A Pro-feminist's

How to Respond to Criticism

I've been thinking lately about something one of my readers, a "Mr. Bad" said to me that's been in my head for a day or two:

"You... have a very inaccurate, uninformed and distorted view of healthy, normal masculinity. You instead are much more attuned to feminist and homosexual (i.e., gay and lesbian) issues than most people. There's nothing wrong with that - in fact it's necessary and informative - but the fact remains that IMO you've shown yourself to be clueless on the topic of normal, healthy masculinity."

Rather than respond in anger, I've been thinking about the ways in which this might be true. Am I, I wonder, really out of tune with "mainstream masculinity", whatever that is? From an academic standpoint, I've read a great deal of the still small canon of work on men's studies. I'm familiar with everyone from Michael Kimmel to Warren Farrell to Robert Bly to Shepherd Bliss to Bill McCartney to R.W. Connell. From an activist standpoint, I've trained with groups like Men Can Stop Rape. From a volunteer standpoint, I've helped lead men's retreats at places like All Saints Church and Fuller Seminary. And Lord knows, I've participated in enough group therapy (I was in two long-term men's groups in my late teens and early twenties)!

But what does that teach me about "normal guys"? The academic in me wants to pretend that normalcy itself is an artificial construct. But part of me is reacting to Mr. Bad with the realization that my own life experiences are radically different than those of the majority of American men. Of course, anyone who does any academic work at all in gender studies is participating in a classically "feminine" activity, in that we presume that "normal" American men have no interest in the thoughtful analysis -- and subsequent challenging -- of traditional relationships among the sexes. Thus studying and teaching the subject become proof that I am not an authentic man, and thus excellent grounds for dismissing my conclusions.

It's true, I wasn't raised with "All-American" guy concerns. My father, whom I love with all my heart and with whom I have a very close relationship, was born in Austria and raised in England. (He knows the rules of cricket, not baseball.) He taught me to kick a round ball, not throw one; he taught me to appreciate the life of the mind and classical music. My father and I didn't go to baseball games or learn how to barbecue together. We did go to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Jean Renoir retrospectives. (Despite his influence, however, I did develop some stereotypical American interests, chief among them an interest in college football that has only grown more passionate in the two decades since I first entered university.)

I have lots of male friends today. How normal are they? Most of my male friends are straight and married; a few are gay and a few are single. Most, but not all, are college educated white guys between 30-55. Half have children. About half are serious Christians, but others are agnostics, Unitarians, and students of Kabbalah. Most are liberal Democrats, but a few are solid Republicans. But there's one thing every one of my close male friends has in common: we are all, to a man, quite concerned with the appearance and performance of our bodies.

Mr. Bad commented, with a grain of what I acknowledge is truth: "Almost every day you post something about yourself, often times shallow and/or silly, and usually relating to your body with a healthy dose of your feelings thrown in. For this reader, you come across on this blog as having a very strong "mirror, mirror on the wall..." princess approach to your life. So, considering that your professinal focus has been on women and homosexuals, I humbly suggest that perhaps that's the basis for the model you're projecting as the "typical" male you keep trying to offer up. And because of this, you're missing the mark vis-a-vis typical men by miles and miles."

Yes, I have my shallow and silly qualities. But I'm convinced that Mr. Bad is wrong when he implies that an intense concern with one's own appearance is not "typically male." Every one of my male friends works out. Many are marathoners and ultrarunners and triathletes. In that sense, we are a self-selecting group. We are perhaps a shade more neurotic about our bodies than your average Joes. (On Saturday, my two running buddies and I discussed the details of the cleanse I've been on for quite some time, as well as having a heartfelt discussion of the nagging problem of "lower-back fat deposits.") But Mr. Bad is wrong when he implies that most American men are utterly unconcerned with their appearance.

Here I don't have to rely on anecdotal evidence. See here. See here. Note the proliferation of men's fitness magazines which focus not on health but on appearance. I don't think these magazines are raking in fortunes off a few unusual narcissists! Rather, the evidence is overwhelming that American men are rapidly becoming as concerned with body image as women have been. The fact that they are not yet as vocal about it --- outside of the fitness community -- does not mean that the anxiety isn't growing to the point of being omnipresent! (See books like The Adonis Complex, the very subtitle of which makes clear the nature of the problem: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession.)

Yes, I'm very concerned with my body's appearance and athletic performance. Yes, I'm vain. Yes, I do something straight men aren't supposed to do, which is talk about these concerns in a very public way. But the research (and abundant anecdotal evidence) suggest that my friends and I are far from alone. In blue-state cities it may be easier for men to discuss these anxieties and obsessions openly, but the evidence suggests that they are becoming universal. In that sense, men who are open about their "body image issues" are fully and completely "normal" -- perhaps just more candid than some of their more truculent and inarticulate counterparts.

All in all, I think it's counterproductive, even dangerous, to question the masculine credentials of those who do gender work. Given the rigid rules of American sexual culture, it's all but certain than any man who does speak critically about male behavior will have his manhood questioned. Indeed, it's a standard debating tactic, usually employed by those who oppose progressive agendas, to suggest that feminists and their allies are "out of touch", "elitists", who don't "get it" or who aren't "real women" or "real men." One of the hallmarks of the pro-feminist men's movement has been a resistance to this false dyad of "real men" and "girly men" (which, after all, is more or less what Mr. Bad's language implies). The authentic men's movement sees masculinity as a continuum, not a fixed point.

Mr. Bad questions my masculine credentials; some (not all) of my erstwhile allies are so irked by my writings on marriage that they may be questioning my feminism. It's one thing to dismiss our opponents' arguments as poorly reasoned, another to engage in ad hominem attacks. At the same time, my own choice to bring in my own personal experience -- a strategy and a technique I learned from feminism -- makes these attacks all but inevitable, if disappointing.

©2005, Hugo Schwyzer

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Women really must have equal pay for equal work, equilaity in work at home, and reproductive choices. Men must press for these things also. They must cease to see them as "women's issues" and learn that they are everyone's issues. - essential to survival on planet Earth. - Erica Jong

The assorted musings of Hugo Schwyzer: a progressive, consistent-life ethic Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat (but with a sense of humor), a community college history and gender studies professor, an avid marathoner, aspiring ultra-runner, die-hard political junkie, and proud father of a small chinchilla. hugoboy.typepad.com

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