On Being ManKind

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a Kickstarter campaign for a collection of books called Being ManKind–an intentional lapse of grammatical convention. The series tries to break free of gendered norms and stereotypes, the toxic masculinity we’ve all come to hate.

I’ve been wanting to write about why I support the project and why I think you should, too, but it’s been busy. So much of the last few weeks has gone straight into dealing with that kind of gender bias (in the classroom) that I haven’t had a second to write.

Now there’s little more than sixteen hours to go, and to be successfully funded, it needs to bring in about a thousand dollars every hour until it ends.

So, sure, there’ll be an ask at the end, but there’s (kinda) a story until we get there, too.

For the longest time my biggest critique of feminism is that it’s exclusive: all the talk’s about women empowerment, but very little time is devoted to redefining men’s roles. If you point this out to any self-proclaimed feminist, chances are you’ll be told that feminism is for men, too, and in many ways I’ve come to accept that.

But then that same person will say that, yes, women do date men just because they’re tall. Or make a face when he says he knits. Or completely disregard the needs of transgender people, or women of color, or impoverished people of either sex.

And furthermore, the men who claim to be feminists are those same men who are least likely to need feminism to fight against rape culture, misogyny, and (hetero)sexism.

I’ve decided, in most cases, the problem is marketing and bad PR. I remember hearing when I was younger that groups calling themselves feminists would fight legal battles to prevent father’s from gaining custody of their children or online bloggers donning the title of feminist writing not for equity, but for the submission of men to women.

These things are not what people mean by feminism today, at least in most cases, and yet these are the things that those most in need of feminism think of when they hear it.

Those who do need it most are often those most entrenched in the system of gender norms, those in the historically dominant gender class that see any drive toward equity a threat against the power and privilege they’ve internalized as natural and right.

(Like my student who said one day, he wished we could go back to the time when men could hit women. I asked him why; he said because that’s the way it should be.)

Those men are the men least likely to listen to feminist theory, to take a college course on gender in politics, to even consider the idea that men and women truly really are equal.

I could make the same argument about a lot of social issues. Those most able to grow from learning about immigrants, for example, are also the most adamant in their (generally mistaken or mislead) beliefs against immigrant rights in our country.

As a man, I don’t necessarily claim the title of feminist (but I guess in most ways I act and believe as one), for many of the aforesaid reasons and some others that aren’t as important. But as a man, I also think it’s my obligation to help bring other men into the fold, toward a greater understanding of the harms of a gendered system that allegedly favors men (while secretly, subversively making men less-than because of it).

Consider the dichotomy: Men should be sexual, chasing after women as a matter of conquest and pride. And men should be loyal, faithful husbands.

Or this one: Men should be powerful, aggressive fighters, and also gentle, caring fathers.

These images aren’t compatible, at least not for people who think in black and white (and for most who hail from gender-biased backgrounds, when it comes to gender, their thinking is remarkably black and white with no greys allowed). I see this manifested in some of my students every day: The boys act out one second, say it’s no surprise the girls have higher GPAs the next second, never once realizing that what they’re really saying is that being smart is for girls, and they’re guys, so being smart is too girly for them.

Of course, gender is only one dynamic–often conflated with sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, culture and socio-economic status. They all fold together. But we can still talk about them individually, fight one battle to begin the greater war.

(And why must so many analogies compare the simplest things to great acts of violence?)

When I started teaching, I wanted to be the teacher who showed young boys there’s another way to act and behave. I don’t think I’ve done that very well. I don’t always know how to have the conversation. I don’t always have their buy-in because they’re black and brown boys, many from low-income backgrounds, and all they see me as it that rich white guy who doesn’t understand them and where they come from. That’s not untrue, but it also ignores the fact that some of their experiences are also mine, and that I’ve come into this profession seeking to learn from them as much as I can. And yet, just the other day, when I told them to change the way they were speaking about women, one of them shouted, “If we had a straight teacher, he’d let us get away with it.”

I digress. My kids are good kids. They’ve just been given a bad example to follow–an example portrayed in TV and movies, books and video games. I can’t fault them for not knowing better; they didn’t choose to be born into this system, and it hasn’t yet given them the choice to step out of it, to come back in and try to change it. They need to see all the things that men can be, and I’m not always the right person to show them that.

I’m up late, and I don’ t think this post either communicated what I had intended or clearly said anything I thought of, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re in a society starved of positive male role models that can help break down these harmful norms. Just as women have the right to choose if they want to be professionals or stay at home, so do men–but if you ask any of my students, they wouldn’t even know it’s a choice.

Masculinity is so narrowly defined that we break our boys down before they can stand. They’re told what they can be and how they can be, but never given the chance to think about all the possibilities, all the ways they could design themselves, for themselves.

It’s for these kids that a book like this needs to be made. We need those role models. We need these stories that can show boys that “being a man” means more than one thing.

Support Being ManKind on Kickstarter.


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