Noah Brand makes the case that gender theory applies to both genders.
This article is a response to “Why Being a Good Man is Not a Feminist Issue” by Tom Matlack.
The reason I agreed to come on board as editor-in-chief at the Good Men Project is that this site is doing something nobody else is doing, at least not on this scale. Its core mission is born of personal and transformative experience of how men’s lives and stories are too often ignored, devalued, or limited by painfully constricting gender roles. Most websites targeted at men blithely buy into the beer-football-tits model of masculinity, the implicit ideas that men can’t be complex, can’t be introspective, can only be knuckle-dragging cartoon characters in ties.
Whatever our other differences, I hope we can all agree: fuck that noise.
The Good Men Project is doing something else, something more profound and true, providing a space for the expression of all the things men are trained not to express. We provide a platform for men to tell their stories, talk about their struggles, their triumphs and their tragedies. We are, if I say so myself, pretty good at it. But, and this is the good part, we do more than that.
To say that our culture has an outdated and toxic notion of manhood is true, but it’s merely identifying a problem. That’s only the first step. Next one must understand the problem, and then take steps to address it. To assume that one can simultaneously challenge and subscribe to traditional notions of masculinity is ludicrous. It’s like raising a toast to quitting drinking. So one of the things we’ve gotten good at doing, in addition to telling our stories, is looking at why it’s hard to tell those stories in the first place. We talk about changing our destructive attitudes, and we also ask where those attitudes come from. We talk about the mistakes we’ve made, and we learn to put those mistakes in context, to figure out why they seemed like good ideas at the time.
In short, it is neither possible nor desirable to talk about men’s issues without talking about deeper issues of gender roles and masculinity. And that brings us to the question of how we’re going to talk about those.
For well over a century, British mathematicians had to use an inferior form of calculus notation. Sir Isaac Newton had developed a form of notation he called fluxions, which performed the same function as the differential calculus developed by Gottfried Liebniz, but not as well. The difference, from the British perspective, was that Newton’s system was developed within the blessed borders of Albion itself, whereas Liebniz was just some bloody German so who cared about his system?
This is known as the Not Invented Here problem, and it’s serious enough that… well, it has its own name. It’s when, due to some imagined turf war or opposition or whatever, people attempting to solve a problem will actually reject and ignore solutions already developed by others, simply because they were developed by others.
Feminism has made extraordinary strides in breaking down the old, dysfunctional ideas about women’s roles, women’s potential, women’s inner lives. Through constant internal battles, schisms, false starts, and the general pain-in-the-assery that is the nature of any movement based around human beings, the overall thrust of feminism has succeeded brilliantly in liberating women from outdated gender roles, and continues to do so today.
What I’m getting at is that I want to help liberate men from the bullshit cultural ideas of what manhood is “supposed” to be, from the broken machismo and useless stoicism that just close us off from each other. And I don’t want to do it using goddamn fluxions.
Feminism has developed a toolkit for addressing gender issues, and it’s a set of verbal and conceptual tools that, I cannot overemphasize, we already know works. It’s been working like a mad bastard for decades now. Feminists have embraced the language and ideas necessary to recognize one’s own blind spots and privilege, to unpack the subtext in conventional wisdom, to truly question the received notions about what men and women are “supposed” to be. Now we can put those ideas to work on the flip side of the same problems, analyzing culture with the same incisive eye and freeing our minds with the same empowering concepts. To reject that toolkit, those words, those transformative ideas just because they’re somehow perceived as “other” is the height of folly.
Now, I get that there are some reservations about this idea, and I want to address those. First, let’s just get rid of the stupid notion one hears that “all feminists hate men.” I’m standing right here, I’m a feminist, I’m a man, most of my friends are feminists, none of us hate men, let’s grow up and move on. Acting like there’s some kind of Valerie Solanas Fan Club that anyone listens to is not engaging with reality in any adult fashion.
More relevant is the notion that feminist theory can only ever focus on women. That’s a more legitimate point, because historically, that’s mostly what’s happened. However, just because something has been true does not mean it has to go on being true. Think of the founding of America and the radical notion that all men are created equal, the idea that the circumstances of one’s birth did not grant anyone an inherent superiority over anyone else. We all know that wasn’t applied very consistently… basically ever. But once that concept existed, once that principle was established, it began to be applied to more and more people, because the principle itself was so strong and so true that it could not be denied.
In the same way, feminism began as a movement to liberate women from their stupid, limiting gender roles, but as others have written and I’ve pointed out myself, there’s no separating women’s horrible gender roles from men’s horrible gender roles. Every dumb cliché about how women are overemotional carries with it the connotation that men can’t have or express emotions. Every joke about men being lazy slobs implies that women are destined to do all the cleaning. The idea that women are helpless objects to be protected from everything is tied right in with the idea that men are disposable cannon fodder, whether in combat or civilian life. Men’s issues and women’s issues simply are not two separate problems, and the illusion that they are is just another outdated notion we need to outgrow.
Thing is, that’s a logical argument, and the truth is, most people come to these matters on an emotional level. If something just feels wrong to us, in our guts, no amount of logic in the world can persuade us otherwise. So we need to talk about why feminist talk just feels wrong to some guys on a visceral level, or we’re not getting at the real issue.
It is hard to admit that you’re part of an unfair system. It’s really hard to face the fact that you’ve been, to some extent, participating in the system that’s been screwing you over. I look back on all the petty acts of humiliation and unthinking social enforcement that I’ve been party to, and quite frankly am still sometimes party to, and I feel ashamed. As a kid, I ostracized the boys who acted “too girly” along with the rest of the class. As a teenager, I bought into the idea that I had to be the toughest and strongest, and that the only emotion I was permitted was anger. As a grown man, I’ve sneered “man up” at guys who dared underperform their assigned gender role. One of the things that applying feminist theory to your own life does is it makes you realize “Oh shit… I’ve been being a jerk.”
Women are by no means excepted from this unpleasant process. Indeed, most of the feminist women I’ve talked to have rueful stories of how they used to call girls fat just to hurt them, how they ignored the signs of abusive relationships that are obvious in retrospect, even how they bought into the idea that men’s issues were some totally alien landscape that had nothing to do with them. All these things, they realize, were wrong, and they all came to this awkward realization by honest application of social justice theory. Their experiences, in short, were exactly like mine.
Men face a similar awkward realization, each one of us, and a lot of guys don’t want to face it. It’s way easier to justify your participation in an unfair system, or to flatly deny that the system is unfair, than it is to accept that you have not always been a good man. It is hard to admit one’s weaknesses, one’s mistakes, one’s petty cruelties and private shames, but it is necessary if we are to become good men. We’re lucky, though. There’s a set of tools designed to help us do just that, a roadmap to a more fair system where we, and everyone else, are free of the pointless strictures of an outmoded past. To my mind, the only truly good thing to do is pick up those tools and get to work, because there’s a lot to be done.
Photo—Puzzle Heads from Shutterstock