Michael Kimmel thinks that the justifiable decline of hegemonic masculinity is driving the issues and anxieties of America’s angry white men – and he might just be right.
As a society, when we talk about ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ in politics, we are usually fixated on women, sexism, and those so benignly named ‘women’s issues.’ This fixation is a result of misogyny, plain and simple, as mistreatment according to gender is most globally perpetrated against and felt by women.
But, Michael Kimmel, most contemporarily in his book Angry White Men, released on November 5th, has waged an intellectually rigorous battle to complicate and complete this one-sided view of gender and sex issues since his very first days as a sociologist. Feminists have been saying it for decades, but let it be reiterated that we are all gendered, each and everyone of us affected and greatly influenced by the expectations and narratives which surround masculinity, femininity, and the relations between the two. We men are affected by concepts and constructions of gender just as our female friends, sisters, and family members are. Following from this, Michael Kimmel has dedicated most of his life’s work to the study and documentation of men and boys’ gendered lives in America. This focus has driven Michael Kimmel toward the creation of a body of wok that is influential, ground-breaking, and constitutive of an enormous portion of the field of men and masculinities studies.
And, it is with that history that Michael Kimmel delves into the maelstrom of modern American politics to give his own take on the male-gendered characteristics of everything from white supremacist politics to mass school shootings.
Beginning with an introduction that oscillates between a populist progressivism that resembles Michael Moore and the more even-keeled temperament of his own male-feminist sociology, Kimmel lays out his premise. Drawing lines (which he will fill out and explain later) between the “Tea Party, The Minutemen…Joe the Plumber, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Savage,” upper-middle class men “seething in the corner at Diversity training,” and raging at their “ex-wives in family court,” Michael Kimmel boldly announces a characteristic of his central thesis and the basis for his entire inquiry:
“White men’s anger is “real” – that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But, it is not “true” – that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of the situation.”
And, he quickly makes an equally central point:
“What unites them is their belief in a central ideal of masculinity. It is not just their livelihoods that are threatened, but their sense of themselves as men.”
Those two perspectives, the first of which allows for fair and compassionate criticism, and the second of which ties the many afore-mentioned disparate groups together, form the backbone of the book. With that structure, he moves forward to fill out his central thesis with anecdotes, disparate topics, and a method of analysis that grows stronger and more powerful as the book continues.
To start, Kimmel tackles the banal – “The cultural construction of Aggrieved Entitlement” as built by the Rush Limbaugh model of white-conservative radio and television – and notes the connections between this “manipulat[ion]” of anxiety into political rage and the tea party. Next, he writes on mass school shooting, then the Mens’ Rights Movement and fathers’ advocates who fight family court proceedings that can skew to benefit women. He continues on, chapter-by-chapter, going through male-on-female violence, workplace angst, violence, and suicide, and, finally, the male-dominated conclaves of the “White Wing” – America’s White Supremacists.
Each chapter is good; it’s hard to find one that would be worth cutting or skimming. But, there are two, in particular, where Kimmel most obviously shines. His writing on the subject of mass school shootings, the overwhelming majority of them committed by young, white boys is the best writing on the thoroughly modern subject that I’ve ever seen. Kimmel authoritatively holds forth on the phenomenon of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and, most recently, Newtown, by describing the can-be-fatal cocktail of patriarchal masculinity, bullying, mental illness, a view of violence as redemptive, and easy access to mortal weapons. Likewise, Kimmel succeeds in his account of America’s White Supremacists, a chapter which verifies his thesis and provides his readers with a story that elicits a good bit of driving, morbid fascination.
All that being said, Angry White Men is not a book of specific, limited, thesis-driven chapters, but rather an interesting and ranging discussion of the dark side of modern manhood with America’s best expert on the topic. That quality is what makes the book so special, interesting, and easy to read. Kimmel blends personal stories with careful, journalistic study; he shifts between accessible academic and wide-ranged social commentarian; he explains complex sociology with the accessibility of a fun high school teacher in a small seminar class. Those attributes make for a fun book which is neither a alarmist jeremiad nor an impenetrable text of sociology.
At times, Kimmel peppers his readers with left-leaning political rants that contrast with his usually measured sociology and which can be overeager and occasionally tiresome. For nonpartisan and conservative readers, these soapbox politics might be a little much. Fortunately, however, they make up a very small portion of the book, and overall, Angry White Men is interesting, approachable, easy-going, and altogether important.
Kimmel’s final point is a descriptive fact with hard-to-ignore, normative implications. As he sees it and sets it out, a surprisingly large number of America’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic challenges are driven and united by an outdated vision of hegemonic masculinity. He may be right or he may be wrong; that is for the reader to decide. But, when all is said and done, Kimmel makes a good case and argues his thesis well. And, that is what makes Angry White Men such a pleasure to read and recommend. Whether you care about men, boys, masculinity, gender, feminism, violence, prejudice, post-industrial economics, or the frustrating, never-ending catastrophes that seem to make up modern American political life, Angry White Men is worth a read. As he started to prove in Manhood in America and further proved in Guyland, with Angry White Men, Michael Kimmel might just be on to something. He might just be right.