Ask a Feminist: Michael Kimmel and Lisa Wade Discuss Toxic Masculinity
Michael Kimmel and Lisa Wade
For this edition of Ask a Feminist, Michael Kimmel and Lisa Wade discuss the role of masculinity in the current political moment, including the rise of Donald Trump and white grievance politics in the United States. A preeminant scholar of masculinity studies, Kimmel analyzes masculinity's intersections with racism, sexual violence, and backlash politics. Wade, whose work has critically and accessibly interrogated contemporary gender dynamics, speaks with Kimmel about how the study of masculinity emerged and its importance in understanding the urgent challenges we face. Addressing masculinity's central role in the contemporary US Right, in neo-Nazi movements, and in established US institutions, the discussion underscores the urgent need for feminist intersectional analysis.
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The conversation was held over Skype on December 12, 2017. An edited transcript is below.
LW: Dr. Michael Kimmel, welcome to Ask a Feminist.
MK: Nice to see you, Lisa.
LW: I’m thrilled to be talking with you, especially at this wild time in American history. But before we get to current events, since some readers or listeners may not know of you, can you brag a little bit about what you've been doing through your career, maybe a little bit about how you got into studying masculinity?
MK: I don’t know about the bragging part, but this is always the most difficult question. You could ask me anything about anything else, but asking me to give an advertisement for myself, it's very difficult. But for Signs readers, here's how I would describe what I've tried to do. I was inspired early on by women's studies and gender studies and realized quite early on that I had a kind of natural constituency, which is to study masculinity—to talk about men. Now I will spare you the long story about my political involvement, but I will say that the reason I studied men was because I started teaching about men. And the reason I started teaching about men was because I was an activist in California working around issues around engaging men around sexual assault and rape. I was one of the people who founded Santa Cruz Men against Rape in 1978, so quite a long time—forty years—ago, and part of the group that founded the National Organization for Men against Sexism. That was long before I had any research interest in this field. My PhD dissertation, which I'm sure every Signs reader has read, is on seventeenth-century French tax policy. So it has nothing to do with gender, masculinity, sexuality—nothing. I had pursued a very different academic track, but I was a political activist working in this space around engaging men, particularly around sexual assault and violence.
And so, when I got my first teaching job at Rutgers, I gave a talk at a Take Back the Night march in 1982, and one of the students in the audience at the march came up to me afterwards and said, “What you were saying about men and sexual assault, that was really interesting. Have you ever thought about teaching a course about masculinity?” And I looked at him and said, “no.” It had never occurred to me. But I thought, maybe I should think about this. So I thought about it for a bit, and then I went to my dean. Now this is a very important story for Signs readers: I went to my dean, who was Catharine Simpson—the founder of Signs, maybe the founder of academic women's studies in America. She was the dean of the college at Rutgers at the time. And I said to her, “Kate, what do you think about this idea of teaching a course on masculinity?” Now I was a first-year assistant professor, mind you. And she said, the magic words that every assistant professor longs to hear. She said, “I'll buy you out of your teaching for a semester.” So of course I did.
And I taught a course on masculinity in 1983—the first course in the state of New Jersey on masculinity—and it took off. We anticipated 20 people for the first semester, the first time I taught it, we got 50. Second time, we booked a room for 50, we got 150. Third time, we booked a room for 150 and we got 400. So we obviously knew, there was something going on.
So, what do you do when you want to teach a course? What's the first thing you do? (Well, I mean in the old days.) You go to the library, and you look for the books you want to assign. Well in 1983, there weren’t a whole hell of a lot of books that I could use in my course on masculinity that I wanted to teach. So I said, “Oh well, I guess I'm going to have to write them.” And so the moral of the story—and by the way that first class, we used plays. I used Death of a Salesman, I used Lysistrata, I used Hamlet. We used novels; I used China Boy, a novel by a Chinese American author in San Francisco named Gus Lee, we used Huckleberry Finn, Great Gatsby. I used anything I can grab, basically—oh, and we used Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. I was looking for anything.
The moral of the story for me is, my research comes out of my pedagogy and my pedagogy comes out of my activism. So unless I'm true to that activism I won't trust my teaching or my research. I've always tried to maintain a balance between being an activist and being a researcher.
My research comes out of my pedagogy and my pedagogy comes out of my activism. So unless I'm true to that activism I won't trust my teaching or my research.Click To Tweet
What distinctively could I bring to the conversation about gender that was through the eighties and nineties and until now just been exploding? And this will be familiar, I think, to you, given your wonderful book [American Hookup]. I figured that what I could do that would be different is—whenever anyone talks in this intersectional moment, whenever anybody talks about gender or masculinity, we always go to the margins. We talk about those who are marginalized by inequality and discrimination. So we talk about people of color, but we really don’t have much of a theory of whiteness. We talk about LGBT people, but we don’t have a theory of heterosexuality. And we talk about women, but we don't talk about men. That is, we don't name straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender men. And so I decided that's what I'm going to do. If our political goal is to decenter that center, the first task is to make it visible.
So I’ve published now three, what we would call “big books.” By three big books, I mean the books that got reviewed in the New York Times book review and got lots of publicity, the Washington Post book review, all of those places like NPR shows and the Today Show. So, the first one was called Manhood in America, and it posed the question: How did this particular idea of masculinity, what I call the self-made man, how did that become the model of masculinity in the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century? How did it displace the other models, the old gentry, the shopkeeper or the small artisan, the worker? How did it displace those and become the model that defines the United States, so that by the 1840s Tocqueville is writing all about the self-made man? And so that was a story that I wanted to tell about class and about race and about immigration, about how this model basically problematized all of the others.
The second book I wrote was Guyland, which takes that same story and says, How did this numerical minority, straight white frat guys, how did they come to dominate the entire campus life of most major campuses? How did that happen? So again, I want to name the center so as to decenter it. And the last book, my most recent book, Angry White Men, does the same thing. How come white men, who are arguably the most privileged people on the planet, how come they're so pissed off? How come they think they're the victims? So those are the three big books, and they're all about trying to name the center, to map the center, to talk about what it means to be a straight white cisgender hetero man in America. Because the larger project is, if it becomes just one of many masculinities, not the dominant one, so much the easier to decenter it. So long-winded, sorry, but that’s who I am, that’s what I do.
LW: Yeah, it's been a really impressive career. And out of that group of men, the men who have been centered in our society so far, come a lot of men who we would say are somehow problematic or are creating social problems. So you have studied amongst them militia men and mass shooters and antifeminist men, domestic terrorists, and in your new book, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. These are men who perhaps come out of your interest in making sure that your activism and your pedagogy is in line with your research. Today we describe them often, even in popular culture, as toxic men, men who are embodying a toxic masculinity, and that’s something we’ve been asked to focus on for our talk today. So can you first define masculinity for me and talk a little bit about the difference between masculinity and being a person with a male body, and then reflect on that idea of toxic masculinity?
MK: Well, let me let me go back to the predicate of your question. Yes, I have focused on a lot of guys who are angry and complain a lot about masculinity, and the ones who think that they're not in power, they're not privileged. And I do this for a political reason, because we in the gender studies world, the feminist studies world, come out of talking about masculinity as being powerful, and I think that's not men's experience of this. I think this is an important entry point for me into this conversation.
Feminism basically offered women a symmetry between the social and the individual. The social observation was women as a group are not in power. And individually, women didn't feel powerful. So feminism basically said, let’s address both of those: the individual powerlessness and the social powerlessness. When you apply that same syllogism to men, men are in power, everyone agrees, but when you say therefore men must feel powerful, they look at you cross-eyed. They say, “What are you talking about? I have no power. My wife bosses me around. My kids boss me around. My boss bosses me around.” So with women you have a kind of symmetry; with men you have an asymmetry. All of the power in the world has not trickled down to individual men feeling powerful. This is important because you have a whole bunch of political groups out there who are saying things like, “You know, guys, you know how you don't feel powerful? You're right, the feminist women, they have all the power. Let's go get it back.” That's the men's rights guys. Then you have the guys who are saying, “Yes, you know how you don't feel powerful, let's troop off into the woods, and we’ll chant, and we'll drum, and we'll do the power rituals.” That’s the mythopoetic group.
I think our task has to be to address the asymmetry between the social and the individual, and here's how we do it. Our analysis of patriarchy is not simply men's power over women; it's also some men’s power over other men. Patriarchy’s always been a dual system of power, and unless we acknowledge that second one, we won't get an idea of why so many men feel like they're complete losers in the gender game, and they're not at all privileged, and they’ll resist any effort toward gender equality. I think we can make them allies.
Patriarchy is not simply men's power over women; it's also some men’s power over other men. Patriarchy’s always been a dual system of power.Click To Tweet
Now, let me go to the second part of your question: What do I think masculinity is? This is the part where I'm going to punt. I'm a social scientist. Masculinity is what men think it is. And here's the part that I find important: we've been asked in our conversation today to talk a little bit about toxic masculinity. Usually that phrase is put up against healthy masculinity, so we want to discourage the behaviors that are toxic to women, children, men, and all other living things, and then we want to encourage the parts that are healthy masculinity. So you see a lot of conversations about criticizing the toxic and developing a healthy masculinity in boys, and things like that. I have found in forty years of activism that the toxic/healthy dichotomy doesn't resonate for many men. I feel that when we come to them and talk about toxic masculinity, they very often think that we're telling them they're doing it wrong, that they're bad, and they have to change and give up their ideas of masculinity, the toxic ones, and embrace the new one. Basically we’re asking them to renounce Vin Diesel and embrace Ryan Gosling. And men won't go for it. They're too afraid to let go of things because you think they're unhealthy. So I feel like the toxic/healthy thing keeps guys a little bit askew—not exactly full-on resistant, although some are, but not engaged.
So I found it better—this is my own activist work, and I'm perfectly happy to hear from Signs readers and from you about what you what you would think of this—but I have found it better to ask men what it means to be a good man and then contrast that with what it means to be a real man. Just a couple of weeks ago I was at West Point giving the annual sexual assault awareness lecture there, so you can imagine a room full of cadets, an auditorium full of cadets, and I asked them, “What does it mean to be a good man? You know, you wake up in the morning, you look in the mirror, and you say to yourself, ‘You're a good man.’ What does that mean? You know, imagine your funeral, and you want it to be said of you, ‘He was a good man.’ So what does that mean?”
Here's what they said (now this is West Point): “Honor, duty, integrity, sacrifice, do the right thing, stand up for the little guy, be a provider, be a protector.” Sacrifice, that was one of the first things that they said. Give to others, be generous, responsible; that's what they said it means to be a good man. Now, you and I would probably say, Well, actually, that's what it means to be a good person, and I completely agree with you. However, they, those guys, experienced it as gendered.
So, “Where did you learn that?,” I asked.
And they said, “Well, it’s everywhere. It’s our culture, it’s Homeric, it’s Shakespearean, it's the Judeo-Christian heritage.”
I said, “That's fine, okay. So, that's what it means to you to be a good man. Now tell me if all of those traits—integrity and honor and responsibility and sacrifice—tell me if those show up for you when I say this: ‘Man the F up, be a real man.’”
And they said, “Oh no, that's completely different.”
I said, “Well, what is that?”
And they said “Tough, strong, never show weakness, win at all costs, suck it up, play through pain, be competitive, get rich, get laid.”
I said, “Okay, that’s what it means to be a real man? Where did you learn that?”
And they said, in order, “My father, my coach, my guy friends, my older brother.”
So here's what I think they were telling me. First of all they were telling me that the real man is the performative part. The real man is the part that has to perform for others, to validate their masculinities. The real man is homosocial. The good man is abstract. It's not necessarily interactive.
So here's what I told them. I said, “Here’s what I know about you. I've never met you before, and I'll probably never see many of you again, but here's what I know. There's going to be a time in your life, if there hasn't already, when you are going to be asked to betray your own values, your own ethics, your own idea of what it means to be a good man, in order to prove to others that you’re a real man. You're going to be asked to not see what you see. You're going to be able to not do anything about what you see even if you know it’s wrong. You're going to be asked to not speak about something that you see. You are going to be asked to betray your own values.”
So I was not there to tell them that their behaviors were toxic. I was there to tell them that they are already experiencing a conflict, inside them, between their own values and this homosocial performance. So my job then shifted, not from scolding them to saying, “How can I support you living up to, not my definition of a good man, but yours? You already know the answer to this. You already do it very often, in private. You already do it when you stand up for the right, for the little guy, when you do the right thing. You already do it. How can we, grown-ups, how can we, the rest of society, support you in living up to your own standards?” I think that's a more effective way to reach these guys than it is to say, “You're doing it wrong, here’s how to do it right.”
LW: That sounds like a really powerful pedagogical tool, where instead of telling, you sort of lay out the groundwork for them to see it for themselves quite clearly, and just an incredibly useful and practical way to address these problems. I could see that in your book that’s forthcoming in February, I believe, Healing from Hate. You gave me a preview, thank you for that. The book is really amazing. It's amazing that you got access to these young men who had left all kinds of different hate groups. It was remarkable how young they were when they entered, and how eager many of them were to leave, and how much masculinity played a role in both their entering and they're leaving. I would like you to talk a little bit about the practical usefulness of masculinity for drawing men out of these organizations, and talk about the book in general if you like.
MK: Thanks. Before I do, I want to say since you and I both have worked on this and nobody is more visible at this instant than you and Frank Bruni, I'm saying maybe we should rethink the whole idea of these fraternities. But I've done that same thing about good men and real men with frat guys when I've worked with them and they say to me, “Well, I know you're here to tell us that we shouldn't exist and fraternities should go away, etc.”
And I said, “Maybe not. Here’s a little good man / real man thing for you. Okay, bring me your charter, bring me the charter of your fraternity.” So they bring me the charter. And I said, “Now show me the part in your charter where it says ‘And we will have parties where we get girls so drunk that they can't stand up and they pass out so we can fuck them.’” And you know what? It doesn't say that in their charter. Nowhere. But here’s what it does say: “You’re men of honor, you’re men of integrity, you are about service, you’re about citizenship. I don't want you to live up to my ideals. I want you to live up to yours. If you can live up to your own ideals, you’ll have a reason to exist. Otherwise, no. I’m not okay with it.
So again, I think we can use that kind of frame sometime. And I know that, as I said, no one’s more visible right now in this space. Your inbox must be mighty interesting as a result, because mine’s interesting, and I’m not out there on this one yet. But let me say, so I wrote this book Angry White Men, I wrote it in 2013, and when I wrote it, the name Trump wasn't even in the book, and yet I wrote it about the people who came to be his army. And I have to say, on the one hand, I wrote it in 2013, and suddenly he’s elected in 2016, and my phone hasn't stopped ringing from reporters who go, “Oh my God, you saw it coming.” But the thing is, that book left me really pretty depressed. And the election and subsequent policy maneuvers of the Trump administration have left me even more depressed and sort of despairing. The one thing I thought would happen is that the angry white men that I profiled in that book would become increasingly loud but decreasingly numerous on the internet. I may have been off by a few years on that one.
But I've never written a more optimistic book than Healing from Hate, my new book. Because after all of the stuff that I said about these angry white men, and how they get into the movement, and how masculinity is kind of wrapped up, and how they get in and how they see themselves, these guys get themselves out, Lisa. They did it themselves. These were guys who were in the movement, neo-Nazi skinheads, and they said, “You know, this is not working. This is wrong. I've got to figure it out.” And they have gotten themselves out of the movement. They are now working to help other guys get out of the movement. They did this themselves with no support in the US. In fact, the Obama Administration had given Life after Hate, one of the organizations I profile in the book, they’d given Life after Hate a grant under their new counterterrorism program, and the Trump administration took it away because the only antiterrorism work that they’re funding is anti–Islamic terrorism. So here are domestic terrorists—it’s thought 7 to 10 times more likely that there’s going to be a domestic terrorist event than a foreign terrorist event—and they lost their funding. At some point I may be able to tell you how they’re basically cobbling together that funding, it’s really an interesting story. But here are these guys who said, you know, “We’ve got to help guys get out of it.” And one of the founders of Life after Hate, Sammy Rangel, is a former East LA gang member, because the gang model is a similar masculinity-validation process, so he's been working with them. These guys, they’re so inspiring. One of these guys, Frankie Meeink, whom I profile in the book, he spends his time doing two things: He runs around the country talking at yeshivas and Hebrew schools in temples, talking about his past as a neo-Nazi. And the other part, he runs a hockey program in Des Moines to help kids from different backgrounds play hockey together, because he thinks that helps reduce the stereotypes and hatred among different groups. He's living every day, he's living the stuff that Tom Pettigrew found in the 1960s about the contact hypothesis. If you want to break down stereotypes, put people together, give them a common task. He's doing it every day. He didn't he didn't go to Harvard to study with Tom Pettigrew, he figured it out for himself. These people are so inspiring to me. So it's the most optimistic book because it says, “Guys can get out. Guys can figure out ways. And the way that they get out, of course, has to mirror the way they got in. You can't get a guy out of the neo-Nazi movement by walking up to him and saying, “Your ideas are stupid.” Because it's not about a kind of intellectual analysis of social relations, it's about a visceral experience that these guys had. So what gets them out—what got them in—is masculinity.
I'll tell you a story; it’s a good Southern California story since you're in Southern California—or at least, most of the time you’re in Southern California. Imagine a skater park in, say, Long Beach, and it's about 7 at night, and it’s just getting dark and everybody's gone home except this one lone guy wearing a flannel shirt tied around his waist, kind of stringy, oily hair and acne, he’s about 15. And he's by himself, and he's the kid that gets bullied in school, he has no friends, he's going to go home, have a quick dinner, and then go down to the basement and play video games all night, blowing up the rest of the world. That’s his daily routine. And into the skater park come these guys who are like awesome and scary. And they start talking to him, “Hey, how you doing, what's up?” And by the end of the conversation they say, “You should hang with us. You're really cool. You should hang with us. We have awesome parties. I mean everybody gets really drunk, and it's really fun, and there’s girls, and then, after everybody's drunk and stuff, we all take painkillers and we go out in the streets and we look for immigrant groups and we have fights with them. It's fantastic. Dude, you should definitely come with us.” So he goes with them, he goes to parties, they go fight, they do all these things, and they're telling him, “You’re one of us, you're a pal, you’re a comrade.” And so what he gets, at that moment, has nothing to do with ideology. They haven't even talked about it yet. They talk about how he's a cool dude, how he hangs out with the guys, how he’s one of them, he's part of the family, he feels completely a sense of connection, community, camaraderie. And they validate his masculinity. They say, “You’re a real man, you're awesome.” And then, and only then, do they start saying, “You have a sacred mission. You have to preserve the white race. You, as a man, have to do this. We have to do this together.” The ideology is not the thing that brings them in. It’s their experience of feeling connected. Unless we pay attention to that, we’ll never understand how to get them out, because getting them out means you have to give them a place to land as a man. The story I just told you, imagine going up to him and saying “Your ideas are stupid.” How far are you going to get? And that’s the essence our deradicalization programs, telling them that their ideas are wrong. What we have to do is we have to understand that these guys get in to validate their masculinity. To get them out, you have to give them an alternative way to experience being a man.
How does that happen? Some of them kind of age out. You know, it's cool to go fight and get drunk and go to parties at 15, not so cool at 35. So some of them just age out. But most of them have a break, and the reason for that break is they have a kid, they have a girlfriend, they have a mom. And those people say, “It’s us or them. You know, you have to choose because I'm not sticking around with this any more. Their children start saying racist things. One guy told me that he was completely in the movement and then his three-year-old and he were watching TV and his three-year-old started yelling racist things at the TV, and he said, “Whoa, I'm teaching him this,” and it completely freaked him. And he’s the guy who literally went to talk to his mom, his mom said “I'm furious with you, here's what you have to do.” He boxed up all of his neo-Nazi paraphernalia and went over to the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles and says I have something to give you, I have something to tell you about me, and I want to work with you and help guys get out.” That's how it works.
LW: It is a very inspiring book. I wonder if we can try to translate some of that optimism to what we're facing right now in America politically. I mean, arguably Donald Trump is a hateful president and he ran a hateful campaign, it was against and anti so many kinds of people, and he somehow managed to attract a lot of people, men and women, who found that really attractive. Am I stretching to see parallels there?
MK: No, you know Trump is an interesting character because he channels all that sense of what I called aggrieved entitlement, that sense of injustice that so many men feel, that Arlie Hochschild talks about, for example, in Strangers in Their Own Land, and to some degree that Hillbilly Elegy talks about, but [J.D. Vance] kind of likes it. But Trump illustrates a different kind of masculinity as well, not simply the bellicose, not simply the angry, but he must also be the most thin-skinned president we've ever had. Each criticism is experienced by him as an existential threat, a threat to his very existence. He must obliterate it, he cannot go on, he can't let go of anything, because it seems to be such a threat. Every psychoanalyst of course will tell you this is the essence of narcissism, but it does seem to me that what he's doing by being that, is he's channeling all of the injuries that so many people feel that they have experienced. And so he's constantly exploding, constantly saying, “They're hurting us, they’re doing this to us.” That is the refrain of the angry white man: “They’re doing this to us” or “the government is letting them do it to us.” That’s even worse, so of course government’s the enemy.
Trump is channeling all of the injuries that so many people feel that they have experienced. He's constantly ... saying, 'They're hurting us, they’re doing this to us.' That is the refrain of the angry white man.Click To Tweet
I do think it’s a mistake to think that this is new. This ground has been seeded for a long time. Seeing the government is the enemy, seeing it as us and them, this was long paved by the Reagan administration. That's where this comes from. In a way, I do feel these guys I talk to give me a little bit of hope because populism comes from that sense of aggrieved entitlement. It comes from a sense of injustice. “They’ve done some bad things to us.” And frankly, the white working class in this country has been dealt a bad hand. They have been screwed.
I just think that they are delivering their mail to the wrong address. Women aren’t responsible for downsizing them. LGBT people didn’t cause climate change. Immigrants didn't issue predatory loans. Yes, of course they’re getting screwed, but it’s not by the people they’re angry at.
I can't help but think that populism is not a theory. It's an emotion. It's an emotion of aggrievement. It’s an emotion of injustice, of righteous anger at perceived injustice. And there’s a populism of the Left that works at the same time as the populism of the Right. Now at the moment we're in the middle of a populism of the Right, in Poland, in Hungary, in the United States, but I would just remind you, Woody Guthrie was a populist. Bruce Springsteen is a populist. He’s the poet laureate of the white working class, and he’s a progressive. Bernie Sanders, a little bit of a populist. Elizabeth Warren is, because she’s a consumer advocate. That’s where it comes from, it’s not from the old Marxian idea, it’s not production, it’s from consumption that we draw most of our politics these days. So I think that Left populism still has a chance. And the criterion by which you would see Right populism or Left populism is race. Right-wing populism sees a white-black divide as core and essential, and they are the ones that are keeping us from having what we want. Left-wing populism sees class, not race, and says race and ethnicity and sexuality should all unite, because the real dynamic are class dynamics. And that’s really where the division, I think, comes from.
LW: So, what role do you see masculinity playing in both the rise of Trump and his supporters, in the kind of emboldening of white nationalists and other kinds of extremists in our society, in the kinds of activities that we’re seeing around him such as Charlottesville and other kinds of violent activities or divisive activities on the right, but also potentially the increased activism on the left as well?
MK: Remember when we were talking about the the ex-neo-Nazis that I've interviewed for Healing from Hate, and how these groups are working with them try to give them a place to land as a man, so they provide therapy, job training, job placement services, safe houses, they give them away to leave and feel anchored, like stakeholders? So here's the the question: What enables them to feel like a man is that they have a place to land. Do you remember, in January 2009, the very first proposal that President Obama floated was to dramatically expand community colleges, to make community colleges free and accessible to everyone? That was a way to give a lot of these alienated guys who had been downsized and offshored a place to land. Let them be retrained for the new information economy. Of course, it went nowhere in the Republican Congress. He was unable to get it through because they were absolutely intransigent. That's a policy that would have enabled to lot of these guys to remain stakeholders in their own lives, in their own system. A lot of the guys that are now flocking to Trump feel like they have nothing to lose. In fact, Trump even said that, but he was saying it to black people and lying when he said, “It hasn't worked out for you under Obama, whaddya got to lose, vote for me.” Well, it turns out they black people had a lot to lose and they knew it, and I’m saying this to all of those stalwart Bernie and Jill Stein voters, 95 percent of black women voted for Hillary. They knew better. Whatever happened to “listen to the women”? That's what I want to ask. So, it seems to me that that’s the strategy, that’s the tactic. If you want these guys to get out, you have to give them a place to land. You’ve got to give them a place where they feel like this is still their country. They're yelling at me, “Is this a white country or what?” And I'm thinking, they don't think it is any more. We have to allow white people to think that they still have a stake in the system. But in a different system. I'm not suggesting that the white supremacists are right. I’m saying they’re right to be angry, but they’re wrong in their analysis of why they’re angry.
LW: Right, and they seem to imagine—to paint with a broad brush—the aggrieved set seem to imagine that the Republican Party is the answer, that the Republican Party will somehow find a way to reinstate an opportunity to be a good man in their own lives. But the irony, right, is it's the Republican Party that has been systematically dismantling their ability to live up to their own ideals about what it means to be a good man and a good person. And of course right now we have the tax bill, which is going to even further eviscerate this possibility by widening the gulf between the rich and the poor. I think you're right—the answer is to give them an alternative masculinity that they can feel good about. But it seems like our political structure right now is doing the opposite of that and we’re powerless to stop it.
MK: There is a kind of What's the Matter with Kansas? moment, in which people are invited, because of social issues, to vote against their class interest, to vote with the rich against themselves. It's hard to imagine that this tax bill would get support among white working-class people. It's going to be the largest transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top we’ve ever experienced. So it's hard to imagine, for me, that we have never seen such a spineless Congress as the Republicans, unwilling to do the right thing and be ethical, even when it means embracing a pedophile. It is hard to imagine this moment, I suppose. And yet I think—I don't know. It's a dark time and I don't want to minimize that. But I take hope in the fact that people are capable of getting out of this. Here’s where I think the What’s the Matter with Kansas? kind of argument resonates emotionally, not culturally: The guys that I've talked with, especially in Angry White Men—these are guys in their mid-thirties who are now active in the white supremacist movement. So they were not necessarily the guys who were at Charlottesville, who skewed in their twenties, but they’re the guys who’ve been active for a while. I'm sure there were plenty of those guys too who were there. But the way they tell it, they made a bargain. They made a bargain with this country, and it was the same bargain their fathers and grandfathers made, and the bargain was this: “I will work my ass off at a job that I hate for a boss that I hate, who's an idiot, but I will work hard, I will pay my taxes. And in return for that, like my daddy before me and my grandfather before him, I will be able to support a family by myself, and I will be able to buy a house by myself. That means my wife should not have to work.” That phrase—“have to work”—is still operative for a large number of these guys, and let me tell you, the women agree with these guys; they don't want to have to work, they want their husbands to “take care” of them, they want to stay home with the kids. So this is the bargain they feel like they wanted, and it's gone; they can't do it. And they feel like they've been betrayed; so this is the bargain that they that they went for, this is what they expected. To hear them tell it, they expected to have a life just like their fathers’, and now they have to talk about gender-neutral bathrooms? They have to talk about same-sex marriage? Their heads are exploding. It's not that they're against these reforms; they're completely bewildered. In one short generation, they've gone from feeling like Don Draper to debating trans bathrooms; they don't know what to do. I think that we do ourselves a great disservice if we don't pay attention, not to the opposition but to the anguish that comes from being so bewildered by the extent and the rapidity of this change. If we simply—and we do this all the time, don't we? We focus on how far we have to go: “Oh my God, we still have this, we still have this, there’s so far to go.” We need to pause, take a look around, turn around and see just how far we've come, because in their eyes, the transformation has been dazzlingly fast, utterly bewildering, and it scares the crap out of them. And I think we do ourselves a disservice politically if we don't pay attention to what we sociologists like to call anomie: once the ground was solid under their feet, it was for their fathers, their grandfathers, all the way back in time, and now it feels like quicksand and they don't know where they stand anymore. If we don't pay attention to that, we will lose them.
LW: There's a debate on the Left that I'd like to set up and have you respond to that you're kind of tapping into. The debate on the Left is: should we be spending all of this time worrying about this percentage of the population that are aggrieved men, who have for whatever reason and possibly for very good reasons—or I’ll say very understandable reasons—thrown their lot in with hateful politics and divisiveness and want to go back and don't want to have to adjust to all these dazzling changes—should we spend a lot of time worrying about them, patting their heads, trying to convince them to do something different when they have really made quite a strong statement that they are averse to that? Or should we focus our energy on the coalition on the Left that is basically everybody but white men and married white women, and try to nurture that coalition? These things seem to get set up as two very different choices, and I hear you in the first camp, and that camp has been criticized. How would you respond to that?
MK: I think it's a false choice. I think both/and; I don't think either/or. That's the first thing I would say. Secondly, I would love to know exactly what you're talking about [in terms of] this coalition because I see the Left completely cannibalizing each other, screaming more at each other than at the power structure, frankly, I think we should be in a coalition. I think my inspiration for what that means is from Bernice Johnson Reagon from Sweet Honey in the Rock, and she said you don't build coalitions with people you agree with on everything, you make coalitions with people you agree with on one thing. You hold all your differences, but on this one we agree, let's work together on this, and we'll talk about all the other stuff where we disagree. So, for example, one of the organizations that I've worked with over the years, the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada, when they first emerged, there was a whole group of nuns who wanted to work with them because this was about violence against women and they were opposed to violence against women, but they're also opposed to reproductive choice. So the White Ribbon Campaign had a real dilemma: were they going to work with this group or not? If you run purity tests on who you're going to work with, you’ll work by yourself. It seems to me that coalitions require that we work with people we don't agree with. And I think that's great, and I'm looking, I'm waiting for this coalition to be emerging among feminists, among the Left, because I see us mostly yelling at each other. That's the first thing. You’re going to write off white men? I think that's a bad mistake. I don't think we organize our politics towards them; I think we try to figure out entry points for them.
If you run purity tests on who you're going to work with, you’ll work by yourself. It seems to me that coalitions require that we work with people we don't agree with.Click To Tweet
I think politically, we don't redo ourselves for them, we stay with what we believe. But we don't exclude them either because we're looking then at a rearguard action that's going to be quite unpleasant. And yes, eventually they'll be mostly noisy on the internet. I do think that the deal is in. The future is going to be more gender-equal than the present. I agree with Martin Luther King's idea that the arc of history always points toward greater justice. There's lots of backsliding and efforts to push it back, but I think the fix is in. I don't think women are going to have this moment—they’re not going to have an Ann Coulter moment where they go “Oh, you know what, they're right. Let's stop voting, let’s stop serving on juries, let’s stop working, let's stop driving cars, let’s stop having orgasms.” I mean that’s not going to happen. The fix is in. Men's choice is, are we going to be dragged kicking and screaming into that future, or are we going to say, “Alright that's the deal, let's check it out, it might not be bad for us also”? And I don't think that's a bad thing to say.
In the work that I do with corporations, for example, I work a lot trying to engage men to support gender equality in corporations. Because there’s a big initiative around diversity and inclusion, and white men often feel like “I need to sabotage this, I need to confront this; this is not about me—this is reverse discrimination against me.” And I feel like men can be part of that conversation. So my job has been to find what are the entry points for men into this conversation about gender equality? One of them turns out to be involved fatherhood; another one turns out to be teamwork in corporations; another one turns out among younger people to be friendships, cross-sex friendships. There’s a large number of entry points for men into this conversation.
Now here's what I would say politically: that’s not your [women’s] job. You have enough on your plate. That's my job. Men have to do this work. We're the ones who have to talk to other men about sexual assault; we’re the ones who have to talk to men about sexual harassment in the workplace. You have enough on your plate. So I don't think we want to write men out; I don't think we want to write them off. But I don't think we want to completely reorient our political position to make it nice and easy for them.
LW: So it sounds like you're saying we need to of course work on our coalitions on the Left but find one thing that we can also ally with this population of men who feel so aggrieved. It also sounds like this idea of the self-made man that became so prominent, as you’ve documented in Manhood in America, is no longer possible. So the thing that they want—the good man that they want to be—is no longer possible because women are not going to go back to those days. So what is the new masculinity that this leftist coalition needs to offer these guys?
MK: Well, I think it's some of the values of being a good man. I think what we want to do is gradually, over time, we need to degender those ideas because being a good man is being a good person. Honor, integrity, doing the right thing, being responsible to others, being accountable: that’s what people should be doing. It seems to me that I want to find—my test is to try to find ways to bring them into this because I feel like if I can convince men that they’re stakeholders in the efforts for gender equality, then they’ll live better lives. Let me put it this way: Politically, I am not opposed to using various strategies to engage men in this. So if I can't get you to think through this idea in the abstract with me about how gender equality is good for your company, better for your bottom line in a kind of Sheryl Sandberg way, well here's another thing: “got a daughter? you want her to experience this?” What is the single best predictor of a CEO supporting gender equality in his corporation—of a male CEO? Having a daughter. I'm willing to say that because these same guys who are saying “women shouldn't” are also coaching their girls’ AYSO [American Youth Soccer Organization] soccer team. I think in our day-to-day lives that we are already—every man is genetically connected to a woman. Every man I've ever met knows what it feels like to love a woman and want her to thrive because we're also in relationships as fathers and sons, as friends, as partners, colleagues, lovers, husbands. We all have relationships with women that we love and we want to support them and we don't want bad things to happen to them. So it seems to me that that's a place where I can talk with anybody. I could sit down with Richard Spencer, and I could say—he doesn't have any kids, he's not married, but he has a mom who's very supportive—“would you want this to happen to your mom?” I can talk with them about these things. That's what I mean by a coalition. What's the one thing? There are women in our every one of our lives that we love and I think that's an entry point.
LW: You specifically argue in Healing from Hate, and I think it's a strong argument, that men need a masculinity to land on. So what's the next step? What masculinity are we…. Is it going to be this kind of partnership masculinity that you are implying, [where] every man has the woman he knows who he wants to thrive? Can you try to be a little bit more specific about a positive future you can imagine that brings those men out of their hateful space and into coalition with progressives?
MK: I would urge those who are reading or watching this to take a look at the TED Talk by Justin Baldoni, which he just did at TED Women this year. And of course while you're there you should look at my TED Talk because it’s very important that we get lots of people looking at our TED Talks, and my mother has watched it many, many, many times but she can’t possibly watch it a million and a half times.
Here’s what women did, and I think we all need to be acknowledge and be so grateful that the feminist movement did this: So, in 1973 Sandra and Daryl Bem did their famous Bem Sex-Role Inventory, right? And what they did was they took every single behavior, trait, and attitude that you can have, and they coded them as masculine or feminine. And what they found was traits like competent, assertive, and ambitious were coded as masculine, and traits like caring and loving and generous were coded as feminine. Now, since 1973—before that, in fact—women have been saying, “that is insane. I am of course kind and loving and nurturing, and I am also assertive and competent and ambitious.” Women figured out that they can be whole people. Men, when you present that to them even today in 2017, they're okay with—“Oh yeah, I get the competent, ambitious, and assertive; the kind and generous and nurturing, I’m not so sure.” So the missing piece of this gender revolution it seems to me is to degender those traits—that men need to degender those traits that we have erroneously called “feminine” because those are human traits. We want men to be full human beings. This is how I think (being an American, we’re in sales) I want to sell feminism to men. Because greater gender equality—embracing a fuller pallet of traits, attitudes, and behaviors—cannot help but be good for men as well as for women. Women have shown us over the past fifty years, this is really good, this works really well, “see, aren't we awesome? aren't we more interesting now?” So now men need to be whole human beings. You’ve asked me, what can we offer? How can we sell this? We sell this by saying, “you’ve cut yourself off from half the human experience by embracing this traditional notion of masculinity, the thing that we call toxic. You’ll have a better life if you could actually be a person." Now, remember I am not talking about degendering people, I'm talking about degendering traits, attitudes, and behaviors. There's nothing inherently masculine or feminine about any of those traits, and that's where I think we have to go. And that's what I think we can offer to men.
LW: So that sounds lovely to me, but it also sounds like a way of tricking men into…. So we say “you too can be a whole human being,” and then when they embrace all of those traits that have been previously off-limits to them, they will suddenly realize that they are not any different than women. So have we given them a good place to land as men?
MK: Well, I think so. That's the thing; you're absolutely right in theory. I think when we were talking before about being a good man, that those really were traits that we would agree—you and I would agree—were being a good person, I think men still experience that in a very gendered way. They think that's about manhood, and I'm okay with them thinking that and expanding the definition. Look, going back to your earlier comment about the two poles—include men or just build coalitions and forget [them]—every human being in this country who’s not concerned about the fact that the fastest growing demographic group that’s committing suicide is middle-aged white men, who basically just wants to write them off, I'm sorry that’s not my coalition. I'm sorry. We need to be compassionate for them; we need to be compassionate about men who are feeling so despairing about their chances. We have an analysis of why that's happening, and it's about the intersection of class and race and gender. This is what we've done over the past fifty years, since Signs was founded. This is the academic field that we have tilled, and we're going to say “they don't count, to hell with them”? My feeling is it that the worst way to go is a kind of oppression sweepstakes. There are still places where we can all agree, and those are the places where I think we have to put our attention. The health consequences for men are dramatic. Being so tough that they never go to the doctor—because we're scared shitless! We believe that courage and bravery is the most important trait of men, and yet the entire Republican Congress is completely, utterly wimpified; men are afraid to go to the doctor for routine screenings. We’re terrified of most things. So let's encourage and support men doing the right thing because it's good for their families, it's good for them. I don't think I don't see that as a contradiction with what we're what were about politically at all.
LW: Well, I hope you're right. I do. Of course, just like all men have women that they love in their lives, all women have men in their lives that they love as well, and I hope we can offer them something that they find valuable.
MK: I think we do. I think in fact feminism—I've always said, feminism is the best thing that ever happened to men because it gives us a map of how to be a whole person, how to have the relationships we want with ourselves, with our bodies, with women, with other men, with children. It's always been, to me, the answer not the problem.
LW: Well thank you so much, this has been lovely.
MK: Are we done already?
LW: Yeah, I think so, it’s that time. Is there something else you wanted to talk about?
MK: I guess what I would want to say at the end is simple because we're doing this for Signs, and yes, it’s Ask a Feminist and so it tends to be a little bit more political than academic, but I've always had one foot in the activist world and one foot in the academic world. And so I think my conversation with you today, Lisa, has stressed the activist part. We haven't gotten into theoretical conversations about masculinities and all of the different ways in which our theoretical analysis can be sharpened and broadened and where the trends are in masculinity studies. And I'm not suggesting that we go there. But I do want to say to Signs readers is that this is a conversation—that I think both of those conversations are necessary as we sharpen those theoretical tools, as we become more methodologically sophisticated in understanding the different ways in which different men experience masculinities so that we would be able to talk for example about African American or Asian American men or gay men with the same kind of rigor that I tried to decenter white masculinity and straight masculinity. I think that's an important intellectual project as well, so I don't want to downplay that, but I do want to say that I love the conversation being more about my activism.
LW: I think that in my lifetime anyway there has never been a moment where it has been more clear that the links between what we're doing theoretically and what we're doing out in our daily lives are incredibly important. One thing I hope that happens is that all academics start to think a little bit bigger about what they're doing with their research and how it can help make the world a better place.
MK: I agree with you. I think the situation is so dire, and the crisis is so urgent that we really can't afford to have so many brilliant people not pushing outwards into the real world.
LW: I think that’s a great place to end. Thank you, Michael!
Michael Kimmel is one of the world’s leading experts on men and masculinities. He is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University. Among his many books are Manhood in America, Angry White Men, The Politics of Manhood, The Gendered Society, and the best seller Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, he founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook in 2013. A tireless advocate of engaging men to support gender equality, Kimmel has lectured at more than 300 colleges, universities and high schools. He has delivered the International Women’s Day annual lecture at the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Europe, and has worked with the Ministers for Gender Equality of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden in developing programs for boys and men. He consults widely with corporations, NGOs, and public sector organizations on gender equity issues. His forthcoming book is Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism.
Lisa Wade is an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. Her newest book, American Hookup, is about the emergence and character of the culture of sex that dominates college campuses today. Lisa has authored over a dozen academic research articles and a textbook on the sociology of gender. She also actively contributes to media, writing extensively for non-academic audiences and appearing on television and radio.