The Academic Feminist: Talking Feminism and Masculinities with Tristan Bridges

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! Today’s conversation features Tristan Bridges, Lecturer with the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia (recently appointed to The College at Brockport, SUNY).  Tristan offers some fantastic insights into masculinities and men’s relationships to feminisms, while also dispelling some common myths about contemporary gender inequalities. You can find out more about Tristan’s work on his blog or follow him on twitter: @tristanbphd

1)    Your dissertation examines the problematic way that men are divided into two groups: sexist and anti-sexist.  Can you talk a bit about your main findings, and how you became interested in the topic?

Early research on the “Men’s Movement” (an umbrella term covering everything from the Promise Keepers, to the Men’s Rights Movement, to Pro-feminist men’s groups) sought to situate groups on a continuum from anti- to pro-feminist (see here and here).  This research was extremely important and helped us better understand the various political projects that different groups supported.  One thing that was quickly apparent was that while many groups have political goals that are directly opposed to feminist issues and agendas, a smaller number of them willingly adopt the label “anti-feminist.”  Increasingly, however, I think larger numbers of men’s groups are willing and happy to accept a “feminist” label.  In some ways, this is wonderful news and illustrates a great deal of change in a relatively short period of time. But in other ways, separating groups and individual men into the “feminists” and the “anti-feminists” conceals a number of features of contemporary gender and sexual inequality.

While this categorization and comparison works well for a discussion of the political motivations and goals of these different groups, the same framework is also used to make sense of individual men—a framework that is much less useful.  Separating men into the “feminists” and the “anti-feminists,” the “sexists” and the “anti-sexists” artificially simplifies the complex ways in which gender and sexual inequality structure our lives and are reproduced.  It superficially separates men in ways that make us think that the “good guys” can do no wrong and the “bad guys” can do nothing right.

The “good guys vs. bad guys” story is just too simple and doesn’t reflect the ways that gender and sexual inequality actually work.  My findings illustrate that while a great deal of gender privilege still works to men’s benefit, something significant has changed: men’s experience of that privilege.  The increasing publicity of men’s collective privilege has ushered in new ways of identifying as men.  So, men are pushing the boundaries of what is considered “masculine” in all sorts of ways: with their dress, their behavior, their interests, and even their politics. Most of the men I’ve studied say they’re fully aware that men benefit from unfair advantages, but they also have intricate ways of telling me why they are personally different and don’t benefit from some (and sometimes all) of the privileges other men receive—or not in the same ways.

2)    Men’s rights and father’s rights movements, both of which have been followed by at various points, seem to address what some would argue is a historic gap in the feminist movementattention to men and masculinities. Based on your research into both movements, how would you suggest that the contemporary feminist movement address this gap?

The feminist movement, feminist organizations, and feminist theory and research have not actually ignored men or masculinity.  Movements like Men’s Rights and the Fathers’ Rights Movement might like to believe that feminism doesn’t consider men (or only considers them as enemies), or that feminists are only out to hurt men, but it’s simply not true.  The Men’s Rights Movement first appeared in the 1970’s.  It is an anti-feminist group whose basic claim is that feminism has gone too far.  They argue that gender inequality still exists, but that it is now men, not women, who are suffering.  Fathers’ Rights has arguably been the most successful branch of this movement.

I believe that the contemporary feminist movement ought to continue to address issues of men and masculinities, as well as the ways that feminist change does not only improve women’s lives—it helps men too.  The Men’s Rights Movement has a whole list of ways that they use to talk about how men are the ones that deserve our attention—that, compared to men, women are doing just fine. What feminist discussions of men and masculinities seek to illustrate is not that these claims are false—rather, we’re interested in illustrating that blaming women and feminism for these issues misdiagnoses the problem and is unlikely to produce real solutions.  While cultural understandings of masculinity harm women, they also harm men.  For instance, many of men’s health issues can be traced to ideologies of masculinity.  Boys’ misbehaviour and struggles in school have much more to do with culturally situating anti-intellectualism as masculine than with programs and support for girls. Similarly, it’s also not the case that, in the recent recession, employers all randomly chose to fire men over women; rather, men lost their jobs because the kind of jobs that were lost were overwhelmingly composed of men to begin with. Men are tracked into careers that are disproportionately composed of men in a number of ways—just as women are tracked into “feminine” occupations (see here).

It’s cultural ideologies of masculinity that keep boys and men from accessing a full range of emotions, keep some from trying in school, and that physically and psychologically harm boys and men.  I believe that the contemporary feminist movement has room for men and that it can continue to support boys and men to understand the ways that feminism absolutely helps girls and women, but it helps men too.

3)    At the progressive end of the spectrum, I have noticed among my heterosexual friends and contemporaries (note: these people tend to be white, middle-class, and urban), that, while women seem to be increasingly happy to build families without being married, their male partners are unwilling to have children outside of the structures of formal marriage. Is this something that you’ve picked up on in your research? What sort of changes in masculinities might be behind this shift?

This is a trend, and one that’s been the focus of a great deal of research. Among younger men and women today—a generation Kathleen Gerson famously referred to as the “children of the gender revolution” (see Gerson’s chapter here)—the phenomenon is classed, by which I mean that this is true of heterosexual men and women of different class backgrounds, but for different reasons.  For instance, we’ve known for a long time that women at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are much more likely to have children outside of marriage. Research has shown that women are more likely to have children outside of marriage not because they don’t value marriage, but because motherhood is still a goal for many of them, a life stage in which they are eager to take part (see here).  Economic circumstances have made lower-class men struggle in new ways from previous generations and many lack the skills and opportunities to turn into the kind of men these women are looking for.  I refer to this as the “shortage of marriageable men hypothesis,” and there’s a lot of support for this argument among the poor.

As we move up the socioeconomic ladder, heterosexual women and men retain different attitudes toward childrearing and marriage, but for different reasons and with different concerns.  For instance, Kathleen Gerson’s recent research finds that young heterosexual women and men have similar ideals: they want fulfilling and committed relationships in which both partners work outside of the home in jobs they find economically and intellectually rewarding.  The real gendered differences come in when these young people are forced (as many of us are) to confront our backup plans when our initial dreams seem out of reach.  Young heterosexual women view work and independence as necessities, while marriage and families are more optional.  As such, some may be willing to navigate children outside of traditional marriages while they navigate their family futures on their own terms. On the other hand, if the egalitarian relationships men say they desire are unavailable, the backup plan for many men is often to form a “traditional” family with a wife who’s willing and enthusiastic about staying home.

I think part of this has to do with men entering what masculinities scholar Raewyn Connell referred to as “gender vertigo” (see also Barbara Risman’s work).  Connell argues that if gender inequality ends, gender relations will have to dramatically transform, necessitating a period in which our understandings of masculinity are less certain—where answering the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” will be answered with fewer definitive lists and more shrugging shoulders. This leaves some men angry, most men scared, and many men nervous to participate in new relationships without the social structures, scripts, and signposts of the past.  There is, however, much opportunity for transformation here, but whether men will take up this call is a question currently unanswered.

4)    Your latest research is on masculine spaces – “man caves” – in heterosexual couple households. Tell us a little about that work.

Gender inequality influences virtually every aspect of our lives.  It structures the ways we dress, how we interact with one another, our experiences in schools and the workplace, and more.  But gender inequality also influences the ways in which we design and use our homes.  The gendered division of household labor among heterosexual couples is accomplished in part by which parts of the home we use and avoid and how we use and avoid them.  Initially, I was interested in “men’s only” spaces and how they’ve transformed throughout American history, but I finally focussed on one in particular to study: the “man cave.”  While bachelor pads, billiard rooms, and more have been heavily studied and explored, “man caves” have somehow conspicuously avoided academic attention.  I think they’re fascinating spaces and that we can learn a great deal about contemporary gender inequality from these rooms.  I’m still in the early phases of this project, but I’ll be interviewing heterosexual couples (separately) with “man caves” in their homes about what’s in the caves, why they use their domestic space this way, how they make decisions to utilize domestic space in this way, and how they talk about what the room does (either for them as a couple, or for each of them individually).  I’ll also be writing a short essay on the historical emergence of “man caves” in American society—where they came from and what their arrival meant.

I blog on this topic in addition to my new interest in research on the ways that the spaces in which we live, work, and play are gendered and sexualized in ways of which we are often unaware.

Extra Credit!
Adding to the links above, below is a list of resources for those who want to find out more about the issues discussed here. Please add relevant resources in comments. You can send additional comments – including suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees – here.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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