MRAs and feminists both ignore how power in the sex/gender system actually works.
The Good Men Project Magazine’s recent attempt to portray the men’s rights movement in a non-judgmental fashion is a wonderful initiative that should be lauded. Unfortunately, the series of articles written thus far seem to depend on a common set of tropes when it comes to criticizing men’s rights advocates, tropes that rely on rhetorically attacking the members of the men’s movement rather than directly engaging the points its activists bring up.
What’s worse, the feminist critics of the Men’s Rights Movement and the MRAs themselves ignore a huge presumption that stands at the basis of both their analyses. This is the view—apparently rooted in Marxist thought—that any social conflict can only be structured in terms of antagonistic classes. In the traditional second-wave feminist view of the sex/gender structure, women are the oppressed class. MRAs—apparently inspired by feminism—simply flip this construct on its head and situate women as oppressors.
It is my opinion that both of these positions are essentially flawed in their perception of power and of how the sex/gender structure is maintained. Oppression in gender terms is not a simplistic equation where one finds “good folks” on one side and “bad folks” on the other. Instead of attempting to look at gender roles through the lens of patriarchy or matriarchy, it is my opinion that we should abandon these obsolete and problematic terms for a focus on kyriarchy, which attempts to understand domination structures as highly complex, contextual, shifting and interactive social artifacts.
Below, I’ll analyze some of the shortcomings of the criticisms leveled by the GMPM’s pro-feminist authors, connecting these to the general problem that both MRAs and feminists share: over-reliance on a reductionist and essentially Marxist view of social conflict to describe gender relations in the 21st century.
One charge that many critics of the men’s movement bring up is that MRAs are disproportionately vocal: in other words, there are few of them, but holy Jesus are they loud! This is a complaint that can be leveled at pretty much any form of social protest in its beginning stages. When a movement arises, its supporters are few and tend to be made up of people normally understood by the rest of society as extremists. One only need reflect that the modern gay rights movement actually began with a riot to realize that it’s not at all uncommon for social pioneers to be loud, reactive, and not very representative, as a whole, of the group they claim to support.
A second charge, leveled by David Futrelle, is that men’s rights groups don’t actually do anything but complain. It seems that this criticism might be baseless, however. While Futrelle claims that MRAs are essentially passive in terms of real-world activism, both Salon and Slate are apparently alarmed at how mainstream and effective the groups are becoming, initiating changes in laws regarding custody rights and domestic violence.
As someone who doesn’t have an ideological horse in this particular race, I’m confused: are MRAs effective organizers or not? Are they having an effect on public policy, or are they just a bunch of grouchy guys, pissing into the wind? It seems to me that those who dislike the MRAs are willing to change their arguments at the drop of a hat on this one, depending on whether or not they want their listeners to believe that MRAs should be ignored or are a threat. The underlying point of view, however, is apparently the same: MRAs are toxic and noxious and should go away. If they don’t go away on their own (because they are simply complainers and not doers), then we need to mobilize to make them go away.
Both positions are rhetorical and neither addresses the Men’s Rights Movement’s real effect on society. Everyone seems to agree that MRAs are a relatively new and growing phenomenon. Given that, should we really be comparing their impact to that of established social movements that have been active for decades? Other nascent causes—whatever their validity—are not judged by their initial efficacy at organizing, but rather by the validity of their concerns.
A final complaint that can be leveled against MRAs’ critics is that many of them find it necessary to parody their opponents’ positions and claims instead of directly engaging with them. Typically, this takes the form of quoting an unnamed blog commentator who’s made some sort of asinine proclamation, holding him (or her) up as a reasonable representative of the movement as a whole. David Furtelle makes repeated use of this rhetorical tactic in his article.
Ironically enough, this is precisely the same sort of thing that reactionary anti-feminists do when they claim that all women who criticize male behaviors are man-hating lesbian radicals. Futrelle is quite right to point out that there are a lot of misogynists in the Men’s Rights Movement. I’m sure we can agree, however, that there are many men-haters in the women’s movement, yet this has never discredited feminism in the eyes of people who are attentive to its central demands. All movements attract cranks and loons: why MRAs should be judged by some of their more vocal fringe members is not clear to me, nor, I suspect to anyone who doesn’t already agree with the presumption that MRAs must ipso facto all be deluded or villains.
In the series of articles published by GMPM, Amanda Marcotte is probably the author who most relies on openly parodying MRA positions to make her points. We can clearly see this when we compare her view on what the movement wants with regards to women and domestic work with those expressed by MRA leader Dan Moore on the same topic. Agree or disagree with Moore’s analysis, his points simply can’t be reduced to the sort of privileged whine Marcotte uses to portray them.
This is a pity, because Marcotte’s points are quite good. If men find Ladies Night offensive, why do so many of them show up for it? Obviously, it’s because they are there to bag chicks and, just as obviously, that’s why bars do Ladies Nights in the first place. Furthermore, Marcotte is spot-on when she claims that the best way to equalize deaths by dangerous work is to fully include women in said work. Feminist organizations, for example, have been fighting for years to put women on the firing line in combat. If men are still taking the brunt of dangerous labor, it certainly isn’t because feminists have fought to be excluded from it.
But the real pick of the litter, to me, is Hugo Schwyzer’s article, which seems to be less dismissive of MRAs than the works presented by Marcotte and Furtelle. Schwyzer’s work makes explicit the underlying dichotomical view of gender relations which acts as a keystone for all the other articles.
I am one of those academic “pro-feminist Men’s Studies guys, who like to question and re-imagine standards of masculinity and gender roles.” Like Schwyzer, I study and teach sex and gender issues (more specifically prostitution and sexual tourism) at the university level and perhaps that’s why I react so negatively to some of the points he raises.
My initial reaction to Schwyzer’s piece was “what is this man using here in terms of sociological theory—particularly regarding power and social change?” Not that I think Schwyzer is incompetent; it just seems to me that he—like many feminists and MRAs—is basing his analysis on what is essentially a bastardized Marxist model of social conflict and power, one which has been highly and vigorously contested in the human sciences going on four decades now.
Schwyzer reduces gender to a class issue: we have two genders, neatly divided into opposing segments of society, dominant and dominated, a la Marx. Given that men are the dominant class in this formulation, they are understood to be the group that has engineered society to their best benefit, for as Schwyzer claims, “if there’s one undeniable truism about our species, it’s that the rules are made by the dominant group.”
Really? Is that what Durkheim, Weber, and Foucault tell us about power and social change? Society isn’t a palimpsest of obsolete rules and new initiatives, proposed and enforced by a vast and shifting array of differently situated agents; it’s just whatever the dominant group comes up with? And the dominant group is, of course, homogeneous in its interests, so we can expect no betrayal of these rules, once they are enunciated?
That’s not social analysis: that’s a “just so” story. Worse, it ignores any axis of social differentiation other than gender.
Let’s forget for the moment that in our sexist society almost all of men’s basic socialization—from infancy on up to middle-school, at least—is provided by women. Let’s forget that even at the high school and college level, men who deviate from gender norms are violently repressed and that female authority figures often tacitly (if not openly) approve of this repression. According to Schwyzer, men make the rules: women are forced to obey them and the rules are thus unilaterally in all men’s favor. It’s just that simple.
What’s lacking in Schwyzer’s analysis is intersectionality or a perception of what Dr. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza has coined “kyriarchy”—the human tendency to rule and dominate, which creates complex pyramidal systems of intersecting and multiplicative social structures of super- and subordination, of ruling and oppression. Schusser Fiorenza specifically created the concept of kyriarchy as an alternative to patriarchy, because she felt that the latter concept put too much attention on the upper levels of society when it came to analyzing oppression. In fact, it’s the middle ranks of society that are more involved in the day-to-day use of power, as they attempt to scramble over one another’s heads into the top ranks.
Schusser Fiorenza’s analysis explains, for example, how a white woman can dominate a black man in a society which simultaneously has masculine dominance and white supremacy as two of its main axes of differentiation. It also explains how, in a nominally masculine-dominated society, women often do end up in positions where they can exercise power and—like all humans who exercise power—often end up using such power oppressively.
By ignoring the fact that we live in a kyriarchy and by presuming that patriarchy is unambiguously the primary organizing rule of society, Schwyzer then goes on to commit what I learned is a cardinal sin in sociological research: he apparently uses his theories to organize his real-world observations rather than build his theories off of his real-world observations.
Schwyzer seems to feel empowered as a social scientist to ignore what the men he mentors, teaches, and listens to are telling him. Those men, he himself admits, are confused, angry and feeling victimized. If they are anything like the ones I mentor and teach, however, they confront real, gender-related issues in their lives. They might not always be 100 percent clear about what those issues are, but I’m certainly in no position to override their concerns and tell them that the “real” source of their problem is “the straitjacket of traditional … manhood.”
An ex-wife has run off with the kids, the guy can’t get any legal recourse, and I’m supposed to make him relax and broaden his horizons on what it is to be a man? That’s not being a social scientist, that’s being a social engineer with a political agenda. I might personally think a man who’s complaining about his “bitch of an ex-wife” is full of shit, but nothing authorizes me to rubber-stamp that prejudice with the view of scientific certitude unless I gather a lot more data about his situation first.
As a person who more and more hews to queer theory rather than feminism in my philosophical musings on gender, this is where I feel both the MRAs and feminists jump the shark. Both groups are convinced that they know the truth about gender relations, a priori. They then tend to process evidence regarding the functioning of the sex/gender system in the real world according to these prejudices. This, ultimately, explains MRAs rage against the feminists and feminists alternatively pooh-poohing or attempting to paint the Men’s Rights Movement as a threat. Both groups are locked in a view of gender as a reverse game of Highlander-like supremacy: only one gender can prevail and the loser gets to cart off the coveted crown of Victim.
In this sense, then, it was with some relief that I finally got away from the boy/girl warrior crowd and read Kaelin Alexander’s excellent piece on teaching masculinities (note the plural). Of all the articles in the MRA series published by the GMPM, it was this piece that gave me the most hope for the future analysis of the sex/gender system. The concluding argument is so good that it deserves to be repeated here in full:
Men, women, and the rest of us are going to need to move gender politics beyond the blame game it has been reduced to in some corners of popular discourse, and toward possibilities of surprising attractions toward, affiliations with, and incorporations of, styles of gender that are simply too damn complicated, compelling, and contingent to be shut down as either “good” or “bad.”
Alexander is spot-on. We barely even know the true boundaries of engendered behavior and are in no ways capable of scientifically affirming that humanity is divided into two antagonistic classes based upon the shape of pee-pees. Both MRAs and feminists would be very wise to meditate on that salient fact before attempting to recruit social science into backing up their theories.