Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Die Like a Man: The Toxic Masculinity of "Breaking Bad"

I missed this article when it first appeared in October, but it's still a topic worth discussing now that nearly everyone has seen the Breaking Bad finale. The title of the article tells you what you are going to read, a review of the ways this epic television show portrayed a toxic form of masculinity defined by violence, power, and money.

I have no disagreements with any of that.

However, I want to suggest that there are other depictions of masculinity that are not so toxic. For much of the series, Walt and Jesse perform a strange dance of interdependence - many times Walt could have allowed Jesse to be killed and did not. And in one of the most difficult scenes early in the series, Walt allows Jesse's heroin addict girlfriend to die of asphyxiation in her sleep rather than save her, ostensibly to protect Jesse from his proclivity for addiction.

It's Jesse who represents the best of masculine values, in spite of the chaotic world in which he lives. He loves honestly and consistently. He does his best to take care of the young woman and her son that he loves and had to leave in order to protect them from the dangerous people in his life, including Walt. When he escapes in the final episode after Walt rescues him, we can imagine he will find the young boy (his mother, Jesse's love, is now dead) and raise him as his own.

Throughout the show, Jesse struggles with addiction, goes to rehab, and struggles some more with addiction. He is beaten nearly to death by Hank, Walt's brother-in-law, and then for much of the last season he is beaten and tortured.

Jesse never gives up hope. And he never loses his sense of right and wrong the way Walt does as he seeks more money, more power, and does so with violence - including putting out a hit on Jesse.

It's too simplistic to say that Breaking Bad presents and represents toxic masculinity - it reveals the full spectrum of masculinity, from tenderness to toxicity, often within the space of a single scene. 

Die Like a Man: The Toxic Masculinity of Breaking Bad

By Laura Hudson

Spoilers for the Breaking Bad finale follow.
“It felt right and satisfying and proper to us that he went out on his own terms; he went out like a man,” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan shared in a recent podcast, describing the death of Walter White in the series finale.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because we heard Hank – his prototypically macho brother-in-law – say something very similar during Skyler’s intervention, when he defended Walt’s decision to refuse both financial charity and cancer treatment: “Maybe Walt just wants to die like a man.”

What, exactly, does it mean to be a “man”? It’s a question that sits at the dark, warped heart of the entire series and its anti-hero protagonist. A nerdy chemist whose brains haven’t earned him any power or respect from the world at large, the terminally ill Walt decides that he’s finally going to get that power and respect through whatever means necessary (and whenever possible, using science). The show doesn’t just trace Walt’s arc from Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Gilligan famously described it, or from Walt to Heisenberg; it also maps his journey from being a “pussy” to being a “man.” And while he succeeds in his goals, it’s a transformation that comes at a high price.

If we really want to look at the definition of a man within the world of Breaking Bad, it’s easiest to start by looking at what it says a man is not: the Walter White we meet in the very first episode of the show.

By some measures, Walt has had a successful life: He’s incredibly brilliant (we’re told his research contributed to a project that won a Nobel Prize, not to mention Gray Matter Industries); he’s a teacher; and most importantly, he has a loving relationship with his family, and another child on the way. But Walt still feels like a failure, particularly because he hasn’t achieved the sort of financial success he believes he deserved.

Money and masculinity are deeply linked by the series. Not only does money signify the value of the person who earns it, but also the control and self-sufficiency that comes along with it. This link between manliness, money, and power is a dangerous one for people who accept it. Walt, after all, would literally rather die than accept charity, because taking money from Gretchen and Elliott would somehow make him feel like less of a man.

Later, when Walt says that cooking meth has cost him his family, drug kingpin Gus Fring suggests that perhaps he’s looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps in alienating his family, he was actually fulfilling a more important role: “When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”

This seems particularly prescient, because it’s the exact model of manhood that Walt embraces. By the time the finale rolls around, Walt is so alienated from his family that they neither want to see him nor accept his money, and so he must funnel his drug fortune to them without their knowledge, ensuring he receives no credit — no appreciation, respect or love. In Walt’s mind, the measure of a man isn’t his relationship to his family, but rather his ability to support them financially. Faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, and the decision about what sort of legacy he truly wants to leave behind, Walt sacrifices the former for the latter. (Of course, as he admits in the final episode, it isn’t simply about the money, and it isn’t really for his family. Leaving them the money isn’t an act of altruism so much as it is an affirmation of his own power and identity: being a man who provides.)

Masculinity in Breaking Bad is a brittle thing, one so terrified of weakness that any display of vulnerability must be punished, and any slight against another man’s power answered with violence – or else perceived as a weakness. We see it in the hyper-masculine culture of both the neo-Nazis and the drug cartel, where the air is always dripping with machismo and vengeance is considered an almost sacred duty.

This model of manhood also requires control not only over your own life, but over the lives of others. Think about all of the most iconic moments of the show, the badass lines that made us want to pump our fists: “Say my name.” “I am the danger.” “I am the one who knocks.” “I won.” Every single time, it’s about dominance – not just about having power, but about taking power away from someone else.

The series begins with what seems like an odd image: a pair of pants, flying through the air. Much of what follows is about who gets to wear them. When Skyler shows up unexpectedly to threaten Jesse for supposedly selling weed to Walt, Jesse is quick to insult Walt’s manhood: “Good job wearing the pants in the family.” As time goes on, however, and Walt slowly dominates Skyler to the point that she would rather try to drown herself in a pool than speak up against him, the new status quo becomes clear: He’s wearing the pants now.

It’s also worth noting that when Hank finally discovers the truth about Walt, it’s while Hank is sitting on the toilet – literally, getting caught with his pants down. And while Walt may not have wanted Hank to die, Walt almost surely thrills a little to getting away with all his crimes under the nose of the man who used to condescend to him, enacting his own twisted version of the movie where the nerd gets one over on the jock. Once the truth is out and Hank assaults him physically, Walt fires back with a chilling warning, letting Hank knows that he is no longer a man to be trifled with: “If you don’t know who I am, then maybe the best course is to tread lightly.”

Their conflict is one of the most interesting in the show, not only because Hank serves as the uber-masculine counterpoint to Walt – the Charles Atlas to Walt’s skinny kid getting sand kicked in his eyes – but because their pissing contest in the garage isn’t just about who has more power. It’s about which brand of power is superior: brains or brawn. Ultimately, Walt doesn’t subordinate Hank by lifting weights, getting buff and beating him in a fistfight. He wins by outsmarting him, like Walt always does.

When we first meet Walt, he’s an object of ridicule to his students, trapped in a low status loop where his intellect isn’t valued and confers no power to him. The first sign that he is transforming into someone different is when he begins to push back, and lash out at the bullies around him – and of course, he does it with science. When slighted by a jerk in an expensive car, Walt manipulates the engine and causes it detonate. When a drug lord beats Jesse and takes their money, Walt shows up with an explosive designed to look like meth and blows up the building. When the feds get hold of the incriminating tapes from the superlab, Walt rigs a truck with a supermagnet, and uses it to erase the evidence from outside the building.

Walt and science, making everyone their bitch since 2008.

Which leads us to perhaps the most interesting and gender-charged word on Breaking Bad: “bitch.” Yes, yes, it’s just a word. But it’s also coded with some very gender-specific ideas about power and dominance – who has it and who takes it – that are fundamental to the conflict at the heart of Walt’s transformation.

The easiest way to deconstruct a word is to think not only about what it means but what it does, and how it does it. When you call a woman a bitch, you’re saying that she’s difficult, unaccommodating. By that standard, Walter White would be possibly the biggest bitch of all. Of course, that’s not the way it works. When we apply a female slur like “bitch” to a man, something strange happens. It stops meaning that someone is difficult or unpleasant – words that for men more easily be seen as signs of strength – and instead becomes an indicator of weakness and cowardice.

In short, calling a man a “bitch” is designed to diminish his power by comparing him to a woman. It implies that women are weaker and less powerful, and also that they are to be used and dominated. “Bitch” is linked to exploitation, to submission; if you make someone your bitch, you force them to submit to your will, in one way or another. (Despite being the most famous and popular insult of Jesse Pinkman, it’s worth noting that Jesse almost never uses the word to describe women.)

Similarly, “pussy” is a word used almost exclusively against men, for the very reason that it reduces them from masculine to feminine, from a higher level of power to a lower one. What these words tell us is that men aren’t just defined by what they are; they’re defined by what they’re not supposed to be. Over and over again, men in Breaking Bad send and receive the message that the last thing they want to be is women.

Jesse: The face of toxic masculinity

Jesse is highly aware of the very narrow cultural script for being a man, and certainly knows how to act it out. This is a guy who feels perfectly comfortable grabbing his crotch and telling Walt to “speak into the mic, bitch!” But despite his flaws and his posturing, he’s always been a good guy: compassionate, caring and even sensitive. Deep down Jesse is more creampuff than criminal, unable to take part in the sociopathy of the people around him and deeply traumatized when forced to commit violence. (Walt, meanwhile, just whistles.) We see Jesse cry on more than one occasion, and he has a particular soft spot for children, both very stereotypically feminine traits.

Needless to say, Jesse is punished for them. Expressing emotion is seen as weakness and liability, and the reason that Jesse ultimately ends up broken, enslaved and exploited by the final episode. Despite his attempts to ward off subordination with masculine posturing — like calling everyone in earshot a “bitch” — that’s exactly what he becomes. Manipulated by a long series of more powerful men, by the end of the series Jesse is shackled in a cell while the men around him watch videos of him weeping during his confession for entertainment. “Does this pussy cry through the whole thing?” asks Jack.

In many ways a boy trying to become a man, Jesse is the male face of the damage that toxic masculinity does – the cost it extracts not only from women but from men. He shatters against the rocks of the masculine ideal, and it’s doubtful he will ever be able to put himself back together. Taken to its furthest extent, this brand of masculinity punishes men for acting like Jesse, and instead produces men like Walt – and even Todd.

The irony of this perspective on masculinity is that for all its insistence on the importance of power — both having it and taking it — it often makes the people who adopt it weaker. Or as Walt Jr. says, when asked to discuss his father’s refusal to accept charity or get treatment for his cancer: “You’re a pussy.” (Of course.)

When Hank refuses to acknowledge his PTSD – or accept his physical weakness after his shooting – he prevents himself from healing both emotionally and physically. When Heisenberg’s crimes are pinned on Gale, Walt tells Hank that the other chemist wasn’t good enough to pull it off because his pride won’t allow him to give up the credit. And in the end, masculine pride is what makes Walt’s final act of revenge possible: By suggesting that Jack might have partnered with a rat — impugning his honor — Walt is able to delay his own death long enough to activate his machine gun.

Many have argued that Breaking Bad is an indictment of Walt, a critique of the male power fantasy rather than a celebration. How we respond to the ending and whether we’re still rooting for Walt in those final moments is indeed a measure of our own complicity – or Matt Zoller Seitz puts it at Vulture, “it’s an ending that leaves us alone with a mirror.”

While we may want to cheer for the character we’ve been identifying with for so long, what are we really cheering? What standards of success are we tacitly endorsing when we feel just a little bit pleased that Walt got to live — and die — “like a man”? The masculinity described in Breaking Bad is something deeply pernicious, a cultural dogma that damages, warps and limits men, isolating them from their emotions and from others. It promotes violence, retribution, and a hierarchy built upon the backs victims both male and female. Sometimes, it kills them. As Silpa Kovvari at The Atlantic observed, the masculinity of Breaking Bad represents “standards to die by, not to live by.”

Regardless of whatever personal triumph it represents to him, Walt’s is a Pyrrhic victory; he has achieved power only by stripping it from others, and perpetuating the same ruthless system that once humiliated him and treated him as worthless.

If we learned anything from the kind, brilliant Gale, it’s that the Walter White who dies at the end of the show would have had no problem shooting the Walter White of the first episode in the head if he got in his way. When the nerd who was bullied becomes the bully, should we really feel a sense of satisfaction? Or should we take a deep, soul-searching look at the sort of system that makes underdogs like Walt feel like the only way they can be men is by destroying and dominating everyone around them?

Breaking Bad was a show about a man with greatness inside him, and who believed that the only way to achieve it was by becoming the sort of man who whose greatness would be acknowledged and respected. While it’s obvious that Walt isn’t a “good” guy by the end, to many people he was still a sympathetic one. It’s far easier to high-five Walt for climbing to the top of the masculine power pyramid than to reexamine whether we should be tearing it down. Not only because of the collateral damage it does to people like Skyler and Andrea, but the damage it does to the men who attempt the climb.

While Gilligan has voiced his criticism and even contempt for the man Walt becomes on numerous occasions, the final installment is nothing if not a victory lap. Yes, Walt pays for his decisions in many ways, but it’s telling that all of those costs get extracted in the episodes preceding the finale. Taken on its own, the last episode of the show reads more like wish fulfillment than condemnation, as Walt dies surrounded not by his failures but by his triumphs, by the chemistry he loves rather than the family he sacrificed, and with a smile on his face. You can (and probably should) step back and view Walt’s final form as a critique, as something that ends in emptiness, but somehow that’s not the feeling the finale imparts. The show ends not by inviting introspection, but rather, as Gilligan said, offering satisfaction:

“As bad a guy as he has been, and as dark a series of misdeeds as he has committed, it felt right and satisfying and proper for us that he went out on his own terms. He went out like a man.”

Indeed he did.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Michael Kimmel - Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era


Michael Kimmel's new book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, has been getting a lot of attention on the interwebs. Salon posted an excerpt that focuses on the white supremacy morons as an example of the angriest of the angry white men. Over at the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Hanna Rosin (The End of Men) reviewed the book.

[As a side note, this is one of the best mainstream books of the year.]

The publisher's copy for the book is posted on the Amazon page for the book:
"[W]e can't come off as a bunch of angry white men.”
Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party

One of the enduring legacies of the 2012 Presidential campaign was the demise of the white American male voter as a dominant force in the political landscape. On election night, after Obama was announced the winner, a distressed Bill O’Reilly lamented that he didn’t live in “a traditional America anymore.” He was joined by others who bellowed their grief on the talk radio airwaves, the traditional redoubt of angry white men. Why were they so angry? Sociologist Michael Kimmel, one of the leading writers on men and masculinity in the world today, has spent hundreds of hours in the company of America’s angry white men – from white supremacists to men's rights activists to young students –in pursuit of an answer. Angry White Men presents a comprehensive diagnosis of their fears, anxieties, and rage.

Kimmel locates this increase in anger in the seismic economic, social and political shifts that have so transformed the American landscape. Downward mobility, increased racial and gender equality, and a tenacious clinging to an anachronistic ideology of masculinity has left many men feeling betrayed and bewildered. Raised to expect unparalleled social and economic privilege, white men are suffering today from what Kimmel calls "aggrieved entitlement": a sense that those benefits that white men believed were their due have been snatched away from them.

Angry White Men discusses, among others, the sons of small town America, scarred by underemployment and wage stagnation. When America’s white men feel they’ve lived their lives the ‘right’ way – worked hard and stayed out of trouble – and still do not get economic rewards, then they have to blame somebody else. Even more terrifying is the phenomenon of angry young boys. School shootings in the United States are not just the work of “misguided youth” or “troubled teens”—they’re all committed by boys. These alienated young men are transformed into mass murderers by a sense that using violence against others is their right.

The future of America is more inclusive and diverse. The choice for angry white men is not whether or not they can stem the tide of history: they cannot. Their choice is whether or not they will be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future, or whether they will walk openly and honorably – far happier and healthier incidentally – alongside those they’ve spent so long trying to exclude.
First up, the review from Rosin at the New York Times, a sympathetic response, although she concludes that the real issues with the men in this book are class issues more than gender or race issues. I think she's right, and many men (and women) don't get that men are just as oppressed in this country as are women, it just looks very different because many men have bought into their oppression.

Even Madder Men: ‘Angry White Men,’ by Michael Kimmel
Published: November 22, 2013

The characters populating Michael Kimmel’s new book, “Angry White Men,” are familiar types: Rush Limbaugh’s ditto­heads, neo-Nazis, wife beaters, rampaging shooters and the divorced rageaholics of the men’s rights movement. Crowded together under one banner, they make for a scary and unpleasant lot: full of fury and blaming everyone but themselves for their problems. Mostly, they blame women: ex-wives, would-be girlfriends, the phantom black women who stole their jobs. The editor of a men’s rights website proclaims, “The real question here is not whether these women deserve the business end of a right hook, they obviously do, and some of them deserve one hard enough to leave them in an unconscious, innocuous pile on the ground.” 

ANGRY WHITE MEN: American Masculinity at the End of an Era
By Michael Kimmel
314 pp. Nation Books. $26.99.
Kimmel, a sociologist at Stony Brook University in New York, is unusually adventurous for an academic. As he did in his last book, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” here, he ventures into unfamiliar territory and finds himself engaged in the kinds of conversations he is unlikely to have at department meetings. At a gun show in Shippensburg, Pa., Kimmel passes time with a guy he calls “Rick,” who mans the K.K.K. table and says what you would imagine such a person would say about the black man in the White House. At a batterer’s intervention group, Kimmel gets into the action, prodding one man who had hit his wife by asking, “Well, why didn’t you just pick up a knife and stab” her?

A longtime feminist, Kimmel maintains a delicate balance when handling his sources. He wants to be sympathetic to the people he interviews and yet loyal to his academic principles. After a series of humbling recessions and other economic shifts, men like Rick feel emasculated and humiliated, he writes, “betrayed by the country they love, discarded like trash on the side of the information superhighway.” Their sin, according to Kimmel, is a failure to adjust. These guys refuse to admit they’ve been handed privilege all these years by a world that puts white men on top. White men, he writes, “have been running with the wind at our backs all these years,” and “what we think of as ‘fairness’ to us has been built on the backs of others.”

Failing to concede this, men get stuck in a permanent dysfunction Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement,” in which they “refuse to even be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future” of greater gender and racial equality. Instead they rage, not at the corporate overlords who have actually shipped their jobs overseas but at the amorphous feminists, or more likely “feminazis,” who have stolen American manhood.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell how mainstream a phenomenon Kimmel is describing. In one chapter he recounts the case of George Sodini, a 48-year-old who went to his gym and shot dead five women (and then himself) because, as he wrote in an online diary, “I dress good, am clean shaven, bathe, touch of cologne — yet 30 million women rejected me.” Sodini, Kimmel writes, has “legions of fans” on men’s rights websites, people who call him a “hero” for standing up to all the “freeloading” women out there. But are these fringe lunatics or, as Kimmel labels them, an army of “everyday Sodinis” who beat and batter women with abandon? After all, rates of nonfatal violent victimization of women have dropped significantly since the 1990s, according to a 2011 White House report on women and girls. Visible rage may be increasing, but most men may feel impotent to act on it, or may be adjusting in more ways than we realize.

In one fascinating chapter Kimmel explores the changing nature of school violence. Once the scourge of urban black institutions, this phenomenon has taken on new form in suburban and rural neighborhoods. The school shooter is now pretty much always male and usually white (Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, being an exception, although Kimmel asserts that he had much in common with the Columbine killers and others). Kimmel makes a convincing case that this shift has to do with a sense of aggrieved entitlement, showing how these boys spent a lot of time fending off insults to their masculinity from the “jockocracy” that ruled their schools. But Kimmel also strains a little too hard for a tidy sociological explanation, arguing mightily (and pointlessly) against the idea that these attackers were singularly deranged or psychotic. Like the suicide bombers he compares them to, one can be both uniquely psychologically vulnerable, a total outlier, and yet tuned in to a broader cultural trend.

Kimmel’s balance of critical distance and empathy works best in his chapter on the fathers’ rights movement, a subset of the men’s rights movement. Members of this group are generally men coming out of bitter divorce proceedings who believe the courts cheated them out of the chance to be close to their children. They exhibit some of the wrath and obsessive qualities of other angry white men, routinely refer to their ex-wives in the nastiest ways and tend to overstate their involvement in family life. (As one child reported to a custody evaluator, his dad didn’t spend a lot of time with him “because he’s always busy working on his fathers’ organization.”) That said, their grievances are based on a legitimate insight. Often, Kimmel writes, family court judges act as if “they’re adjudicating Don and Betty Draper’s divorce,” back in the 1960s. They fail to recognize that fathers these days do a lot more child care than they used to, that mothers should not always be the default caretakers, and that fathers often want to remain an active presence in their child’s lives, as something beyond a steady paycheck — ​an­other sign that many men are in fact getting used to a new world order.

Outside a more elite audience, Kimmel’s diagnosis of aggrieved entitlement will be, I imagine, a tough sell. The men he’s writing about have gone through several recessions and 40 years of economic shifts. They live in a world where, as one man tells him, you’ll never find a job as a plumber but you might find one as a Walmart hostess. Beyond that, families around them are falling apart. Among men like them, without a college degree, divorce rates are high and fewer people get married; for women with only a high school degree, for example, nearly 60 percent of births occur outside marriage, rendering fatherhood a relic of the past. These men may have once run with the wind at their backs, but the air has been dead still for a long time.

Kimmel’s hope is that more men will give up their sense of entitlement and accept a gentler, fairer notion of what it means to be a man. That’s the right ­ideal, and pop culture has been helping him along, providing ever more TV shows portraying working-class men as loving fathers. Kimmel’s own book, too, offers evidence that men are making adjustments, choosing to be active parents or attending batterer support groups in an effort to change.

But in the short term, class inequalities loom larger than gender or race. You won’t easily convince Rick or the other men in the book that, due to the long arc of male privilege over the course of world history, he owes something to the likes of Barack Obama or Sheryl Sandberg, or to a sociology professor who lives in New York.
~ Hanna Rosin is the author, most recently, of “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 29, 2013A review on Nov. 24 about “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” by Michael Kimmel, misspelled the surname of the man who shot 32 people to death at Virginia Tech in 2007. He was Seung-Hui Cho , not Choi.
* * * * *

This piece is from Salon, an excerpt from Angry White Men that focuses on the white supremacists as the angriest of the angry white men.

America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy

Up close with small-town white rage, with bitter, scary men who feel left behind by economic and cultural change

Michael Kimmel

Excerpted from Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era

Who are the white supremacists? There has been no formal survey, for obvious reasons, but there are several noticeable patterns. Geographically, they come from America’s heartland—small towns, rural cities, swelling suburban sprawl outside larger Sunbelt cities. These aren’t the prosperous towns, but the single-story working-class exurbs that stretch for what feels like forever in the corridor between Long Beach and San Diego (not the San Fernando Valley), or along the southern tier of Pennsylvania, or spread all through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, across the vast high plains of eastern Washington and Oregon, through Idaho and Montana. There are plenty in the declining cities of the Rust Belt, in Dearborn and Flint, Buffalo and Milwaukee, in the bars that remain in the shadows of the hulking deserted factories that once were America’s manufacturing centers. And that doesn’t even touch the former states of the Confederacy, where flying the Confederate flag is a culturally approved symbol of “southern pride”—in the same way that wearing a swastika would be a symbol of German “heritage” (except it’s illegal in Germany to wear a swastika).

There’s a large rural component. Although “the spread of far-right groups over the last decade has not been limited to rural areas alone,” writes Osha Gray Davidson, “the social and economic unraveling of rural communities—especially in the midwest—has provided far-right groups with new audiences for their messages of hate. Some of these groups have enjoyed considerable success in their rural campaign.” For many farmers facing foreclosures, the Far Right promises to help them save their land have been appealing, offering farmers various schemes and legal maneuvers to help prevent foreclosures, blaming the farmers’ troubles on Jewish bankers and the one-world government. “As rural communities started to collapse,” Davidson writes, the Far Right “could be seen at farm auctions comforting families . . . confirming what rural people knew to be true: that their livelihoods, their families, their communities—their very lives—were falling apart.” In stark contrast to the government indifference encountered by rural Americans, a range of Far Right groups, most recently the militias, have seemingly provided support, community, and answers.

In that sense, the contemporary militias and other white supremacist groups are following in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, and other Far Right patriot groups who recruited members in rural America throughout the 1980s. They tap into a long history of racial and ethnic paranoia in rural America, as well as an equally long tradition of collective local action and vigilante justice. There remains a widespread notion that “Jews, African-Americans, and other minority-group members ‘do not entirely belong,’” which may, in part, “be responsible for rural people’s easy acceptance of the far right’s agenda of hate,” writes Matthew Snipp. “The far right didn’t create bigotry in the Midwest; it didn’t need to,” Davidson concludes. “It merely had to tap into the existing undercurrent of prejudice once this had been inflamed by widespread economic failure and social discontent.”

And many have moved from their deindustrializing cities, foreclosed suburban tracts, and wasted farmlands to smaller rural areas because they seek the companionship of like-minded fellows, in relatively remote areas far from large numbers of nonwhites and Jews and where they can organize, train, and build protective fortresses. Many groups have established refuge in rural communities, where they can practice military tactics, stockpile food and weapons, hone their survivalist skills, and become self-sufficient in preparation for Armageddon, the final race war, or whatever cataclysm they envision. Think of it as the twenty-first-century version of postwar suburban “white flight”—but on steroids.

They’re certainly Christian, but not just any Christian—they’re evangelical Protestant, Pentacostalist, and members of radical sects that preach racial purity as the Word of Jesus. (Catholicism is certainly stocked with conservatives on social issues, but white supremacists tap into such a long and ignoble tradition of anti-Catholicism that they tend to have their own right-wing organizations, mostly fighting against women’s rights and gay rights.) Some belong to churches like the Christian Identity Church, which gained a foothold on the Far Right in the early 1980s. Christian Identity’s focus on racism and anti-Semitism provides the theological underpinnings to the shift from a more “traditional agrarian protest” to paramilitarism. It is from the Christian Identity movement that the Far Right gets its theological claims that Adam is the ancestor of the Caucasian race, whereas non-whites are pre-Adamic “mud people,” without souls, and Jews are the children of Satan. According to this doctrine, Jesus was not Jewish and not from the Middle East; actually, he was northern European, his Second Coming is close at hand, and followers can hasten the apocalypse. It is the birthright of Anglo-Saxons to establish God’s kingdom on earth; America’s and Britain’s “birthright is to be the wealthiest, most powerful nations on earth . . . able, by divine right, to dominate and colonize the world.”

A large proportion of the extreme right wing are military veterans. Several leaders served in Vietnam and were shocked at the national disgust that greeted them as they returned home after that debacle. “America’s failure to win that war was a truly profound blow,” writes William J. Gibson. “If Americans were no longer winners, then who were they?” Some veterans believed they were sold out by the government, caving in to effeminate cowardly protesters; they can no longer trust the government to fight for what is right. Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, returned to Southeast Asia several times in clandestine missions to search for prisoners of war and was the real-life basis for the film Rambo. He uses his military heroism to increase his credibility among potential recruits; one brochure describes him as “this country’s most decorated Vietnam veteran” who “killed some 400 Communists in his illustrious military career.” In 1993 Gritz began a traveling SPIKE (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events) training program, a rigorous survival course in paramilitary techniques.

Many of the younger guys are veterans of the first Gulf War, a war that they came to believe was fought for no moral principles at all, but simply to make America’s oil supply safer and to protect Israel from possible Arab attack. They feel they’ve been used, pawns in a larger political game, serving their country honorably only to be spit out and stepped on when they returned home to slashed veteran benefits, bureaucratic indifference to post-traumatic stress disorder, and general social contempt for having fought in the war in the first place. They believed they were entitled to be hailed as heroes, as had earlier generations of American veterans, not to be scorned as outcasts. Now a guy like Bo Gritz symbolizes “true” warrior-style masculinity, and reclaiming their manhood is the reward for signing up with the Far Right.


Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.

In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.

On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.

That’s certainly what I found among them. Most are in their mid-thirties to early forties, educated at least through high school and often beyond. (The average age of the guys I talked with was thirty-six.) They are the sons of skilled workers in industries like textiles and tobacco, the sons of the owners of small farms, shops, and grocery stores. Buffeted by global political and economic forces, the sons have inherited little of their fathers’ legacies. The family farms have been lost to foreclosure, the small shops squeezed out by Walmarts and malls. These young men face a spiral of downward mobility and economic uncertainty. They complain that they are squeezed between the omnivorous jaws of global capital concentration and a federal bureaucracy that is at best indifferent to their plight and at worst complicit in their demise.

And they’re right. It is the lower middle class—that strata of independent farmers, small shopkeepers, craft and highly skilled workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs—that has been hit hardest by globalization. “Western industry has displaced traditional crafts—female as well as male—and large-scale multinational-controlled agriculture has downgraded the independent farmer to the status of hired hand,” writes journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. This has resulted in massive male displacement—migration, downward mobility. It has been felt the most not by the adult men who were the tradesmen, shopkeepers, and skilled workers, but by their sons, by the young men whose inheritance has been seemingly stolen from them. They feel entitled and deprived—and furious. These angry young men are the foot soldiers of the armies of rage that have sprung up around the world.

What’s important to note is that they are literally the sons. It was their fathers who closed the family store, who lost the family farm. Some are men who have worked all their adult lives, hoping to pass on the family farm to their sons and retire comfortably. They believed that if they worked hard, their legacy would be ensured, but they leave their sons little but a legacy of foreclosures, economic insecurity, and debt.

It was their status next to their father’s and grandfather’s names on the cabinetmaking storefront that said “Jones and Sons.” These were businesses that came not only with the ability to make a living, but came with dignity, with a sense of craft pride, a sense that you owned your own store or farm, owned and controlled your own labor—even employed some other people—and that this economic autonomy had been a source of great pride in the family for generations. In a near-throwaway footnote in his classic study of identity development, Childhood and Society (1950), Erik Erikson locates the origins of young men’s anger in a multigenerational story:
In psychoanalytic patients the overwhelming importance of the grandfather is often apparent. He may have been a blacksmith of the old world or a railroad builder of the new, and as yet proud Jew or an unreconstructed Southerner. What these grandfathers have in common is that fact that they were the last representatives of a more homogeneous world, masterly and cruel with good conscience, disciplined and pious without loss of self-esteem. Their world invented bigger and better machinery like gigantic playthings which were not expected to challenge the social values of the men who made them. Their mastery persists in their grandsons as a stubborn, an angry sense of superiority. Overtly inhibited, they yet can accept others only on terms of prearranged privilege.
“It wasn’t my daddy’s farm,” said Andy, “it was my granddaddy’s, and his daddy’s, and his daddy’s. Five generations of Hoosier farmers.” Generations of Hoosier men, who worked the farm, supported a family, made a living with dignity. They proved their masculinity in that most time-honored way in America: as family providers. And it was their fathers who lost it all, squandered their birthright. Instead of getting angry at their fathers, Andy and his comrades claim the mantle of the grandfathers, displace their rage outward, onto an impermeable and unfeeling government bureaucracy that didn’t offer help, onto soulless corporations that squeezed them mercilessly. By displacing their anger onto those enormous faceless entities, the sons justify their political rage and rescue their own fathers from their anger.

Some can’t do it. Some of the sons—and the fathers—turn their rage inward. We have already discussed the wave of suicides that rippled across the American heartland in the 1980s and 1990s—spawning widespread concern and a series of Farm Aid concerts to raise awareness. The number of suicides in America’s Midwest was higher in the 1990s than during the Great Depression; suicide was the leading cause of agricultural fatalities for two decades—by far. Men were five times more likely to kill themselves than die by accident. “To fail several generations of relatives (both backwards and forwards into those unborn descendants who will now not be able to farm), to see yourself as the one weak link in a strong chain that spans more than a century, is a terrible, and for some, an unbearable burden,” writes Osha Gray Davidson. “When a fellow in a steel mill loses his job, he has basically lost his paycheck,” a physician at the University of Iowa explained. “When an Iowa farmer loses his farm, he’s lost the guts of his life.”

One woman, speaking at a town meeting in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, in 1991, provided an eloquent narrative of this process:
I am a 46-year-old mother of three children. We have lost two farms since 1980, my mother in law’s farm as well as our own. We were forced to sell 160 acres of land that was very special to us. It was homesteaded by my husband’s great grandfather and for years had served as home to our cow and calf operation which we were forced to sell just a few months before we sold the land.

My husband became completely consumed by our circumstances caused by the farm crisis. He left me. Our family continued to deteriorate and our marriage ended in divorce. We had been through natural crises before—drought, flood, crop failure—these we accepted and went on.

But when the threat of losing everything comes to your doorstep because of the bad economy, low commodity prices and high interest on your base notes has left you hopelessly in debt, your faith is sometimes shaken. No one likes to consider that their life has been pointless.
Others direct this seething rage outward. “Many debt ridden farm families will become more suspicious of government, as their self-worth, their sense of belonging, their hope for the future deteriorates,” predicted Oklahoma psychologist Glen Wallace presciently in 1989. “The farms are gone,” writes Dyer, “yet the farmers remain. They’ve been transformed into a wildfire of rage, fueled by the grief of their loss and blown by the winds of conspiracy and hate-filled rhetoric.” “It is hardly surprising, then, that American men—lacking confidence in the government and the economy, troubled by the changing relations between the sexes, uncertain of their identity or their future—began to dream, to fantasize about the powers and features of another kind of man who could retake and reorder the world. And the hero of all these dreams was the paramilitary warrior.” The contemporary white supremacist movement is the embodiment of these warrior dreams.

Their plan is to get even. Unlike Joe Wesbecker, some guys don’t just get even by rampaging through their factory floor or their corporate offices, shooting at their former colleagues and coworkers. They get mad, and they get organized. They cobble together a theory that explains their plight—grafting together fringe elements of evangelical Christianity, traditional anti-Semitism and racism, and general right-wing paranoia into an amalgam that is loosely held together by a nostalgic vision of hardy, independent frontier manhood. Like the guys who go postal, they externalize their rage—their anguish is clearly the fault of someone else—but they don’t externalize it to their immediate surroundings, their boss, supervisor, or coworkers. Instead, it’s larger, more powerful, and pernicious social forces—Jews, Muslims, minorities generally, women.

These are the sons of small-town America, the Jeffersonian yeoman of the nineteenth century, disfigured by global restructuring and economic downturns. They come from the “large and growing number of US citizens disaffected from and alienated by a government that seems indifferent, if not hostile, to their interests. This predominantly white, male, and middle-and working-class sector has been buffeted by global economic restructuring with its attendant job losses, declining real wages, and social dislocations. While under economic stress, this sector has also seen its traditional privileges and status challenged by 1960s-style social movements, such as feminism, minority rights, and environmentalism.”

The sons of these farmers and shopkeepers expected to—and felt entitled to—inherit their fathers’ legacy. And when it became evident it was not going to happen, they became murderously angry—at a system that emasculated their fathers and threatens their manhood. They live in what they call a “Walmart economy” and are governed by a “nanny state” that doles out their birthright to ungrateful and undeserving immigrants. What they want, says one guy, is to “take back what is rightfully ours.”


So, who are they really, these hundred thousand white supremacists? They’re every white guy who believed that this land was his land, was made for you and me. They’re every down-on-his-luck guy who just wanted to live a decent life but got stepped on, every character in a Bruce Springsteen or Merle Haggard song, every cop, soldier, auto mechanic, steelworker, and construction worker in America’s small towns who can’t make ends meet and wonders why everyone else is getting a break except him. But instead of becoming Tom Joad, a left-leaning populist, they take a hard right turn, ultimately supporting the very people who have dispossessed them.

They’re America’s Everymen, whose pain at downward mobility and whose anger at what they see as an indifferent government have become twisted by a hate that tells them they are better than others, disfigured by a resentment so deep that there are no more bridges to be built, no more ladders of upward mobility to be climbed, a howl of pain mangled into the scream of a warrior. Their rage is as sad as it is frightening, as impotent as it is shrill.


You might think that the political ideology of the white supremacist movement is as simple as their list of enemies: put down minorities, expel immigrants, push the women out of the workplace, and round up and execute the gays and the Jews. But it’s not nearly so simple. Actually, they have to navigate some treacherous ideological waters and reconcile seemingly contradictory ideological visions with their emotions.

There are three parts to their ideological vision. For one thing, they are ferociously procapitalist. They are firm believers in the free market and free enterprise. They just don’t like what it’s brought. They like capitalism; they just hate corporations. They identify, often, as the vast middle class of office workers and white-collar employees, even though that is hardly their class background. (They’ve a fungible understanding of class warfare.) “For generations, white middle class men defined themselves by their careers, believing that loyalty to employers would be rewarded by job security and, therefore, the ability to provide for their families” is the way one issue of Racial Loyalty (a racist skinhead magazine) puts it. “But the past decade—marked by an epidemic of takeovers, mergers, downsizings and consolidations—has shattered that illusion.”

Aryans support capitalist enterprise and entrepreneurship, even those who make it rich, but especially the virtues of the small proprietor, but are vehemently antiurban, anticosmopolitan, and anticorporate. In their eyes, Wall Street is ruled by Jewish-influenced corporate plutocrats who hate “real” Americans. Theirs is the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of producers—not financiers, not bankers, and not those other “masters of the universe” whose entire careers consist of cutting the cake ever more finely and living on the crumbs. It’s Andrew Jackson’s producerist attack on the “parasitic” bankers. It is “the desire to own small property, to produce crops and foodstuffs, to control local affairs, to be served but never coerced by a representative government, and to have traditional ways of life and labor respected,” writes historian Catherine Stock.

White supremacists see themselves as squeezed between global capital and an emasculated state that supports voracious global profiteering. In the song “No Crime Being White,” Day of the Sword, a popular racist skinhead band, confronts the greedy class:
The birthplace is the death of our race.
Our brothers being laid off is a truth we have to face.
Take my job, it’s equal opportunity
The least I can do, you were so oppressed by me
I’ve only put in twenty years now.
Suddenly my country favors gooks and spicks and queers.
Fuck you, then, boy I hope you’re happy when your new employees are the reason why your business ends.
Second, the extreme Right is extremely patriotic. They love their country, their flag, and everything it stands for. These are the guys who get teary at the playing of the national anthem, who choke up when they hear the word America. They have bumper stickers on their pick ups that show the flag with the slogan “These colors don’t run.”

The problem is that the America they love doesn’t happen to be the America in which they live. They love America—but they hate its government. They believe that the government has become so un-American that it has joined in global institutions that undermine and threaten the American way of life. Many fuse critiques of international organizations such as the United Nations with protectionism and neoisolationism, arguing that all internationalisms are part of a larger Zionist conspiracy. Some embrace a grand imperial vision of American (and other Aryan) domination and the final subjugation of “inferior races.”

As he traveled through the rural West, journalist Joel Dyer constantly heard these refrains: “Environmentalists wouldn’t let me run my cows cause some damn little sparrow they said was endangered lived on my place,” “They took my farm,” “The IRS took everything I owned.” “These people believe the government is responsible for where they are, because they are finding themselves ignored, basically, by the economic system. People are losing their homes, their farms, their jobs, their sources of income. Corporations have been allowed to move wherever they want, and to take away jobs by the truckload. People are becoming economically dispossessed.”

NAFTA took away American jobs; what they see as the “Burger King” economy leaves no room at the top, so “many youngsters see themselves as being forced to compete with nonwhites for the available minimum wage, service economy jobs that have replaced their parents’ unionized industry opportunities.”

That such ardent patriots are so passionately antigovernment might strike the observer as contradictory. After all, are these not the same men who served their country in Vietnam or in the Gulf War? Are these not the same men who believe so passionately in the American Dream? Are they not the backbone of the Reagan Revolution? Indeed, they are. The extreme Right faces the difficult cognitive task of maintaining their faith in America and in capitalism and simultaneously providing an analysis of an indifferent state, at best, or an actively interventionist one, at worst, and a way to embrace capitalism, despite a cynical corporate logic that leaves them, often literally, out in the cold—homeless, jobless, hopeless.

Finally, they believe themselves to be the true heirs of the real America. They are the ones who are entitled to inherit the bounty of the American system. It’s their birthright—as native-born, white American men. As sociologist Lillian Rubin puts it, “It’s this confluence of forces—the racial and cultural diversity of our new immigrant population; the claims on the resources of the nation now being made by those minorities who, for generations, have called America their home; the failure of some of our basic institutions to serve the needs of our people; the contracting economy, which threatens the mobility aspirations of working class families—all these have come together to leave white workers feeling as if everyone else is getting a piece of the action while they get nothing.”

This persistent reversal—white men as victim, the “other” as undeservedly privileged—resounds through the rhetoric of the extreme Right. Take, for example, Pat Buchanan’s “A Brief for Whitey,” a response to candidate Barack Obama’s call for a national conversation about race in America: “It is the same old con, the same old shakedown. America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”

And now, I suppose, Buchanan would say, we’re supposed to apologize to them? Pay them reparations? They should be kissing our feet with gratitude! But no. We live in a fun-house version of America, Buchanan argues, where minorities rule and white folks are the new oppressed minority. It was ours, but it’s not anymore. It has been taken—because we let it! And the fact that it has been stolen from us leaves white American men feeling emasculated—and furious.

It is through a decidedly gendered and sexualized rhetoric of masculinity that this contradiction between loving America and hating its government, loving capitalism and hating its corporate iterations, is resolved. Racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, antifeminism—these discourses of hate provide an explanation for the feelings of entitlement thwarted, fixing the blame squarely on “others” whom the state must now serve at the expense of white men. The unifying theme is gender.

These men feel emasculated by big money and big government. In their eyes, most white American men collude in their emasculation. They’ve grown soft, feminized, weak. White supremacist websites abound with complaints about the “whimpering collapse of the blond male,” the “legions of sissies and weaklings, of flabby, limp-wristed, non-aggressive, non-physical, indecisive, slack-jawed, fearful males who, while still heterosexual in theory and practice, have not even a vestige of the old macho spirit.”

Excerpted from Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era by Michael Kimmel. Published by Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Kimmel. All rights reserved.

More Michael Kimmel.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Reducing Rape Requires Re-Wiring How Men Define Masculinity

This article comes from The Mint, a joint-production of the Hindu Times and the Wall Street Journal. Because it comes from India, the jumping off point for the editorial is the one-year anniversary of the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi. There were marches and demonstrations to remember the woman who died, but there were also echoes of the original responses by some men that rape become a capital offense (death penalty).

The author argues that many young men have bought into the feminist ideals of empowering women and punishing men who perpetrate. But this is misguided - if we want to change the culture of rape then we must re-wire how men define their own masculinity. The author quotes Havovi Wadia, head of research and development at Magic Bus, a children’s non-profit organization, and an activist who has worked in the area of gender-based violence:
“Notions of masculinity need to be challenged perhaps more urgently than notions of femininity. After all, it is the hetero-normative masculine discourse (which holds male heterosexuality as normal and all other expressions of male sexuality/gender as “not masculine” or abnormal) that situates the woman’s body as a site of conquest. Sadly, even feminism has continued to occupy a space within this discourse, resisting masculinities by positing equally problematic versions of the female.”
Gender scholar Ravi Verma, regional director, Asia regional office, International Centre for Research on Women, New Delhi, agrees with this premise and adds:
“We should expand the gender discourse beyond women’s empowerment,” Verma said in a telephone interview. “We have always presented equality from the perspective of giving agency to women, without bothering to normalize the man’s responsibility in achieving gender equality. Where do you see sensitive portrayals of men who are trying to transform themselves but might find their masculinity challenged, or feel frustrated in the process?”

According to Verma, rape falls at one end—the extreme end—of a broad spectrum of more subtle but firmly patriarchal expressions of masculinity that men absorb and exhibit from their childhood onwards. “You cannot stop rape overnight by legislation alone—that’s impossible,” he asserts. “In fact, limiting ourselves to legislative intervention might even have the opposite effect.”
The essential element, it seems to me, is that we need to transform masculinity in young men so that it becomes an object of awareness and not merely an uninterrogated lived experience. It must be a topic of discussion and education beginning very early in boys lives so that there is consciousness of how men are trained as boys to see women's bodies as objects to which they have an inherent right.

Boys must be taught to see girls, and later women, as equal and autonomous human beings who have the same rights to not be violated physically, emotionally, or sexually that men assume for themselves.  

This is how we change rape culture.

Okay, back to the article. The author and those interviewed offer a slightly different argument than I do, focusing instead on reducing the equation of masculinity with “proving behaviors,” including behaviors such as who can drink more, who can drive faster, who is more physically intimidating, and of course, who can “take” this or that girl. All of these are part of the traditional masculine ideal, a remnant of our evolutionary biology that has long ago ceased to be acceptable. 

Being ‘man enough’: Rape and our ideas of masculinity

Any strategy for action against rape must include an engagement with men’s ideas of masculinity

G. Sampath
First Published: Thu, Dec 19 2013

Some of the most chilling images from the anti-rape morchas of last year were those of ultra-aggressive male protesters making shrill demands of capital punishment for rape. Photo: Hindustan Times

It is now one year since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi. While it is great that we honoured her memory this week by taking out marches and lighting candles, these are the easier things to do. Far more difficult is to challenge our own comforting assumptions—about the feminisms we subscribe to, the notions of gender we live by.

For instance, some of the most chilling images from the anti-rape morchas of last year were those of ultra-aggressive male protesters making shrill demands of capital punishment for rape. Where did their aggression come from? Did these men—ostensibly out on the streets to support women’s rights and fight patriarchy—ever interrogate their lived sense of masculinity, or that of their male peers? Or were they the kind who, after marching against rape, would go back and rape somebody, as one of them allegedly did?

A number of gender scholars and activists have come to believe that the conventional feminist critique, which holds patriarchal male privilege responsible for fuelling sexual offences by men, does not wash with all men—definitely not with the vast majority for whom their masculinity is wedded to those selfsame patriarchal privileges, which includes a deep sense of entitlement to the bodies of women. Therefore, any strategy for action against rape, they argue, must include an engagement with men’s ideas of masculinity.

Havovi Wadia, head of research and development at Magic Bus, a children’s non-profit organization, and an activist who has worked in the area of gender-based violence says, “Notions of masculinity need to be challenged perhaps more urgently than notions of femininity. After all, it is the hetero-normative masculine discourse (which holds male heterosexuality as normal and all other expressions of male sexuality/gender as “not masculine” or abnormal) that situates the woman’s body as a site of conquest. Sadly, even feminism has continued to occupy a space within this discourse, resisting masculinities by positing equally problematic versions of the female.”

Wadia’s view is echoed by another gender scholar, Ravi Verma, regional director, Asia regional office, International Centre for Research on Women, New Delhi. Verma spent several years studying the processes by which children, teenagers and young adults imbibe normative ideas of gender. He believes that to be able to really address sexual violence against women, it is necessary “to go beyond post-facto responses, such as stringent law enforcement, and get into primary prevention work”.

But what does he mean by primary prevention work? “We should expand the gender discourse beyond women’s empowerment,” Verma said in a telephone interview. “We have always presented equality from the perspective of giving agency to women, without bothering to normalize the man’s responsibility in achieving gender equality. Where do you see sensitive portrayals of men who are trying to transform themselves but might find their masculinity challenged, or feel frustrated in the process?”

According to Verma, rape falls at one end—the extreme end—of a broad spectrum of more subtle but firmly patriarchal expressions of masculinity that men absorb and exhibit from their childhood onwards. “You cannot stop rape overnight by legislation alone—that’s impossible,” he asserts. “In fact, limiting ourselves to legislative intervention might even have the opposite effect.”

The counter-productive impact of punitive intervention is also underscored by another research scholar, Romit Chowdhury of the Kolkata-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. In a recent essay in Economic and Political Weekly , he notes, “The existence of laws which criminalize men’s sexual assault on women have not deterred male violence because it has become merely another ground on which men can prove their masculinity.” And how does that come about? He explains: “The possibility of getting caught provides an avenue for proving masculinity, showing that you can take big risks without being daunted by the prospect of danger.”

The centrality of “proving behaviour” to patriarchal definitions of masculinity, wherein a man feels compelled to “prove himself” in order to bond with his peers is well-documented in masculinity studies. While the domain of proof could be male friendship, or a skill of some kind, it typically derives from a patriarchal idea of masculinity. It has no space where one can ask: why does masculinity have to be proved at all? Common instances of such “proving behaviour” include who could drink more, who could drive faster, who is a truer friend, and of course, who could “take” this or that girl, says Verma.

Being undaunted by danger, and being able to get away with risk-taking and violence are widely reinforced as central facets of masculinity in popular culture. Almost every mainstream commercial film unfolds narratives that associate masculinity with violence. And whether you interpret that as reflecting societal norms or shaping them, given its ubiquity and glamorous potency, can we hope to stem the tide of male sexual violence without first systematically challenging these definitions of masculinity, and mainstreaming alternative expressions of male sexuality?

Indeed, one simple step that we as a society could have taken to counter the kind of aggressive masculinity that leans in the direction of rape was to decriminalize homosexuality, and thereby create a congenial climate for the normalizing of alternative, anti-patriarchal masculinities. Instead, with the Supreme Court’s 11 December ruling, we have done the exact opposite.

Both Wadia and Verma agree that an effective strategy against gender-based violence must involve systematic intervention at the institutional level, ideally at a stage when an individual’s gendered identities are yet to solidify. Wadia advocates engaging with children in the playground as a powerful way to challenge patriarchal definitions of masculinity. “The best part about this process—and this is what my organization does—is that it brings girls out of their homes into public spaces. In this case, it is one that, in India, is almost universally occupied by males—the public playground.”

Verma, who has been involved with gender-focused research studies in schools across Maharashtra and Jharkhand, also believes that intervention at the school level is critical. “You walk into any school and you will find that boys and girls are already receiving subtle messages that reinforce patriarchal definitions of gender. Go to the playground, and you will find boys, when they are 12 or 13, forming their ideas of selfhood based on aggression, violence, bullying. Women, too, fall into the same trap of patriarchy. Unless we address regressive notions of masculinity, especially with regard to notions of power and entitlement, we cannot make much progress in tackling regressive notions of femininity held by men as well as women.”

In the aftermath of the “Nirbhaya” case, by and large, the institutional responses to combat rape have coalesced around the twin ideas of punishment and deterrence. The punitive focus has been necessary because for far too long crimes against women have gone unpunished. But it is also vital to extend the battle beyond it—for legislations can always be reversed, as the bitter saga of Article 377 has showed us. Enforcing equality is one thing. Securing it is another thing altogether.

Friday, December 27, 2013

"Fathers Who Care About Parenting" Are Not a Revelation (via Esquire)

Can I get an "Amen!"? This short article from Esquire tries to help dispel the myth that men who are trying to be actively involved and caring parents are some kind of aberration.

"Fathers Who Care About Parenting" Are Not a Revelation

By Stephen Marche on December 23, 2013

The recent government survey of American family life is mostly good news. American dads are heavily involved with the lives of their children in a variety of important ways. Among other things, most fathers read to their children several times a week, help out with homework, and eat meals with their kids. Given that new research shows just how powerful time spent with a father can be, particularly in the lives of boys, these are all signs of genuine and substantial hope. The only really bad news about the government survey is that it's news at all.

"Fathers who care" are the new "women who work." Haven't we all moved beyond this question by now?

We all know that fatherhood matters to men. When my own father died a year and a half ago, I discovered for myself just how much. The new survey shows that the symbolic power of fatherhood is increasing. Young men want to be fathers more than young women want to be mothers now. But the trends the new government survey identifies are pretty mild. The amount of father's attention to their children has "increased slightly" since 2002.

So when the AP writes that "the detached dad, turning up his nose at diapering and too busy to bathe, dress and play with his kids, is mostly a myth," I have to ask: Whose myth?

This idea of fathers coming home to retire to the den to build bottle shops and suck back old-fashioneds has not been viable for a generation at least. That may be how today's grandfathers remember their own grandfathers, but for everybody else, it's history.

We all know that the family as it currently stands comprises mothers who work and fathers who help with the children. That is the way the vast majority of families work. To remark on fathers who care is to imply that the norm is for fathers not to care. To remark on women who work is to imply that it's unusual. And this attitude of surprise has consequences.

American work life and American family life have arranged themselves so that women are punished for having children at the workplace and discussions of family leave are almost entirely discussions of maternity leave. Treating the current family as some weird outlier makes discussions of family policies separated from reality.

The latest Pew research shows that 40% of households with children under 18 have women as breadwinners. This comes as a surprise to exactly no one who is paying attention. The current model of the standard family, insofar as such a thing exists at all, involves both partners bringing in income, and both partners helping to care for the children. (Housework is a different matter.) This is not news anymore. It is simply established reality.

The most important and substantial trend in American family life is not that men and women are in separate spheres, but that they're struggling in both, that government and business policies around family-life balance in America are virtually non-existent, and that they haven't properly been thought through yet. "News" that treats the current lives as men and women as alternative reality doesn't help.

Let's stop being amazed that men and women are living the way they are. Let's start doing something to help them.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mask You Live In - Documentary Coming Soon


Below is the trailer for a new film due out in 2014, an exploration of American masculinity. They are also seeking crowd-funding the support project - go here. This is an important topic that can always use more exposure in the public mind. Education is the way to create change.

There's Something Absolutely Wrong With What We Do To Boys Before They Grow Into Men

Joseph Lamour

"Be a man" is something we've all heard at one time or another, even a few of the women reading this right now. Being a "man" in that sense means something completely different to me (and maybe you, too) than what that phrase implies.

I can't even begin to describe the toll that the concept of masculinity has taken on my life. And it's felt everywhere. It's time we make changes, starting from within ourselves.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Great American Gender Debates of 2013 (The Atlantic)

I almost missed this article from The Atlantic on the top gender stories in 2013, but then I saw my high school classmate, Ty Burrell in the picture. I wish I could say, "I knew him when . . ." but I really didn't. And not having television, I didn't even know he was actor (even though we were at Southern Oregon University during the same years) until he won an Emmy. Then I saw him in one of my favorite indie films from the past few years (set in Tucson), Goats.

Anyway, this is an interesting recap of the year's top gender stories.

The Great American Gender Debates of 2013

From Supreme Court cases to blockbuster films, these are the narratives on sex and gender that dominated the news this year.

Heather Horn and Svati Kirsten Narula | Dec 17 2013  

Some of the biggest stories and debates in the media in 2013 had to do with gender relations—LGBT rights, women in the workplace, parenting styles, and more. Same-sex marriage gained more approval and legitimacy than ever this year, both in public opinion polling and as a matter of federal law. Sheryl Sandberg told women to "lean in" at the office, while the military told women they were now permitted to "lean in" on the battlefield. Bradley Manning became Chelsea Manning. And researchers offered up interesting new studies for individuals seeking a happy home life.

Here are our picks for the most interesting narratives about sex and gender in 2013.

Gay Marriage Starts to Influence Straight Marriage 

On June 26, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied federal benefits to gay couples legally married in their states. In The Atlantic’s June cover story, Liza Mundy argued that gay marriage has the potential to change straight marriage—for the better. Mundy pointed to research showing higher rates of satisfaction in same-sex unions. Same-sex partnerships, researchers quoted in the piece suggested, may finally shed light on an old question: How much of the conflict we’ve come to see as inherent in heterosexual marriage is about marriage, and how much of it is about gender roles? Same-sex couples often have different approaches to handling chores, childcare, and intimacy, Mundy noted. Maybe straight couples have something to learn.

Intriguingly, however, it appears there’s one area where gay marriage is reinforcing traditional norms: name-changing.

Marissa Mayer Shakes Up the Work-Life Debate 

"Marissa Mayer is a CEO first and a woman second," wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter in February. (Henny Ray Abrams/Associated Press file photo)
Marissa Mayer was already a divisive figure and potential feminist icon when the year opened, having become CEO of Yahoo in July 2012 and taken only two weeks of maternity leave that October before returning to work. In February of 2013, she made headlines again with a controversial ban on telecommuting. Some called Mayer hypocritical for having made life more difficult for Yahoo’s working parents while she, herself, could afford to have a private nursery built next to her office. In April, though, Mayer doubled paid maternity leave for mothers and instituted a new eight-week paid paternity leave to fathers. Critics hailed the move as a first step towards gender-parity in parenting.

Marriage Is Good for Your Career—If You’re a Man

In January, the American Historical Association revealed the results of its 2010 Career Paths Survey. As Alexis Coe reported for The Atlantic, the study showed not only that men progressed quicker from associate to full professor than women did, but also that marriage hastened a man’s promotion, while slowing a woman’s promotion. The difference was attributed, in part, to the support married men get from their female partners, who are more likely to take a leave of absence from their own jobs to aid a husband’s career. Another study Coe covered that same month suggested this isn’t just true in academia: It pays to be a married dad whose wife doesn’t work full-time.

Sheryl Sandberg Tells Women to Lean In 

March saw the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, an extension of her viral TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Sandberg’s key contribution to the debate was not just to focus on sexism in the workplace: She also challenged women to speak up in the office, and not to check their ambitions out of a premature consideration for the pressures of motherhood.

Was the book too focused on upper-class women? Did it ignore gender differences and patronize “lean back” moms? Some critics thought so. But the book was also well timed. Recent studies had found women less likely than men to behave aggressively in the workplace, particularly when it came to asking for raises. And a study in January revealed that women were less likely even to talk about their salaries. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta, among others, praised Sandberg for getting the conversation going. Rebecca Rosen pointed to the book’s message for men: Making workplaces and homes more equal not only requires their help, but could also benefit them, as well.

Women Will Fill Combat Roles, and Get Better Procedures for Reporting Sexual Assaults 

In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced, with hearty and unequivocal support from General Martin Dempsey, that the Pentagon would lift its controversial ban on women in combat. "I went back to teach at West Point in 1984 and found the place far better than it was when I had been a cadet,” said Dempsey when a reporter pressed him on how women would affect combat readiness. “I attributed a good amount of that to the fact that we opened up the academy to women." Dempsey also thought greater moves to include women would reduce the military’s pernicious sexual assault problem: "The more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

Politicians weren’t prepared to wait on that front. Debate over reforms in the military’s sexual assault reporting and prosecution process raged in Congress over the summer. On December 12, the House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming majority to pass the resulting defense policy bill.

Dempsey’s confidence that women could meet the standards required for combat roles got some support this fall: For the first time in history, women are set to graduate from the infantry training course of the U.S. Marine Corps. No allowances or adjustments were made to the physical fitness requirements. Remember those 17 percent of Marines who said in February they’d quit if women were allowed in combat roles? Time to find out whether they were serious.

Angelina Jolie Attempts to De-Stigmatize Mastectomies 

In May, actress Angelina Jolie revealed in a New York Times op-ed that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy. She chose to remove her breasts, she wrote, after learning she carried the infamous BRCA1 gene. Her mother died of breast cancer. The message? “A woman is still sexy, even after she has her breasts removed and reconstructed,” argued The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn. “It’s hard to imagine a person who can say that with more authority than Jolie.”

Jolie’s revelation prompted an outpouring of anecdotes from other women. In November, television reporter Amy Robach underwent a double mastectomy following an on-air screening mammogram, prompting some to wonder whether American women were getting the wrong message about breast cancer options.

Sex and the College Girl 

The American media remain fascinated with the way young men and women flirt, hook up, and form relationships at college. The biggest stories this year revolved around sexual assault on campus: how to prevent incidents from occurring in the first place (should we just tell female students to stop drinking so much?), and how to make it easier for victims to speak up and seek justice. Whether the need to report assaults, in the interest of campus-wide safety and awareness, outweighs a victim’s desire to move on is also up for debate. Meanwhile, the NCAA was accused of turning a blind eye to Division I programs who set their high school recruits up with “hostesses” on official visits – another sign, according to author Jessica Luther, “that the culture of men’s Division I sports can be harmful to women.

Transgender Issues Gain Unprecedented Mainstream Coverage 

It’s an encouraging time for queer identities in America—or, at least, in the American media. The story of Chelsea-née-Bradley Manning—and the ensuing discussion of how and when federal prisoners get access to hormone therapy and sex re-assignment surgery—was one of several highlighting society’s shifting attitudes on defining gender. In The Atlantic, a few weeks after Matt Duron explained why he’s okay with raising a “gender-creative” son who wears dresses, Noah Berlatsky interviewed author Julia Serano about gender expression and biology. On Halloween, Duron’s wife Lori wrote about letting their son choose “girl costumes” instead of “boy costumes.”

Meanwhile, Harvard Business School's first openly trans student has been speaking up about why Harvard's progress is a good sign for society at large.

The Great Princess Debate Rages On 

In January, Saraswati Nagpal argued that princesses can be heroic role models for young girls, even if they’re not wielding weapons and conquering bad guys. Nagpal pointed to epic mythological tales from India for examples of princesses who display strength in domestic ways. Merida, the spunky red-headed princess from Pixar’s 2012 movie Brave, got a “sexy makeover” this May, which fans of her original personality—“a cross between Annie Oakley and Katniss Everdeen,” a tomboy who might even be lesbian—were not too happy about. The backlash against Merida’s enhanced femininity was maybe too reductive, argued Noah Berlatsky: There ought to be a middle ground between tomboys and girly-girls in princess-dom. Meanwhile, Andy Hinds tried to keep his twin daughters away from Disney’s Cinderella stories, thinking that a video of Sonia Sotomayor saying “being a princess is not a career” would help keep them away from what he called “the Princess Industrial Complex.” To his dismay, one daughter eventually just said: “I don’t want to have a real career.”

Women Who ‘Opt Out’ 

Ten years after Lisa Belkin wrote about “The Opt-Out Revolution” for the New York Times, Lisa Miller penned a cover story for New York magazine about the exact same thing: “Feminists who say they’re having it all – by choosing to stay home.” Is there anything wrong with highly educated professional women who are more interested in raising their kids than running the world? If the trend is less a reflection of women's preferences and more about inflexible, family-unfriendly workplaces, then maybe so. Relatedly, however, Emily Matchar pointed out what she calls the “new domesticity”: Mothers from all walks of life are making environmentalist, anti-consumerist political statements by staying home.

In August, The New York Times issued a controversial update on the original Belkin piece: “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” Apparently women who left the workforce for their families are now, whether due to divorce, restlessness, or economic necessity, rethinking the move—and having a hard time getting back into the market. The piece prompted The Atlantic’s daddy panel to protest that there’s no such thing as opting out. “Why did these women think they could get away with this?” Another writer offered the obvious but necessary reminder that “Keeping a Family Together Is Hard, Whether You ‘Opt Out’ or Not.”

The Year in Marriage Advice 

Is marriage changing? Earlier this year Conor Friedersdorf said he’s not sure that his own marriage is very different from his grandparents’ marriage. Two things that have shifted, though, according to public opinion polls, are attitudes about cheating and divorce. While divorce is becoming more and more acceptable, along with pre-marital sex and having children out of wedlock, public disapproval for cheating has skyrocketed. The new message, Hugo Schwyzer summarized, is “I’d rather be left than lied to”; that the reverse would have been true forty years ago says a lot about how our views have changed.

How can one avoid an unhappy marriage, divorce, or infidelity to begin with? Researchers have looked to gay and lesbian couples for insights on what strains and strengthens partnerships (as mentioned above). The Dean of the National Cathedral offered his list of twelve things he urges couples to discuss before tying the knot. Eleanor Barkhorn took Vladimir Putin’s divorce as an opportunity to consider the importance of “mutual independence” in marriages. Karen Swallow Prior told readers not to shy away from getting married young, as marriage may make a better “cornerstone” of adulthood than a “capstone.” No matter when you get married, though, one piece of advice surfaces over and over again—the key to living happily ever after is dividing the housework. Even if one spouse ends up doing only 35 percent of the chores, the less ambiguity there is about whose job it is to empty the dishwasher, the better.