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Men And Masculinities: Leveling Up With Michael Kimmel

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iStockphoto / Mateo_Pearson
iStockphoto / Mateo_Pearson

‘To Engage Men In Gender Equality’

All over the world there are amazing projects to engage men around gender equality. These projects range from HIV-risk reduction, to reproductive health and rights, involved fatherhood, violence against women…these people are doing amazing work, it’s really inspiring. What I know about these projects is this: They don’t know about each other. And the other thing they don’t know is that there is a research base on which they could rely when they do their work.

“Activists” is Michael Kimmel’s term for the people he’s describing — serious, committed professionals, practitioners who need support as they labor in the deep field of day-to-day work with men. And he has help on the way to them, thanks to the formation of an unprecedented program, the new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in New York.

I also know that there’s a new army of young scholars, academics, graduate students, who are desperate to make a difference. They don’t want their dissertations to sit on a shelf somewhere. And what I know about them is that they don’t know that these projects [in male engagement] are out there. So the idea of the Center is to bring together these activists on one hand and these scholars on the other, which happens very rarely.

It will happen in March. The 23-year-old American Men’s Studies Association (AMSA) this week is issuing its call for papers to be given in New York City at a special conference that will be staged by the organization in association with Stony Brook’s Center.

Stated themes of the conference are to include: boys’ development and education; involved fatherhood; balancing work and family life; men’s friendships; promoting men’s health and supporting women’s reproductive health and rights; the struggle to turn around men’s violence against women, sexual assault, and trafficking; engaging men in policies to promote gender equality in education, employment, social life, and the political arena.

Michael Kimmel
Michael Kimmel

And Kimmel — a prolific author, speaker, and leading authority as Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook — is very clear on what won’t be happening next spring in that conference.

“Typically, when activists and academics get together,” he says, “the academics tell the activists what they should be doing. I have been in too many of those kinds of conversations and they bore the hell out of me and I think they’re politically corrupt.”

Not this time.

Here’s what my Center is going to do: we’re going to say to the activists, “What do you need to know?” We are researchers, the most privileged people on Earth. We get to read and write about anything we want. And the work of the people on the ground is so important that we want to support them. We want to know, “What do you need that would make your work better, easier, more fund-able?” Our posture is one of service to those activists.

This approach is possible, in part, because the Center has been formed to do its work as a free-standing entity at Stony Brook. As opposed to? — a part of a women’s studies program. Yes, men’s studies frequently are taught in women’s studies departments, which is one very good reason you may never have known such programs were in place on many campuses.

University tradition, budgetary constraints, and curriculum logic frequently have positioned male studies in response or reaction to — at least in relation to — women’s studies. Don’t misunderstand, men’s studies are alive and well, in large part, thanks to supportive, welcoming women’s studies programs and other sociology department settings.The American Men’s Studies Association not only has many highly accomplished and influential female members but is also led by a woman president at the moment, the University of Michigan’s Daphne Watkins, who has followed the strong leadership of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Robert Heasley in the office.

Over time, though, the desire has grown among many in the field to see men’s studies programs gain more autonomy and visibility. Kimmel is just the man to deliver that.

And you get a sense for why his associates and colleagues enjoy him so much when you hear him describe how getting the seed funding to make the new Center a reality came about.

“Eight Years And Three Weeks”

“The story actually starts, I kid you not, eight years” before the Center’s inception, Kimmel says.

That’s when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation contacted him. “I got a call from them saying that they were aware of my work and that they were thinking of the next generation of MacArthur funding, where their priorities were going to go, etcetera.

“They were inviting people who represented emerging fields from all over the map to come to Chicago, have lunch with them, do a little presentation — they were inviting about 50 people to do such a thing. And they wanted me to come talk about masculinities studies. So I did. I went out there, had lunch with them, gave a talk, it was lovely, and came home.”

My students today are more experienced with gender equality than any generation in our history. Michael Kimmel

Some three months later, Kimmel heard from the MacArthur Foundation that his field of study was one of about four areas in which they felt their support might have a meaningful role, and — if funding were available — what might he be interested in?

“I said, ‘Well, I feel like I’ve really worked very hard to build this new field,'” Kimmel says, “‘and I think of it like a game of Monopoly: I’ve bought the property, now it’s time to build the hotel. So what I want to do is initiate a center for the study of men and masculinities. That’s what I would want to do now.”

The MacArthur folks told him that his idea sounded very interesting and that they’d get back to him.

When they did call — eight years later — ready with a pool of funding that might accommodate Kimmel’s dream of a center, they wanted an application from him. In three week.s

“I said, ‘Three weeks, sure, why not?'”

When we explore the diversity of masculinities, we expose the fiction of Mars and Venus. Michael Kimmel

Kimmel put together the application, “got all the institutional sign-offs on it” — which in academic settings can be a long process in itself. “And two weeks later, I got a grant.”

So new is the Center’s development — it was started last fall — that several key areas of its Web site (White Papers, Future Projects, and so on) have nothing on them yet but “content here.” A well-attended seminar series has begun at Stony Brook as the program comes together. Next March’s international conference will be the real arrival event for the new Center.

“I have no idea how this happened,” Kimmel says, about the good fortune of a $300,000 two-year seed grant from the MacArthur Foundation. And, if anything, he notes, the arrival of the new Center does mean that he now has to handle some things he has spent many years of his career dodging: “Like going to meetings and fund-raising.”

“From Anxiety To Anger Since The 1990s”

When National Public Radio opened its fine new Men In America series in June, commentator Audie Cornish in The New American Man Doesn’t Look Like His Father both asked and answered the question you may get, yourself, if you mention “men’s studies” or “masculinities studies”:

Why [are we] talking about the lives of men? Because as the roles of women in society have changed in the last 50 years, so have men’s. Sometimes dramatically.

Manhood in America by Michael KimmelKimmel was part of that inaugural broadcast because he has become one of a handful of leadership voices on the topic, tirelessly delivering reasoned, rational, compassionate clarity on what’s happening to men in today’s world. His Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press) is in its third printing. It’s an articulate, entertaining, and rigorous starting point, if you’d like to look into issues of masculinities in the States.

It’s in that work, that you find a chapter Kimmel titled “From Anxiety To Anger Since The 1990s.” His careful charting of concepts of manhood from a “self-made man” centuries ago to a “contemporary crisis of masculinity” is — like so much of his work — immensely accessible. This is research-based scholarship that reads as easily as an issue of Men’s Journal.

There’s a price for taking scientific research to the world, of course. Like many experts in controversial fields, Kimmel has some detractors. When author Hanna Rosin (The End Of Men: And The Rise Of Women) reviewed his Angry White Men: American Masculinity At The End Of An Era (Nations Books), she wrote in her New York Times review, Even Madder Men:

Kimmel, a sociologist at Stony Brook University in New York, is unusually adventurous for an academic….he ventures into unfamiliar territory and finds himself engaged in the kinds of conversations he is unlikely to have at department meetings…A longtime feminist, Kimmel maintains a delicate balance when handling his sources. He wants to be sympathetic to the people he interviews and yet loyal to his academic principles.

Nevertheless, Rosin and others point to Kimmel’s ability to make what Rosin calls “a convincing case” for his concept of some men’s sense of “aggrieved entitlement.”

And one of the most interesting of his longtime observations, in my opinion, is this, emphasis mine:

In large part, it’s other men who are important to American men; American men define their masculinity not as much in relation to women, but in relation to each other.

This means, among many things, that Kimmel’s work speaks well and directly to his fellow men. Its texture and rhythms and emphases make sense to guys who need to hear what he has to say: they listen up.

Kimmel’s body of work is one of the dynamics behind the fact that you may hear the term “masculinities” more frequently today, not just the singular “masculinity.” The pluralization of the term is a tiny thing on paper but richly symbolic of the ongoing upheaval in our gender relationships today — and of how guys see themselves.

By some lights, “manhood” appears to be breaking up into a promising array of complementary concepts: men live and work in so many more settings and walks of life now than the Rockwellian glow of Old Americana once pictured. What is “masculine” thus takes on myriad guises and changes, particularly as younger generations of men find the historic, stupid oppression of women to be outmoded, unacceptable, absurd and even embarrassing.

Masculinities in Theory by Todd ReeserAs the University of Pittsburgh’s Todd Reeser clarifies in his book Masculinities In Theory (Wiley-Blackwell), the behaviors that may go into what one person or another calls “masculine” are learned. Men and boys perform them and, at many points, may be doing so because those ideas of masculinity can be taken as ideology, “as a series of beliefs that a group of people buy into and that influences how they go about their lives.”

Reeser writes, again my emphasis:

To consider masculinity as an ideology makes sense since it often is, or is often perceived of as, a subjectivity linked to power….no single group can be seen as responsible for constructing masculinity.

Needless to say, what’s embedded in such a view could also mean the downfall of guys’ rigid, mandatory performances of traditional mannerisms: if “no single group” is “responsible for constructing masculinity,” then any thinking man can tell that little remains today to hold the old ways together.

To read Reeser, as with Kimmel’s work, is to understand that the big walls of ancient manhood fell down long ago. Light is getting in.

“To Prove That They Are Real Men”

Guyland by Michael KimmelWhat is “good masculinity” today has many descriptions, some of them bracingly contradictory. And yet, the overhang of cultural history persists, normally as expectations: the job, the marriage, the family, the house, the stereotyped goals don’t go quietly — but they don’t come as early, either.

In the NPR broadcast, Kimmel told Cornish, “Survey after survey shows that 60 to 70 percent of men still agree with the notion that masculinity depends on emotional stoicism — never showing fear, never showing pain.”

And yet in one of his most memorable books, Guyland (HarperCollins), Kimmel has warned about an effect of something that sounds akin to the extended adolescence that Laurence Steinberg is writing about in his new Age Of Opportunity: Lessons From The New Science Of Adolescence (Eamon Dolan).

Kimmel writes of males 16 to 26 as “the single most desirable consumer market…the group constantly targeted by Hollywood studios…they consume the overwhelming majority of recorded music, video games, and computer technology, and they are the majority of first-time car-buyers.” And yet, as he describes in the book, “the guys” aren’t taking hold as early as they did, aren’t assuming the roles and responsibilities of manhood often until well after women have taken their own places as adults.

Kimmel writes:

Guyland is the world in which young men live. It is both a stage of life, a liminal undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and a place, or, rather, a bunch of places where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy-turvy, Peter-Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood, while the boys they still are struggle heroically to prove that they are real men despite all evidence to the contrary.

Age of Opportunity by Laurence SteinbergElements of Steinberg’s work now may bolster some of what Kimmel’s controversial Guyland started telling us, and not just about young men.

In his new Age Of Opportunity, Steinberg writes:

This stage of life [adolescence], which once lasted just a few years, is now a much longer period, lengthened at the front end by the earlier onset of puberty and at the back end by the increasingly protracted transition of young people into careers, marriages, and financial independence. Simply put, children are entering into adolescence earlier than ever, but adolescents are taking longer to become adults.

Kimmel’s work in masculinities tells us that what might be waiting on the other side of that delayed adulthood for men is the phenomenon of those Angry White Men. In the book, he describes:

Men who feel they have been screwed, betrayed by the country they love, discarded like trash on the side of the information superhighway. Theirs are the hands that built this country; theirs is the blood shed to defend it. And now, they feel , no one listens to them; they’ve been all but forgotten. In the great new multicultural American mosaic, they’re the bland white background that no one pays any attention to, the store-bought white bread in a culture of bagels, tortillas, wontons, and organic whole-grain designer scones.

“A Legitimate Enterprise In Universities”

The front lines of that anger is where many of the “activists,” the practitioners Kimmel admires, are working in their specialized programs to engage men in gender equality issues. And it’s there that he sees his new center’s best chances to make a difference. He tells me:

What this Center is trying to do is help institutionalize masculinities studies as a legitimate enterprise in universities.

This, on the academic stage, must be Kimmel’s prime directive for the place and position of his new program at Stony Brook. It’s not that women’s studies programs haven’t, in many cases, been good homes to these curricula about men and their concepts of themselves and each other. Quite the contrary.

But it’s time for the needs of our societies’ gender relations to stand this discipline up on its own strong legs and let this great inquiry into men and manhood walk for itself.

Angry White Men by Michael KimmelIronically, what may be the key to that success for Kimmel’s new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook is how much its collaborative concept can be effective off the campus.

Do the typically young men and women of a setting like Stony Brook need the best possible training in this field if they’re interested in engaging in it? Of course they do.

Does the world need it even more? Of course it does.

From the publishing standpoint alone, take the issue of how boys are faring in educational settings these days, how much less our surveys indicate that guys are reading than girls are.

The NPR broadcast with Kimmel included New York University’s Pedro Noguera, who told Cornish that in 1962, 65 percent of college enrollees were men; today, only 43 percent are male. “The male dropout rate,” Noguera told Cornish, “is in some states twice as high as the female dropout rate. These patterns speak to a larger problem, because we know now that the jobs of the future require college degrees.”

And so how long will the publishing industry shout for a wider audience, clamor for a bigger consumer base, bemoan the inroads of gaming and film and television — while doing too little to actively and specifically cultivate the male readership? Half the currency of our population’s readership is being left on the table. Where’s the sense in that? It’s baffling to many of us in the industry that publishing professionals bemoan lagging reading rates among men and boys, but don’t seem inclined to move on the problem.

Maybe that’s one of the issues a center like Kimmel’s could one day help us understand — explore it, advise us on it. Clearly we need the help.

Not only should we know what men and boys need today to find the cultural literacy they could be sharing with women, but we also need to know why publishing as a whole doesn’t seem moved to gear up on this problem. Could there be a cultural component to the way so much has been done to engage girls in reading while seemingly letting boys fall behind?

Kimmel’s young program isn’t sitting still:

Already we have two or three international scholars every year coming to Stony Brook…to work on masculinities studies. We’re working to provide a “there there,” so that people can know there’s a field here to enter, that there’s exciting work going on.

Kimmel says that some of the best work today in masculinities studies “is coming from the margins, from men of color, from LGBT, sexuality studies, from the Global South.

“I want the Center,” he says, “to be a place where the conversation is taking place around diversity among men. When we explore the variations among men, when we explore the diversity of masculinities, we expose the fiction of Mars and Venus. The truth is that the title” of John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus “should be: A Lot of Straight White American Men Are From Mars And A Lot Of Straight White American Women Are From Venus.”

And how does Kimmel see countering a pop concept like Gray’s, I ask him?

You explore diversity, you explore particularity, you explore biography, you explore different communities. You give a real texture to these gross generalizations and you realize that the generalizations don’t hold up.

“A Good Friend Of The Opposite Sex”

Kimmel says he has planned to put his book-writing career on something of a hold for a while, to focus all his energies on getting the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities up and running.

Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, edited by Michael KimmelNevertheless, he has one entertaining title coming out October 2 from Rowman & Littlefield: the Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis. In this case, Kimmel is the editor and he has collaborated with psychotherapist and sexologist Christine Milrod, PhD, and with Stony Brook PhD candidate Amanda Kennedy. It’s an analysis, the publisher writes, of “the cultural meanings, interpretations, and activities with the penis over the centuries and across cultures.” And it’s something of a companion, perhaps, to Rowman & Littlefield’s Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast.

Lest there be any confusion about the intent of these offerings, by the way? The Penis goes for $76.50, the Breast for $80.75 — some very scholarly prices.

And Kimmel tells me he does know what his next book will be:

“Men who disappear,” he says. “You hear these stories every now and then about guys who go off to work as they do every day and get on the 7:23 from Danbury and the next thing anybody hears from them, they’re in Rio, right? With an affair they’ve been having for years, right? Those are the guys I’m writing about next.”

In the meantime, there’s a smart, promising observation Kimmel likes to offer about men’s and women’s relationships, and it comes from his classrooms on campus.

He told Audie Cornish about it in his NPR interview this way:

When I first started teaching 25 years ago, I would ask my students, “How many of you have a good friend of the opposite sex?” Maybe I’d get 10 percent. Now, they all have a good friend [of the other gender]. Think about that. You make friends with your peers, right? You make friends with people you consider your equals…My students today are more experienced with gender equality than any generation in our history.

And Michael Kimmel’s students may be among the luckiest in the American university system today, as his new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities program rises to capitalize — on those friendships. TC mark

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