My column at Role/Reboot this week features an interview with the founder of masculinity studies, the wonderful activist and scholar Michael Kimmel – and with his 13 year-old son Zachary, who has just started blogging about gender justice. As a father of two with a four-month old son, I wanted to do what I’ve done many times in the past; turn to Michael for some wisdom.
When Zach was born, Michael had the same experience I’ve had with the birth of each of my children. Friends and family, knowing our views and what we do for a living, repeatedly told us both that “now you’ll see that biology really is destiny.” Kimmel noted that people tend to presume expertise resting solely on their own experience, issuing sweeping generalizations about gender roles “based on a sample size of one or two.”
Though the Kimmels never foisted feminist activism onto their son, since hitting his teens, Zach has increasingly embraced gender justice as part of his calling. Though he admitted that a lot of his eighth-grade peers don’t really understand feminism, Zach said they do mostly understand the problems of sexualization and perfectionism he wrote about in his Spark Summit piece. Michael pointed out that Zach also lives out his feminism in a less obvious way. Since he first started school, he’s had friends of both sexes. Even now, well into puberty, Zach maintains close friendships with girls as well as boys. “It’s difficult to dehumanize or objectify someone you know and like,” Michael argues, a point with which his son vigorously agrees. By consciously pushing back against the socialized mystification of the opposite sex, Zach is bridging the artificial but rigid gender divide. “It’s a lot easier for me to be friends with girls than it is for most of my friends,” the younger Kimmel says, lamenting the unnecessary “drama” and “misunderstanding” that characterizes too many cross-sex friendships in his middle school.
When I asked about how things had changed for teen guys since Michael was his son’s age, the elder Kimmel brought up his son’s yearbook. In addition to several good female friends, Zach also has several wonderful male buddies. Last spring, one of the best of these signed Zach’s yearbook with an entirely un-ironic “I love you.” Michael and I laughed ruefully about how dangerous it would have been for any boy to have written that in another guy’s yearbook when we were 13; Zach averred that these displays of masculine devotion are “normal and accepted” in his school. As his father put it (echoing the recent excellent work of C.J. Pascoe), male homophobia has “disappeared so fast, it’s like it’s fallen off a cliff” within just the past decade.