Michael Kimmel is an author, teacher and activist, and is widely acknowledged as America’s most prominent and prolific scholar on masculinity. Kimmel is the author of a staggering number of books, including Men Confront Pornography, The History of Men, The Gendered Society and Manhood in America (noticing a theme?). Most recently, Kimmel’s book Guyland examined the lives of young American men. To write it, Kimmel interviewed hundreds of men between the ages of 15 and 25, using their words and his expertise to draw a frightening picture of young American manhood today. Luckily, Kimmel has a one-word solution to the problem: feminism.
Kimmel lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Amy Aronson, with whom he frequently co-writes, and their 10-year-old son Zachary, a budding male feminist. He is a Professor of Sociology at SUNY Stonybrook, where he teaches on gender and masculinity, and has taught and lectured all over the world. He is also a frequent contributor at The Huffington Post. And as if all this wasn’t impressive enough, last year he was brought in as a consultant on gender politics during the production of Feministing’s favorite TV show, Mad Men.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Michael Kimmel.
Chloe Angyal: What led you to become involved in studying gender and feminism, and specifically in studying and writing about masculinity?
Michael Kimmel: I became an activist to engage men in gender equality over thirty years ago, when I was part of the group that founded an organization called Santa Cruz Men Against Rape. And that was my first actual political engagement. But even prior to that, I had had some involvement with people who worked in the anti-violence community, particularly working in shelters, and some of the experiences that I had just touched me so deeply that I felt I had to do something about this.
When I was in graduate school, my partner was working at a shelter. We had a car that didn’t have an automatic transmission; it had a stick-shift, and she didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. So what that meant was that occasionally, when women had to go to the shelter, or go to the hospital, or get their kids out of the house, I drove them. Growing up on Long Island, I had lived a very comfortable, very – pun not intended – sheltered life. And I really had no clue of what was going on, until I was driving these women, and one woman was there with broken limbs and a fractured jaw, and through her fractured jaw, she said, “Sometimes I deserve it, but this time I didn’t.” And that really does something to do.
So I announced to my partner one day that I was going to come and work at the shelter, and she said, “Well you can’t. The only reason you even know where it is is that I don’t drive a stick-shift, and you can’t possibly come to work there.” And I said, “I really want to do something about this.” And she said, “I have an idea: Why don’t you go talk to the men who beat the women up?” And looked at her, like, “Are you out of your mind? I don’t want to go talk to them. I don’t like them. They beat women up; they’re bad guys.” And she said, “Look, you have a natural constituency of half the human race. Go talk to them.” So that was the moment that I committed myself to working with men. I worked with men who were court-mandated batterers for a while, and when I moved to Santa Cruz, I was a part of the founding of this organization, and then a few years later, I was part of the group of men who founded the National Organization of Men Against Sexism.
So I started my work on this as an activist, not as a scholar, and not as a teacher. And then when I got my first teaching job, I was an activist and teaching my nice, normal regular classes at Rutgers, and then one day I gave a talk at a Take Back the Night rally, and one of my students heard me and said, “That was really interesting; have you ever given any thought to teaching a course about masculinity?” And at the time, no such course existed, and I thought, well, maybe I’ll do that. So I went to my Dean and my Chair and told them I wanted to do this and they thought it was a great idea, and so, I developed this course. And it struck a nerve on campus, because there were hundreds of students who wanted to take it. And when you want to teach a new course, you have to go find readings for it, but in 1983 for the first course ever in the state of New Jersey on men and masculinity, there were no readings. That first semester, we were reading things out of newspapers and magazines. We read Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche as one of the required texts. We read anything we could find. So it was through that that I began to develop a pedagogical interest in teaching about masculinity and finding work that could be appropriate for teaching. And it was through that that I identified the holes and gaps in scholarship that I then proceeded to try to fill.
Since that time, I have maintained a foot in each camp – I’m an academic researcher, and I write books and articles about masculinity, and I’m also trying to build a subfield of Gender Studies called Masculinity Studies, and so I founded the premier journal in the field, and books series and things like that. But at the same time, I maintain my work as an activist. I still work with NOMAS and with other organizations. I worked as the organizer for this conference that’s taking place in November, for campus-based gender equality and anti-violence groups, that will have groups coming in from all over the country and will also include representatives from all the major organizations that work with men on campuses like VMen and Men Can Stop Rape and MVP and the White Ribbon Campaign.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?
MK: I like Dorothea from Middlemarch. I like Emma. I even like Madame Bovary. Anyone who bumps up against the constraints of traditional femininity has always warmed my heart. Those are the first few that come to mind immediately, but so many great novels are about women who are straining against and trying to break through the constraints of traditional femininity, and those are the women I’ve always been drawn to.
CA: Who are your heroines in real life?
MK: The first one that comes to mind is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, because as a sociologist, I think she really saw some of the problems with the over-psychologized, individual, simply-overcome-the-situation model. She touched on everything that, as a sociologist and an activist, I wrestle with all the time. So she’s always been a heroine to me.
Gloria Steinem, for sure, and not only because she’s been the figurehead for American feminism for fifty years. But also because of her unbelievable grace in the kind of vilification that she’s gotten from the right and from anti-feminists over those fifty years. She’s an amazingly gracious and emotionally available person, and she’s deeply respectful of women, so I’ve always admired her.
And my wife, who is another heroine of mine, is writing a biography of Crystal Eastman, who is a real heroine. She understood how the Peace Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement and the movement for free speech were all intimately connected, as they were in her life, and how you can’t really answer one without addressing the others.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
MK: Well, of course, Roman Polanski. The kind of weasely equivocating going on among artists, particularly among people who have traditionally been astute enough to understand the dilemmas for women in speaking about rape and sexual assault. People like Whoopi Goldberg; her behavior was truly shameful. The coverage of the story has been so much about how the artistic community has rallied to his defense, and how you can do anything you want if you’re a good film director. And the notion that, because it was a long time ago, he’s somehow exempt from prosecution. It’s truly amazing that, this is a guy who raped a 13-year-old girl, and the artistic community is saying, “Yeah, but it was a really long time ago,” and, “Yeah but, he’s a really great director,” and, “Yeah, but he’s paid his dues.” In what way?
CA: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge facing feminism today?
MK: I think there are two. One is the simple maintenance problem, and I think here that the news is rather good. When I say “maintain,” I mean this: After an onslaught of forty or fifty years of determined efforts to shift women’s lives backwards, from court decisions and congressional efforts to rein women in, despite that, women’s lives have improved markedly. Women have shattered glass ceilings, even as they continue to bump up against others. Women’s lives are truly safer, because we have problematized and made illegal things that we used to take for granted, like marital rape and date rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment, so that these things are now actionable and illegal, rather than simply how people are. I think it’s undeniable that women’s lives have improved, despite an onslaught of backlash against it, which has really been concerted, well-funded and quite vitriolic. So the problem for feminists today is to simply maintain, and to keep their eyes on the prize, and not be seduced into conversations about false issues with people who really don’t care about women’s lives at all.
For example, gender symmetry in domestic violence. I think we have to arm ourselves to have those kinds of conversations so that we can engage with people who say things like that, and somehow move the conversation elsewhere. So take the assertion that women hit men as often as men hit women. Rather than quibbling about it – and anyone who really looks at any data knows that’s really not true – but let’s just say it is true. You make that argument to me and say, “You know what, women hit men just as much as men hit women,” and I’d say, “That’s exactly right. And that’s why we need to double all the funding nationwide for spousal abuse. We really have to double it, and we should campaign together. Especially because, if we have a whole bunch of better-funded programs for people who have been beaten by their spouses, then more of those men who you think are victims, who are so ashamed to come forward because it so damages their masculinity, will come forward because we’ll have a place for them.”
It is sort of weird and a bit discomforting for me to offer advice to feminists as a group, being a man, but what I would say is that the group that feels that it has nothing to gain from feminism, and that feminism has nothing to do with them, is men. And I think that that’s the reason that women are faced with such draconian choices between opting out and balancing work and family, because men haven’t stepped up and aren’t doing as much housework and childcare as women need them to do in order for women to be able to balance work and family. And my argument here is that the group that has to be embraced by feminism is men – although, I hasten to add that it’s not your job. That should be our job. We should be doing that.
The biggest mistake we make is to assume – and men often think this – that gender equality is a zero-sum game. That if women win, then men are going to lose. And I think what we have to do is to show people that feminism is a win-win. I think we can do that at the personal level in terms of the quality of our relationships with our children, our partners and our friends, and also in terms of public policy.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
MK: I can answer the last one easiest. I would take Amy, my wife, because we would never run out of things to talk about. She’s the smartest person I know, I always learn tons when I talk to her, and plus, I enjoy looking at her, so I’d never get bored with the scenery. And she’s warm to cuddle up to at night, so it’s a perfect solution to the desert island problem. That’s the easy part. And if I get to take Amy, then I think we’ll live on pasta and Pellegrino.