Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Masculine, Feminine, or Human?" by Robert Jensen

by Robert Jensen

In a guest lecture about masculinity to a college class, I ask the students to generate two lists that might help clarify the concept:

For the first, I tell them to imagine themselves as parents whose 12-year-old son asks, “What does it mean to be a man?” The list I write on the board as they respond is not hard to predict: To be a man is to be strong, responsible, loving. Men provide for those around them and care for others. A man weathers tough times and doesn’t give up.

When that list is complete, I ask the women to observe while the men answer a second question: When you are in all-male spaces, such as the locker room or a night out with the guys, what do you say to each other about what it means to be a man? How do you define masculinity when there are no women present?

The students, both men and women, laugh nervously, knowing the second list will be different from the first. The men fumble a bit at first, as it becomes clear that one common way men define masculinity in practice is not through affirmative statements but negative ones — it’s about what a man isn’t, and what a real man isn’t is a woman or gay. In the vernacular: Don’t be a girl, a sissy, a fag. To be a man is to not be too much like a woman or to be gay, which is in large part about being too much like a woman.

From there, the second list expands to other descriptions: To be a man is to be a player, a guy who can attract women and get sex; someone who doesn’t take shit from people, who can stand down another guy if challenged, who doesn’t let anyone else get in his face. Some of the men say they have other ideas about masculinity but acknowledge that in most all-male spaces it’s difficult to discuss them.

When that process is over, I step back and ask the class to consider the meaning of the two lists. On the first list of the culturally endorsed definitions of masculinity, how many of those traits are unique to men? Are women ever strong? Should women be strong? Can women be just as responsible as men? Should women provide and care for others? I ask the students if anyone wants to make the argument that women are incapable of these things, or less capable than men.

There are no takers.

I point out the obvious: The list of traits that we claim to associate with being a man — the things we would feel comfortable telling a child to strive for — are in fact not distinctive characteristics of men but traits of human beings that we value, what we want all people to be. The list of understandings of masculinity that men routinely impose on each other is quite different. Here, being a man means not being a woman or gay, seeing relationships as fundamentally a contest for control, and viewing sex as the acquisition of pleasure from a woman.

I ask the class: If the positive definitions of masculinity are not really about being a man but simply about being a person, and if the definitions of masculinity within which men routinely operate are negative, why are we holding onto the concept so tightly? Why are we so committed to the notion that there are intellectual, emotional, and moral differences that are inherent, that come as a result of biological sex differences?

From there, I ask them also to think about what a similar exercise around femininity might reveal? How might the patterns be similar or different? If masculinity is a suspect category, it would seem so is femininity.

I have repeated this discussion in several classes over the past year, each time with the same result: Students are uncomfortable. That’s not surprising, given the reflexive way our culture accepts that masculinity and femininity are crucial and coherent categories. People may define the ideal characteristics of masculinity and femininity differently, but most people accept the categories themselves. What if that’s misguided? What if the positive attributes ascribed to “men” are simply positive human characteristics distributed without regard to gender, and the negative ones are the product of toxic patriarchal socialization?

Because the questions flow from their own observations and were not imposed by me, the discomfort is intensified. It’s difficult to shrug this off as just one more irrelevant exercise in abstract theory by a pontificating professor. Whatever the conclusion the students reach, the question is on the table in a way that’s difficult to dismiss.

It’s obvious that there are differences in the male and female human body, most obviously in reproductive organs and hormones. It is possible those differences are significant outside of reproduction, in terms of broader patterns concerning intellectual, emotional, and moral development. But given our limited knowledge about such complex questions, there isn’t much we can say about those differences. In the absence of definitive answers, I prefer to be cautious. After thousands of years of patriarchy in which men have defined themselves as superior to women in most aspects of life, leading to a claim that male dominance is natural and inevitable, we should be skeptical about claims about these allegedly inherent differences between men and women.

Human biology is pretty clear: People are born male or female, with a small percentage born intersexed. But how we should make sense of those differences outside reproduction is not clear. And if we are to make sense of it in a fashion that is consistent with justice — that is, in a feminist context — then we would benefit from a critical evaluation of the categories themselves, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center



James said...

Hello there!

I was sent a link to this site by your sister (I don't know how many you have, but if multiple it was the one who uses the handle aladydivine). She advised me that it would help me become "a REAL man", which is something I haven't squandered much time wanting for quite some time.

This, however, still made a visit worthwhile. It raises a very interesting point: you can't really define something as manly or masculine without to some degree arguing that women are incapable of that. If you are saying men are strong then you are implying that women are less so, otherwise it wouldn't really be a distinguishing feature (unless it was a "Women breathe in oxygen" type statement).

Gender definitions rely upon rendering a trait exclusive. With very few exceptions (the capacity to give birth, for example) these cultural tropes are unfounded.

Which, incidentally, is why I care not a jot about being a real man (or any other kind for that matter).

Anonymous said...

James I'm glad you came here, especially after that nasty white supremacist message you left me at Redmegaera's....

You should want to be a man who isn't a misogynist, white supremacist, ignorant to his privilege jerk that consumes female bodies in female friendly and safe spaces according to male understandings, interpretations of hotness/sexiness/worth and value.

Hopefully NOW you get it, but by the digs you had to make (cause you boys cannot say ANYTHING AT ALL without being jerks can you) would imply otherwise.

Julian hon, play nice. xo

Anonymous said...

ps: aladydivine also uses the "handle" divine purpose, and has also taken issue with your foolishness at Women's Space and countless other woman's spaces around the net.

Julian Real said...

Hi James,

And welcome. I'm glad aladydivine sentcha on over.

And can I say what a relief it is to have a visitor who is a man whose name isn't "Anonymous"!! lol (Clearly I missed the year THAT was the most popular name to give to male babies!)

Yes, I agree with you. And I think a few sections of one book and many chapters in another would support and deepen your thinking and analysis, and hopefully would also bring you to be a stronger ally to all the women in your life. I sense you would like that: correct me if I'm wrong. For me, the only reason to read feminist work is to learn stuff so that individual women you know don't have to teach it to you, and also to be a stronger ally to women in the actual world of interpersonal relationships and social misogyny and racism.

I recommend reading in Andrea Dworkin's book Woman Hating, for her sections about Fairy Tales, Pornography, and Androgyny. I think you'll resonate a lot with what she says there, and that her analysis will make clear that the current gender binary is not only about "oppositionality" or "extreme difference" but about "hierarchy" which is to say actual social systems of power in which one group (men) has the capacity and entitlement to oppress the other group (women)--and not vice versa.

Here's a brief discussion of that work by Dworkin:

[From here]
If you are looking for a feminist analysis of fairy tales, I have always found Andrea Dworkin's analysis very useful. It is in one of her older books "Woman Hating" (Dutton, 1974). She discusses the roles that many women play in Western fairy tales and their implications. She points out, for example, that females are particularly desirable when they are sleeping (some like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are positively comatose). [by Rhoda Unger]

JR here: Perhaps my favorite line in the book, which reveals Andrea's sharp humor is "Catatonia is the good woman's most winning quality." Hilarious, and tragically too often true. Dworkin also writes:

"The good woman must be possessed. The bad woman must be killed, or punished. Both must be nullified.
(Dworkin, 1974, p. 48.)"

The second book is by her life partner, John Stoltenberg, who, in the late 1980s came out with a classic profeminist text called Refusing To Be A Man which I've linked to (just click on the title). I think that will be a good supplemental education also. Especially read the chapter called "How Men Have (a) Sex".

He opens his book with a wonderful quote by one of my very favorite writers of all time, James Baldwin:

"The world's definitions are one thing and the life one actually live is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one's family, friends, or lovers--to say nothing of one's children--to live according to the world's definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that."

I have some serious problems with Stoltenberg's analysis, but I'll wait for another exchange between us to get into that. Problematic or not, it's an important book and ought to be read by every man who can read English, or any of the other languages it has been translated into. The same goes for all of Andrea Dworkin's work, and the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins, to name but a few U.S. contemporary writers who focus on sexual and racial justice and liberation.

Please visit any time and offer comments, concerns, and questions.

Julian Real said...

Hi again James.

I guess I'm going to have to address my critique of Stoltenberg right away, given this comment I found of yours online (and let me know if you never wrote that):

I’m opposed to the gender binary, thus it would be impossible for me to be a male supremacist.

No. That's not how it works AT ALL. I'm white and anti-racist; does that mean I can't behave as a white supremacist at any time? No, it does not. Same with male supremacy. You are positioned, by society, structurally, to oppress women in myriad ways at any moment, in any interaction, and most of the times you do that you will likely not be called out as sexist or misogynistic or male supremacist. But if you're behaving as one, then, in that moment, at the very least, you are behaving as a male supremacist.

So, I don't really think men can refuse to be men any more than I think whites can refuse to be white. It's where we're stationed, positioned, and located in society. Our individual behaviors, whether beneficial or harmful to oppressed people, doesn't magically dislodge us from those locations. For more, see this, by Yolanda Carrington. And please just read it and don't react. Just read it over and over until you understand ever word she's saying, ok?

And I'm not getting into the argument about "being an oppressor" vs. "acting oppressively". There's no meaningful experiential difference for me between someone ACTING homophobic and being homophobic.

As men, we gotta own what we do and where we are, and I believe, if we're to be an ally to women, we have to learn to listen really carefully when we're being called out. The biggest male supremacist response to women I see from men is "getting into an argument" or "needing to respond to clarify a point" rather than "just listening". We men are always feeling like WE MUST NOT BE UNHEARD. That's one of our privileges, to ALWAYS be heard. And we always gotta win. And we always gotta be right, or right about some part of it, so we can save face. James, we gotta stop caring about saving face, being right, getting ourselves heard as we define the term "heard". We gotta stop that CRAP.

Because meanwhile, who gets silenced by us always needing to be heard? Women.

So I'm switching up my reading suggestions and am going to strongly recommend that you immediately read in Pearl Cleage's book, Deals With The Devil and Other Reasons to Riot--the whole first section of the book or so, on men's sexism, rape, and the need for men to listen, to "be in a posture of listening" rather than a posture of defending one's ego, including one's ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc.

Please stop arguing/debating/defending/clarifying yourself with women online. It's obnoxious in the way you're doing it. As if women don't have enough CRAP to deal with.

Julian Real said...


Thanks for posting here about your experiences with James. I got my first reply out before reading those two comments from you, sorry to say.

Julian hon, play nice. xo

Nice? What's that? ;)

I'll try and be reasonably respectful to the boys. I save "nice" for my women friends!

Love to you. xoxo

aladydivine said...

:) I said play nice because Jimmy boy is an MRA nut.

He believes misandry is real... he silences feminist women, is a marxist, and overall a male supremacist/white supremacist.

He's playing nice here because you're a peer, unlike us lowly feminist women...