The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel
by Ian Sinclair
Today Michael Kimmel is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York and probably the biggest name in the academic discipline of Men’s Studies. However, over thirty years ago he completed a PhD on seventeenth century British and French tax policy. How did he get from the potentially sleep-inducing latter to the former?
“My scholarship begins with my position as an activist”, the 60-year old American academic tells me as we sit in the breakfast room of his hotel in central London. In town to give a lecture at the London School of Economics about his new book, Kimmel explains his partner had started working at a battered women’s shelter. “I had led a very kind of protected life as a suburban boy. I really had no idea about men’s violence against women until I began to hear the stories that she was telling me, and meet the women she was talking about.” After hearing Kimmel give a speech at a Reclaim the Night rally on why men should take responsibility for the violence women face, a student suggested he teach a course on masculinity. Visiting the library to compile the course reading list he found “shelves and shelves of books on women – this is thirty years ago – and nothing on men. Nothing on men as men. There is plenty of biographies of great men in history but rarely do you find them talking about masculinity.” To fill this scholarly hole he developed his own programme of research – “I needed to write the books I needed to read” – to run alongside the first ever course on men in the state of New Jersey.
How would Kimmel define Men’s Studies? “For me the point of masculinity studies is to talk about how does gender shape men’s lives”, he replies. “How does the ideology of masculinity shape men’s lives? How does masculinity, the idea of being a man, effect our behaviour, our relationships, our work lives, our relations with our friends, with our children?” He elaborates: “The critical study of masculinities is an effort to use the theoretical tools that had been developed, for example, by critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory, to talk about men’s lives. It is in the same kind of arena as talking about whiteness. How do you mark the unmarked? How do you talk about the centre?”
He argues there are many different types of masculinity. Nevertheless, after conducting workshops with young men in 49 of the 50 US states and in the UK, he maintains American and British men generally have similar views about what it means to be a man: “Don’t show your feelings, don’t cry, be stoic, succeed, be responsible, be powerful, be strong, get rich, get laid… Don’t ever do anything that is feminine, don’t ever be weak, don’t ask for directions.”
Defined and maintained through, among other things, socialisation, mainstream media images and sports (“The locker room is the last preserve of the all male world”), Kimmel believes the dominant form of masculinity seriously impoverishes men’s lives. “The thing that holds men back from having the relationships we say we want with our partners, with our friends, with our wives, with our kids, is the behaviour and attitudes of other men”, he says. “Which is to say the ideology of masculinity.” And it also damages women’s lives. “Every study of the advancement of women in the public sphere finds the thing that holds women back is the behaviour and attitudes of men.”
In an attempt to get more men thinking about gender and feminism, Kimmel has co-authored The Guy’s Guide to Feminism with Michael Kaufman. Made up of jokes, skits, fake interviews and short essays it is a consciously popular and accessible A-Z of feminism. “If you are looking at this as the great treatise on men and feminism, it is assuredly not that”, he says. “If you are looking for it as a way to help men start the conversation, that’s what it is. It’s an ice-breaker.”
The book is also an implicit attempt to rectify the “concerted effort by large numbers of groups to delegitimate feminism”, a backlash which has severely distorted the debate over the past thirty years. Cutting through the misinformation, Kimmel insists feminism boils down to two basic points: “One empirical observation and one moral position.” First the empirical observation: “Women and men aren’t equal. If you look at parliament, or every legislature in the country, the board of every corporation, the board of trustees at every university, you would probably come to the conclusion women and men aren’t equal.” Now the moral position: “They should be equal. That’s all. Inequality is wrong. If you share that empirical observation and take that moral position then you support feminism.”
Those who resist feminism “believe that gender is a zero-sum game”, Kimmel notes. “That as women gain, men will lose. As long as you believe it’s a zero-sum game you are not going to support it because it is not in your interest.” In contrast, Kimmel argues that feminism is good not just for women but men too. “Despite this ideology that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that there is a war between the sexes, if they win we lose, the actual empirical evidence about gender equality shows that the more equal you are with your partners, with your friends, the happier you are.”
When I ask Kimmel what steps concerned men can take, he replies that the younger generation’s lived experience of work, family and friendship means it “is going to be more gender equal than any generation ever.” A self-professed member of the When Harry Met Sally generation where women and men couldn’t be friends, Kimmel notes every young person today has a good cross-sex friend. All of the 400 young men he interviewed for his 2008 book Guyland accepted that a female partner should have a career. And all accepted that men should take an active role in raising children. For Kimmel these social changes point the way forward. “You already know the answer. You don’t need me to tell you. You are living it. The question for you is how do you apply it in every arena of your life.”
Just like the book, Kimmel’s arguments in person are inclusive and persuasive. I find myself nodding along a lot. One can imagine many young men being deeply affected after taking one of his classes. Indeed, his use of the plural “you” during the interview is occasionally confusing. So when he looks me in the eye when discussing advertising and says “When you are that anxious about proving your masculinity when you have to worry about the cola you are drinking… Let’s talk about this. Why are you so anxious?” I feel close to breaking down and blabbing “It was all my father’s fault!”
More seriously, something that is never made explicit enough for this interviewer – in both the book and this interview – is whether Kimmel thinks it is an errant, minority form of masculinity or the normal, socially accepted masculinity that is the central problem? With Kimmel agreeing that around 1 in 4 American women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it seems likely he leans towards the latter. Or take this fact that appeared in The Guardian recently: 81% of speeding offences are committed by men. If the problem is indeed ‘normal masculinity’, the implications for individual men and women, parents and wider society are enormous, it seems to me.
The Guys Guide to Feminism is published by Seal Press, priced £10.99.