Since feminism began, there have been opponents. Sometimes, those opponents have been women who don't want to upset the balance for fear of retribution, for fear of losing their social position, for fear of not attracting a husband, whatever. Mostly, though, the opponents of feminism are and have been men. Not all men, of course, oppose the ideals of feminism. But most of the opponents of feminism are men.I have talked a lot in previous posts about how socialization is responsible for gender roles, and how that socialization has particularly affected women. However, masculine socialization is just as powerfully directive as feminine socialization. Masculine socialization is not inherently oppressive, the way feminine socialization is, but it is, nevertheless, a powerful force that moulds boys into men who play out patriarchal hierarchies in society. Boys are taught from an early age to act like men, which involves primarily not acting like women. Masculinity is tied to sexuality – both sex, and heterosexuality, in particular. Failure to act in masculine ways de-sexes a man, makes him appear not fully a man. So what does masculinity look like?
First, masculinity is the embodiment of such characteristics as success, independence, aggressiveness, physical strength, emotional strength, and dominance. Second, masculinity is the manifestation of these characteristics through social relationships with other men (relatinoships with women are primarily sexual). Third, masculinity is defined by what it is not: not feminine, not homosexual, not being dependent, not being emotional, not being submissive, not being compliant, not being effeminate, not failing in sexual relationships with women, not failing to not have sexual relationships with men, not failing to have social relationships with men. Also, all masculinities are not created equal: the definitive masculinity is that of white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual men. Men who fall outside this narrow category are less masculine – or sometimes are demonized into hypersexual beings, as has happened with black men since the time of slavery. Through this definition, men learn to be sexist, heterosexist/homophobic (the term homophobic denotes a "fear" of homosexuals, and the truth is that heterosexual men are taught not just to fear homosexuals, but to hate them in the same way whites are taught to fear and hate blacks and other ethnic groups), and racist. Masculinity is tied to all these forms of hating others.
Sexism: First, men are taught to hate women, to see women as being for a specific purpose: caring for men and providing men with sex and children. Men are taught that it is "natural" for men and women to be and act a certain way and that those ways are "naturally" consucive to certain types of roles, jobs, etc. Men are taught to view women as objects, property. Since masculinity teaches men not to be like women, any slip from that set of guidelines into feminine behaviour makes a man less masculine, and vulnerable to attack by stronger men who may usurp them and their property, including their woman. So, for fear of this happening, men try to adhere to a flight from femininity as much as possible, and they learn to hate women for embodying the characteristics that they fear. Women represent home, emotion, familial responsibility, dependence on others – the opposite of fun. Men gain masculinity points by putting down women and what they represent… or making a show of that masculine trait, aggressiveness, toward women.
Heterosexism/Homophobia: Second, men are taught to only have sex with women, not with men. This is what women are for, and it undermines one's masculinity to not participate in a heterosexual sexual relationship. Having sex with men is what women do, not men, and so homosexuality is closer to feminine sexuality than to masculine sexuality. On the flip side of this, men are expected to have primarily, if not exclusively, homosocial relationships – that is, social relationships with members of their own gender. Men who are too friendly with women but are not having sex with those women are suspected of being too much like women in other characteristics. Men are constantly evaluating one another's masculine performances, playing off one another's masculinity. The fear is that they will not measure up, and will be revealed as a fraud. And so, men learn to fear other men, fear being unmasculine, fear being perceived as feminine. And feminine men are deemed homosexual.
Racism: Finally, men are taught to fear and hate men of other ethnic backgrounds. I won't got into a long list of examples here; it will suffice to say that white men are taught to find ways in which men of different ethnicities are not masculine enough, and in the effort to gain a piece of the masculinity pie, men of different ethnic backgrounds respond by doing the same thing to all other ethnicities combined with acting in a masculine a way as possible.
Masculinity is primarily about power. Feminists have identified this for centuries, that men are preoccupied with power, that men have the most social and economic and political power, that men exert that power over women. However, most men do not feel powerful! The huge pressures of masculinity prevent men from feeling powerful, and instead make men feel powerless. Men are raised to believe they are entitled to power, but do not feel they have it. They are pressed on all sides by masculinity, sexism, racism, heterosexism/homophobia. They have to live up to these standards, and do not feel free to simply be who they (may) want to be.
No wonder men do not respond well to feminism! First, feminism identifies men as having the balance of power in society, and most men do not feel they have that power. Second, feminism argues for a redistribution of that power, and men want to hang onto whatever power they feel they do have. And when women do make strides that allow them to break away from oppressive gender roles, men are threatened.
So, how can men learn to feel less threatened by feminism? By recognizing that masculinity, like femininity, is socially constructed, and can be socially deconstructed in the same ways that women have been and are deconstructing femininity. By recognizing that being a man does not necessarily mean being sexist, racist, homophobic. Is this realistic? I don't know. Many men do not want to give up the power they have, however small it may be. But, I ask you this: does it have to be a zero-sum equation? Does more power for women necessarily mean less power for men? Can it be seen as a positive, as sharing rather than dominance? More power for women will mean that things will change – but couldn't it just be true that those changes will be good for everyone? I think it can. I think that as more women gain power and independence, they will enter the workforce throughout the world, economies will start to grow, and countries will be pulled out of poverty. Less children will be born, and they will be better cared for, so infant mortality rates will fall, child starvation rates will fall, and education opportunities will rise, which will lead to greater economic prosperity. Health care will be more accessible, and fewer people will die from preventable/treatable illnesses like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Empowerment for women is definitely a good thing for men.
How can men support feminism?
- Stop objectifying women. Stop seeing women as things over which you have power. Stop seeing women as things over which you have ownership. Stop seeing women as having a specific purpose in relation to you. Stop seeing women as being perpetually sexually available. Stop viewing pornography. Stop raping women. Stop abusing women. Stop making excuses for any objectification of women.
- Start seeing women as equals. Give women the same respect and consideration you might give a man. Assume that women have goals and dreams and desires exclusive of men, children, and families.
- Start recognizing your own social, economic, and political power, and the lack of power held by women in relation to men. Recognize that women are oppressed, and that men are, by elimination, their oppressors. Recognize that while it may not be your fault, you participate in that oppression inherently, whether you want to or not, by subscribing to masculinity.
- Support women's goals, dreams, and desires. Recognize that women will need special protections and assistance in order to pull out of oppression, and support such initiatives. Equality is not the same as equity. Women will need such measures as affirmative action to get a foothold. Don't complain about it. Support it.
- Stop being threatened by women, and by homosexual men (if you are heterosexual). Their existence doesn't detract from yours. So what if someone confuses you for a homosexual man? Who cares? It isn't important, it doesn't mean you are not a man. It doesn't mean you will never get laid again. It doesn't mean anything. Support gay and lesbian rights. Stop demonizing homosexuals as sexual deviants, monsters, ungodly. Just stop it.
- If you are heterosexual, encourage your girlfriend/wife to continue her female friendships. Isolating a woman within a romantic relationships and trying to control her movements outside that relationship is very bad. Women need solidarity, we need to organize together, we need to support one another.
- Don't make your female partner feel as though she should be threatened by other women for your attention/affection. Make sure she feels secure in your relationship.
- Support your female partner by sharing equally household tasks and childrearing tasks. Relegating women to the private sphere of home restricts her ability to reach her goals and dreams.
That's all I can think of. I hope this look into masculinity has been somewhat enlightening. Feel free to express your experiences with masculinity and femininity.
- Michael S. Kimmel, "Masculinity and Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity." (sorry, I don't have the year and publisher info)
- Jacquelyn N. Zita, "Heterosexual Anti-Biotics," in Body Talk, 1998, Columbia University Press.