To understand masculinity, you have to look everywhere.
I. Happy Hunting, Happy Haunting
In the last two decades, scholars in the fields of gender and sexuality studies—along with genderqueer pop stars, increasingly mainstream gay films, and even the latest brand of “no homo” advertising—have challenged the notion that masculinity either is, or at least should be, only the purview of straight, cisgender men. For the most part, these discourses arose in the 1990s from the integration of men’s studies into the broader field of gender studies, a newly burgeoning field which—for those of us just joining the class—was largely the result of feminism’s far-reaching impact on the academic playing field.
As Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble bothered the seemingly inviolable (if inevitably failing) logics equating one’s sex with one’s gender, and one’s gender with one’s sexuality, the assumptions about identity which sustained the political discourses of the time gave way to the realization that no, not all boys grow up to be the Marlboro Man, and not all girls grow up to be Betty Draper. Quite to the contrary, some women end up with a gender styling more akin to the former, and some men (though, quite frankly, not enough of us) the latter. Accordingly, academic trailblazers like Judith Halberstam questioned the conspicuous absence of dialogues about masculine-identified women, transfolks, and gay men in courses and anthologies of essays on masculinity studies.
The idea for my own course last fall, then, was to take these developments in the field of masculinity studies as the starting point for my students’ inquiries into masculinity. This seemed advantageous for a few reasons. First and foremost, it became clear to me early in my thinking about the course that there were a number of lines of investigation that would not contribute to intellectually constructive (or even pleasant) discussion.
As Sally Robinson argues in her illuminating essay “Pedagogy of the Opaque,” a number of paradigms have come to govern contemporary discourses about masculinity. Chief among these is the “oppressor/oppressed” paradigm, whereby either women are the victims of ongoing patriarchal power structures from which men inevitably (ambivalently?) profit, or men are the castrated and condescended victims of an aggressive feminist uprising from which women inevitably (ambivalently?) profit. While this sort of thinking makes for catchy sloganeering (what the kids these days call “trolling,” I believe), it’s nothing if not reductive. Moreover, as Robinson points out, “The oppressor/oppressed paradigm limits what can be learned about masculinity because it sets up a binary relation between the empowered and the disempowered that reproduces the same narrative regardless of historical or cultural context.”
Similarly, Robinson finds problems with a simplified (if more pluralistic) model of studying “alternative” (read: “good”) models of masculinity set against “traditional” (read: “bad”) masculinities. While this second paradigm acknowledges that there are as many types of masculinity as there are masculine subjects—or simply performances of masculinity, identities be damned—it nevertheless leads to an “attack/applaud” mode of thought that is both prescriptive and simply doesn’t push things far enough; so, it still maintains a binary of either/or masculinities.
For Robinson, as for me, the problem with both of these ways of thinking and teaching masculinity is that they lead to a pedagogical experience in which
students come to feel that, for feminism, the only way to reconstruct masculinity is to destroy it altogether. Understanding that masculinity is in some sense a “problem” to be studied, students imagine that such a course might offer a cure for what ails men, but as anyone who attends to the growing American concern with the problem of masculinity can attest, there is a great deal of disagreement about whether feminism is the cure or part of the disease.
Such frameworks thus both misrepresent the richness of thought—feminist, queer, or otherwise—on masculinity, and fail to offer a way to consider it apart from knee-jerk political reactions and identity claims. Playing into easy narratives of men in crisis, feminisms that have lingered on past their use-by dates, and even tried-and-still-untrue bullshit about Mars and Venus at cosmic war, these old approaches don’t leave much room for telling (or reading) other stories about masculinity. And so, I found some new ones. I went hunting.
For stories, that is. It turns out that maybe the “cure for what ails” modern masculinity isn’t simply to throw out or demonize old stories about masculinity—many of which are as compelling and sympathetic as they are reprehensible—but simply to tell more stories, about more kinds of people who gives us more ways to think about masculinity, and who find it worth incorporating into their own understandings of how best their gender might be rendered. That some of these “more kinds of people” are women, transfolks, and gay men—people who have, as the historical story goes, been at odds with the sorts of power and privilege which masculinity usually confers—goes a long way toward disrupting not only the assumptions we make about who is masculine, but also about why and how masculinity is such a persistent, historically flexible, and sometimes even downright attractive cultural phenomena—not just in spite of its flaws, but also sometimes for them.
Accordingly, my working thesis for my course—though not necessarily my students’—might go something like this: Despite its usual associations with subjects whom we might crassly and easily group together as “men,” masculinity is in fact most apparent from its margins; when it is embodied, practiced, and desired by subjects whose relationship to masculinity mark their performances of it as intriguing, troubling, irrelevant, hyper-stylized, unconvincing, more-than-real, counter-intuitive, or any other emotional shorthand for “mixed up.” What this means, I think, is that masculinity might be best described not in the cultural venues where is thought most glamorously to “succeed”—Super Bowls, cozy family sitcoms, Wall Street bankers in pin-striped suits—but in those instances when it is made culturally legible by those subjects whose performances of masculinity are not spectacular, but spectral; those moments which uneasily and beautifully haunt the means by which we come to recognize masculinity as a cultural form in the first place.
In other words, if masculinity was ever conceived as the unproblematic purview of the “manly man”—indeed, if such a “manly man” ever existed outside the nostalgic mode, which seems to be the preferred frame of vision for American culture’s latest bout of willful amnesia—then the last two decades of work on masculinity have thoroughly killed the relevance of such a notion. My course would be about masculinity’s surprisingly rich afterlife.
Needless to say, perhaps, the grand narrative of my course was one of mixed emotions.