Feminist Masculinity Round Up

I got so many amazing emails after publishing my column last week about masculinity and pro-feminist men and plenty of blogs picked up on the analysis and added their own, as well. I wanted to share some of the excerpts here:
From Joe Samalin and Joseph Vess of Men Can Stop Rape:
The thousands of men and boys that we engage every year show us daily what healthy masculinity looks like. It is a group of high school boys volunteering at a local domestic violence shelter, it is straight and cis-gendered college men partnering as allies with LGBTQ student organizations, and it is the enlisted men and officers in the Air Force who come to us for training on how to create safer workplaces. These boys and men are all moving deliberately toward who they want to be.
Putting the support and encouragement of healthy masculinity at the center of what we do has taught us two key things. First, there is no single definition or ideal of healthy masculinity–there are as many definitions as there are men. Second, developing healthy, authentic masculinity is a journey, not a destination.
Jonathan Grove:
I was presenting at that very conference, and perhaps the most interesting conversation was in the last session, which was a talk back type session to adopt a statement about what happened there and what our mission is. The conversation eventually became about whether to continue the practice of men naming the violence as “men’s violence against women” and focusing on what men can do, or whether to name it as violence perpetrated by male people who identify with and try to emulate the hegemonic model of masculinity that is the tradition in our culture. While I realize in the context I’ve described it seems very unwieldy to talk about it in that way I described last, I think there’s an important point there.
Jonathan also told me about this amazing post by Ronan, who was also at the conference.
Hugo Schwyzer:
The solution is both obvious and problematic: we need public role models who are willing to show through their actions as well as their words what it means to lead a feminist life while in a male body. We need men who are willing to walk the walk publicly, allowing themselves to be scrutinized and questioned.
AJ from Feminists for Choice:
Although I agree with a large majority of what Courtney is saying, part of me thinks we should cut the guys a little slack. I mean, we have to start somewhere, don’t we? In fact, many great feminist thinkers have made the argument that it is necessary for us to reject old systems of thinking before laying out a blueprint of the future. Revolution isn’t easy, and it most certainly doesn’t happen over night, however; I do understand where Courtney is coming from. As feminist men, if all our time is spent on problematizing masculinity and defining what we are not, then when are we going to decide what we are?


Alex Dibranco of Change.org:
This is the same kind of argument I often hear from young women who, despite fully supporting gender equality, don’t want to be “labeled” as a feminist. Which makes me wonder: Do men really lack an alternative to “toxic masculinity”? Or is it just that even these gender-conscious youths still have trouble fully identifying themselves as feminist–balking, like too many women’s rights supporters, from a conception of themselves that should be empowering? Moreover, the concept of a “feminist masculinity” seems unnecessary, and if anything detrimental, to the goal of combating sexism and homophobia in that it continues to present men and their “masculinity” in opposition to women. What if everyone just worked toward being a decent (feminist) person?
Jeff Ryan:
While I agree that it seems there was a lack of vision, perhaps the recognition of this performative nature of being a ‘man’ is something to celebrate. The men there were choosing not to perform as a Tucker Max or Bill O, and are instead acknowledging the façade and further admitting their lack of one. If all the problems are due to the fact that the sexist masculine stereotype is simply an act, then not acting is actually quite an accomplishment, and it seems like the students you were with have realized this. What I believe they are acknowledging is that what Max and the others espouse is not, in fact, natural to the male sex, but instead a symptom of the male gender. What you discussed in your article was the definition of ‘man’ and how they were trying to recreate that properly, to define the new, modern man. They certainly did not do that, but they did take us back to being male–a man without the pathetic and desperate act for approval, if you will–, and from there we can recreate what a ‘man’ truly is.
Tal Peretz:
So, then, why do we need masculinity, if all the positive traits associated with it are just as easily associated with humanity, and all that’s left as decisively masculine is harmful?
David Pitcher:
My boys thank me often because young ladies are amazed at their fresh perspectives regarding gender. I raised them by example to honor and respect women as a great balancing force. I try to do so with the math classes I teach as I insist that girls are treated with respect and that boys who choose to show openness rather than machismo are respected.
Boys are so paranoid about appearing feminine that they adapt a “culture of cruelty” and retreat into the common male role. How can we raise our boys to break this pattern?

Join the Conversation

  • anon

    Had my first kid in January. We didn’t find out what we were having because we wanted the surprise. I was 99.9% sure it was a girl (had a dream about it and everything).
    Then there he was, a little baby boy. One of the first things going through my mind as I held my son. I must raise him to be a feminist. I must raise him to respect women…..
    It’s a very formidable task and one I don’t take lightly.
    Courtney I think this is a HUGELY important discussion and I appreciate you talking about it.

  • Peter

    I hope the what-is-masculinity-for question also reflects back upon feminism and Feministing. What are the aspects of so-called traditional masculinity that this site celebrates, promotes, cultivates?
    As Courtney points out, her subjects learned their knee-jerk toxic-masculinity responses from digesting “Women’s Studies 101.” These men are giving, they know, the “proper” answers to the question of masculinity.
    But what are the other answers — answers that draw upon other genealogical lines *within* masculinity? (What might feminists do, for example, with middlebrow sites like “The Art of Masculinity” — sites that are trying to reclaim some aspects of “your father’s” masculinity and are reveling in nostalgia, but are also trying avoid the toxicity?)
    I admit, I’m not sure about the true scope or import of my questions. And, yes, I know that one answer comes from Tal Peretz above: there is *nothing* worth saving about masculinity qua masculinity; men and women (as bearers of those gender categories) need to wither away and die.
    Nonetheless, I’m wondering if there is something more — something you (as a feminist site) can give those young men who only know how to say “no”? Which sessions of Women’s Studies 101 did they miss?
    Great article.

  • Comrade Kevin

    I am glad that there are so many encouraging voices. It really gives me a great degree of comfort that perhaps we are not as outnumbered as we think we are sometimes.

  • Audentia

    The question that keeps coming to my mind with respect to this issue is, why not ask butch women? There has been some really neat theoretical-ish work done on female masculinity, and it would be cool to see how it could be applied to, uh, “reclaiming” (redeeming?) male masculinity as well.

  • GREGORYABUTLER10031

    Here’s the problem for me.
    I support women’s rights – economic equality, affirmative action for women in the workplace and academia, equal pay for equal work, comparable worth, an end to discrimination, abortion rights, an end to sexual harassment, the abolition of rape ect ect ect.
    But, when we get into this whole ‘masculinity is toxic’ thing, I recoil.
    It’s one thing if you ask me to renounce sexism and abuse of women – but it’s a whole different ballgame when I’m expected to renounce aggression, pornography and competition!
    I think it’s perfectly possible to embrace women’s rights without having to become some sort of effeminate domesticated male.
    On the real, there is a LOT I don’t like about masculinity in our society – the fact that we’re not supposed to have any other feelings but rage and lust, this rigidly defined “man culture” which only allows a narrow type of acceptable interests for males, the idea that a man is supposed to be a “provider” who’s whole life revolves around marrying, having kids and working like a pack animal 100 hours a week so his wife can sit home with the kids – I think all of that is bullshit.
    But, I do like the idea that sexuality doesn’t have to be trapped within the narrow confines of a relationship – and that a man can be sexual without bothering to be in any kind of traditional relationship at all.
    And I totally oppose that “provider” concept, because I’m not interested in being obligated to pay a grown adult’s bills just because I’m male and she’s female.
    But, I’m still a male-identified man, and I want to watch my football, basketball and pro wrestling, and look at my internet porn (and, funds permitting, go to the occasional strip club) without being pilloried as some kind of “sexist”.
    Look, if you want men to renounce masculinity, women need to renounce femininity too – because it’s as much of a straightjacket on you as masculinity is on us!
    And, frankly, women as a group would be better off if they absorbed some of the positive aspects of masculinity – teamwork, competition, the ability to take criticism without taking it personally, a free sexuality not tied down to “love” or relationships and a certain type of aggressiveness and willingness to stand up for yourself (without worrying that you might “hurt somebody’s feelings” if you express yourself).
    But, if the idea is that men should renounce the narrow confines of masculinity and take up the even tighter straightjacket of femininity, then count me out!
    That’s why I call myself a supporter of women’s equal rights NOT a “feminist”.

  • http://ayoungethan.wordpress.com ayoungethan.wordpress.com

    You’re not a sexist, per se — you just do sexist things. So do I. Admit it, own it.
    Supporting strip clubs and porn? Sexist. Thinly veiled fronts for human sex trafficking and the rampant dehumanization of women as nothing more than objects:
    http://ayoungethan.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/poem-free-trade-071609/
    That aside, I’m not following your massive flying leap from “toxic masculinity” to this fear you have about the “straightjacket of femininity”
    Exactly where in the above post are people talking about men embracing patriarchal femininity? Like you hinted, all these negative traits — whether masculine or feminine — are examples of internalized sexism.
    So I think we need to be VERY clear, for example, about the difference between men’s fear of being called a “fag” for rejecting patriarchal gender roles and characteristics, and what doing so actually makes a man. No feminist I’ve ever known has wanted men *in general* to act like women *in general* because they recognize that both are problematic, and neither one is a model for the other.

  • ayoungethan.wordpress.com

    Also, I have immense respect for your honesty

  • R. Dave

    Although I don’t share Gregory’s tastes in entertainment, I do agree with his sentiments about re-defining masculinity. I’ve never understood the need to eliminate traditional concepts of masculinity / femininity. Sure, get rid of some of the negative stereotypes, and absolutely don’t belittle those who choose (or are genetically predisposed) to differ from the default gender characteristics, but why does there have to be no default?
    Why can’t it be more like food preferences? Most people in our society prefer certain taste combinations, and so most food producers cater to (and to an extent determine) those combinations. But hey, if someone just happens to think pickles and chocolate taste great together, good for them. No one thinks they’re a horrible, awful person because of it. On the other hand, no one else feels like it’s wrong to acknowledge that the chocolate-covered pickle lovers are a distinct minority and differ from the norm.

  • Posed by Models

    “You’re not a sexist, per se — you just do sexist things. So do I. Admit it, own it.”
    Own it? GREGORYABUTLER seems to have absolutely no problem owning the fact that he does sexist this. Isn’t this exactly what makes his remarks sexist? What about his whole post DOESN’T indicate that he is sexist?
    “But, I’m still a male-identified man, and I want to watch my football, basketball and pro wrestling, and look at my internet porn (and, funds permitting, go to the occasional strip club) without being pilloried as some kind of “sexist”.
    This is just such a rockstar quote. God forbid anyone pillory him for being “sexist”! That must be so hard. What a huge hurdle that must be. I don’t even know what to say besides why is this something we should even care about? Does anyone actually lose sleep over this issue? Is this really a feminist issue at all? Aren’t ideas like masculinity and femininity problematic in the first place? Even if we were to redefine them, it’s still creating a set of criteria for how to act “like a man” or “like a woman”–it would still be a binding, gendered set of rules for behavior.

  • R. Dave

    “Is this really a feminist issue at all? Aren’t ideas like masculinity and femininity problematic in the first place? Even if we were to redefine them, it’s still creating a set of criteria for how to act “like a man” or “like a woman”–it would still be a binding, gendered set of rules for behavior.”
    Yes, it is a feminist issue, and no, not every self-described feminist considers masculinity and femininity problematic. There are a many people who are on board with equal rights and respect for all people, regardless of gender, orientation, etc., but who nonetheless think default gender norms are perfectly fine. You don’t have to eliminate norms in order to respect those who deviate from them.

  • Posed by Models

    The whole problem is defining people who don’t subscribe to your norms as deviants. Your comment also doesn’t make any sense considering the original post is about re-defining the norms, for better or worse–we’re not talking about “default” gender norms anymore.
    I’m also concerned about your use of the terms “genetically predisposed” and “gender characteristics.” Why SHOULD there be a default? The defaults are constructed in such a way that they keep women in an inferior position and are built around the assumption that men do and should have more power. How does this tie in to “equal rights for all”?
    http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/05/10/faq-but-men-and-women-are-born-different-isnt-that-obvious/

  • R. Dave

    Regarding the question of why there “should” be a default, I’d say two things:
    First, there already is a default in place, so the burden of persuasion is on those who wish to change it. I don’t think that burden has been met on the less obviously harmful aspects of gender norms, particularly since it’s possible to have a norm without condemning those who don’t follow it.
    Second, I think norms are good things in general, as they provide cultural cohesion for society as a whole and role models for individuals to follow if they so choose. Most people will quite happily choose to follow the dominant norm. For those who don’t, as long as respect and acceptance is part of the culture as well, there shouldn’t be a problem.
    Again, my point is simply that norms, standards, defaults, etc. aren’t inherently problematic. It’s the content of the norms and the reaction to those who deviate from them that matters.

  • Sloppy Sandwich

    “I think it’s perfectly possible to embrace women’s rights without having to become some sort of effeminate domesticated male.”
    Who has asked men to become effeminate and domesticated? This is a strawman.

  • barefoot

    I think you may have slightly missed the point of what Courtney is saying here.
    The way I read it, she is not arguing that “masculinity is toxic” in toto; rather, she is highlighting the specific aspect of masculinity that is clung on to, exacerbated, and held up as the only choice for men by the Max Tuckers of the world – a distorted understanding of masculinity that, many would argue, is toxic, both for women and for men.
    Nobody is trying to make you into an “effeminate, domesticated male,” and your fear of this demonstrates your internalisation of the patriarchal, or “toxic,” images of masculinity and femininity that are promoted by antifeminist purveyors of patriarchy. Please don’t take this as an attack or an accusation. This internalisation is something that is ingrained into us all from birth, but it is also what people who theorise on masculinity and femininity are attempting to deconstruct and reimagine.
    The alternative (IMHO) is not to “feminise” men, “masculinise” women, or even to destroy the distinctions of sex altogether. Rather, it is to renegotiate our understandings of what it means to be masculine or feminine, female or male, and to separate the one from the other (the gender – male/female – from the expression of gender – masculine/feminine) in order to better recognise the positive and negative implications of these gender expressions, and the effects they have on our behaviour as individuals.
    To explore the boundaries of gender expression, to play with their possible meanings, to root out their negative and to celebrate their positive aspects, is to perhaps arrive at a more feminist, or ‘radical’ masculinity and femininity. One which would not lock us into a negatively-inflected binary opposition to each other, but would instead allow us to enrich each other with our own positive, radical expressions of gender in a celebration of the fluidity and interchangability of gender similarity and difference. This radical gender expression would no longer have to be tied to the actual sex or gender of the individual, and would no longer require us to inflict damage upon each other in order to maintain the rigid boundaries of toxic gender expression as it currently stands.
    Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
    [Sinclair Sexsmith, a genderqueer butch lesbian radical theorist, has some brilliant thoughts on the subject of "radical masculinity" - I borrowed the term from this article: http://ny.carnalnation.com/content/32993/44/manifesto-radical-masculinity ]

  • barefoot

    This was meant as a reply to GregoryAButler, whoops.