I have a lot of respect for Tom Matlack, founder of the Good Men Project. I honor his tremendous efforts to create dialogue among men about what’s really going on in our hearts and minds; the essays in his self-published book are well worth reading. We need more Tom Matlacks in the world.
At the same time, I want to push back — gently — against something Tom wrote last month in this Huffington Post piece: Rethinking Manhood: The New Feminist Project?
I’m all for introducing a discussion of masculinity into feminist spaces. I was on a panel at last fall’s National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Atlanta on exactly that topic, and I’ll be speaking on another similar panel on men and anti-sexist activism at this year’s NWSA in Denver. Men and feminism is a subject near and dear to me, so I read Tom’s post with more than the usual interest.
But though I agreed with Tom’s basic point that men need to talk to each other more, this paragraph troubled me:
…the media are still consumed with the old feminist battle cry, to the exclusion of the predicament of boys and men. Maybe guys need to complain more publicly about how hard it is to be a good father and husband, and still bring home the bacon. Maybe we should have our own cable network — not for ultimate fighting or pornography, but for guys to talk about trying to do it all while the wife, kids, and boss expect more than ever.
First of all, to the extent that the media focuses at all on feminism, it does so with a mixture of hostility and derision. The idea that the mainstream press carries water for the feminist agenda is risible; indeed, even the so-called “liberal” news outlets tend to spend very little time focusing on feminism except to lampoon it. But perhaps what Tom means is that the media celebrate women’s breakthroughs into traditionally male spaces, while spending very little time discussing the crushing burden of successfully occupying those spaces. That is a worthwhile topic for discussion.
But the real problem, of course, is that both men and women live and work in a system that was designed and is maintained by men. Wealthy men, yes, but men nonetheless. When men complain about being overwhelmed by the demands of wives and bosses and children, they are complaining about a system that men themselves erected. When women complain about the old boy’s network (which still thrives in many public and private institutions today) they do so as outsiders; even affluent white women are still outsiders in a world where women make up 51% of the population and 17% of the US Senate. When men complain about the crushing burden of expectation, they do so as (to use one of my favorite expressions from Twelve Step programs) “architects of their own adversity.”
It’s not little girls who taught little boys that “real men don’t cry.” It’s usually not mothers, either. The dreadful straitjacket of masculinity is put on by other men, by fathers and teachers and coaches and bosses and frat brothers and drill sergeants and peers. While some young women are taught to eroticize the young men who wear that straitjacket with apparent effortlessness, it’s a huge mistake to assume that female desire or expectation is anything more than an ancillary factor in the adoption of the masculine code. As Michael Kimmel and others have pointed out, what drives American men is the craving for “homosocial approval” — the longing for the approbation of, older, more powerful males.
It is absolutely true that wearing the straitjacket of masculinity makes most men miserable in the end; many do lead the lives of “quiet desperation” that Thoreau described more than a century and a half ago. For most of these men, that straitjacket doesn’t feel like a choice, as they learned to wear it when they were little boys. Many of these men blame women for demanding that their husbands wear it, some blame their kids, some blame their bosses. Some blame themselves. But the real culprit isn’t individual men, and it certainly isn’t women or children. The real culprit is the “man code”, a set of rules created and transmitted by men through generations.
Both men and women suffer, but they don’t suffer equally. As Robert Jensen and many others have pointed out, the reason a woman can’t walk safely in a parking lot at night and the reason her boyfriend can’t cry in front of his friends are the same: fear of men. But the cost of not being able to cry is hardly comparable to the cost of rape and the fear of sexual violence. It’s false equivalence to suggest that the fear of being ridiculed as insufficiently manly and the fear of being raped and killed are remotely the same. Those who claim that “the patriarchy hurts men too” need to remember that the potential injuries are rarely as severe.
Yes, men die more often in combat (at least as soldiers) than do women. But men tend to be the ones who started these wars, be they on the global stage or on the mean streets of the inner city. They started these battles not infrequently because of an unwillingness to consider compromise, or because of a hypermasculine, hyperfragile sense of honor. Those who die die at the hands of other men, just as women who are raped and killed in war are raped and killed by men. The homicidal impulse is pretty closely correlated with the masculine code.
Both men and women benefit when men wriggle free from the straitjacket. It’s good and appropriate to bring men and women together to discuss ways to help men extricate themselves, and to strategize to raise a generation of boys who are less confined than their fathers and grandfathers. But we can’t do that while we continue to believe that the expectations of “the wife and the kids” created that straitjacket. Women didn’t force us into this bind anymore than our innocent children did. To suggest that they are somehow to blame for male confusion, insecurity, or inarticulateness is to woefully misunderstand the genesis of the problem.
Rather than saying “hey, what about us guys?”, and demanding that feminism shift its gaze towards soothing male insecurities, men who long to shed the straitjacket would do well to work alongside feminists in common cause to dismantle the institutions that sustain and promote rigid gender rules. Men must remember the famous line from Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic: We have met the enemy, and he is us. Until men accept that responsibility, no authentic progress is possible.