Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. Read more about the project here.
In the mid-70s, when Michael Kimmel was a bright-eyed activist in Berkeley, California, the woman he was dating was writing her dissertation on the first battered women’s shelter in California. Kimmel thought what she was doing was wonderful and amazing. So one day Kimmel—whose dissertation was on 17th century French tax policy—decided that he’d join her at the shelter. It seemed really important, and he wanted to help.
His proposal was rejected: it’s women only. Rules are rules. Despite being stymied, he still wanted to help. “Why don't you go talk to the men who beat them up?” he recalls her saying. He gave her a look like she’d gone crazy. Why would he want to talk to them? They beat women up. Then she offered a suggestion that would shape Kimmel’s career. “You have a natural constituency of half of the human race,” he recalls her saying. “Go talk to them.”
So he did. And those experiences became books like Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, a deep dive into the keg-standing, high-fiving dude universe of the American public university, and Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, a 2013 work that’s been taken to be something of a harbinger of Trumpism. He has helped to bring his field into existence—founding the journal Men and Masculinities in 1998, and the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in 2013.
Kimmel spoke with Thrive Global about what masculinity studies has to do with feminism, why we should be interrogating masculinity in the first place, and what men’s rights activists and violent extremists have to do with each other.
Thrive Global: Why do you call it the Center of the Study of Men and Masculinities, rather than just Masculinity? What’s the importance of the plural?
Michael Kimmel: We start with the idea that there is no one idea of masculinity, but there are masculinities. Just because you make gender visible to men, doesn't mean you made race, or class, or sexuality, or age, or region, or religion visible. I say to my students, imagine two American men. One is 75, black, gay and lives in Chicago. And the other is white, 19, heterosexual, and lives on a farm 200 miles outside of Chicago.
There are things that they would have in common—and also obviously some differences. We talk about masculinities—plural—to keep race, class, and sexualities visible. That's the intersectional element.
At the same time, we're aware that not all masculinities are equal. We see patriarchy, for example, as a system of power not only of men as a group over women as a group, but also of some men over other men based on class or race or whatever. It's also not about just this continuum or this horizontal distribution of masculinities, but it has to take into account the ranking of them. So it helps us talk about power and difference at the same time. That's why we use masculinities.
TG: How does this relate to feminism?
MK: Even today, if you say you're studying gender, people think you're studying women. Teach a course on women; you get 95 percent women. You teach a course on gender; you get 90 percent women. So we’re latecomers to the study of gender in that sense. And that means that we benefit from the struggles that went before us and we don't necessarily have to go through them.
TG: How did masculinity studies begin?
MK: It starts in social psychology, where people were talking about the sex roles in the early 1970s. Just as feminism was beginning to seep into academic life in a language of women's studies courses, people were saying, 'Oh there’s a female sex role.' Men would say, 'Wait a minute, what about us? You know the male sex role is no picnic. We have to be these shutdown, emotionless, robotic automatons.' So people started to study male sexuality within social psychology.
That quickly moved out into other social sciences: history, and sociology particularly. It meant going back and looking at the development of these ideas. Where did they come from? How is gender implicated? This was the era of the Vietnam War, when Lyndon Johnson was saying things like, “I didn't just screw Ho Chi Minh, I cut his pecker off.” Gender and masculinity are all over this stuff about proving that you're a man.
Gender studies and women’s studies begin to give us a method to disentangle this. These guys are sending young people to war to prove their manhood. What's up with that? We use the same tools, the same methods, that have been devised by critical race theory and feminist theory to understand men's lives. Understanding men's lives is akin to understanding white people's lives. It is part of what I would call superordinate studies.
TG: Superordinate studies?
MK: Just as we want to interrogate whiteness, we want to interrogate heterosexuality and masculinity because they are the norm against which everybody else is measured.
My book “Guyland” is a book about white middle class, straight, college guys mostly at Midwestern and Southern universities. It's 400 guys all over the country, you know these guys.
TG: Frat guys—
MK: I'm always asked, “Well, isn't there a 'gayland'? What about black guys?” When I went to these schools, and I would talk to the African-American guys and the gay guys, they would always say, “Well, we're not like those white frat guys.” So my feeling was, that's what the center looks like. The relationship between the center and the margin is that the margin always defines itself in relationship to the center.
TG: You talk a lot about how guys, even in this place of social power, don’t feel powerful. And so they need to be redeemed, and be made to feel great again.
MK: The narratives that I hear, whether it's school shooters, guys who go postal, angry white men, Neo-Nazis, Men's Rights guys—it's all a language of restoration. Retrieving, restoring, reclaiming your manhood.
I think this is often where some of the conversation that the feminist women offered in the 60s and 70s didn't fully resonate with men. It's the idea that women are not in power, and don't feel powerful. But since men are in power, therefore syllogistically, men must feel powerful.
To which of course they’ll respond, "What are you talking about? I have no power. My wife bosses me around, my kids boss me around, my boss bosses me around. I’m powerless." Men speak very often from that feeling of being feeling powerless. With all the power and privilege men have as a group, that doesn’t trickle down to individual men feeling powerful.
I worked with men who were violent batterers. It’s almost never, "I felt so powerful that I beat her up." Men hit women when patriarchy breaks down: when she doesn't have dinner ready, when she doesn't want to have sex; that's when he hits her. Same thing about rape. Men say, “Women control sexuality, so they decide whether I'm going to get laid or not. I'm getting even with them. ” The violence is a matter of restoration.
But it's not just that men use violence to avenge humiliation and shame. But women are humiliated and shamed as well, and they don't go off on shooting sprees. Why not? Because they don't feel entitled to be in power. It's humiliation plus entitlement. It's the idea that “I don't feel empowered, but I should.”
TG: So what’s to be done?
MK: The book I'm doing now is about guys who got out of extremist movements. I'm profiling Life After Hate here in the U.S., and a group called Exit in Sweden and Germany, and ex-jihadists in Britain.
To help guys get out, you give them an alternate model of what they were getting emotionally, viscerally, psychologically in the movement—community, camaraderie, brotherhood, a sense of purpose and meaning.
You can't simply say, “Oh you're wrong.” It's like a therapist telling someone their feelings are wrong. You know that's not the right strategy here. I’m writing a book about these guys because they're developing a model of how to provide a healthy alternative that will enable guys to feel like real men—but not to have to prove it in this restoration-oriented way.