Is men and masculinity studies really radical?

Men and masculinity studies is old hat, so why is The New York Times pretending it’s new?

My initial response to last week’s article in The New York Times about a new men and masculinities program being offered at Stonybrook University in New York State was outrage. I wasn’t outraged that such a program exists, but I was outraged that The New York Times was framing it as something new.

According to The New York Times, men and masculinity studies is a brand spanking new field of study and we should all be shocked. A Master’s Degree in…Masculinity? presents Stonybrook professor Michael Kimmel as a pioneer in masculinity studies and insists (against our supposed disbelief) that “yes, that’s a real [thing].” But most feminist academics will know that masculinity studies already exists. And it’s called gender studies.

Yes, gender does include masculinity, people.

Sheet music cover picture for the song
Sheet music cover picture for the song “We Men Must Grow A Mustache.” 1922 Inset photo of bandleader Abe Lyman.

The New York Times article seems predicated on the tired belief that feminists – in this case, feminist scholars – don’t give a shit about men. It assumes that feminist scholars don’t write, think and talk about men. Well, I’ve got news for you – we do.

Let’s be clear: studying men and masculinity has been a part of women’s studies since women’s studies inception in the late sixties. In fact, it’s impossible to interrogate what ‘woman’ means without interrogating what ‘man’ means. The two are irrevocably linked.

Any self-respecting student in the humanities or social sciences should and will be made to interrogate what masculinity means in the context of their discipline. Not only is any investigation into these disciplines an exercise in what men have been creating, thinking and writing about for the last 2,000 years, but students are also encouraged to think about what it means that men get to decide what history is, what art is, and who is sane and who is crazy. Humanities and the social sciences are always a critical investigation of men and masculinities.

My anger here is not that men and masculinity Studies exists (it should), but that it’s being framed as separate from women’ studies. All of the macho behaviours associated with the pressure to prove your masculinity – violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, speeding – are performed against and in response to the existence of femininity in the world. Without a cultural understanding of women as feminine and femininity as weak, we wouldn’t have macho masculinities. It’s disingenuous to separate men and masculinity studies from feminism in this way, especially by implying that masculinity studies is a new and independent field.

Michael Kimmel’s work recognizes that he is writing in a tradition of critical interrogation of what gender means. But The New York Times article makes it sound all new and crazy that people are studying masculinity. Erm, this has always been one of the premises of feminism. That masculinity is just as much of a construct as femininity, and both need to be interrogated.

Of course, it does Michael Kimmel’s career a whole lot of good to be complicit in this framing of men and masculinity studies as a new thing. It makes him look like a vanguard in this area. But, the truth is, he’s not.

Although I think that studying men and masculinities is a good thing, and will help advance our understanding of gender so that we can all embody our genders in ways that are less violent and harmful to everyone, I am also ambivalent about the formation of a Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Masculinity and men cannot be studied without studying femininity and women. The genders are completely reliant on each other for their existence as apparently real things in the world.

In all, the framing of Michael Kimmel’s exploration of masculinity as a new frontier in academia is utterly bogus. My suggestion to the The New York Times is, go and do your research. And stop relying on tropes of feminist scholarship as man-hating in order to boost your web traffic. The end.