Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future
Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker and civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, was one of the first to identify the need for and existence of a feminist Third Wave in the US. She was co-founder of the New York-based Third Wave Direct Action Corporation in 1992, now the Third Wave Foundation, an activist body run specifically “by and for young women between the ages of 15 and 30” [Third Wave Foundation, par. 1]. Her 1995 To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995) is frequently cited as one of the foundational texts of a recognisably distinct Third Wave, and her contribution carefully laid out the need for a movement produced by a new young generation whose gender activism could still be called feminism but which was unavoidably dissimilar. To Be Real involved a necessary (for Walker) reconstruction of the feminist label with which many young women currently struggle—“not only, as some prominent Second Wavers have asserted, because we lack a knowledge of women’s history and have been alienated by the media’s generally horrific characterization of feminists” [“Being Real” xxxii, emphasis added]. This collection was based on an attempt to create an inclusive feminism for young women where “[f]or many of us it seems that to be a feminist […] is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn’t allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories” [“Being Real” xxxiii].
Her latest collection, What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future, with its identical number of articles (though minus the sanctifying foreword by Gloria Steinem), neatly follows—in both form and content—the testimonial gender critique begun in To Be Real, and Walker is to be applauded both for trying to relay the concept that the complex power disparities forming femininity and masculinity are formed relationally between men and women (meaning that if gender activism is seen to be the task solely of women it will not be successful), and for pushing for a masculinity studies which is influenced by Third Wave feminism rather than taking for granted that it can be feminist. What Makes a Man is a welcome intervention in thinking on masculinity where, for example, Robert Connell’s masculinity study The Men and The Boys (2001), in assuming equivalence between men’s gender critique and feminism, only confirmed that “[f]eminist theories are still being caricatured, stereotyped and misread in recent attempts by masculinity theorists to define and utilize them” [Robinson 127]. In addition, channeling the writing of men through the collective testimonial format of To Be Real’s established commitment to Third Wave feminism, What Makes a Man seems primed to resist falling into step with a succession of past meditations on men whose hidden subtext was the damage done to masculinity by Second Wave feminism, particularly as for Walker in To Be Real the Second Wave was partly responsible for men’s identification as enemies rather than friends of feminism because it functioned as an often-exclusive master discourse.
Of course, the predominance of the life story in What Makes a Man reflects both the continuing Western affiliation with the confession and its associated truths, and the association of the bildungsroman, however brief, with truth-telling arising from capitalist beliefs in the sanctity of the private economic self. It does also, nevertheless, indicate a response to a need for accounts of gender’s production in the unregistered politics of mundane interrelation. Contributors are consistent in not allowing opportunities for discussing the micropolitics of gender to go unused. Remarkable amongst these texts are Michael Datcher’s, which energetically exposes the intersection of gender with race and class, Martha Southgate’s account of the ideological basis of Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis, David Coates’s precise report of the compulsion towards stoicism, Jesse Green’s piece on male single-sex households, and Ruth Bettelheim’s snapshot of the structure of masculinity involved in beliefs about children of divorced parents. The uses of “inspirational rhetorical prose meant to uplift, empower, and motivate” [“Being Real” xxix] also have to be admitted.
Assigning its subject the status of regime of truth by subtitling it Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism provided a compelling backup to To Be Real’s claims to demarcate a “new generation” [“Being Real” xxxiv] and to present something approaching a sample of a common social voice rather than a singular theoretical treatise. Walker also prefers personal testimonies, she writes, “because I believe that our lives are the best basis for feminist theory” [“Being Real” xxvii], but while few would deny that the basis of feminist theory must be lived experience this does not mean that work produced according to this belief constitutes feminist theory. Although both life-writing and “popular theory” are held to challenge the theory/activism divide, academics—who challenge that divide daily—will not find theory, on which further investigations could be based, in What Makes a Man. The reliance on testimonial “truth” recurs in What Makes a Man’s effort “to deepen our collective humanity by telling the truth” [p. 5]. Walker specifies that the collection is a contribution to “this project of men’s liberation […] a similar mass reeducation” [p. 6] amongst men to that of feminism. The collection’s testimonial format certainly powerfully enables it to parallel a “men’s struggle” alongside “women’s struggle.” But, for example, convictions about the harmonious play of children which Choyin Rangdrol’s contribution uses as evidence for an inner drive towards peace [pp. 234, 239] draw on romantic thought on the connection of childhood to a primitive world valorised as pure that is evident from Locke, Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards, which cannot be allowed to stand in for “the truth.” In addition, while one success of feminism is that the idea that female empowerment means male disempowerment cannot persist, Walker displays unwarranted assurances of this collection’s discontinuity with a history of thought on maleness and masculinity. Along with the testimonial format, the echo of To Be Real’s own “new generation” neatly “proves” What Makes a Man to be evidence of men’s gender thinking having transformed into gender activism, an act of taking this as given.
Walker’s introductory “Putting Down the Gun” commences a story of men’s assent to “debilitating notions of masculinity” [p. 5]. Her statement that “[t]his war against what is considered feminine that is wounding our sons and brothers, fathers and uncles, is familiar to women, but now we see that it is killing the other half of the planet, too” [p. 4] is expressive of a belief produced in many of the articles. Tajamika Paxton understands a recurring dream image of a one-armed man as “the symbol of men being torn apart by the impossible demands of one-dimensional manhood” [p. 34]. In spite of the capacity of several of the articles to hint at a much more advanced notion of power than that it is held by “Society” over individuals, Howard Zinn’s afterword returns the collection to this foundational element of what Lynne Segal calls the “me-tooism” [p. 233] of much men’s thinking about their relationship to feminism. “The dominant culture” [p. 241], “the larger society” and “the rulers of society” are the forces by whom “we” are “branded and herded into one corral or another” [p. 242]. “The trick played on men,” he writes, “is that while they are supposed to relish their strength, the reality is that they live in a hierarchical world in which only a small number of men have power over the rest, can exploit them economically, can send them off to war” [p. 242]. This stepping-back from a look at how every signifying subject constantly exercises power harms the collection’s potential. Walker’s recourse to liberal individualism in her description of masculinity as “a sudden and often violent reduction of individuality into a single version of boyhood” [p. 4] and of the contributors’ critiques of masculinity as “coming to understand what, emotionally, has been taken from them” [p. 5], adheres to a model of sex and gender which recent gender theory has been anxious to move away from, Judith Butler now quite famously having established that the distinction between sex and gender—on which a critique only capable of conceiving of individuals as misled by gender constructs is based—rehearses the ongoing establishment of sex as pre-discursive [p. 30]. The habit, in many of the articles, of praising the unique beauty of sons, wives and friends similarly derives from implicit reversion to a politics only capable of conceiving of this contrast between the individual and false consciousness, between the “outlaws” cherished in To Be Real [“Being Real” xxv] and “Society” and “The Media,” and scholars of media forms will be irritated by the corresponding lack of sophistication in frequent references to “messages [sent] through the media” [p. 200], “images and ideas […] written in books and song lyrics, shown in movies and on television” [p. 141] and the effects of “magazines, movies, sappy song lyrics, romance novels” [p. 149].
A long tradition of figures of metaphysically wounded men is also only mildly complicated by the common image in the collection of men wounded by themselves. The wound-showing of several of the articles is the corollary of the late twentieth-century belief that men have to some extent suffered castration, even if many of the articles also describe the habit of regarding a willed powerlessness as castration as one of the most harmful elements of masculinity. Feminism has never been so simplistic as to designate women as “wounded.”
Prior acceptance of the originality of this thinking on masculinity also admits a uniform belief that, while there is no necessary maleness-masculinity or femaleness-femininity connection, maleness and femaleness still hold meaning, indeed are to be “unveiled.” Peter Harris in “Me and Isisara Sing Oldies” anchors his discussion to “the woman in me” [p. 91], suggesting that because maleness and femaleness are irrefutable conditions of being then anything “not man” in a man is woman. As implied by one meaning of the title, for many of the articles the current task for the male-embodied is finding a new way of living maleness rather than undoing beliefs in sexed being. “Being a man means…” is the written and unwritten conclusion of several of the articles, and although these sentences finish with challenges to still powerful beliefs about proving and maintaining masculinity they nevertheless continue to consolidate the longevity of maleness as an existence relational to women. Manhood is still declared to have meaning, Kenji Jasper explaining that “[m]anhood is about taking responsibility for one’s action, and resolving conflicts in the best way possible, from paying bills, to paying dues, to being there for your children’s first steps and to protect them from all dangers” [p. 124] and Douglas Rushkoff claiming that “[b]eing a man has […] everything to do with being a person who makes his own choices in real life” [p. 66]. While I believe that asking a collection so vivid with discussions of the complex infrastructure of the operations of power through gender to also question assumptions of universal sex dimorphism may be asking too much, this collection cannot understand itself as Third Wave if it considers the critique of dimorphism to be beyond its remit, as this is at the core of the recent feminist theory to which Walker has claimed to contribute.
The shibboleth of a “male feminism” unable to hide its insufficiencies next to feminism by women persists here too. Douglas Rushkoff’s “Picture Perfect” repeats the dual backlash myths of Second Wave feminism involving women becoming more masculine and of the achievements of Second Wave feminism being damaging to women, referencing the tired account of women’s achievement of “real jobs, real stress, and a significant uptick in heart attacks as a result” [p. 61]. Meanwhile, Rachel Lehmann-Haupt’s erudite tackling of backlash thinking reveals how the multi-limbed “Durga” image of women’s hard-wired multi-tasking capacities is used to underwrite both a continuing uneven distribution of labour in heterosexual couples and men’s ignorance of many “liberated” women’s wildly disproportionate workloads [pp. 198-199].
The extract from Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men is useful for its corrective to the idea that analyses of masculinity should show men suffering at the hands of their gender, reminding male readers that they “will always make more money [and] will always have the door swing open wide” [p. 181]. Moore’s usual slew of statistics is compelling. But his prediction of “the end of men” is not a useful conceit in a collection intent on frustrating the idea that feminism is an attack on men. Why does full female public existence involve images of male eradication at the hands of a female-coded “nature?” The idea of men broken by female independence leads Moore straight to the erroneous claims that “[i]n the early years of Man [we] hunted and gathered the food” and “protected the women and children from larger animals conspiring to eat them” [p. 168]. Even within this collection it is not possible to uphold these ideas. References to anthropological evidence in Rachel Lehmann-Haupt’s article belie this picture of early man as either procurer of food or protector against animals [p. 197].
The superiority of much female-authored feminist writing arises not from their sex but because female embodiment is both constituted and excluded by social relations. Correspondingly, writing by someone with experience of both male and female embodiment, here Caitríona Reed’s “Not a Man,” shows most convincingly out of all the articles that principles of masculinity and femininity are only two points on a wide plane, fixed in place by “the idea that there is a fundamental difference between men and women” [p. 134]. Reed is capable of seeing sex as the recognition and misrecognition of bodies which do not present two uniform camps. Transsexual resistance to one widely-presumed basis of the male-to-female sex change—that men wish to align their bodies with an intensely-felt femininity—is also refreshing, and reveals femininity to be a set of culturally devalued attributes that have only been projected onto the female-embodied. But the main strength of What Makes a Man is that it provides multiple historical documents, the analyses serving to elucidate precise and often misapprehended pictures of everyday gender politics.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits
of “Sex.” London: Routledge, 1993.