Redefining Manhood: Follow-Up

Sara Robinson’s post There’s Something About the Men, which served as the basis for my post Angry Men, Searching Men—and What They Can Learn From Girls and Queers, has also prompted posts from Echidne, Tigtog, and Amanda. JackGoff and Michael Baines also comment on my post. Thanks to Coturnix for getting this salon going—all of the above links are highly recommended and worth your time to read.

I want to take a moment to highlight something Amanda wrote, beginning with her observation that, as part of the traditional definition of manhood, attributes like “fraternity, responsibility, self-reliance, moral uprightness and possibly creativity have all gotten attached to the concept of masculinity,” which becomes decidedly problematic when that definition has also historically relied so heavily on not just the Otherness of women, but on the domination of and superiority to them. All of these attributes in and of themselves are good things, so there’s a certain sense among some men that assailing traditional manhood is a condemnation of its characteristics, and we must necessarily extricate its intrinsic qualities (which are good) from the way they are cultivated in definitions of traditional manhood (which is bad).

The fundamental problem is all these good things about masculinity were traditionally cultivated in the service of dominating women. And I didn’t get this idea from feminism so much as I did reading people who are advocating a return to gender roles. In the conservative view, in order for men to be good men and have all these things, women must be subservient. Responsibility for the family, self-reliance, and moral uprightness in particular are described by many traditional conservatives as the qualities men will only have if they can use them as currency to exchange for female subservience. It didn’t take but a few seconds to see that conservatives also tend to view male creative energy and hard work as motivated by female subservience. Unfortunately, fraternity is a quality that developed as a side effect from creating male-only environments that deliberately block women from obtaining power and equality.

…[Hugo] is a classic example of someone who’s taken to heart the notion that what liberal men should do is create spaces to teach these “masculine virtues” while not teaching oppression and domination. He’s a youth minister and that’s basically his goals with the teenage boys there. Anyone who falls all over themselves praising things like the Promise Keepers for this should support Hugo’s work, right? Well, not exactly—he has a lot of commenters who are Christians like him but politically conservative and they make it clear that they don’t think Hugo is teaching these young men proper manhood. Even if they do think that these virtues are good in and of themselves, they don’t think that men can be motivated to be good men without the prize of having women in service to you for it. Moreover, they’re not even interested in the possibility; in their world, manhood is synonymous with male dominance, and the opportunity to be dominant is the main appeal of manhood.

It’s important to be realistic about why men are drawn to organizations with reactionary philosophies and it’s not just listlessness or aimlessness but bona fide anger that they are living in a time where they don’t have access to domination over women that they feel men before them had.
The real issue here, is recreating “spaces and ways for men to be taught all these masculine qualities without making those qualities dependent on the exclusion and oppression of women.” And, as I did, Amanda points to feminism as a model, and cites examples of men who are already using this model successfully.
Weirdly enough, feminism has actually managed to redefine womanhood to create a female version of these fine if secondary qualities of traditional masculinity. Through the struggle for equality, feminists quickly realized that sorority, responsibility, self-reliance, moral uprightness and supporting each other’s creativity was not only good for the cause but good for each other. And we did it without having oppression as our central goal, demonstrating that it’s entirely possible. So pro-feminist men like Hugo and groups like Men Can Stop Rape are using feminists as a model for how to recreate a non-oppressive version of masculinity. I’d add that a lot of feminist-minded men I know do just fine in defining a manhood for themselves that’s not predicated on oppressing women—look at the old Pandagon bloggers Ezra and Jesse as two examples. Liberals have done a pretty decent job of redefining marriage from an institution based on female subservience to a partnership, and manhood has made the shift as well. It isn’t always easy and we stumble and screw up, but it’s really quite doable.
As SAP, another liberal man who’s doing just fine with redefinition, pointed out in comments, “Men (and I speak in very general terms here) have never felt the need to redefine their own roles in light of the ascent of feminism, probably because they never really took it all very seriously. Their collective reaction—everything from the sexist jokes to the gun nuts and fundies—plainly shows this. It's been all reactive and not in a good way.” That’s really the crux of the matter moving forward. Men who are interested in redefining manhood must do without setting it in a negatively reactive or oppressive/exclusionary framework.

That’s not always going to be an easy task, particularly for good men who don’t feel compelled to subjugate women, yet still define their manhood in terms that are nonetheless rooted in a model of inequality. A perfect example is the chivalrous man, who defines manhood primarily through protection of women. Clearly, the spirit is not the same as active discrimination, but, dependent as it is on the perception of a fundamental inequality between men and women, it is no less pernicious, which is more easily understood when looking at its roots, as men evolved from overt oppressors to benevolent oppressors—"In exchange for other inequalities that will be perpetuated against you to maintain our privilege, we'll protect you from the worst of our lot."

Kmtberry says in comments: “I think it may have served a good and useful purpose when good men felt that part of their job was protecting women and children from ‘bad’ men. If it were the JOB of good men to protect us from rapists et cetera, (rather than the job of women to protect themselves), men might be more into getting rapists in prison.” And this is precisely where the nuance of redefinition becomes necessary. There is certainly a place (and a need) for men to become involved in the prevention of rape and child abuse, but it is not the antiquated, if alluring, role of a tough guy who steps in to save the day or a member of a posse who seeks revenge against the bad guy to make other guys think twice before messin’ with their wimmin. The role of the redefined man must be as an ally—taking an active role in rape and child abuse prevention, by, as suggested by Men Can Stop Rape, “challenging harmful aspects of traditional masculinity, valuing alternative visions of male strength, and embracing their vital roles as allies with women and girls in fostering healthy relationships and gender equality.”

It’s not as glamorous—or as easy—as carrying a big stick, but alliance is a show of strength all its own, which is not predicated on any remnants of inequality.

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