ALTERNATIVE MASCULINITIES (IN CLASS)

Yesterday I had the unusual pleasure of basing my lecture on a collective volume just issued, in which I participate: Àngels Carabí & Josep Maria Armengol’s (eds.) Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). Serendipity dictated the coincidence of publication and lecture, and I very much enjoyed this happy accident. The topic of the lecture was how to define manliness and how to find alternatives to its patriarchal version. I used Harvey Mansfield’s very provocative but cogent volume Manliness to stir my students into the mood I need to introduce the idea of the ‘alternative.’

‘Alternative’ is a complicated word, as we know in the research team ‘Building New Masculinities’ (https://www.ub.edu/masculinities/indexE). When we started working on the volume, we decided to use ‘alternative’ in the sense of ‘counter-hegemonic,’ which opened up new difficulties as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is far from being clearly defined (it seems synonymous with ‘core patriarchal masculinity’ but many object to this basic description). The idea, however, is that ‘alternative’ should mean anti-patriarchal, pro-feminist, non-homophobic, non-racist… a version of masculinity with a positive potential for imitation.

The focus of the research team is American Literature. This is what the Ministerio funds us to explore but I have doubts myself that Literature has today much influence in publicising and disseminating gendered role models, positive or otherwise. The main focus seems to me to be elsewhere: in music, video-games, comics, film, TV, popular fictions… My team mates and I have made an effort to locate these alternative masculinities, then, in current US novels and plays, with a result which I find both hopeful and discouraging. Hopeful because we have managed to fill in a 244-page book but discouraging because the texts where these counter-hegemonic masculinities are found seem (to me) a little bit too marginal.

This might not be the case for the novels by Toni Morrison or Paul Auster discussed, but the variety of ethnic productions analyzed and my own inroad into Orson Scott Card’s SF (in his saga on Ender Wiggins) suggest that we’re not analysing texts with a high impact on masculinity but calling attention to texts that might have a moderate impact in their most immediate surroundings. This is not intended to discredit the work of my colleagues (which I find excellent) nor my own, of course, but to highlight a simple truth: you may find tons of feminist fiction but there is not a single male author out there with the project of working in favour of liberating men from patriarchal strictures. Actually, the volume suggests that women writers are carrying out this task more intensively (as part of their feminist agenda). It’s urgent, then, to invite men of all ages to generate the ‘missing’ texts.

The first part of Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World has been written by a selection of distinguished names in disciplines that, according to the editors, should engage in a dialogue with Literary Studies. I think this is a very good idea: yes, by all means, let’s learn more from anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.

My class, however, were much dismayed by Michael Flood’s discussion of men’s anti-violence activism, as his chapter paints a very bleak portrait of widespread misogynistic violence and only a mildly positive portrait of the men engaged in fighting it. Instead of feeling inspired, a young man told me he felt appalled by the idea that his peers on American campuses, as Flood explains, needed to be educated in not raping their co-eds. Then, Bob Pease, another illustrious name, with a very long experience in raising anti-patriarchal consciousness among Australian men, writes his chapter: “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful when doing the tasks that are not traditional for men.” Students were quick to see that power always entails oppression, as it is power over someone. A new vocabulary is, then urgently needed –we agreed that the right sentence should be “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to feel self-confident without oppressing anyone.” The idea of a man feeling powerful as, for instance, he bathes a baby makes simply no sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I find the volume very, very interesting precisely because it is an index of the limitations under which the search for alternative, counter-hegemonic masculinities operates. The research results are, I feel, good and solid. What is not so good, much less solid, is the anti-patriarchal resistance described by all the authors. Hopefully, this is a first step in our own effort to raise consciousness. It might well be that we need fifteen to twenty years for young male and female writers to write the texts we’ve been looking for.

I need to add to all this two more comments. One is that teaching Gender Studies within the Humanities is a frustrating affair… as regards the male students. My degree has only 15% male students, which is roughly the proportion in my own class. The problem is that, in addition to being few they are silent. I have simply no idea what they were thinking as I lectured on masculinity, no matter how much I insisted that all big names in Masculinities Studies agree that it is crucial to listen to men. It would be naïve of me to overlook the simple fact that possibly my male students feel insecure and intimidated among so many outspoken young women. Yet I think the girls would be also grateful for their participation in debate.

Second: I asked my students to think of positive, alternative male role models in films and TV as I lectured and to name them at the end of the session. The boys said mostly nothing… The girls were clearly unimpressed by men’s efforts to combine manliness with an up-dated attitude towards gender issues and chose young male characters mostly defined as ‘nice’: caring and sensitive. I have no idea how this matches their real-life practice of choosing boyfriends but, then, I’m no sociologist. My impression, if you ask me, is that we know nothing and that little fiction accurately reflects the real state of gender issues today.

What a challenge for young writers…

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