity in the 1950s was riddled with contradictions that constantly pulled apart and undercut the hegemony), and Susan Bordo (whose book The Male Body artfully teases out the way American society has consistently placed demands on the male body that it can never adequately meet and that therefore create unrealistic and unhealthy expectations) to see the value of such an approach to masculinity.  What these various scholars reveal is that those trained in a feminist methodology can bring those tools to bear in important and potentially radical ways upon masculinity, exposing it for a construction and thus rendering it susceptible to both critique and, ultimately, absolute deconstruction (and perhaps abolition?)

Just as importantly, as my students recently pointed out to me in the course I teach on gender and literary texts, it is precisely because the patriarchal construct of masculinity imposes such demands on male subjects that those very same subjects often feel obligated or pushed into their oppression of women (whether consciously or unconsciously).  This is, of course, not the only reason that men oppress women, but I would argue that it is at least one reason, and a very important one.  As feminists, we need to recognize that patriarchy negatively influences both men and women, in often complementary and simultaneously contradictory ways.  With theoretical apparatuses that have been finely forged in the crucible of explicit oppression, feminists are more than prepared to tackle the challenges posed by the hegemonic construction of masculinity.

Likewise, we as feminists (especially those who are educators) need to provide young men with the critical tools they need to examine their own masculinity.  I hear numerous anecdotes about the ways in which today’s young men still remain wedded, whether wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, the privilege that their masculinity affords them.  What’s more, many young women also buy into the myth of masculinity, as well as all of the other unfortunate vectors that intertwine with gender.  Thus, when we as feminists talk about/analyze/interpret masculinity, we must do so through an intersectional method that takes thorough account of the ways in which masculinity is always/already inflected by issues of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality.  For example, masculinity means something very different for an African American male than it does to a white, middle class one, just as it means something different for a gay man (although, as I have noted elsewhere, many gay men are buying into the privileges afforded by a hegemonic view of masculinity, often at the expense of the much-despised “femininity”).  As feminists, we must constantly be aware of our own complicity in these discourses, and we must also constantly work with our students to help them understand not only how these constructions function, but also the particular ways in which they are reproduced throughout our culture.

At the end of the day, however, some questions remain.  As I alluded to earlier, there remains the question of whether we want to abolish masculinity and femininity altogether in favor of a gender pluralverse.  But then, perhaps the solution would be to not make them mandatory patterns of behavior to which one must subscribe in order to gain access to certain nodes of privilege, but instead affectations and behaviors that may have no relation to the gendered and sexed bodies which we inhabit and with which we move through the world (though it is not a problem if one does draw a connection between those two things).

I suppose the issue, for me at least, is one of choice.  I want to believe that masculinity as a set of behaviors is not in and of itself a bad thing; it is the ways in which those behaviors become tied to certain hegemonic privileges and impositions that it becomes especially problematic.  But that is precisely the point that I have been arguing so far.  It is feminists who have the ability, the desire, and the tools to ask these sorts of questions and to be able to work the slow and tortuous way to some sort of answer, all the while remaining acutely conscious of the moral, ethical, and political consequences that all definitive answers inevitably carry with them.  There will not, of course, be an easy answer that will completely efface the contradictions and complexities that are part and parcel of the gender ideology under which we all live (though we all may not support it).  With the tools provided by feminism and particularly by feminist theorizing, we can continue to probe and problematize, to ask questions that no one else is willing or able to ask, in order to slowly push us toward a world in which gender can be opened up to explore its multiplicitous potentials.

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