On Wednesday night, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a lecture from one of the giants in the study of men and masculinity, Michael Kimmel. Kimmel, who you might remember from his Feministing Five interview last year, has been studying and writing about gender for decades now and is about to release a collection of essays entitled Reframing Men, about how the media so often gets the story wrong when they write about men and masculinity. At Wednesday’s event, which was presented by Paradigm Shift, Kimmel was speaking about his most recent book, Guyland, which came out in 2008. (Check out Courtney’s book review.)
Guyland is about the experiences of young men between the ages of 16 and 26 as they try to find their place in the world – a more difficult task that we sometimes give them credit for. Kimmel argues that the pressure on young men to prove their masculinity has never been greater, and that the version of masculinity with which they’re presented is one that is increasingly violent, misogynistic and sexualized. He also argues that for those young men, as for all of us, the problems they face have a solution: feminism.
On Wednesday, Kimmel talked about what led him to write Guyland,
and what he discovered when he did. After his lecture, he spoke in
conversation with Shelby Knox, the
fourth-wave feminist activist, who opened the evening with a story about
her her own Guyland moment:being turned away from a frat party
at UT Austin for being “too fat.”
It was a truly fascinating lecture and discussion – I’m sure I wasn’t
the only one in the theater who found herself envying Kimmel’s
undergraduate students at SUNY Stonybrook, where he is a Professor of
Sociology – and there was almost too many fascinating points made to
recap them all here. I expect that Paradigm Shift will post video
footage soon, which will give you a far better sense of what went on
than I can. But there was one particular point that Kimmel made that I
wanted to share with you all.
One of the great achievements of feminism, he said, was to make women’s
gender visible. Most women today understand that it is possible for them
to be victims of gender-based discrimination, and most men are aware of
that phenomenon, too. When a woman looks in the mirror, Kimmel said,
they see a woman. But when a man – a white straight middle class man, at
least – looks in the mirror, he just sees a person. The assumption of
white straight middle class man as standard and objective, as the norm,
in our culture, means that white straight middle class men have no
reason to think particularly hard about race, class or gender, since
everything around them confirms that they are normal. Women, people of
color, queer people or poor people, those who don’t see themselves
depicted as average members of our society, are aware of that dissonance
every single moment of the day.
In other words, privilege – in this case, the privilege of being assumed to be the best possible representative of your culture – is invisible. Men, Kimmel said, don’t think about being men in the same way that women think about being women, or think about being white in the same way that people of color think about being people of color. They don’t believe they have biases or prejudices that affect their experience of the world; it’s for this reason that when a Latina was nominated for the Supreme Court, it was assumed that she would bring biases and prejudices with her. It seemingly never occurred to the largely white, largely male Senate that questioned her at length about those biases that straight white men, who comprise the SCOTUS and much of the Senate, also inevitably have biases. In their mind, they were objective and neutral.
“Most men don’t know that gender matters to us, that it’s as important to us as women understand it to be to them,” Kimmel said. That is, not until they feel their privilege disappearing, as women advance, as the rights of the queer community are more widely recognized and our country is led by a person of color. That’s when the sense of entitlement kicks in, as those who were once never even aware of their privilege realize that some of it has disappeared.
That sense of entitlement, Kimmel says, can be incredibly dangerous. For so many seemingly “affable college guys,” he said on Wednesday, there’s an anger, an animosity toward women and gays and everyone else who is perceived to be encroaching on men’s rightful territory. “Men feel besieged and attacked by women’s advancement,” he said, and perceive gender as a zero-sum game: If women do better, men do worse. As a result, the requirements for demonstrating their manhood have become ever stricter, ever more sexualized, ever more sexist. This entitlement can look incredibly ugly and can be incredibly sexist, racist and homophobic – Kimmel recounted his experience of appearing on a talk show segment about affirmative action promotion and hiring called “A Black woman took my job.” The reaction by some men to increasing social equality in America is in some cases simply vile. But understanding it is crucial to efforts to get men on board with feminism. Without understanding men’s entitlement, Kimmel said, we will never understand why so many men resist gender equality.
For the last several decades, Kimmel has been making the case that feminism will improve men’s lives as well as women’s. Far from a zero-sum game, he argues, feminism is a rising tide that lifts all boats. “Gender equality will allow men to lead fuller, happier lives,” he said on Wednesday, citing studies that have found that men in egalitarian marriages are happier than men in traditional ones, and that involved fathers are happier than uninvolved ones.
Feminism is the answer, for all of us, regardless of sex, gender or sexual preference. Feminism, simply put, makes the world a better place. Kimmel is a living example of the power of men as allies in the fight against sexism, a fight that we sometimes forget is one for their rights too. We need more Kimmels, more men like the ones who were in the audience on Wednesday night representing fantastic groups like the National Organization of Men Against Sexism, Stand Up Guys and Men Can Stop Rape. We need more male allies. In other words, we need fewer guys and more men.