READING MEN’S BOOKS ON MASCULINITY: BARKER, BOLA, KAUFMAN (AND FARRELL)

Raewyn Connell warned in Masculinities (1995, 2006) that we must recognise not only the diverse masculinities but also “the relations between the different kinds of masculinity: relations of alliance, dominance and subordination” because “There is a gender politics within masculinity” (37, original emphasis). As she theorized, masculinity is divided into hegemonic, subordinated and complicit, a division that on the whole is useful to understand the workings of patriarchal masculinity, but that does not take into account the diverse anti-patriarchal masculinities. In fact, though Connell takes it for granted that hegemonic masculinity can be altered and eventually replaced with a different model by resisting it, she tends to forget that, as Foucault stressed in his theorization of power (in The History of Sexuality, vol. I: The Will to Knowledge, 1986), “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95), meaning that patriarchy’s resistance actually comes from the inside as men awaken to their own oppression and defect. The “points of resistance”, Foucault adds, are “everywhere in the power network” though they can hardly result in a “locus of great Refusal” (96). I’ll argue that this is what is happening within anti-patriarchal masculinity. It is building up, though not as a sweeping movement.

I’ve been reading these past weeks a few books, all published in 2019, that speak of that awakening from a variety of positions. Phil Barker’s The Revolution of Man: Rethinking What It Means to Be a Man is a volume by an Australian journalist addressing the men of his nation in a candid, accessible tone aimed at increasing rapport. One needs to love a book that includes a few recipes to convince men of the pleasures of caring for others! J.J. Bola’s Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined has been written for British young men by a black former refugee from Congo (his family migrated to the UK when he was 6), who is now a poet and novelist after being for many years a youth educator. Bola is also a UN advisor on refugee matters. Michael Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution is a book by the US-born Canadian co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign against the violence against women (in 1989). Kaufman is one of the founding fathers of Masculinities Studies, a writer, scholar, and activist. To compensate for the anti-patriarchal tone of these three men, I have also read the 20th anniversary edition of Warren Farrell’s Bible for US Men’s Rights activism, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (1991, 2011). To put myself outside the comfort zone.

You may have frequently heard that men are from Mars, women from Venus, as John Gray’s 1992 best-selling book proclaimed, but having read these four books, it is far more accurate to say that although all live on Earth, some men appear to live on different planets (I’ll leave the women aside, for the time being). You will have noticed that the men living in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada apparently belong to a progressive pro-feminist, anti-patriarchal world, whereas in the USA misogyny is making the fastest inroads. Just last week, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the Supreme Court to revise Rostker v. Goldberg (1981), the case which argued that male-only draft is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and which the judges rejected on the grounds that women were excluded from combat. Since 2013, however, women have been allowed to serve in combat (with restrictions), hence the ACLU’s petition. But here’s the hidden barb. This organization, presided by a woman, is actually speaking on behalf of the National Coalition for Men, who already won a similar case in 2019, when a Texan judge declared unconstitutional the limitation of the Selective Service System by which all male US citizens aged 18-25 need to register with the Government who may then draft them for combat. Although the ACLU, which has a pro-feminist record, claims that “Limiting registration to men treats women as unfit for this obligation of citizenship and reflects the outmoded belief that men aren’t qualified to be caregivers in the event of a draft”, other feminists have noted that a) the NCM has not cared to help women get equality in any other fields, and b) if the NCM really wanted to protect men, they would ensure no young man is drafted. This case is not about granting women equality, clearly, but about subjecting them to the same ill-treatment male citizens are receiving from their Government. This is how patriarchy works.

Allow me to cite from passages from the books by Barker, Bola and Kaufman, and then I’ll move onto Farrell to end. Let me mention that Barker’s volume has a chapter called “The Woman Haters” in which he describes the Men’s Rights Activists inspired by Farrell as “a bizarre, hilarious and terrifying phenomenon bubbling up in society as a direct result of Man Box pressures defining young men’s lives” (41). It is important to say this because criticism of the MRAs does not always come from (feminist) women. Men like Barker have not been brainwashed by feminism but, as he shows, by patriarchy; this is why, once they are free from that burden, it is important that they themselves try to wean other men from the pernicious patriarchal ideology. Both MRAs and progressive men agree that too many men are dying or being harmed by the pressure put on them, though MRAs usually fail to see that this pressure comes from patriarchy, not from women. Barker, who writes that “Women deserve a world of better men” (191), calls for men to use their “beautiful, big, strong man bodies” for good. “Our strength is our weakness”, he argues, “because it allows us to impose our will over others. The belief that it’s okay to do so comes from the Man Box” (197), that is to say, from the narrow mental space in which patriarchy keeps men. He asks fellow men, therefore, to never use their physical power for violence but “to care for those we love”, resisting the “corruptible influence of power” (198). As he concludes, “It’s not too much to ask for a little self-control, is it?” (198). I really think this a key point: admirable as men’s bodies can be, we see them these days mainly as a potential source of violence rather than of care; this needs to change, above all, for men’s sake.

J.J. Bola called his book Mask Off because “men are taught to wear a mask, a façade that covers up how we are really feeling and the issues we are faced with from a young age” (8). As he warns, “the same system that puts men at an advantage in society is essentially the same system that limits them; inhibits their growth and eventually leads to their break down” (8). I was extremely happy and relieved to come across a passage by a man in which he insists, as I have been doing for many years that “Masculinity is not patriarchy. And while patriarchy is an oppressive structure that imposes the dominance of one gender over another, we must imagine and manifest a masculinity that is not reliant on patriarchy to exist; a masculinity that sees the necessity of the equality of genders for it to not only survive, but to thrive” (20-21). Like Barker and Kaufman, Bola stresses the advantages of feminism for men, claiming that this movement is “actually beneficial to men as it seeks to heal men and remove the pressures that patriarchal society places on them” (66) thus literally saving lives lost to violence and suicide. Bola advises men to let go of the anger that so often dominates their lives because only anger is accepted as a proper emotion by patriarchy, and to shed their mask, and see who they really are (and, yes, he recommends Jennifer Siebel’s excellent documentary The Mask You Live In, 2015).

Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution seems to have been written in reply to a comment in Connell’s Masculinities in which she concludes that 1970s-1980s Men’s Liberation was a “tidal wave of historical change” that “broke” (241) and was never rebuilt. She writes that “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement”, yet she denies that “the project of transforming masculinity” has any “political weight at all” (with the exception of the gay activism arising from the 1980s AIDS crisis). Kaufman, co-founder as I have noted of the White Ribbon campaign, is far more optimistic, this is why he addresses his book to the men willing to join “the greatest revolution in human history: the work to win women’s rights, gender justice, and gender equality” (22). Like Barker and Bola, Kaufman insists that the struggle not only benefits women but also men because “feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever received” (22), in view of how women’s demand for equality also frees men from their obligations towards patriarchal masculinity.

I find it thought-provoking that Barker and Kaufman coincide with Farrell in seeing the renewal of fatherhood as the key to a new masculinity. Barker enthuses about his own father and praises to the skies his daughter for the marvelous relationship he has with her, whereas Kaufman writes that “the single biggest way men will contribute to gender equality and the single most important and positive change that men are enjoying” (175) is what he calls the Dad Shift. Kaufman even argues that “The transformation of fatherhood will be, for men, what feminism has been for women. It is the thing that is redefining our lives in a powerful, life-affirming, forward-moving way” (76), which is not so far from what Warren Farrell writes in his own volume, though the perspective is quite different. I must confess that I was quite surprised by this, until I realized that whereas I have no problem imagining young women as future mothers, I have many problems imagining young men as future fathers.

What Kaufman means is that by integrating caregiving into boys’ lives as we do into girls’ lives we will allow their nurturing skills to develop, which can only result in the prevention of the violence associated to bullying patriarchal masculinity. “Just as I believe,” Kaufman writes, “that transforming fatherhood will prove to be the single greatest contribution by men to achieving gender equality, it may well be the thing that makes the biggest contribution to reducing men’s violence—both against women and against other men” (118). Logically, this raises the question of how men who are not interested in fatherhood fit this view of an egalitarian masculinity but Kaufman calls, above all, for making caregiving central in men’s lives, as it is in women’s lives. My concern is that call comes too late, when many women in the younger generation are rejecting caregiving as a burden imposed on them by patriarchy and when many young persons are declaring their intention not to have children.

Warren Farrell, as he narrates in his prologue to the second edition of The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex used to be a staunch feminist until he went through a deep crisis that left him wondering what actual amount of power individual men have. I have only understood recently that radical feminism’s misguided rejection of all men as a privileged class comes from the Marxist view of class struggle. I must, therefore, agree with Farrell (and with Michael Kimmel) when he says that though men appear to be more powerful than women as a class, they are not necessarily powerful on an individual basis. What Kimmel sees but Farrell is totally blind to is that this is because of patriarchy, the hierarchical organization that allows a circle of privileged men to dominate most women and many other men. As I have noted, Farrell coincides with Kaufman in seeing fathering as “the only career that will last a lifetime” (40) for men, in view of the changing conditions of the job market. Yet, Farrell is so full of spite against women and feminism that it is hard to see how men and women can be co-parents of a child (leaving aside the absence of other types of couples in his book). Showing his true colours, in his conclusion Farrell writes that “Ideally there should not be a men’s movement but a gender transition movement; only the power of the women’s movement necessitates the temporary corrective of a men’s movement” (591, my italics). Of course, he doesn’t mean the type of men’s movement that Connell had in mind, but an anti-feminist movement. As for the word ‘corrective’ I cannot help thinking of a few macho men spanking the feminist girls for having been so naughty.

Reading Farrell, I understand where many of the ideas defended by the anti-feminist extreme right come from, which is why I think his book should be read by feminists like me. Also, by anti-patriarchal male activists. We need all the strength of a solid rhetoric to persuade whoever listens to us that ours if the better future and the only one that guarantees human rights.

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