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By Bruce Fleming


The Montréal Review, October 2018


"A dapper young lad rests his hands in his pockets while gazing across the room" by Hillary Doggart-Greer


            There is no correct academic view of men in the contemporary world, and hence no theoretical vocabulary for considering them that seems anything other than wrong to most men, who deal with this fact by turning away and refusing to engage. This gives the talkers the mistaken impression that they have won the battle. They haven’t. Men have just walked away, usually in disgust, and at best with disinterest.

          This is so because virtually all contemporary theoretical considerations of masculinity in North America are offshoots of feminist and “queer” or Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) theory, and indeed, are invariably housed in university departments of women’s studies as an add-on, where they are placed under the rubric of “gender studies.”  Men are viewed as imperfect women, an interesting reversal of the way, according to Thomas Laqueur in “Solitary Sex,” women were medically viewed as versions of men from the Renaissance through the Victorians, with the clitoris a form of penis and the ovaries like oddly placed testicles.

             Consider the clarity with which the University of Utah’s Gender Studies major traces its genesis and the subsidiary nature of male studies to feminist on its Web site, the place where things have to be clearest to the outside world: “Gender Studies is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on interactions of gender with race, class, sexual orientation, and nationality. In addition to its focus on the history and achievements of women, gender scholarship has inspired research and curricula that address men’s lives, masculinity, and the lives of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The University of Utah Gender Studies Program offers a space for the study of a wide range of feminist thought and practices: theory and community-engaged learning; activism and professional development; lively debate and professional skill building.”

            And the University of Toronto’s Women and Gender Studies Institute introduces itself this way, proudly claiming its approach as feminist: “For the past 40 years, WGSI has trained students to think about the entanglements of gender, race and sexuality. Our teaching and research is distinctive for its transnational feminist approach, critically addressing how national borders, colonialisms, labour, and migration shape life, knowledge, and politics.”

            Gender studies looks at men from the perspective of women. This can be interesting to men—how do others see us?—but it is not objective. Gender studies is not a neutral study that looks at the world and tries to find out the truth about it; it is a subjective point of view based on unquestioned dogmas.  So we can’t look to this, the only academic version of talk nowadays with any lung power, to offer the perspective on masculinity of those who live it, which is to say men. (Even males who write about men’s studies or gender studies are adopting the outsider’s point of view; see below for a consideration of their most noted example, Michael Kimmel.)

          Indeed gender studies is not only wide of the mark with respect to masculinity, it is intrinsically antagonistic to masculinity as most men live it. This antagonism starts with the use of the word “gender” to replace the now-outmoded word “sex” to refer to men and women. It’s a move of which Plato would have approved. Men and women aren’t real essences any longer, only the more abstract “gender” is—as if “red” and “green” were declared not to exist as colors, but only Color, sub-set “the shadow we call green.” It denies them substance by giving it instead to a more abstract concept. Gender isn’t exactly a neologism, because the word “gender” existed before gender studies as the general word to indicate either male or female sex, as sibling is the general of brother or sister or spouse of husband or wife. But gender as something that itself can be studied makes the general the new specific, leaving what are now sub-divisions of male and female as merely almost trivial differences. That’s how language controls thought, as Orwell pointed out. Or it would if we accepted it; as it is, academia is the only place where this distinction has become dogma. But the problem is that there is no one opposing this re-writing of the linguistic map for the world outside, so these concepts become the only available vocabulary even for people outside the academy. And they end up as laws, so that these invented concepts end up controlling the lives of everyone.

            This results in what I call linguistic over-reach, one of the big problems of our day. (Nothing is big compared to global warming, but that’s another story.) Because nobody questions them, the advocates are left trying to change the world with levers that are actually too small: words can only change the world if people adopt them. And this is what can’t be forced, despite what the wordsmiths think. Related examples of linguistic over-reach that create problems, in addition to the attempt to promote “gender” at the cost of “sex,” are “sexual assault” and “gender discrimination,” which I consider below.

            As one representative academic example of this Platonic move to have “gender” become the essential concept and to demote “sex,” consider the name of Ohio State’s Department of “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.”  (OSU shares with Brandeis, among other programs, the third topic; far more typical is the first two alone, but always in that order.)  A Martian might wonder that the title of the department says nothing about men because it includes the more general term and starts with women as what seems to be a defined group, and sex has become “sexuality,” which is perhaps best described as a function or capability that can be expressed in many ways. (The equivalent for an art school all about the color red might be the Department of Red and Color studies, with no other Departments of Green, Yellow, or Blue. There’s red, and there is color, not other colors worth specifying.) The statement of purpose of the OSU Department reads as follows, clearly rejecting from the outset that any of this (except perhaps being a woman) has any basis other than groups of other humans acting to determine and so limit the individual.  “The mission of the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) is to generate and transmit knowledge about the gendered nature of our lives and the ways gender, sexuality and other categories of identity shape and are shaped by culture and society.”

            Consider: “ The gendered nature of our lives.” Lives, it seems, can acquire aspects of gender, but in any case gender is a “category of identity” which apparently acquires its nature (shape) from interactions with culture and society. Gender studies  thus posits from the outset—perhaps unsurprisingly—that masculinity or femininity are not what we in fact are, but are larger “categories of identity” to which the individual relates.

            Gender studies takes aim at what is the apparently infuriating pretense of solidity of most men: we’re here, we take up space. And our view of ourselves is our view of ourselves, which means our point of departure. Not so fast, says gender studies: your vaunted “it’s here/it’s real/it’s mine” masculinity is nothing but an intersecting web of social power plays, constructions far larger than yourself. Now sit still while I analyze you and prove to you how little you matter as individuals.

            The University of Oregon’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program, to take another example, aims to examine the meaning of gender as a socially constructed category that shapes personal identities, beliefs, opportunities, and behaviors. The wide range of classes explores the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality; the institutional structures that have an impact on women’s and men’s lives; and the broad range of feminist theory that seeks to explain and influence women’s status in society. Among the areas of emphasis in Women’s & Gender Studies are gender and sexuality, queer studies, third world feminism, cultural representation and literature, women and labor, feminist theory, critical race feminism, immigration and citizenship, and social activism.

             We’re all socially constructed, but women can explain it all. And do something about problems. Men not so much.

            Men, I suggest, typically aim to become themselves: masculinity is something real and it’s something achieved. But apparently for gender studies, it’s a strange belief determined by many social factors, usually with a malevolent purpose of domination, something that can be picked apart and analyzed. We may protest again: wait! It doesn’t happen by itself! It takes my effort! But the effort of the individual is irrelevant to views of masculinity as a sub-set of gender that is determined by social factors. Gender studies isn’t  an objective field of study inquiring to find out what the world is like; it’s decided already what the result is, and is busy telling anybody who will listen. Usually that doesn’t include (straight) men. Gender studies is a polemical position, not a neutral field of study.

            It’s certainly true that for us, part of being a man is appearing to be a man, so we’d probably be on board with the insistence of the gender studies people that masculinity involves an aspect of charade—perhaps part of what they mean by “construction.”  Part of being a man for us is seeming to be in control, not complaining, and “sucking it up.” Men would probably be willing to admit that most of the time we are faking power and certainty we don’t really feel, if only we did not sense that the corollary of admitting this would be to be told by the gender studies people that the striving is ridiculous and we should stop it. Or  that it doesn’t matter what we as individuals do, because we are all social constructions.

            This is bad because the primacy of the individual is central to most men’s view of masculinity. It’s my masculinity to achieve. I have to do it; not somebody else. I matter both to me, and to the masculinity I am trying to achieve.  It’s outside of me, but I can achieve it.

            Masculinity for most men, I suggest, is like a target we never completely achieve—it’s certainly not an intersection of societal forces that leave me the helpless pawn, a fly caught in a spider’s web wrought by faceless others. Nor is it a power play, as feminist theory insists—unless over ourselves. We’re not out to deny others the good stuff, and our lives seem plenty hard to ourselves. In fact part of our definition of ourselves is a sense that we have to put up with a lot of bad stuff to shield others. Others may not want it, and that’s useful information for us to have. You don’t want us to be self-sacrificing and protective? Okay, say so. We’ll find somebody else who does.

            What this means is that there is no reason to rule out a priori, as gender studies does, the possibility that men and women are real but asymmetrical creatures. Of course we have to tread carefully and justify our conclusions: we can’t just assume that there’s no overlap at all (as in: men are from Mars, women from Venus). But neither can we assume the opposite. Pay attention to the world, craft theories, test them, embrace probable outcomes in the absence of certain ones: that’s the way to have academic discourse.

            One of the many examples of gender asymmetry is that men typically are not talkers at all: we typically see ourselves as doers, not speakers—this is part of our conception of masculinity. Thus we don’t return in kind the verbiage of other groups seeking to define themselves. Usually we only bottle it up in fury that comes out as invective when we can no longer contain ourselves. And that’s ugly. Yet the lack of a reasoned response to the feminist- and other-marginalized-group-inflected view of men encourages these other groups to reach the conclusion that they are right. They’re not right; we’re just ignoring them. But why wouldn’t they think they have carried the day? They’re the only voices anybody hears—except for the vitriol of right-wing talk radio.

            The phrase, once again, that shows the point of view most clearly in the University of Oregon’s manifesto is “gender as a socially constructed category.” The more universally something is held to be true, the less useful it becomes in helping us process the differences we see in the world. This is the fate of the ueber-popular notion that everything—here, masculinity, gender, sexuality, and so on—is “constructed.” If it means anything, it has to be as opposed to something: and the something is, clearly, not constructed, which must mean intrinsic, or given, or the result of inhuman forces. Construction is something we people do, so to say that something is constructed means that it’s not God-given (or something equivalent). In short, it can be questioned. But it’s not amenable to change by the individual; indeed, it’s not clear that the individual can change it at all.

            That it’s individuals reading about something being presented by an individual but  beyond the power to affect or even the ken of individuals (who may deny what is said about them) is the fatal flaw of this way of thinking: it can’t change anything, just say what is so. It’s based on a scientific paradigm, which describes the objective world beyond individuals. But it’s formulated by and read by individuals. And it’s about people. We can’t change things true of people that are beyond people. We can change the physical world because that isn’t about people at all.

            Most intellectual historians date the genesis of this way of thinking (which can be summed up by saying that what is, is only provisional, a sort of Potemkin village or a set waiting to be struck) to Saussure’s idea that all language was merely an arrangement of signs with no intrinsic connection to the world, so that their meaning was created solely by relation with other signs. “I hate you” doesn’t somehow link to hatred (whatever that is), rather it is only an opposite of “I love you,” equally meaningless if not contrasted to its opposite. Red isn’t so much red as merely not-blue (or for that matter not anything else)—it was an easy step from here to see morality, social institutions, clothes, feelings, rules of any sort and anything else we can name as being merely alternatives to other things like them. Usually this is expressed by saying that they are constructed—arbitrary and amenable to being blown to smithereens by the withering force of an intellectual’s scholarly analysis.  Those who argued for the substantiality and immutability of anything were held simply “not to get it”: the world was built on shifting sands. Yet creating structures of words that prove that people are pawns in a play of forces means we can’t in fact change the world. It is the way it is because of structural facts, There is no way to distinguish what we want from what we don’t want. We’re caught in a vial of our own vitrol. 

            Besides, if everything is constructed, the mind demands that we make sub-divisions: if things are too universally true, we look for variations. Saying that everything is “constructed” says nothing about the relative solidity of the constructions. A castle and a hut are both constructed, but one is easier to deconstruct than the other. The three little pigs each constructed houses, but there was a great functional difference between them. Saying that everything is “constructed” is unhelpful, boring, and even if true, trivially so. Are some things more constructed by us than others? Most men would say there are distinctions.

            Metaphors hold us in their sway, as George Lakoff points out: think of the variations on dirt and decay routinely applied to sexual matters, for example, or the positive valence for the word “hard” and the negative for the word “soft.” Soft on Communism, for example: Margaret Thatcher famously admonished Ronald Reagan not to get “squishy” on her in opposing the Soviet Union. That would be bad. The metaphoric weight of the notion of “construction” is to liken our masculinity (and everything else: everything it turns out is constructed, which somewhat limits the interest of applying this concept) to a do-it-yourself kit from the store: we have the parts, the tools, and the directions. The particular ways it’s put together are minor: the individual doesn’t end up mattering. And when it’s done, there it stands, eternally outside of us.

            But that’s not how men typically see their masculinity at all. We don’t, it seems to us, get all the parts in a kit, and there are no set of directions. And the result isn’t outside of us. Certainly becoming a man is a process, but it isn’t a “construction.” Instead the metaphor ought to be a creature dismembered and dispersed at birth whose far-flung pieces sense their kinship with each other and seek each other out—rather like the body parts of Orpheus separated (according to the myth) by the Maenads, which reconstituted themselves after being dispersed. There may be nothing in addition to the pieces, no essence of “masculinity,” but the pieces know each other as kin and we achieve masculinity by becoming ourselves.  Our masculinity isn’t constructed, it’s achieved. It’s not a process outside of us or an abstract construction of gender: it’s our life-work, who we are. If we manage to achieve it, we have given meaning to our lives. We don’t construct something abstract; we become what we are destined to be.

            Syracuse University’s “Women’s and Gender Studies” department, in its statement of purpose, makes even clearer than many other comparable departments the assumption that there is no such thing as an independent male view that is not constructed, and that in any case the primary goal is to advance women’s objectives and to combat “sexual domination.”

            To study gender either in one's own society or in the world, one must come to understand how gender ideas and practices take shape in relationship with ideas and practices about race, class, cultural identity, sexuality, nationality, and religion. Gender hierarchies and sexual domination figure in nearly every culture and society, and categories like "traditional vs. modern," or "West vs. East," can over-simplify and distort the significant variations and differences that exist in the world. The possibility of understanding and solidarity among women worldwide can only be achieved by an analysis of gender and gender oppression that places both within a global and intersectional framework.

            The University of Louisville’s “Women’s and Gender Studies Department” underlies the adversarial nature of its perspective, and asserts, as virtually all such departments do, that gender can only be understood as part of a larger set of interlocking structures of power—if on women, then logically by men.  

            Women's and Gender Studies addresses significant omissions in traditional scholarship by examining the history, contributions and accomplishments of women and by studying the ways gender has structured intellectual and social life. Women's and Gender Studies calls attention to how issues of gender intersect with other structures of power such as race, class, and sexualities.

            Most men aren’t going to be able to relate to this view—and where else on campus can they go to talk about being men? Perhaps in the fraternity house, where no one is guiding them and where the unguided experience of being male leads to excesses. Or off campuses entirely, in local bars.  And what of those who have no connection with the academy at all? People who think differently are forced into adversarial postures, rather than being given a seat at the table: this positive masculinity has become perverted into the sexist rants of right-wing talk radio. No wonder: there’s little sympathy among intellectuals today for the idea that masculinity is a good thing, a noble life project. Instead it’s seen universally by the only theory going as either negative for women and racial minorities, or a simple sham.

            Michael Kimmel is one of the most interesting, as well as prolific, writers on the subject of masculinity’s discontents within a “gender studies” framework, because his perspective on masculinity is not mere attack on men, as is the perspective of such famous feminists as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Men frustrate him, but he feels sorry for them because he thinks them victims of forces they cannot control.

            Kimmel suggests that in the first centuries of American identity, there were two basic types of masculinity, typified by Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere (which he calls The Genteel Patriarch and the Heroic Artisan, respectively). He sees the roots of the problem—he seems to be channeling Marx in this view—in his theory that in the nineteenth century these were replaced by “Marketplace Masculinity” which “was a manhood that required proof.” It was based “on the exclusion of ‘others’” including most fundamentally women and gay men: that contemporary masculinity is fundamentally anti-female and homophobic is central to Kimmel’s thesis, developed over many books and articles. Marketplace Masculinity was a “terrified flight into a pristine mythic homosocial Eden.” It is a “tragic tale”—leading to “terrors of emasculation, emotional emptiness, and a gendered rage that leaves a wide swath of destruction in its wake” (The Gender of Desire, 29).

            Men are therefore a mess, not to mention dangerous and destructive, as much to themselves as by others—and Kimmel has to save both them and everybody else. Men are the problem, as is their liking for each other: if they’re straight, they are attracted to women, right? So what are they doing congregating in “homosocial groups”? Or rather, for of course Kimmell’s position is a sophisticated one: it’s not the fault of the men, but of societal forces that have created this frightening creature. Men aren’t individually responsible, they are the passive pawns of developmental forces beyond their control.

            This is the position most congenial to academics. For we require learned people to explain to us things we can’t see, such as gravitational or atomic forces, and the development of extra-individual views of things. This, at least, is the basis of the science-centered development of academia over the last century or so. The point of view of the individual is denied or found irrelevant, religious in nature or perhaps intellectually jejeune.

            I may say that I am interested in cultures outside my own because of healthy intellectual curiosity, but an intellectual will explain that I am expressing the hegemonic control of my position of perceiver: sorry Charlie, no individual volition here, just us impersonal forces. A beer-guzzling male sports fan in a twenty-first century living room eating Buffalo wings with his buds as they watch the Big Game may think he’s just a guy having a good time the best he knows how—but of course academics like Kimmel (here in his mass-market Guyland about all that’s wrong with contemporary masculinity), can explain that he is using “sports both to hide his feelings and to express his feelings”; “sports let men cry” (129) . If you just say men like sports, you’re not interesting, and you haven’t discovered anything. But if you analyze sports as the escape valve for something that is otherwise forbidden, you have something to share with the world. If you just say things are as they are, why would anybody listen to you?          

          Kimmel, in the chapter of The Gender of Desire called “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity,” quotes earlier writers Robert Brannon and Deborah David, who summarize the “four succinct phrases” that “serve to maintain the real-life power that men have over women and that some men have over other men” (30-31). The phrases are: “No Sissy Stuff”; “Be a Big Wheel”; “Be a Sturdy Oak”; and “Give ‘Em Hell.” Anybody who looks at these and sees, in fact, the essence of masculinity, is prey to the constructions that people like Kimmel were apparently put on earth to deconstruct.

            Contemporary humanities and social sciences apparently thought they were showing the world to have feet of clay by substituting collective movements for God-given forces. But all they did was show why individuals are just as powerless as they were before. Except, it seems, individual professors howing that, for example, there are no innocent decisions in form or content of literature, or how destructive socially constructed forms of masculinity are.

            This of course is the problem with founding studies based on individuals on collectives: it gives force to the prophet, but robs him/her of effect. We can’t turn around the collective, only explain it once it’s happened since what changes can only be expressed in units far greater than the individual. Yet the paradox is that it’s an individual saying this—and writing to other individuals, who apparently aren’t so powerless after all.

            This paradoxical position of contemporary humanities and social sciences is what allows Kimmel and countless others to arrive at the conclusion that masculinity is in crisis, presumably the result of historical societal forces, and that those opposing this view are simply in denial about history, which is stronger than individuals: “As has always been the case throughout American history, when masculinity is perceived as in crisis, there are those who defend a nostalgic traditional vision of gender relations that would restore men to their ‘rightful’ position of dominance” (Manhood in America, 3rd Edition, 258). But how does that explain people like him? Oh, right. They’re the ones who correctly see the direction of History: towards a world where men do not exert dominance.

            Male gender studies is going to explain to the enemy, which is to say men, what they are: we’ve listened to you for millennia, it seems to say; now sit down and listen to us. And like it. Gender studies isn’t asking what men think about themselves; it’s telling. Frequently indeed it takes as its point of departure the assumption that straight men and even their very masculinity are in crisis, deficient, contradictory, or out of whack.  This actually makes sense. If it’s okay, why study it?

            But if it’s studied from the perspective of other groups, those who see themselves as having been disprivileged by the straight white men, it won’t be accurately described. Whatever the effects on a particular group, intended or unintended, of our actions, they have to be seen in a larger context than merely these effects. As part of a whole picture, sure. But not the nature of who we are. Faults? Of course. But don’t say our whole being is tainted. If you do, we won’t listen. Because we know that can’t be true.

            Thus anyone who suggests that masculinity itself is in good shape and that being a straight man is a perfectly fine thing to be, even if he’s white, is immediately put in the camp of what  Kimmel calls, in a book title, “Angry White Men,” homophobic and racist screamers who listen to talk radio rants and nurse a sense of what Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement” because they just can’t get over the fact that their eons of privilege based on exclusion of women, gay men, and non-whites are over. Kimmel’s view serves up a mixture of sociology and hectoring to argue that men are behind the times. In fact, though they don’t want to admit it, the era of men is over—as Susan Faludi argued, sympathetically, in Stiffed, and Hannah Rosin, less sympathetically, in the more recent The End of Men. Jobs in manufacturing typically taken by men are disappearing, and the notion that men define themselves by being breadwinners for stay-at-home wives is outmoded.

            Such arguments confuse specific recent ways in which men have expressed themselves with the project of becoming a man. Before the Industrial Revolution there was history as well, and men too.  And gender studies’ impatience with the fact that men are resisting the truth of their own demise echoes Freud’s frustration that his patients weren’t saying what he wanted to hear: he was right and they were merely resistant. It’s also based on another logical flaw: it’s an illegitimate intellectual step to insist that men have to not only stop resisting history but welcome the change that will make them irrelevant once and for all: the resistance may itself be part of history, and who knows? They might win. Gender studies wants to prove that men are vanquished: more frustratingly, they are failing to surrender. Gender studies is seeking not just to chronicle forces that act on men, but to tell men how to act, what to say, and how to view the world. It wants to effect change, not merely describe it.

            So why don’t men talk back to gender studies, which holds the theoretical lock on views of masculinity?  Doing so would seem like whining; it would seem as if what others say matters to us. And that’s against the rules of masculinity. As the linguistics professor Deborah Tannen points out, men do not typically share weakness as a socializing mechanism, whereas women do—so the only time a man will typically share the difficulty of being a man with another man is when both are drunk and it’s 3 a.m.  Sitting beside another man on an endless car ride in the middle of the night where the men don’t have to look at each other works too. And we are skeptical of theorists who are too sympathetic to our pain: that for us is the price of having a pair, and sucking it up part of being male. Do we like it? What means like? It’s who we are. To outsiders, our apparent courting of certain pain seems masochistic, bizarre. To us it’s the price of admission.

            Anyway, why bother? Men are continuing to transmit the truth that males have to work to become men, but they are doing it under the radar of gender studies departments. Because this information about what it means to be a man is transmitted in small groups, typically by other men, and indeed is pilloried as destructive both to us and others by outsiders such as gender studies, it has gone underground, seeming a sort of “boys only” secret code that we have to protect from attack. That’s not healthy for men.

            Kimmel pillories the popularity of the movie “Fight Club” as being the expression of the “zeitgeist of Angry White Men” (AWM 59)—and he’s surely right to be worried that a movie about men meeting in secret to take off their shirts and beat the crap out of each other should be so influential that it created real-life fight clubs. Kimmel thinks it’s the result of “societal emasculation” (220) which sounds as if he’s sympathetic that men (in the words of the film’s director) have nothing “to kill anymore, . . . nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore.”  He’s not: he thinks men just have to lose the desire to do all this.

            I think men have to be encouraged to do this—in the changed world of the West’s post-industrial society.  We don’t need to go into the woods and beat on drums to be men, as the men’s movement begotten on the poet Robert Bly’s best-seller of the 1990s Iron John insisted we should, in search of ritual missing in our modern lives.  And beating the crap out of each other and messing up the results of our adolescent orthodontia in warehouses after hours just seems stupid. There are more productive ways to be men, namely by encouraging our sense of adventure and initiative, our conviction that if we don’t do it, it’s not going to be done. But our need to explore and achieve has to be publically acknowledged so we don’t get bitter and adversarial and go underground with it.

            Oho! Gender Studies people will say. Just men? It’s just men who have this need? Not at all. We know we do: you do too? Fine. Let’s celebrate our common need for this rather than declaring it dead. Or maybe you’re different than we are; who knows? Free to be you and me, baby. I have the skate key, you have the skates—maybe we can join forces? You’re welcome to speak for you; now let us speak for us. Letting other people than straight men be what they are doesn’t mean that men, particularly straight men, can’t and shouldn’t be what they are too. Masculinity as seen by men isn’t in crisis, whatever happens to a decline in manufacturing—a relatively recent development in American society—nor is it based on hatred, or denying others a place at the table. Blue collar right-wing politics need to be taken seriously, but they are not synonymous with masculinity itself or a sign of crisis in being male.

            But gender studies goes further than this: it declares that there’s no need for men to speak because there is no such thing as being a man that is in any substantial way different from being a woman: all are variations on a scale of something more abstract, “gender.” The chickens have spoken so we don’t need to listen to the ducks, because after all, the chickens say that we’re all barnyard fowl.  It’s a supremely self-serving intellectual position. Maybe the ducks don’t see it that way. But the chickens have thought of this too: if the ducks agree with the chickens, like Kimmel, they are being reasonable. If they demur, they are showing how outmoded they are, or are in denial. Heads I win, tails you lose. Clearly the ducks are going to take to right-wing talk radio rather than stick around to chat.

            I aim to give the reasonable response to what I take to be a mistaken, if understandable, view of heterosexual (white) maleness that is the only view of them with any intellectual substance we hear expressed today. Otherwise, all academics hear that opposes their unquestioned presuppositions—those of the dozens of “Women’s and Gender Studies” programs nationwide—is when they go slumming by going into a Midwest roadhouse to interview all the “angry white men,” what Kimmel calls “the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action program in world history” because they “so stacked the deck that everyone else was pretty much excluded from playing at all” (AWM 8)—between rants and beers. What they hear is white male anger at women and people of color.

            Yet apparently they’re wrong about this too, the poor oafs. As Kimmel explains to us, women and people of color are merely what these men believe to be the enemy. In fact “the enemy is an ideology of masculinity we inherited from our fathers, and their fathers before them, that promises unparalleled acquisition coupled with a tragically impoverished emotional intelligence” (AWM 9). Gender studies has identified the problem—masculinity itself as straight men understand it—and is going to fix it. The old joke is that the person who knocks at the door says “I’m from the government and I’m here to fix your problem.” The new joke ought to be “Good morning gentlemen, I’m here from the university Gender Studies Department and I’m here to fix you.”

            In fact masculinity, particularly straight masculinity (though this is based on a complex relation with other men), is what it is, as other viewpoints and things are what they are. It deserves the same respect that feminism and queer studies have demanded for other groups. Men aren’t women waiting to be fixed; straight boys aren’t living a lie. Why assume that our self-image is wrong? And what does it matter if it is? It’s ours, and it’s what we think being a man is.  Gender studies can try to convince us to change details of that self-image, but it can’t simply announce the whole project we are engaged in is invalid. Yet this is precisely what men’s studies as added on to women’s studies does: it says that women have the right to their self-image, which cannot be questioned, but men don’t.


Bruce Fleming is the author of over a dozen books and many articles, listed at www.brucefleming.net His degrees are from Haverford College, the University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. His new book is Saving Madame Bovary: Being Happy With What We Have.


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