Friday, October 23, 2009

Asking "the man question" in feminist legal theory

Feminist legal theory's treatment of men has not been kind. Liberal feminism treated men as objects of analysis, cultural feminism treated men as Other, radical feminism treated men as oppressors, and postmodern feminism omitted men entirely.

Yet, some feminist legal theorists are challenging feminists to ask the man question. Nancy E. Dowd argues that much feminist analysis has left men as a group to be “undifferentiated, even universal.” According to Dowd, the inclusion of masculinities into feminist discourse will not only de-essentialize men in feminist theory, it will “enrich efforts to identify male privilege and the specific practices that sustain male dominance, and expose the price of male privilege in male disadvantage.” Simply infusing both masculinities and feminist theories, however, will not instantaneously create gender equality. Dowd cautions that masculinities discourse does not share the same agenda for equality as feminism – as it is “more descriptive of men and masculinities rather than analyzing how and why their power is sustained.”

While many masculinities theorists continue to focus on the social construction of masculinity and the existence of multiple masculinities rather than analyze power inequalities, there is evidence of a shift in masculinities discourse -- as illustrated in the work of sociologists Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe.

Schrock and Schwalbe describe masculinity as a “dramaturgical task of establishing credibility as a man and thus as a member of the dominant gender group” such that “the existence of the ‘men’ depends on the collective performance and affirmation of manhood acts.’” They focus particularly on the interactional analyses of gender, observing what men do both individually and collectively to identify themselves as men. In doing so, they describe the ways in which men must signify possession of a masculine self—often by repressing emotions, valorizing sexual objectification of women, controlling others, intimidating others, and acting out violently—in order to be credible as men and access the privileges of the dominant gender group. Simply engaging in the performative act of being a man reproduces gender inequality, as most manhood acts are focused on reaching the top of the power hierarchy, where women have historically been excluded. Their work is promising, as it aims to strip masculinities theory of its tendency to essentialize male behavior, and explicitly confronts power inequalities and hierarchies.

Exploring analyses of power and masculinities is a crucial step towards opening up power and dominance discourse in relation to men -- yet it does not relieve feminist legal theorists of rising to the challenge to ask the man question in their research, if we are to fully understand the social constructs that reinforce continuing gender inequality and gender-based violence.

Engaging men to bear the burden of men's acts against women

As we come closer to integrating masculinities into feminist analysis, we must also consider what role men must play when it comes to feminism. How can men help feminists to achieve gender equality and end the violence towards women and children? Can the inclusion of men shift feminist analysis into more effective and powerful directions?

Shira Tarrant, author of Men and Feminism, has encouraged the idea that men can be feminist allies, and she regards feminism as an inclusive movement. In a recent inverview, Tarrant noted that,

“[i]t’s one thing to say, ‘women shouldn’t be raped.’ It’s a different challenge to say, ‘men need to stop raping’. . . Really shifting our cultural politics and our unspoken systems of advantage means that people with unearned privilege and power must be willing to examine our own roles in perpetuating the problems. We also must be willing to create solutions. The burden of this work can’t fall entirely on those who already carry the burden of the problem.”

Some masculinities researchers and theorists have already begun to reformulate perspectives on violence and rape by incorporating what we know about masculinities into existing theoretical frameworks. Alan D. Berkowitz was among the first to develop protocols and programs focusing on men’s responsibility for preventing sexual assault. Berkowitz argues that men must take responsibility for preventing sexual assault, because most assaults are perpetrated by men against women, children, and other men. Berkowitz argues that an exploration of masculinities and male role expectations are central to such rape prevention programs. Berkowitz notes that,

“[i]t is the experience of masculinity itself—how men think of themselves as men—that creates the psychological and cultural environment that leads men to rape … this environment is perpetuated through men’s relationships and expectations of each other.”

A recent collaborative study by seven masculinities researchers from around the world, Ending gender-based violence: A call for global action to involve men, confronts the issue of power and men’s violence. The study focuses on masculinities and socially constructed gender roles in relationship to violence, and aims to engage men globally to “see it as their duty to demolish the patriarchal structures they themselves live in.” Of note, the study describes how men’s violence is socially cultivated and promoted globally, thus violence prevention requires discourse on masculinities and men’s experiences. The study explicitly aims “to name men” instead of speaking about “violence” generically—hoping to develop gender consciousness among men.

These studies illustrate a developing discourse on the proactive involvement of men in feminism, particularly addressing the questions of power and who should bear the burden of preventing gender-based violence and rape. These studies do not, however, promise that men will participate in these new forums. The remaining question is how to engage men into masculinities discourse, and how to encourage men to understand the effects of masculinities constructs in their day-to-day life.

In search of "new ways of doing masculinity"

Tarrant has noted that though sexism and men’s violence against women are normalized in pop culture, as the following clip "Tough Guise: Violence, Mediat & the Crisis in Masculinity" illustrates:

Despite the bleak outlook of masculinities and media, Tarrant argues that pop culture can become a tool for change by encouraging “new ways of doing masculinity” or envisioning manhood in new ways. She notes that the work of Rafael Casal, Byron Hurt and the Masculinity Project are promising movements towards redefining what it means to be a man, particularly for adolescent men who are in a critical stage of developing their sense of masculinities.

Another model for re-forumulating masculinities through pop culture is The Men’s Story Project-- an artistic community forum devoted to collecting the stories of men on the issues of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism and violence. The following clip is artist Galen Peterson's work, "The Violence of Masculinity," featured on The Men's Story Project. It is a good example of re-defining masculinities through storytelling or narratives as a means to understand the relationship between violence and men:

A call to "ask the man question" & engage men in feminist discourse

While both masculinities and feminism have been theorized about on parallel spectrums for decades, we are reaching a critical theoretical stage where a collision is inevitable. As Dowd pointed out, asking the man question can only help feminist analysis, but only so long as we demand more critical analyses of power. Feminist legal theorists must not only ask the man question, but should seek ways to engage men fully into feminist discourse such that we can understand power and inequality from a perspective yet uncharted.


AL said...

This class has peeked my interest in gender roles, and how women get stuck playing the mom and homemaker even if they have an education and a career. Your class on Wednesday made me realize that there are men who break the mold, and fully engage in parenting and household management. I notice this in Davis, in particular, where I see fathers at the bi-weekly Farmers Market with several children in tow, shopping for produce. I see men picking up and dropping off children from school, I see men jogging with a stroller in the morning, I see men at the playground with their kids. This is not a once in a while scene, either, this seems to be the norm in the parts of Davis that I live in and frequent. And more than that, these are not Edward Norton's "modern man", somehow stuck in a life that doesn't allow them to feel like a true man; these look like men who are comfortable both with their role as fathers AND with there masculinity. Their body language is confident, relaxed and easy. In fact, I find myself inexplicably attracted to them! In thinking about how media affects our view of gender roles, I wonder if my perceptions haven't been shaped by an emerging trend in Hollywood - the sexy dad! Even though I don't consume that much television, I know I see Brad Pitt on the cover of People magazine at the checkout counter with a stroller and a baby in his arms. I wonder if this media portrayal of Hollywood superstars as confident, able, happy fathers will trigger a change in the perceptions of fatherhood in general. That is, if men see images of fatherhood as sexy and masculine, will it influence their behavior and encourage them to embrace a greater parenting role?

Naomi said...

Responding to the words that men get called that keep them in the "box", I am reminded of the words that men have created for women to similarly box their behavior in and get them to act as the men wish them to act. If a woman is not sexual, she is deemed a dyke or a prude. If a woman is sexual, she is deemed a whore. There seems to be very little middle ground, which to me seems quite unfair. Notwithstanding my belief that being a lesbian is not necessarily a bad thing, I don't think we as women should be labeled dykes or whores because of our behavior with men. Indeed, both of these words arise and we are defined by our interactions with men. I believe there is a happy medium, a place where a woman is not a prude nor a prostitute, a place where women can reside and have relationships with men or women without fear of being labeled. And I think men should be able to have that place too, without being labeled as less than manly.