men, masculinities and gender politics


Book Review: Recreating Men: Postmodern Masculinity Politics, by Bob Pease.

More articles about:

Suddenly, the field of gender studies is flooded with books about men and masculinities. It's almost hard to keep up with the titles that land on reviewer's desks and library shelves. From the "early"1980s writings of Vic Seidler, Michael Kimmel, Bob Connell, Michael Messner, among others, the field of gender and masculinity has expanded significantly. As a publisher, Sage has contributed to a growing list on the subject. Michael Messner's work on men's movements was published in the early 90s as part of the Sage gender series while Richard Collier's book on criminality and masculinity appeared in 1998 as a stand alone volume.

All this attention on masculinities, however, has produced certain anxieties. Some critics contend that since the time gender has become a kosher (and globally funded) issue, men have jumped in to do the "man-thing"- eclipse women. Increasingly, a position has developed which argues for the retention of "women's studies" as opposed to gender studies, to keep alive the fact that women's studies "... is a constant, and constantly politicizing, reminder that women have been, until relatively recently, largely excluded from the academic curriculum both as subjects and as agents..." (Mary Evans, Introducing Contemporary Feminist Thought: Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997, p.13).

The other anxiety is whether men's studies will provide an academic affirmation of the "practice of masculinity", to use Bob Connell's phrase, though not his argument, in Masculinities (1995, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p.231) and authorize the link between men and violence, providing a scholarly legitimacy to the violent practices of men. Mens studies is distrustfully viewed as emerging from a politics that seeks to affirm men's power and reinforce women's and gay men's invisibilities, pitting the former against the "coming out" politics of feminist and gay studies.

It is within these anxieties that we need to read Bob Pease's book. As he says right way "...the most central issue for women's...equality is whether men can and will's subjectivity is crucial to gender domination and...changing the social relations of gender will necessitate the transforming of mens subjectivities as well as changing their daily practices.."(p.1). The book starts and continues on a biographical note through which Pease seeks to trace and develop a collective pro-feminist mens politics. Simultaneously he outlines the work of the organisation he helped found: Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA). The book therefore is a personal and a political work in as much as it seeks to delineate an agentic position for men to address themselves, reproducing a politics of the personal that is so familiar to feminism, simultaneously reproducing some feminist methodologies, though not all the outcomes.

Pease records the views and lives of ordinary men who participated in MASA workshops. One of the critical methodologies used through these workshops was "memory work", a method that "..builds upon, yet goes beyond consciousness-raising..."(p.145). The method is a way of getting to and "outing" internalised domination. Memory work might be seen as a critical stocktaking, through narrative, providing an hermeneutic understanding that binds the subject with an already existing reality, simultaneously retrieving a critical stance that, in Ricouerean terms, can meet the world of lived experience.

Participants in MASA workshops talked about internal conflicts between profeminist ethical ideals and patriarchally constructed experience. "I walk past a news stand and see a naked woman. Part of me wants to kick the window in and another part of me says 'wow'", says Pat, a workshop participant (p.42). For many men sexuality and power are almost indistinguishable but the real challenge for pro-feminist masculinities is to break the view that doing something about "other" men is a sufficently pro-feminist move, obscuring personal complicity in sexually abusive behaviours. Part of the process entailed in the creation of an agentic pro-feminist subjectivity therefore, is " acknowledge their (own) oppressive thoughts and feelings and admit to ways in which they have been brought up to hate and despise women..." (p.43). Such an hermeneutical understanding entails a movement toward the formation and articulation of pro-feminist subjectivities. It is, to quote Pat again, a process which recognises "...the feminist catch cry that rape is at the end of every wolf whistle..."(p.42).

Vic Seidler (The Achilles Heel Reader, London: Routledge,1991) Jonathan Rutherford (Men's Silences, London: Macmillan,1992) and others have addressed the initial feelings of guilt that underlay many men's reaction to feminism, producing a muting or renouncing of their masculinity and a further estrangement from their own lived experiences. While anti-sexist groups need to work their way through the issue of women's oppression they also need to enable a more conscious orientation toward the self. Agentic subjectivities cannot work though self denial. Instead, the splits between profeminist and patriarchal discourses which demand contradictory things need to be "outed" from the closet.

One of the really striking things about this book is not just the way experience is privileged as a way of understanding a being in the world a la Seidler and Rutherford, but also how the experience of pro-feminism produces new practices and ways of being in the world. The usage of first names - Pat, Ben, Graham and Philip- by Bob reflects a new practice of writing about masculinities that confronts second name usage as the only "legitimate" inscription of identities within which privilege and power are realised. First name usage, rejection of capital letters (bell hooks), slashing words (s/he) are writing practices familiar to the feminist academe and have been adopted by publishers of many "women's" journals like the Women's Studies International Forum. It is unfortunate that Sage, despite its gender series and its growing list on "new" masculinities still adopts the "old" ways.

Unhappily, Bob Pease has yet to make a pro-feminist indentation on a Sage bibliography, and still appears as a Sir Name- the Big P.