towards a new masculinity

Nudity after the jump.

Luke: “I am masculine because I abandon women after taking their love. Because when you study Freud, you don’t let him study you. Because I study philosophy, not literature.”
This photo is from a Morning News series on "men at their most masculine," and you can see the rest by clicking through the photo.  I highly recommend it: some are moving, funny, or just odd-- but none, in my opinion, are as offensive as this one.

Unfortunately, what's unique about Luke's offensiveness has more to do with his decision to sit naked on a white chair than his opinions of women and sex.  The idea that sex is something men take from women-- that it represents for women an emotional vulnerability that men have to disregard and even do intentional violence to in order to transcend-- is a pervasive element of modern masculinity that damages everyone it touches, men included.  It's just one element of a model of masculinity that richly deserves to be discarded.

But, Courtney Martin asks, what should replace it?
This generation is saying no to toxic masculinity.
But what are these young men saying yes too? We've all failed to envision an alternative.
In the weeks since I read (selectively, I'll admit: it's graduate school) Joan Wallach Scott's Gender and the Politics of History, I sympathize with her decision (in 1999) to move beyond gender as a useful category.  Although the distinction between biological sexual difference, which has some physical basis in reality, and gender difference, which exists in history and is constructed by us, is a useful one, it's also no longer terribly controversial.  And, as Kathleen Brown points out, linking gender difference to sexual difference only supports the idea that our identities have some essentialist basis in the differences between our bodies.1  And to the extent that "gender" is often used as a stand-in for "women," it's no longer really a satisfactory way to look towards a culture in which constructs about difference no longer oppress us.

I should say here that sex, even in some future feminist utopia, is and will continue to be one of the great vital, beautiful, and ever-present aspects of our lives.  It impresses itself on our health, our happiness, and our selves as surely as the company we keep, the food we eat, and the beds we return to at night.  Many people experience their sex or gender identity as their most poignant and defining.  At the same time, I increasingly believe that sex, that is sexual difference, is made-up.

Transgender, intersex, and queer people can affirm that the physical realities of our bodies imply very little about how we experience them, how others view us, or how our lives can be expected to go.  Indeed, gender is not a range of experiences and expectations projected onto a real sexual binary.  Biological sex itself is a spectrum about which that binary helps us generalize as we attempt to order our lives and identify our expectations of one another.  Like race, ethnicity, class, and a host of other categories, it is a generalization about human similarity and difference that literally cannot have any clearly defined boundaries because it is unconcerned with the specificity of human experience.  These categories are always in crisis because they are by nature inaccurate.  They are also arbitrary-- why not organize our society around right-handedness, or foot size, or birthmarks?  This is OK only if the dignity of the exceptions doesn't matter-- and we are all exceptions.

So, do we really need a new, positive definition of masculinity to guide feminist men?  I'm happy to defer to the experiences and wishes of my male friends, but my suspicion is no.  Sexual binaries oppress people whose sex is neither male nor  female  (or is both), whose biological sex does not match their gender identity, and those for whom the expectations of sexual difference are simply inaccurate or inadequate.  They divide and distinguish us, rather sloppily, at the cost of human dignity and autonomy.  I call that a pretty impoverished way to organize a society.  Rather than finding a new masculinity, feminist men-- and all of us-- need to explore ways to embrace a new humanity that deals with overwhelming human diversity not through arbitrary divisions but through empathy and intellectual maturity.

My sense is that the young men in Courtney Martin's admirable article are doing something like that.  Feminist men say no to their privilege-- no to rape, homophobia, reproductive coercion-- and yes to an open society and honest relationships with people different from them.  I'm sure that, to the Tucker Max crowd and their dads who watch Bill "Falafel" O'Reilly, that sounds like a pretty castrated way to live a masculine life.  Since masculinity is beside the point, they'd be missing it.

But as a white cis-woman with a host of economic and educational privileges, I can confirm that confronting those privileges-- the oppression from which I've benefited, the good things I haven't earned-- is a scary, disorienting, and difficult process that is continuous.  But in the expansion of my own world and that little bit not chipped off someone else's, I can see that it's worth it.  My male friends have better relationships, and they know more smart, valuable people if only because they are willing to acknowledge that women can be smart and valuable.  Those benefits aside it still takes, as it were, balls.

1Kathleen M. Brown, "Brave New Worlds: Women's and Gender History," The William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 2 (April 1993): 311-328.  If you get JSTOR through any libraries with which you may be affiliated, I highly recommend it.


Post a Comment