Saturday, December 26, 2009

Radical Masculinity?

Check out the column "A Manifesto for Radical Masculinity" by Sinclair Sexsmith, aka Sugarbutch (who identifies as "a sadistic kinky queer butch top who writes about sex, gender, and relationship adventures at Sugarbutch Chronicles.") The column calls for experimentation and theorizing with the goal of radicalizing masculinity. There is lots about it that I like, especially its emphasis on basing new visions for masculinity on learning from queer men, trans people, butches and other women who do masculinity, and anyone else who troubles normative masculinity by the ways in which they engage with/in it. However, it also raised some questions for me -- not so much in the form of criticisms of this particular piece of writing, but more general questions that often come up for me when dealing with gender issues in this particular way.

The article begins with Sinclair pointing out the negative impact masculinity has on men. It emphasizes that while you frequently hear things bemoaning the lot of men from anti-feminist places, a critical understanding of masculinity that explores how masculinity harms its bearers as well as those around them is perfectly consistent with feminist struggle and something in which feminists and pro-feminists might invest more effort. The article then moves in to talking about Sinclair's own gender journey towards identifying as butch.

As a feminist, as a lesbian, I was constantly asking myself, and my boi-ish friends: what is masculinity, if not misogyny? What is masculinity without misogyny? How can I be a feminist and be masculine?

The article then briefly outlines Sinclair's efforts to understand masculinity, from observing, to reading theory, to enacting, and comes to the conclusion that the negative impact that normative masculinity has on men is not in opposition to the impact of patriarchy on women, but intimately tied to it, and that we all have a stake in reinventing masculinity.

There are so many rules of masculinity which are really fucking painful, to ourselves and to others. The competition, the fighting, the physical violence, the anger, the rage, the lack of emotional expression, the policing of each other's weaknesses, the presumption that someone masculine is always sexually available and is probably sexually promiscuous, the issues of commitment, the expectations of 'bringing home the bacon.'

The text then goes on to balance that with some of the more positive traits associated with masculinity -- "care-taking and problem solving and the use of tools" and so on. Frankly, I think there could've been a nod towards the ways that even those traits often get mobilized by bioboys in ways that disempower women, but I get the point. And Sinclair then goes on to endorse the explorations of masculinity with liberatory intent that are already happening.

I do know that we need to continue struggling and stumbling into a new masculinity, a radical masculinity, a masculinity that is not painful for those who wear it or those who fall in love with it or for those who interact with it. Radical masculinity does not hurt. Radical masculinity is strong enough to be vulnerable and receptive enough to put his foot down. Radical masculinity is trans men and fairy fags and butches who do girly drag. Radical masculinity is straight women with cropped hair and tool belts marrying men, not apologizing, refusing to take the lesbian jokes personally. Radical masculinity is a new form of fatherhood, of manhood, of adulthood, of humanhood. Radical masculinity is feminist men doing real work for equality and liberation for everyone. Radical masculinity is football games with your daughter's ballet class and ice cream sundaes with your high school son's best friends. Radical masculinity is big cuddly bears and vicious hardcore dharma punx, urban cowboys and the sexiest MMA fighters, yogis and your brother with his new baby and yes even sometimes your dad, showing everyone that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Radical masculinity is a way to present, perform, play with, celebrate, and liberate masculinity, in thousands of multi-dimensional expressions. It is still being created, recreated, formed, and reformed, and I want to be a part of its ongoing evolution.

Good stuff. Inspiring stuff.

Now, before I get to my concerns, I feel the need to step back and and address briefly the ways in which people's reactions to the argument in Sinclair's article will likely have a lot to do with what they bring to reading it. I don't mean that in the obvious and not very interesting sense that a reader who thought patriarchal, heteronormative masculinity was just fine would consider the argument to be ridiculous and outrageous -- they would, but so what? I'm more concerned with the range of people who recognize, in many different ways, a need for some kind of critical politics around gender. I think that within this broad group there would be quite a range of responses, which have to do with underlying features of how different people have different understandings of how the social world works. All of us have to have working assumptions about such things in order to be able to function and to express opinions, but most of us never (have to, get to) make them explicit. (And even those of us who have the space, the inclination, and the tools to try and unearth some of that stuff often speak and act in our everyday lives from assumptions quite different than the ones we explicitly proclaim.) By this I mean things like how does the social world work? What is gender? How does change happen? What, in very practical terms, do we mean when we talk about "sexism" or "patriarchy" or "gender oppression"? What about other axes of oppression? What is the significance of what I do in my everyday life? What is the significance of collective efforts for change? What exactly is an individual subject (e.g. "me") and how do individual subjects come to be who and what they are? All of these are much bigger than a humble blog post can deal with, of course.

I'm sure someone cleverer than I could put together a nuanced and interesting little map sketching out the underlying social ontologies and theories of change embedded in major strands of feminist, queer, and others sorts of activist theory and practice. Instead, I just want to point to a couple of tendencies that are quite common, including as the practical reference points for talk/action in specific moments by lots of people (me too) who might identify their ways of seeing things quite differently.

The first is the liberal individualism that surrounds and pervades those of us in North America like noxious, polluted air. The basis of all mainstream politics, from "conservative" to "liberal" and beyond, this tendency might attack or respect the content of Sinclair's article but it has no language to say why the article's analysis matters that doesn't boil down to the ethical or the sylistic. It is a framework that either aggressively denies the existence/importance of the social or admits it but renders it irrelevant by treating it in mystifying language that forces us to choose between disconnected abstraction and staying focused on atmoized, individual lives. The more progressive end of this range might support Sinclair's recommendations but would likely articulate that as support for individual expression or for daring-yet-sound moral choices at the individual level. Neither of these are bad things, but the author intends this advice as political, and the "liberal" end of the liberal-democratic framework might allow one to sense that but not really to talk about it in useful ways.

The other tendency I want to touch on, which shows up in otherwise very different ways of understanding the world, is very clear that the social world (and the phenomena within it that bring pain to so many lives) exists in some sense beyond atomized individuals but it is often not terribly useful for understanding what that has to do with us and our actions in practical terms. People coming from these places may vigorously exhort radical action or they may be trapped in a sort of quietistic despair, but they lack a grounded account of why our acts might matter short of some future cataclysmic change (which is present in some representatives of this tendency but not others). In this category I would include some orthodox marxisms, some feminisms, some kinds of analysis that reduce everything to disembodied discourse, as well as parts of the largely unsystematic "corporations are bad" politics that was the gateway to the left for many of us on university campuses in the 1990s. The relationship of these kinds of politics to the article would vary, from celebrating them as transgression for transgression's sake to scorning them for the same, and lots of other variants, but the bottom line is that lots would see such suggestions as politically trivial or even harmful. The reasoning from some, at least, might resemble, "Being a 'good man' or 'crossing boundaries' does not challenge the patriarchy or undermine the unearned privilege associated with masculinity." Which is a position worth listening to and understanding, but I don't think it is the whole story, either.

Both of those are caricatures, I realize, but if you can accept that I recognize that the reality is more complicated and that I'm trying to make the point that most of us who are in the potential target audience for this article don't have an easily graspable framework for fairly assessing its political advice, then we can move on.

A rough sketch of my own clumsy, incomplete attempts to navigate this tension between the caricatured indivdualist framework that is hegemonc and the caricatured (post)structuralist frameworks that often get opposed to it goes something like what follows...your mileage may vary. Also, keep in mind that part of the point for me is perpetual openness to change and correction and new acquisition, and recognizing there are lots of other useful ways to try to do similar things.

So. The social world is created in each moment by the practices of human beings in their own local contexts. However, social relations are organized extra-locally by written texts (laws, policies) and less concretely by networks of symbols and language, which also have no existence outside of locally grounded people taking them up and deploying them or acting in a way that is somehow based on them. Some of the actions people take based on these texts or ideologies interact with other people's actions in ways that have regulatory impacts. One example of this kind of enforcement would be a bureaucrat taking up and enacting a social assistance regulation in a particular way; another would be a friend's father enacting social regulation through voiced disapproval that you let your four year-old boy carry his trains around in a pink purse. It is this locally-enacted extra-local organization and regulation that is how things like "capitalism" and "patriarchy," which we often talk about as independently existing abstractions, actually happen.

This approach is materialist and has a way to materially understand the power of discourse. It makes the social world and social change comprehensible across scales, including providing ways to see/talk about the contiguous nature of global forms of social organization and the specific, nuanced, local nature of everyday experience. It allows you to see both the power of socially produced constraint as well as human agency, without being trapped in the binary opposition that is often reputed to exist between them. It also allows a way of understanding agency that does not cast everyday resistance and collective, confrontational resistance as opposites but rather as different moments of responding to the same phenomena.

Let's take social relations of gender oppression. Though there is lots of specificity according to social and geographical location, the dominant social organization of gender in North America involves two clusters of bodies, practices, and symbols. One (masculinity) is organized into relative privilege and the other (femininity) into relative oppression, in ways that are interconnected with and articulated through all other social relations. Deviation from the "normal" way of clustering bodies, practices, and symbols is also punished. The ways that gender gets done in the everyday lives of most people results in people getting trained as they grow up to enact in turn socially regulatory practices on the people around them, to enforce both m-over-f and adherence to the binary, though there are lots of other, more specific ways to understand how these relations are reproduced, including social organization mediated through official texts (e.g. immigration regulations, the organization of employment, etc.). Note that the ways in which those trained into dominant masculinities engage in practices that not only oppress women and gender non-conforming people, but are also part of how subordinate masculinities are kept subordinate. As well, none of us completely conform to the binary -- we have practices, preferences, desires, inclinations, tendencies that deviate a little or a lot from the enforced gendered "normal" -- and active social regulation (and, indeed, production) of people's practices, preferences, desires, inclinations, and tendencies is required to keep the supposedly innate binary from falling apart. Obviously, there is several library's worth of detail to how it all plays out in different situations.

My understanding of what Sinclair is advocating is for practices that actively and consciously refuse to adhere to the dominant, enforced cluster of bodies-practices-symbols that comprise dominant masculinity. This is not just the act of individual expression of the liberal framework, because doing so is a local challenge to the organization and reproduction of gender relations. If someone who does masculinity does these things, s/he is challenging his/her own relationship to the bodies-practices-symbols cluster of masculinity. S/he is contradicting how many of those around him/her take up and act on ideologies of gender to enforce that clustering, and may end up challenging the kinds of everyday regulation of gender norms that people enact. This may create a little more local space for the doer's own future liberatory practices of masculinity (or femininity), and may create more space for others to do the same. It is not just a symbolic challenge -- it is a material, embodied challenge, to yourself and the people around you, of the ways in which the extra-local forms of organization of masculinity and of gender more generally are taken up, enacted, and reproduced in local contexts.

Now, I would agree with the second tendency desribed earlier in my post that local, everyday challenge is not a sufficient response to socially organized oppressions like the social relations of gender oppression. However, I would argue that it is a necessary part of the response. Yes, it can become isolated, ineffectual, the basis for insular subcultures or lifestyleism, but it doesn't have to do that. It also creates openings for discussion, collaboration, mutual learning, and solidarity that can build collective everyday practices that Sinclair calls "radical masculinity." It is also, I would argue, an essential part of building the bases for collective, confrontational struggles against the ways in which relations of gender oppression and other oppressive and exploitative social relations are extra-locally organized.

Which brings me back to the questions that this specific article raises for me.

The first has to do with the ways in which the article talks about this stuff. It talks about masculinity as a practice, which is more politically useful than talking about it as something one is or something that one has. However, it talks about it mostly as an individual practice. Given the grip of the liberal framework, that strikes me as risky, in that it makes it easy to read the article in a way that never gets past that individual level. This works in concert with the ways in which we learn in the context of capitalist social relations to see things which can be owned by individuals rather than dynamic, collaborative doing by many people. Also, it is common in parts of the left in North America to obsess (often while claiming not to) about acting in particular ways as signs of political purity rather than being more honestly present in the unpleasant messiness of things. I don't think that's how it's meant, but I think it is a safe prediction that many people will read the article in these individualizing ways -- perhaps more could be done in writing about this stuff to disrupt these potential reading strategies and foreground the political content of the article's message while troubling the purely ethical or stylistic ways that some people might understand it. It could help keep a focus on the fact that these choices amount to a particular kind of political challenge (and components of other kinds of political challenge) to social relations of gender oppression.

Related to this is the lack of discussion in the article of ways in which this sort of everyday, local challenge might be linked to more collective efforts to create change. The last paragraph of the article makes it clear that the author understands this as a long-term, collective effort, and it would be great to hear more about what it means in practice to shift from me making choices in my everyday life to (some kind of) us working together in various ways. Of course it is just one article, and no piece of writing, especially a short one, can do everything.

That might also be why there is little discussion of the integration of gender and related sorts of everyday acts of resistance with consideration of other axes of oppression and resistance to them. Beyond some aspects of sexuality, this article doesn't really deal with that, and I think it is another aspect that we need to make central to our explorations right from the start.

The final area of questioning prompted by this article is about how to think about the individual choices we are making to challenge and change dominant masculinity. My understanding of Sinclair's advice is that we must challenge dominant masculinity through undermining the assumed inevitability and coherence of the bodies-practices-symbols cluster, especially by resisting the enforcement of that package through resisting social regulation of gender in everyday life. That's important. However, it seems to me -- and I think it is particularly relevant to this point that I am coming at these questions as someone who was trained into masculinity from birth and moves through life in a body that is easily associated with masculinity by those around me -- that it is really important to forground questions of how people who do masculinity relate to the people around them. The article doesn't ignore that question, but it seems to me that doing masculinity without misogyny, especially for bioboys, requires a lot more focus on it. After all, a big part of why masculinity is so destructive is that those of us who are trained to do it from birth learn to behave towards other people (of all genders) in destructive ways -- enacting and enforcing social regulation, objectifying, belittling, taking space from, dismissing, failing to listen, sexualizing, being destructively aggressive, and so on, and on, and on. And I think posing questions of doing masculinity differently in ways that foreground the doer of masculinity in relation to the people around them rather than just in relation to the body-practice-symbol cluster is really important. Some of the relevant questions then become: How do I challenge the ways in which I feel constrictive, sometimes painful regulation of my gendered practices in ways that are politically grounded not just in my feelings of constraint but also in the way that cis-masculinity and other aspects of how I move through the world organize my relations with those around me in ways that privilege me? How do I challenge instances when I witness the reproduction of oppressive discourse and practices that are not directed towards me? How do I participate in creating collective space that forms the basis for collective political work without messing it up by doing things that I learned as part of masculinity (e.g. taking up too much space, failing to listen, inappropriately sexualizing women in that space, etc.)? How do I create new relationship and sexual practices that are liberatory for me, my partners, and other people? How do I incorporate practices of care-for-others into my life, and how do I relate to the practices of care that others have towards me? I could go on...and as you can see, it covers a lot of ground that the article covers, but with a bit of a different emphasis.

Anyway. This has turned into a much bigger post than I had intended, but it has been useful to me to write it. And I want to end back where I started by emphasizing how important I think it is for those of us who have done masculinity for all of our lives to learn about how to challenge ourselves and the social organization of our everyday lives not only from feminist struggle as conventionally understood but through learning about doing masculinity from queer men, trans people, women who do masculinity, and other nonconforming folks, as well as learning from the anti-normative moments that happen in every life. It's only one part of struggles against gender oppression, but it is a necessary part.


thwap said...


I feel compelled to say that reading you makes me tired.

But it's to your credit.

Because for me you read like this:

"Today I'm going to discuss this radical whatever person who has a highly critical perspective on something that you've always taken for granted, and after that, I'm going to open up various fragments of this challenging perspective and explore nuances of these from a similarly radical perspective."

The thing is, I can follow the meaning of your words, which means that instead of throwing my compass away because I'm hopelessly lost, I follow this twisted trail to the very end.

And there are lots of circling back because you always include these self-deprecating caveats about your own credentials which are probably unavoidable if you're going to be honest.

And with your extended posts, the long twisted trails come back to the main path and then go off on these crucial side-trails which also have to be followed.

So, when you don't see a comment for some of your big efforts, don't take it so hard.

I'm usually just happy to have finished. Wiser too.

BTW: word verification thingy = "hydoper"

Scott said...

Hi thwap!

Thanks so much for your comment and for all of your affirming words. You are right that sometimes when I write big posts like this I despair a little bit about anyone ever reading them -- I know that blogs as a medium encourage engagement with short, punchy, straightforward pieces, and even lots of folks who might be interested in the content of a post like this will stop reading after a few minutes and continue clicking on their way. I know that because I do it frequently too when I come across interesting but lengthy pieces on other sites. So it is nice to hear that not only are people reading, but at least some are finding posts like this useful.

So, again, thank-you!