Master Masculinus

Prof. Michael Kimmel talks about his Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities

Michael Kimmel is the author of best-sellers such as “Manhood in America,” „Politics of Manhood,” and “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.” He is also the founder of The Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in the State of New York. We spoke with him about why men can be feminists, and whether gay topics play any role at his center.

Feminists have started feminist programs and studies back in the 1970s. Why did it take men until 2013 to start a Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities?

Good question … no one wanted to fund it before. (laughs)

You are using the plural for ‘masculinities’, why?

If we take gender seriously, and accept that fact that women have understood that gender is one of the organizing factors of social life, then men have to be brought into the conversation, too. We talk about masculinities in the plural because I want it to be clear that there are different definitions of masculinity depending on your class, or race, or ethnicity, or age, or sexuality. For example, if you were to talk about it to different German men, one who is white, 75, and lives in Kiel, and another who is 19, Turkish, gay, and lives in Cologne, don’t you think they’ll have some different ideas about masculinity? So how do you represent that? The easiest way is using the plural. Having said that, we are creating a horizontal set of masculinities here. But surely, we wouldn’t say that all masculinities are created equal. We would also understand that some masculinities are dominant over others, even within a single group, so that straight men dominate gay men, upper class men are dominant over lower and middle class men, middle aged men are dominant over older and younger men, white men over men of color. When we talk about masculinities, we have to make it clear that we are not talking just about a horizontal array of masculinity on a neutral Smörgåsbord board, but recall that there are a lot of other inequalities that create an additional vertical set of differentiation.

Could a woman have started such a Study Center of Masculinities too?

Sure. (laughts) It’s funny, because in the creation of the center I thought I’d get some of the experts who have been thinking about gender for a long time as advisors. Several of them are gay men, and several are women. After all, they are the ones who have been analyzing this stuff for a long time. Straight men are rather late to the party. I got a lot of push back for proposing so many women on the board of this center. My answer is: it’s not a zero sum game, dude! It’s win-win.

Do people only study “masculinities” if it directly concerns them, as in: can only women study feminism, can only homosexuals do Gay & Lesbian Studies, or is this something that is open to everyone?

I definitely think that everyone can participate in this. I’m not a big believer in that part of identity politics. We need the voices of all people in this kind of academic conversation. For example because white people cannot really fully understand the experiences of people of color.

On the other hand, if you have to be African-American in order to talk about race then there is nothing substantive, analytically interesting to talk about.

It’s just people’s stories. Obviously, there must be a way for people to speak about their issues, but then it should be taken to a next and broader level that concerns all.

Who are the students at your center?

I teach general courses in sociology and women’s gender studies at Stony Brook. My general students are about half female, half male. I get a large number of LGBTI students, because we talk about gender, we talk about sexuality, we discuss how homophobia organizes masculinities among heterosexual and homosexual men. So I get a good cross section. Most of the students are between 18 and 22. My courses generally have around 300 people in them. At the center, however, I teach a graduate course that has about 22 students drawn from all over the campus. They are post-grads, so they tend to be people in the mid to late 20s.

In Germany you have a lot of debate about “gender” right now, which is mostly dominated by fear ventilated by right wing parties and so called “concerned parents.” Do you have any explanation why the gender discussion, and the change in gender models, is so scary for so many people?

There are two things: some of the politization of gender that you’re hearing, some of the concern and fear, is very loud, but there are actually not that many people behind it. I believe the reality in Germany is very much like the reality in United States in this respect. Most men have quietly accommodated themselves to greater gender and sexual equality. It’s a fact that most men in America do not oppose same-sex marriage. Actually, most people in American in general don’t oppose it. The same is true in Germany. For straight men: if you want to meet an instant feminist, talk to a man whose daughter has just hit puberty. They suddenly realize that there are boys out there who look at their daughters like they were taught to look at women. And they will probably find that terrible. There was a headline in the satirical magazine “The Onion” a couple of weeks ago that read: “Eminem is furious that his daughter is dating someone who was raised on Eminem’s music and lyrics.” So what you described earlier is not true. I think the larger pattern is a quiet, non-ideological accommodation to greater sexual and gender equality than we would have ever predicted 25 years ago. And the truth is: men are happier.

A lot of the people on German talk shows and in the media voicing concern are not fathers of teenage daughters, though, but middle aged women and gay men.

Frankly, I don’t think they represent the majority. It seems your networks in Germany are doing a very good job at finding biased people. I don’t see anything remotely like that in the US.

The movement for gender equality is not about de-gendering people but de-gendering the traits, and attitudes and behaviors

But there is another thing that has really facilitated this anxiety. I think there is a general confusion about what gender equality actually means. Some people believe that if women and men become equal, they will also become similar. As a result, they think what gender equality actually means is androgyny. Now, I don’t think that that’s true at all. But I do know that people seem anxious about it. So I want to say that the movement for gender equality is not about de-gendering people but de-gendering the traits, and attitudes and behaviors that we often associate with women or with men. By that I’m saying there is nothing inherently masculine about being competent and ambitious. These are human qualities. Women have let us know that they can be that just as competent and ambitious. I would also say there is nothing inherently feminine about being kind and loving and nurturing for children. These are also human qualities.

If you move forward and see androgyny as another option, not just for trans* and intersexual people, why is that so scary?

I don’t know. But that’s where people are right now. We are not talking about rational fears here. Fear is typically irrational. So we won’t find an answer by looking for a rational explanation. Still, we need to find a way of responding to this anxiety.

You said in one of your YouTube lectures that the number 1 rule for masculinity is “no sissy stuff.” Why is there such a terror – worldwide – of appearing (or being) homosexual?

People have been writing about this for years: why is homophobia such a powerful mechanism of control for men that they completely shut themselves down and have the kind of relationships with other men they might want for fear of being misperceived as gay? For most men it’s not about actually being gay, but being misperceived as gay. It’s a terrible burden. Men are constantly policing themselves to make sure that no one can get that idea about them.

So straight men will typically say ‘We don’t care if you’re gay!’

Does a young generation handle that burden differently?

Yes and no. I think homophobia as applied to gay men has fallen off a cliff among straight men. So straight men will typically say ‘We don’t care if you’re gay!’ But homophobia is alive and well among straight men themselves in their policing of their own masculinity. As a result, homophobia has become detached from homosexuality in a funny sort of way. My students will tell me that when they try to put someone down by saying ‘That’s so gay!’ it has nothing to do with gay people.

But it has ….

You and I would say that. (laughs) Of course there are real people behind that concept. You cannot just say that. It’s like saying ‘That’s so black’ or ‘That’s so Jewish’. But my students answer ‘no, no, no.’ We can criticize this, but what’s happening is that such statements are divorced from sexuality and gender now. Which opens up a whole new set of questions.

Is there any danger of a conservative roll back?

No. I think there are bumps in the road, there are obstacles put in our path, but I don’t think women are going to leave the work place anytime soon, and I don’t think that gays and lesbians are going to return to the 1970s critique of marriage as an institution of oppression. I think the general movement is going to be towards a more general acceptance of equality. I think the real revolutionary push at the moment – that will make life easier for LGBTI people too – is the new push for trans* rights.

Read more on what’s gay and on homophobia amongst straight men in our upcoming May issue – get a subscription!

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