How Academics Get Men Wrong

Masculinity from the inside

11th November 2022
Bruce Fleming

Men are misunderstood by gender studies academics hostile to masculinity, argues Bruce Fleming.

The male point of view goes unarticulated today because virtually all contemporary theoretical considerations of masculinity in America, and by extension most of the rest of the West, 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 his 2004 book 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 – chosen at random among such departments – traces its genesis in a focus on badly treated groups, and the subsidiary nature of male studies to feminism. This is on its website, 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.

Research that ‘addresses men’s lives’? How about asking them how they see things?

Erasing men

Gender studies is in fact 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 the substance 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.

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. This results in linguistic over-reach, one of the big problems of our day. 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.

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 University’s Department of ‘Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.’ 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:

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. Moreover, considering gender once again means considering the more powerful from the perspective of the less powerful, meaning men seen from the perspective of women.

Construction versus reality

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 of a focus on women and an insistence that being a man is not something substantial,

offers students an interdisciplinary curriculum that focuses on the diverse experiences of women in both national and international contexts. The Department also examines 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, and Sexuality 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 aim to become themselves: masculinity is something real and it’s something achieved. But according to 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 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 already decided 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 our 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 is like a target we never completely achieve – it’s certainly not an intersection of societal forces that leave me as a helpless pawn, a fly caught in a spider’s web wrought by faceless others. Nor is it a power play – 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. Plus we can take it too far: all good male qualities can be pushed to excess where they become too much and harmful. That’s true of all impulsions forward. Only complete stasis is never threatening.

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.

Men don’t typically see their masculinity as ‘constructed’ at all. We don’t 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.

Extracted from Masculinity From The Inside, Gender Theory’s Missing Piece.

Bruce Fleming has degrees in philosophy and comparative literature from Haverford College, The University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. He has been a professor at the United States Naval Academy since 1987. He has written over twenty books including, most recently. Masculinity From The Inside, Gender Theory’s Missing Piece, which is available to purchase here.

Photo by Lachlan Dempsey on Unsplash.
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash.