I’m a fan of the Good Men Project, a multi-platform initiative started by Tom Matlack that features a webzine, a documentary film, and a very interesting book that I recommend with enthusiasm. I’ve been critical, too, of what strikes me as Tom’s occasional reluctance to see that men’s best opportunity to become fully human is tied inextricably to the liberation of women, a point that was discussed at length here.
At the Good Men Project site, there’s a lot of affirmation of the good that men do, and that’s fine. We all need reminders of our essential decency. But where I think Tom and I disagree is about the nature of masculinity itself. Based on what I’ve read, Tom (and he’s by no means alone in this) believes that while the masculine ideal needs to be reformed and updated and humanized, it is still fundamentally redeemable. I’m not nearly so sure, suspecting that a more thorough dismantling of gender constructs is necessary. In other words, I’m interested in creating a society filled with Good People of all biological sexes, a culture in which one’s plumbing need have no more bearing on one’s behavior and outlook than one’s eye color. That doesn’t mean the end of gender roles, but it means the end of limiting folks to one such role based upon their genitalia.
Tom and his fellow writers tend to shy away from discussions of male privilege, perhaps knowing what a “turn-off” that very phrase is to the sorts of guys whom they are trying to woo as readers and community members. After all, it is axiomatic that a great many men have a very hard time seeing the privilege that they possess merely by virtue of being men, irrespective of race and class. When trying to reach men, it’s often tempting to avoid the charged word “privilege” and emphasize instead the heavy burden that comes with masculinity. It’s a good gimmick for doing men’s work, as I’ve seen in men’s groups a gazillion times over the last twenty-five years. But the discussion of the “yoke of manhood” needs to avoid the implication of false equivalence and the suggestion that men’s burden is heavier than or at least the same as the one that women bear. That’s the trickiest part of doing this work, but it’s vital. No one likes the suggestion of his own complicity in a what is, in a very real sense, a Great Crime. But cutting all of us free of what the wonderful Allan Johnson calls the gender knot requires that we not only accept that suggestion, but acknowledge its fundamental truth.
In the end, I suspect my differences with the Good Man Project are more about nuance than anything else. I admire what Tom and his collaborators are doing, and I think it’s important and needed work. And I winced in familiar recognition when I read his piece in the Huffington Post last week responding to the outpouring of hostility that greeted an article on the Good Men Project in the the Boston Globe. What Tom and his colloborators got was the usual sort of homophobic, misogynistic, chest-thumping, “men are just fine the way they are, damn it” responses.
As I’ve written before, and as most men who do anti-sexist work know well, antipathy runs deep and strong towards men who do challenge traditional masculinity. There are three chief attacks:
1. These male critics of masculinity are gay. Of course, as we all know, the charge of male homosexuality is less about same-sex desire and more about femininity, less about the hatred of male-male sex and more about contempt for women. “Gay”, in this sense, isn’t used to mean “a man attracted to other men,” it’s used to mean “a male who isn’t a real man.” Hence the suggestion, repeated endlessly, that male critics of masculinity “grow a pair.”
2. Male critics of traditional masculinity are in thrall to women. Sometimes, the charge is that these male feminist allies are wolves in sheep’s clothing using “sensitivity” as a predatory sexual strategy. Sometimes, the charge is that they are “pussy-whipped” by wives or girlfriends, desperate for female approval.
3. Men who do what Tom and I and others do are often told we’re filled with self-loathing, tinged with a desire for revenge. The armchair Neanderthal pychologists suggest that we were beta (or perhaps even omega) males as boys, the sort who were always tormented by the alphas. As a result, the theory goes, we grew up with a hatred of “real men”, and thus allied ourselves with feminists in order to undermine the system that made us so miserable.*
I’ve heard it all since I first publicly called myself a feminist (in Mr. Lyon’s History class in eleventh grade in 1983). I can assure Tom that the comments he got can get much uglier. (I’ve only received one death threat that I thought worth reporting, but the fear was real and memorable. For a sample, google my name and the word “mangina”.) Tom seems to know this, and knows it’s all worth it too. He cites one comment he received:
A reader with the handle “Da-Caveman” wrote to reassure me, “As a caveman…my first instinct is to be negative and scoff at men exploring areas that are uncomfortable to us cavemen. When my wife buys me a new shirt…I immediately do not like it…it makes me uncomfortable…When I hear new music…I generally do not like it…it takes time for cavemen to become comfortable with new things. The thunder you hear in the distance is the sound of all the educated, hardworking women that can make a living just as easy as us cavemen. The world is a changing…but we still have football. Keep up the good work, Tom, and keep dragging us out of our caves.”
That rings right to me. I’ve known my share of cavemen. Some are little more than boys. It is for them — and for the women in their lives — that we gotta keep “dragging them out.” The trick, of course, is to do this work while avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of self-pity and macho swagger. We have to do our best to embody this new masculine paradigm, which means that when we are getting a lot of heat, we should neither deny the reality of the hurt nor make it a woman’s responsibility to comfort and reassure us. That can be tough sometimes. But as we know, persisting in the face of derision and scorn to carry an often unpopular message is part of what it means to live as a bold
man human being.
*UPDATE: My friends Steven and Michael gave me some gentle pushback on this. So let me say that for some of us, there’s some truth in the second part of this charge, though men who do this work come from across the spectrum in terms of their experiences of their own childhood popularity. Any worthwhile model for masculinity, of course, is one that doesn’t allow the alphas to torment those boys represented by the other letters of the Greek alphabet.