|Joseph A. Kuypers, ed. Men and Power. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999, 199 pp.
The men's movement is one of the more complex of the so-called new social movements of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Its origins and subsequent history are inextricably bound up with the feminist movement and the progress women have made in their struggle to change the political, legal, and economic structures of the so-called advanced Western nations. The men's movement is not a homogeneous social phenomenon. It takes a variety of forms and draws upon a contradictory set of philosophical and political positions.
The two streams of the men's movement that receive the most attention in the mass media and thus are the best known to the public are, unfortunately, also the most reactionary. Fathers' rights groups have vigorously fought to reestablish control over children and ex-spouses, usually through efforts to have child custody and support rulings and laws altered. The mytho-poetic men's movement, on the other hand, seeks to help contemporary "over-feminized" men rediscover their true masculine selves -- the warrior within -- through all-male weekend retreats, drum circles, and various kinds of popular psychotherapy. A less well-publicized tendency in the men's movement is one whose avowed goal is to support the feminist movement and positively contribute to the destruction of gender inequality. The volume edited by Joseph Kuypers provides an example of the kind of thinking and analysis that characterizes this (self-proclaimed) profeminist side of the men's movement.
The book consists of 10 chapters plus an introduction. It is divided into two sections respectively entitled "Connections" and "Extensions," although the logic of the division is not clear to me. Nine of the chapters are academic in the sense of offering an analysis of, or critical reflections on, some feature or consequence of the relationship between masculinity and power. In addition to general reflections on the meaning of power, topics examined include: how grammar constrains the expression of gender identity, the link between homophobia and masculinity, the paradoxical nature of men's experience of power, the possible biological basis of the difference between how men and women understand and experience the erotic, the meaning of power and equality in intimate relationships, the history of the profeminist men's movement, the contribution of gay male pornography to the perpetuation of homophobia, and the way in the which maleness is constituted through mundane actions and expressions. The non- academic chapter comprises an autobiographical description of a process of self-discovery and coming to terms with the death of one's mother.
Although each of the chapters is unique there are several themes that run more or less consistently throughout the collection. 1) Gender is the central category of identity. Other subject positions -- class, ethnicity, race, ability -- do get mentioned as important other elements of identity but they are treated as subsidiary to gender. 2) Maleness is socially constructed. Indeed, several of the authors explicitly critique the mytho-poetic men's movement because of its essentialist assumption that all biological males possess a masculine essence that contemporary culture has suppressed. 3) This socially constructed maleness is based on power. 4) It is also based on heterosexuality and homophobia. 5) Male power is, however, paradoxical in that despite the power men have in society as a whole, many individual men feel powerless. Male power also generates a good deal of the "pain" many men frequently experience -- alienation, loneliness, and inferiority. This final theme is arguably the core idea of the profeminist men's movement; that is that men themselves are harmed by gender inequality.
The contribution this volume makes is that provides those interested in learning about the profeminist men's movement with a sense of how those involved interpret the social world. A number of the chapters offer interesting insights into the way in which everyday actions, language, and human bodies contribute to the construction and maintenance of masculinity. Moreover, the inextricable elision of conceptions of maleness with power over people, objects and relationships is drawn out in a variety of ways which are illuminating. And reflections on the complexities of working out egalitarian relationships are bound to touch a nerve of recognition with anyone trying to put abstract concepts such as gender equality into daily practice.
For those already familiar with men's movement literature, however, this collection does not provide anything new. Nor does the collection attempt to deal with any of the obvious criticisms that are frequently made of this paradigm. There is, for example, a relative absence of empirically grounded studies. Blye Frank does illustrate his argument about the mundane daily and nightly actions and modes of expression through which masculinity is constituted with excerpts from interviews with boys and young men, and Walter Isaac's autobiographical account of his personal development also obviously draws on the experiences of a real person. The other articles for the most part proceed on the basis of assertions about an ideal-type man. It is not that there is not a grain, sometimes many grains, of truth to some of these generic characterizations. But it so easy to think of many counter-examples that this style of argumentation is unlikely to convince anyone who does not already accept the general perspective.
While subject positions such as class, ethnicity, race, and ability are acknowledged as other elements of identity none of them receive the attention they deserve. This is especially true in the discussions of the paradox of men's power -- that men as a group are privileged in society and yet many feel powerless. Much of this paradox may be explained by the fact that gender is in fact only one aspect of identity and of power. One of the reasons many men feel powerless may be because whatever power they may have over women or gay men is more than cancelled out in terms of their experience by their lack of economic, political or cultural power (or capital). If one decides in advance that gender is the key element of identity, as opposed to one of several components of identity, the analysis of these other features of identity and power are relegated to second position. Understanding of the multiple sources of the confusion, frustration, anger and so on that many men apparently feel is occluded rather than enhanced.
A common reaction in the classes I teach to this kind of perspective is that it amounts to little more than comfortable middle-class white men whining about their alienation, their loneliness, their fear of expressing their emotions, or their estranged relationships to their parents. Unfortunately there is nothing in this collection that is going to convince those prone to make this ungenerous characterization that they are incorrect. To do so would require a direct engagement with this kind of criticism and a more serious consideration of the other elements of identity than is offered in this book.
The profeminist men's movement bases its analysis of masculinity on the social psychology of writers such as Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein. As several of the articles in this collection recount, the basic idea is that maleness is produced and reproduced in infancy when young boys internalize the idea that they must separate themselves from their mothers and suppress the feminine side of their personalities. The ultimate solution to men's pain and to gender inequality thus rests in men's ability to recoup this suppressed side of themselves. If men did learn to reconnect with the feminine side of themselves the world might indeed by a better place, but it is still not clear how that would lead to the redistribution of the political and economic resources that is required for a more egalitarian world to emerge. And the argument that the root of the problem of gender inequality lies in this constitutive psychological process is, despite claims to the contrary, very similar to the arguments of the mytho-poetic men's movement. The key difference seems to be that one side wants men to rediscover their core essential masculinity while the other side suggests men need to rediscover the feminine aspects of their personalities. Both remain committed to the idea that there is some essential core identity or personality that needs to be recovered. Thus, Kuyper's book has the merit of bringing together a useful sample of the profeminist men's movement literature but it is unlikely to win over those who are skeptical about this approach.