AS Productions Civil Controversy will bring noted sociologist Michael Kimmel, to campus at the Multipurpose Room this Monday at 7 p.m. Kimmel is the author of 12 books on gender and masculinity and is a professor of sociology at State University of New York, Stony Brook. He will be speaking on male sexuality and its effects on gay identity and gender.
Q. Your work is largely based on challenging the traditional gender norms of men and masculinity in the same way that feminism challenged the traditional norms of femininity. Can you describe the relation between these two movements?
A. Well I regard the work that I do as having grown directly out of the pioneering work that feminist women did. What feminist women did was they expanded so dramatically the idea of what it means to be a woman that women today assume that they can basically be anything they want. They can go to medical school, law school—many jobs— balance work and family, you know women have a right to everything that men do. They can join the military, they can have orgasms, and not incidentally, it wasn't that long ago you might want to bear in mind, that we believed the women couldn't be journalists, because you know, women are just too soft, they don't have the nose for the hard news, and you can't wear those little fedoras with the pencil sticking out of the hat band. And so we believed the women couldn't be journalists.
And so basically what feminism has done is said that that's crap! Women can do anything they want. And, they've succeeded in everything they've wanted to do.
So what I've done is I've tried to say well, how will men respond to this dramatic transformation in the lives of women. One way is we can fight back and every time women say they can do something we can say no they can't, that seems sort of futile. The there is another way which is we can go off and sort of lick our wounds, go off to the woods and chant and stuff. Or the third thing that we can do is we can decide, gee, what's there for us? How does this change our lives? What impact does this have for us? And it turns out, miraculously, according to every shred of available data, that men who embrace gender equality actually live better lives, are happier, healthier, more satisfied in their relationships, better parents, more involved with there children. They say they're happier. So my argument is entirely that, you know, changing traditional gender expectations for men grows directly out of feminism and it's the best thing that's ever come along for us.
Q. What are the traditional gender norms for men?
A. Being emotionally inexpressive, being strong, being powerful, never showing weakness. Certainly the number one, the cardinal rule, according to every single survey of masculinity is don't cry. So all of those are the norms of masculinity.
Q. How is masculinity hurting men?
A. Well, it confines. What women did is they said the traditional role of femininity, you know, being kind, sweet, nice, and going along with everything limits women. Women can be competent, assertive, aggressive, ambitious, also, and what happens to men is that they are so busy being tough and impervious that we often forget that we have an innate capacity to be loving, caring, and nurturing. And if we didn't have that innate capacity we would never let men be around children.
Q. Why does it seem like a harder battle to win men over to a pro-feminist movement? How do you go about doing this?
A. Well there are two answers to this question. The first answer is, think about it not in terms of relationships but think about it in terms of politics. When women act more masculine, that is they're ambitious or assertive or anything, that's kind of upward mobility for women. But when men act like women, it's seen as sort of downward mobility, because of gender inequality; men have more power than women, etcetera, etcetera.
The second thing is, you know, think about it this way, this is the success of the women's movement, in a way. It is much easier, it is much easier today, to raise a girl to be strong and confident, and competent than it is to raise a boy to be kind and sweet and loving. Think about how many girls you know, in your school, among your friends, who were tomboys when they were kids. Ask your friends, were you a tomboy, most of them will admit it. When you ask them what they did about it, they will say nothing, it didn't matter to me.
Now ask how many of your guy friends were called sissies and you ask what they did about it. I did this in my class recently. I asked the women how many of you were called tomboys when you were kids and about half of them raised their hands. Then I said what'd you do about it and they looked at me like “nothing,” “who cares.” I said how many of the guys in here were called sissies. One guy raised his hand. I said what'd you do about it. He said what'd you think, I put the guy in the hospital. It is much, much more dangerous, in a way, to be seen as gender non-conforming for boys as it is for girls. That's why, that's one of the reasons why it is harder to get men, because the pressure on them to conform is so unbelievably enormous. So I don't care if they join a movement or anything but what I do care about is that they become the kind of men the kind of husbands, the kind of fathers, the kind of partners, that they say they want to be. And I think the only way to do that is to support gender equality.
Q. We have a men's group on campus that is dedicated to ending the normalization of violence among men, called the Men's Violence Prevention Project. I know there are other similar groups in other colleges around the nation. What advice can you give to other men working on this issue that seems to be steadily gaining popular notice?
A. I think that they have two tasks, and one of them is to challenge other men when they see and here them do things that are sexist or racist or homophobic or whatever. They have to feel strong and powerful enough to challenge other men.
The second thing is to develop other mechanisms amongst themselves to support other men. Supporting each other in making these kind of changes, really being the kind of male friends that we really need in our lives, as opposed to the kind of male friends that we just basically boast to.
Q. I have heard you say in other interviews that you think the cultural climate for men is currently changing for the better? Why is this and what gives you hope for change?
A. Well, what gives me hope for change is just exactly what you described, the Western Men Against Violence. When I started doing this work 20 years ago I would go to a campus and after my lecture one guy might come up to me and say wow, that was really interesting, I would love to do something here but I don't know what to do or where to start and there are no facility or administrators who care about this. And now I would say at about a third of the schools I go to I get an email from the men's group on campus like yours, that says we've been meeting, we've read your books, we have facility advisors, we're working in residence life, we're working with the athletic teams, the fraternities, to support women's efforts to end sexual assault and sexual violence. What gives me hope is that on college campuses all over the country there are guys who are saying that sexual assault is not okay, that's my girlfriend, that's my friend, that's my sister, that could be my friend, no way am I going to stand by this anymore. So this is the big challenge I think, the big challenge is to enable men to go from being bystanders, who basically watch quietly and don't intervene, to men who are standing-by, which is to say standing by ready to support each other and to support women's efforts at equality.