Imagine a world in which our identities are playgrounds rather than prisons.
Do you ever feel constrained by your gender? Is “being a man,” “being a good girl,” or “being womanly” ever a chore, an obstacle, an unwelcome encumbrance? If you’re female, do you ever wish you got credit for “manning up?” If you’re male, do you ever wish you could be girlish or womanly without being laughed at (or beaten up)? [I’ll tell you a secret. Don’t tell anyone where you heard it: skirts are really comfortable]. Are you ever denied opportunities because of your gender?
Is your gender ever a joy? Do you ever take deep pleasure in “manning up” or in “girl time?”
These are not rhetorical questions. Please answer them in the comments section.
This is a rhetorical question: what if we could have all the joys of gender without all the pain and constriction?
As your answers to the first set of questions probably indicated, gender in our culture needs some healing. In order to do this healing, we need to diagnose the problems, and look for the best treatments. The best diagnoses I’ve found come from feminism. The best treatments I’ve found as a man come from what’s often called “men’s work.” To my dismay, I’ve found that these two communities of discourse rarely talk to each other, and when they do, it is often with hostility or disregard. Part of our project at the Men’s Eagle Council is to bring these two viewpoints together to help young men create identities as men that not only don’t hurt people, but joyously express each young man’s deepest understanding of himself. If you’d like to help us do that, visit our indiegogo fundraiser. It ends in just under 36 hours, so please don’t procrastinate.
Before I launch into that discussion, though, let me first state that both “feminism” and “men’s work,” as I’m using the terms, refer to large, amorphous groups of people and ideas. Some of the people and groups I’m lumping under each of these labels would resent the labels or would resent being lumped together under any label. Another caveat is that I’ve noticed that when I bring up the word “feminism,” the conversation almost always starts being about what the person I’m talking to thinks “feminism” means rather than what I’m using it to mean, no matter how many times I clarify myself. For this reason, I’ve hesitated to use the term so far in our campaign, choosing instead to just use feminist ideas without the divisive word, but I’ve realized that it’s important that I give credit to the sources of the ideas I’m using, and also explain why I think a lot of things called feminism are worth listening to. So please, just for the next few paragraphs, suspend your ideas of what feminism is and just listen to what I’m saying.
When I use the word “feminism,” I’m talking about a certain set of ideas that I’ve picked up from various sources. The ideas I’ll be discussing here are the ones that I’ve made significant use of in my own life, so it will be difficult for me to credit specific sources with specific ideas. I apologize in advance to each brilliant feminist whose ideas I’m using without direct credit. What I can do is list and thank the major feminist sources that have influenced me in a general way: bfp, Harriet Jay of Fugitivus, the bloggers at Feministe and Feministing, the bloggers at The Angry Black Woman, Professor Jennifer Peterson, Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Michael Messner’s Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements, Judith Butler, and of course my dear friends Violet and Rebecca. I’m grateful to each of these thinkers for making my life and the world better, and contributing directly to the work I’m doing with the Men’s Eagle Council.
So, what are the problems with gender that feminism has diagnosed? The big one is that we live in patriarchy. (If the word patriarchy upsets you, or you’re not sure what it means, please read this post, which explains what “patriarchy” means and why the word is not an attack on men, before you continue). Or, the way I like to say it, we are in the process of moving out of patriarchy. But if I am standing in the middle of a room and I decide I’d like to leave that room, I will still be in the room for the entire time it takes me to walk to the door. At some point, as a society, thanks to the work of a lot of awesome feminists, we largely recognized that we were living in patriarchy, and largely decided we didn’t want to be. And we began the process moving out of patriarchy. But we are most emphatically still in that process, and thus we are still in patriarchy.
What does it mean that we are still in patriarchy? It means that women have fewer opportunities than men: it’s harder for them to be recognized for their achievements and ideas, it’s harder for them to get a lot of jobs (especially high-status ones), they generally don’t get paid as much as men for the same work, and they deal with a lot of crap that men usually don’t deal with, like being sexually harassed when they go out in public, and the pervasive fear of rape. For a longer list of things men don’t have to deal with that women do (male privileges), see this Male Privilege Checklist (which borrows much of its structure and ideas from Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”).
For men, living in patriarchy means having the privilege of living in a society that centers us and our desires. But it also means that our identities are built on ideas of masculinity created by a society in which men dominated women. It means that masculinity is in many, many ways, defined in terms of domination. It means that from a very young age we are taught that in order to be adequate human beings, we must dominate others. To “be a man” in the patriarchal sense, is not to simply be okay as I am. It’s not even to be good at doing certain things. To “be a man” is to be better than other men, and absolutely, unquestionably better than any woman, at certain things. How many times have you heard boys shamed for doing something “like a girl?”
How does it feel to only be considered okay, or “real,” if I can prove I’m better than someone else? It does not feel good.
And what’s even worse is that, to be a “real man” in the traditional, patriarchal sense, I have to actually prove that I’m better than others. It’s really hard to prove that you’re better than somebody in a way that feels good to them. In fact, if your identity is built on comparison, you pretty much have to make other people feel like crap in order to feel like an adequate human being. But most people also have some kind of ethical framework in which making other people feel like crap makes you a worse human being. It really sucks to be handed an identity structure in which we have to choose between feeling inadequate because we’re not hurting people and feeling shitty because we are.
So two big problems with patriarchal masculinities are privilege and domination. There are lots of others.
But what are the solutions? As we notice things that aren’t working, how do we eliminate them and what do we replace them with? This is where men’s work comes in. This includes groups like the ManKind Project, and men like Robert Bly, Robert Moore, and Douglas Gillette. These people are genuinely striving to create healthier masculinities, because they get that the ones we’ve inherited don’t work very well. And they’ve adopted and/or created a lot of great tools for doing this. But they also often seem to have a shallow or distorted image of feminism which prejudices them against listening to the real and valid analyses of gender in our society that feminists have done.
One of the tools that men’s work has made great use of is archetypes. For example, when I read Robert Moore and Douglas Gilette’s book, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, I felt a deep resonance with the archetypes the book described. I felt that they were describing a part of who I am, and telling me what is great about it. And what I want most for every young person is to have a sense of who they are and what’s great about that (even as it keeps changing). But for each archetype, Moore and Gilette also discuss how it can manifest destructively. The really amazing thing about archetypes is that they include both destructive attitudes and behaviors and creative, loving ones in a single unity. So when we notice something destructive or unhealthy about a masculinity, it’s easy to find something to replace it with. We don’t just end up with a list of things not to do: we end up with a vivid image of a positive identity to strive for.
The warrior archetype is a great example. It’s easy to pick out destructive manifestations of the warrior archetype in the world (like, for example, war). It’s easy to find images of the warrior archetype that teach behaviors that we don’t want to emulate, such as action heroes who solve problems by shooting people. Or you could just listen to this guy. But guys grow up identifying with these images, so telling them that they’re just plain bad is uprooting a whole portion of a guy’s identity without giving him anything to replace it with. And when we ask men to do this, even with the best of intentions, their response is often not very welcoming (to put it mildly). Instead, we can look at the positive characteristics of the warrior archetype: a warrior trains and disciplines himself to be able to offer service to something greater than himself, and is willing to sacrifice his own needs, even his own life, for the sake of what he cares about. We can then use this archetype for anything from activism to washing the dishes.
Now, archetypes are a slightly slippery territory. The idea of an archetype implies that it is universal. When we appeal to universal archetypes, we can tend to make the mistake of assuming that the way a particular archetype shows up in our own culture is universal, even when it’s not. And another danger of archetypes, the reason that some feminisms reject them, is that they tend to be used to assert that there are unchangeable essences of masculinity and femininity, and that we know what they are. The combination of these two pitfalls of archetypes results in people using archetypes to assert that whatever our culture’s ideas of masculinity and femininity happen to be ARE the unchangeable essences of those things. This gets into one of the basic points of disagreement between some feminism and some men’s work, which is the question of whether gender is an essential, unchanging quality or a cultural construct.
We’ve all been told lots of little things about what it means to be a man (or a woman), some of them contradictory, but when asked point blank, “what does it mean to be a man?,” I doubt many of us would be able to give a clear answer. Is masculinity a cocktail of hormones and their interface with a few specialized body parts? Is it an eternal spiritual essence? Is it a cultural construct built to help men dominate women and each other? Most of the answers I’ve found boil down to one of these three theories, but none of them seem quite adequate. To the extent that I have come to a conclusion, it is that each one of these theories is both correct and incorrect. The reason it’s so hard to answer the question, “what does it mean to be a man” is because there is no single answer. There are as many answers as there are men, and each one is some combination of what it’s like to live in his body (biology), the values and aspirations that define him on a deep level (spirituality), and the messages he’s received from his culture (social construction). My thesis is that gender is a work of art that each of us is continuously creating, using biology, spirituality, and culture as the three primary colors on our palette.
Judith Butler, a feminist theorist, talks about gender as performance. I really like this description. Masculinity is something I perform. Gender is a play that we’re acting in every day. Sometimes it’s a tragedy, sometimes it’s a comedy, sometimes it’s a melodrama. But I would like to build a world in which we can shorten this statement to simply say: gender is play.
EDIT: A clarification, thanks to a question from Jasper Gregory (@jaspergregory on twitter): People of any gender can and should make use of archetypes of all genders. Men can embody traditionally”feminine” archetypes, women can embody “masculine” archetypes, genderqueer people can embody both, and there are also archetypes that are non-gendered, or which explicitly combine genders or undermine rigid ideas of gender. Indeed, some of the problems with patriarchal masculinities can be described in terms of their exclusion of certain “feminine” archetypes, such as the nurturer.