Canadian Journal of Sociology Online November - December 2000

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Michael Kimmel.
The Gendered Society.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 315 pp. $Cdn 26.95 Paper (0-19512588-6) $Cdn $48.00 cloth (0-19512587-8)

This book, written by an American for an American audience, will also have a lasting value in Canadian university classrooms. Kimmel’s Introduction (Chapter One) begins by challenging the notion that men and women are fundamentally different. This sets the tone for a text that (alongside its companion The Gendered Society Reader), challenges the arbitrary and unjust division of gendered labour in our society and seeks to get to the bottom of the problem. Kimmel argues that every explanation of gender must address two central questions which are central to his task: Why is it that most societies differentiate people on the basis of gender? And why is it that virtually every known society is based on male dominance? Kimmel’s social constructionist answer to these questions, which consistently rejects biological determinism, argues that the presence of difference does not preclude equality of treatment.

In Part One (Chapters Two through Five) Kimmel examines work in biology, anthropology, psychology and sociology. Chapter Two acknowledges that while biological studies suggest the basic building blocks of experience and identity, it is within culture, society and family that those building blocks are assembled into diverse architectures. Chapter Three investigates cross-cultural constructions of gender. This well written chapter draws upon anthropological evidence of the diverse cultural definitions of gender and sexuality around the world, deepening his problematization of the biological case. Chapter Three assesses a variety of psychological perspectives on sex and gender. As with biological and anthropological approaches, Kimmel finds the psychological approaches unable to fully theorize difference, power, relationality and the institutional dimensions of gender. This takes him to the final chapter of Part One which presents sociological (social constructionist) investigations of inequality and difference.

In Chapter Five Kimmel examines the social construction of inequality and difference arguing that sociology is uniquely equipped to understand both what is really different between men and women, and what is not really different but only seems to be, as well as the ways in which gender difference is the product of, rather than the cause of, gender inequality. He explains that gender is not a thing that one possesses, but is a set of activities that one does. Further, gender is a situated accomplishment which is every bit as much an aspect of interaction as of identity. The remainder of the book examines the social institutions (families, schools, workplaces) where gender differences are created and inequalities are socially constructed.

Part Two “Gendered Identities, Gendered Institutions” examines the family, the classroom and work as places where gender inequality is not only created, but where new social constructions leading to greater gender equality can be forged. For those of us who see the study of gender, communication and culture as acts of courage for students who wish to pursue change in their own lives, these are important and by times, inspiring chapters. Here we find gender inequality as impediments to love and nurturance, a price men have always paid for allegiance to patriarchy and traditional constructions of masculinity. It is also in these chapters that we find hope that our children may not face the mental impairment that patriarchal and traditional conceptions of men’s and women’s roles would impose on another generation. Finally, it is in these chapters that we find, among the depressing statistics of how slowly things have progressed in recent years, enormous potential for further change and our ability to participate in the creation of a more fundamentally democratic society which will start with our homes, our workplaces and our schools.

Part Three contains two lively chapters on gendered intimacies and gendered sexualities, and an important chapter on the gender of violence. In the chapters on intimacy, friendship and sexuality Kimmel approaches his topic in a way that encourages students to once again think about the constraints that traditional blinders put on them, especially in terms of self development and the enrichment of their lives. Given the kind of sexual democracy that Kimmel advocates, here we find men who can love men and women who are able to act as healthy sexual beings. Optimistically, Kimmel demonstrates that gender differences, while they persist in our sexual expression, are indeed far less significant than they formerly were. He is of course correct. As any university teacher who went to school in the seventies or sixties can acknowledge, the presence of women in our class rooms and in diverse occupations in our society since those times serve as the empirical proof of change. The final chapter of this section undertakes a thoughtful analysis of the ways in which men have been socialized to believe that they are somehow violent and rapacious beats. Kimmel also provides countless examples of how we are much more than that. Ironically, Kimmel points out, the male bashers in our society never were the feminists, but the right-wingers who assert that men are little more than “testosterone crazed violent louts” (263).

Finally, in his epilogue, Kimmel takes on a question simmering beneath the surface in many of his chapters and many of our courses and writings on gender: Are we attempting to build a de-gendered society? Kimmel is uncertain about the answer to this question but is certain that men and women need not worry about becoming more like each other; rather, they may become more deeply and fully themselves. An important part of this process in the mind of this teacher, will involve exposing our students to books like this.

Like Kimmel, I am a male-feminist pedagogue, one who has struggled for years to understand the meaning of “the personal is the political” from a male point of view. Kimmel’s other books, (for example: Men’s Lives, now in its fifth edition) have provided a consistent source of support and intellectual vigour for those of us who employ our classrooms as places of dialogue and resistance to traditional inequality, and as vehicles for progressive change and the discussion of its implications. This book is well reasoned, presents its arguments convincingly, and is one of the very few texts ever written that should be required reading for all undergraduate students in Canada and the United States alike.

To end on a frustrating note, one of the things you may observe while using this book is that students tend to consider the words of a male on gender inequality more seriously than those of a female author. This disturbing irony illustrates the success with which female critics of gender inequality have been subjected to a feminist bashing propaganda by our media and those who resist change. Yet, as every anti-feminist voice must also be challenged, it is of great value to have male feminists like Kimmel who are up to the task. It is their greatest contribution to the ongoing struggle for gender equity and the accompanying personal fulfilment that awaits other men who have the courage to critically engage our gendered society.

Dr. B. Gerry Coulter
Bishop’s University
November 2000
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