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Does Research on Masculinity Undermine a Feminist Agenda?


The short answer of whether or not research on masculinity undermines a feminist agenda is: Possibly.

One way into a rather longer answer is to think for a minute about what is meant by a ‘feminist agenda’.

At the level of intuition we possess a shared stock of knowledge about what this means and how to achieve it, and we have a sophisticated language with which to communicate our beliefs, aspirations and hopes in meeting this agenda.

Yet, there are also numerous complexities here. How can we explain the current state of gender relations as they are played out across diverse context and in very different ways: what might this mean for ‘the agenda’? Also, what do the current dialogues between feminist scholars and masculinities scholars’ look like? How well developed are they and is there room for improvement here? How can we best facilitate dialogue between those camps that have traditionally been wary of one another? Should we even try?

Perhaps more importantly, to what extent is there consensus on what constitutes a feminist agenda? Is this a matter of reaching ‘critical mass’ as noted in mainstreaming strategies? Or, staying with the theme of paid work, is the agenda about equal pay with men? Or about lobbying for sufficient state supported childcare provision to offset the double whammy of both career expectation and childcare provision that many women are forced to negotiate? Or as noted in UN Resolution 1325 is this about ‘increased representation’, ‘equal participation’, ‘full involvement’ and the ‘gender perspective’? How do we audit such things? Is this about quantity or quality of outcome? What kind of appraisal is most likely to elicit a consensus here?   

In a darker sense, how best to explain the routine use of gender based violence in conflict and other situations where extremes of brutality are almost impossible to imagine? How might these understandings stymie the potential value of approaching the agenda with an open mind?

Or in a (potentially) problematic sense, what is the appropriate response to work focusing on men as victims where in the so-called ‘Great War’ in particular - they were slaughtered in their millions? And more recently, in the 9/11 attacks the ratio of men killed to women was 3:1. How relevant is this observation to the feminist agenda? How do gender politics shape debates invoking men as victims and women as violent when this occurs, and what do they mean for the feminist agenda? Indeed, how useful is the concept of gender anyway in explaining a diversity of social problems, particularly those concerning violence? How do we factor in race, ethnicity, class, age?

What do we mean by masculinity and femininity – are these terms shorthand for powerful and powerless, respectively? Why is it that, for many, the word gender remains synonymous with woman? What are the repercussions of this tendency in regard to leaving undisturbed the damaging social practice of some men towards women, and in rather fewer cases, vice versa? What can be learned from those contexts in which gender relations have moved towards a more equitable state?

I raise these provocative questions to make the point that the gender field – framed in its broadest terms – continues to be fraught with many more questions than answers. One feels drawn into a vortex of complexity, detached from the flesh and tissue reality of everyday lives that can appear abstract and detached as concept and theory can at times become the bread and butter of concern. 

In fact, our identities as women, men or trans-gendered provide for particular conditions of possibility. They shape our interaction with opportunity structures of various kinds and both liberate and constrain. Our location in gender categories carry with them economic, social and cultural repercussions and therefore cannot, or should not be ignored since deep inequalities remain.  

These opening thoughts return me to (1) the question of whether or not research on masculinity undermines a feminist agenda and (2) how we might proceed in a more straightforward sense given my comments, as we negotiate the scholarly/practitioner interface where the former should contribute towards successful implementation of the latter.

Here I wish to make a number of points.

First there is good and bad research on masculinity. Interestingly, much of it is done by men on men raising – once again - the question of the visibility of women as well as the nexus linking power and privilege. Research by men on men need not however, be seen as a threat to the feminist agenda. Hence theorist’s active concern to identify their work as critical men’s studies – an advance over the more traditional men’s studies that too often focused on men as victims whilst disregarding the overall context of power within which these debates were taking place.

I would argue that the hallmark of good research on masculinity is likely to be cognizant of the following (1) gender relations (2) power (3) explicitly normative concerns with change (4) attuned to the intersectionality of masculinity with other identities (5) whilst sensitive to broader gender inequalities made possible by and through patriarchal structures, be sufficiently bold to highlight complexities in this model (6) demonstrate a sound awareness of the feminist canon and engage with it (7) if at all possible, actively seek out collaboration across ideological and gender divides where humanist concerns are the point of coherence for all parties. Finally, it would be heartening to see many more female scholars taking up the challenge of researching men and masculinities as the field remains dominated by men. Similarly, even the most accomplished male scholars of critical men’s studies may have more to learn from the rich feminist literature. 

The so-called ‘battle of the sexes’ is far from a zero-sum game where relinquishing some aspect of social practice is tantamount to loss for the men involved. As noted by Vic Seidler and others, questioning the pressure of long working hours and constant competition across many spheres from the work place to the pub, may be integral elements of masculine ideology, yet they can be damaging to health, to psyche and to others including children, women and those to whom we are closest.

In sum then, and in many ways to reiterate the sentiments of both feminist and masculinity scholars over at least the last 3 decades, research on masculinity – if executed consensually, sensitively and with humility - can actually enrich and invigorate the feminist agenda. The best hope of real change is a shared endeavour that will, at times, require individuals on both sides to adopt an open mind and to revisit tenacious pre-conceptions that continue to stymie collaborative endeavour.