Saturday, July 14, 2012

Responding to a Response to the New York Times Roundtable on Masculinity

I wrote recently that as part of my efforts to shed some of the ways that my not-quite-done year-long foray into graduate studies have shaped my relationships to time, reading, and writing, I am planning on taking up a short-term project of writing a handful of time-limited, short, and informal posts in response to articles on a site whose mission intrigues me but which I am not terribly familiar with: The Good Men Project. This is the first such post.

Before I respond to the article that I have chosen today, I first want to note that my initial inspection of the titles on the magazine-style home page of the site reveals that it this is not, in fact, as focused on talking about masculinity per se as I had thought, but rather has a great deal of material that you might describe as "lifestyle" writing that is targeted at (somewhat progressive) men and that approaches questions of masculinity much more obliquely. This is disappointing, and it may well have implications for the little project I have taken on here, but at least for today I will not have to worry about it as I plan to write about one of the few articles near the top of the site that does ask more explicit questions about masculinity.

The post I am going to respond to is "Dear New York Times: Of Course Men Are Manly Enough" by Kaleb Blake. Just to make everything confusing, I am responding to an article that is responding to another series of articles -- a recently published roundtable on masculinity in The New York Times called "Room for Debate: Are Modern Men Manly Enough?". I have linked to it here, but because I have placed myself under strict time limits to write the posts in this little series of mine, I am not going to do what I would normally do and read all of the NYT pieces too...I'm just responding to Blake's post.

Blake begins by spending several paragraphs quoting from one of the debaters in the NYT roundtable -- Joel Stein, who glorifies a vision of masculinity that might be called old-fashioned, traditional, "manly," or rugged. Thankfully, Blake has little time for such nonsense. He then moves on to one of the other NYT entries, this one a much more progressive piece by Mark Simpson, who is totally fine with men doing whatever, whether that is childcare, emotional sensitivity, or adopting a metrosexual aesthetic. Blake endorses this position by linking it to The Good Men Project and his take on its mission, which is "men establishing a deeper understanding of masculinity through our own subjectivity -- our stories." He then goes on to quote one of the women who contributed to the NYT collection, Natasha Scripture, who also supports a "rugged" version of masculinity, and then briefly quotes another, Loni Love, who at least seems to do likewise. He closes the piece by returning to Simpson, and quoting him as saying, "Men aren't the new women. Men are the new everything. Just as women have been for some time. Stop worrying and get over it."

Not surprisingly, I think Blake's refusal of the very narrow, fifties-esque vision of dominant masculinity as the ideal-type for all men is good as far as it goes. He doesn't make the point as explicitly as he could, but it does seem that the piece is also based on an implicit broader rejection of the ways in which gender regulation constricts ways of doing masculinity, and I think that's good too.

However, there's a lot that seems crucial to this discussion that is just absent from the article. Sure, it's a short piece, so obviously depth is not expected, but I think these points are important enough that their absence is worth noting. In a very summary and perhaps cryptic form, they are:

  • To steal a quote I've seen going around the internet in multiple forms in the last few months -- "Some men have vaginas. Get over it."
  • Gender is not just about individualistic expression, it is relational.
  • Gender is not a level playing field.

Let me see if I can break down how I relate those points to what is missing in Blake's response to the NYT roundtable in the short time I have left for writing.

The first one is actually standing in for something broader. In Blake's piece, his basic argument seems to be that metropolitan, liberal commonsense about what it means to be a man is entirely fine, and attempts to constrict being a man to models based on cavemen, Don Draper, and Paul Bunyan are ridiculous. Like I said, good as far as it goes. But I do worry that it is substituting a dominant, metropolitan, middle-class liberal commonsense for the reactionary one it is opposing. That liberal commonsense about masculinity is, on a certain level, against constriction, in that it isn't going to condemn people who lift weights, repair their own plumbing, and play football. Yet there is nothing in it to warn cis, middle-class, metropolitan guys with liberal worldviews that really embracing opposition to oppressive gender regulation rather than just substituting your own version means having to deal with ways of doing masculinity, gender, sexuality, and lots of other things that will make most such men uncomfortable. Or perhaps these counter-normative ways of moving through the world won't make the cis liberal white metropolitan guys uncomfortable, but said guys will make the people moving through the world in these ways uncomfortable or much, much worse. Through my first point above, I'm getting at the idea that transphobic speech, writing, and assumptions are one example of how this could play out, but there are certainly others. And this is a broader lesson relevant to other issues as well: liberal tolerance as the standard for conduct, in the absence of critical analysis that will make many liberal tolerators uncomfortable or point out the ways in which they harm and oppress other people, is inevitably inadequate.

And the other striking absence from the article is encompassed by the other two points I made, that gender is relational and that the playing field is not level. A big part of the problem with masculinity is how its production is about living certain kinds of relationships with other people, both socially organized relationships with people who are not necessarily in your local environment and interpersonally mediated social relations as well. Part of the problem of the Don Draper model of masculinity is that it presumes relational domination of women, other gender-oppressed people, and lower status men. It is intriguing, or perhaps just telling, that a piece arguing for a newer, more liberal, more metropolitan commonsense doesn't challenge or even note this serious problem with its competition. And, of course, it doesn't ask any questions about how it -- liberal metropolitan cis middle-class masculinity -- might also be wrapped up in exactly the same social relations, just in different ways. And that, too, is a problem. Getting past "essentialist crap" is great, but you have to put questions of masculinity in contexts that are relational and that talk about power...and that don't avoid the absolute necessity for people who think they do masculinity in progressive ways turning a critical lens on themselves. Ourselves.

Anyway. I could say more, but my hour is almost up. It is a little nerve-wracking to be on the verge of putting something so unpolished and informal out there, but doing that is an important part of the point of my little exercise in post-academy detox, so please read in the spirit in which it was written!

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