Tag Archives: patriarchy

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.

What’s Your Position?: The Politics of Top and Bottom in Gay Sex

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex.  Sex is about power.”

—Oscar Wilde

It has become something of a truism that sex is political.  Whether it be the Republicans attempting to assert control over women’s bodies or those same Republicans attempting to criminalize homosexual acts, the act of sex has become a fraught political weapon in the ongoing war between the parties.  Gay (anal) sex in particular has occupied, and continues to occupy, a particularly vexed place in the American cultural imaginary since, almost invariably, it involves one man submitting his body to the penetration of another.  And, in Western culture, especially those indebted to the Greeks and Romans, anal penetration poses a fundamental disturbance to the alleged inpenetrability of normative masculinity.  Penetration, in the minds of many men, is the ultimate expression of indignity, the ultimate degradation and destruction of their masculine subjectivity (witness the fact that male/male rape or other sexual assault is often used as a means of breaking down male prisoners of war).

As a result, many queer theorists have postulated that passive anality is, whether consciously or subconsciously, a strike at the heart of hegemonic, phallic/impenetrable masculinity.  Indeed, this serves as the basic argument of Leo Bersani in his landmark and highly controversial essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”  While I agree with Bersani and other theorists that passive (and yes, I realize the loadedness of this term) anality is a potentially subversive strike back at the tyranny of hetenormative masculinity, it seems to me that what gets left out of this equation is the “top” partner in this exchange.  What role does gay topping have in this schema?  While it can be argued that the penetrated “bottom” is engaging in a subversive political act by taking another man into himself and surrendering to the mingled pleasure and pain of penetration, can the same be said of the “top”?

At first glance, it might seem that the top in a gay sexual encounter is merely replicating the very phallic masculinity that male homosexuality is supposed to challenge, for it could be argued that the top is merely slipping into the role of the penetrator, i.e. placing himself into the position of the “man” in the encounter.  However, I would argue that something much more complicated and potentially politically subversive is going on here.  It is necessary to remember that, in consensual gay sexual encounters, both parties enter into a (often unspoken by no less potent and binding for all of that) contract.  The bottom knows that he is relinquishing a certain amount of power to his top, and the top, in turn, knows that he has in his hands that kind of power.  There exists, therefore, a very fragile balance of power between the two sexual partners in the moment of coupling that, ultimately, can form an intensely powerful emotional bond between both of them.  It takes the normal trade of power that is inherent in any penetrative sexual act and heightens the stakes and, in so doing, enters into a different circuit of desire than that in which much heteronormative/patriarchal sex circulates.

But, I can hear some of you objecting, don’t people who identify solely as “tops” tend to be those same people who so strenuously disavow femininity in other gay men?  Aren’t those who proclaim themselves “bottoms” (or, the rare subspecies, the “power bottom”) automatically falling into the position of the woman?  To this I would say, no, not necessarily.  There are a number of important things to remember here.  First, just because one person is penetrated and the other is penetrating does not necessarily mean that the one being penetrated has rendered himself feminine (although this is entirely possible, and indeed be a point of identification/community between gay men and women.  I would hasten to add, however, that this a perspective that only some gay bottoms would adopt).  Second, to merely assume that top/bottom map easily onto male/female is to inject a decided note of heteropatriarchy into what is decidedly not a heteronormative sexual arrangement.  That is why, for many gay men (and women), the question:  so who is the husband and who is the wife? is so incredibly insufferable and offensive.  It is attempting to enforce a particular kind of logic on a system in which such a logic has no place.

Thus, there exists within gay sex a subversive political potential on a number of levels, though not all gay men will partake or indulge in these particular perspectives, and some may do it at some points and not at others.  There are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to gay sex, and there are many gay men out there who actually adopt a versatile position, moving fluidly between different positions of power.  Thus, I do not want to suggest that all gay men are automatically subversive.  However, I do want to suggest that gay male sex has the potential to be subversive, whether one adopts the position of the top or the bottom in a particular sexual encounter.  What is more, we as gay men need to not only become aware of this fact, but firmly claim it as our own particular set of practices, rather than letting the opposition compose the narrative for us.

Ultimately, I have to conclude that gay desire and sexual practice, whether they manifests themselves via the top or the bottom position, have within them a subversive political potential.  After all, though we may hate it, we still live in a heteronormative, patriarchal world, where phallic masculinity and hetero-penetrative sex is still the norm.  Gay men, even those who do all that they can to disavow any feminine aspect of themselves, occupy a vexed position in this world (which may go at least part of the way toward explaining why they do everything they can to avoid being known the dreaded “f” word).  Gay male sex, then, may serve as another weapon our continual struggle against the inequality that still remains structurally built into the world in which we live.  And if we can have fun while doing it, that makes it all that much better.