Refusing to Be a Man

Why is 'girl' a terrible insult, why can't boys wear pink, and why are there boxes of tissues labelled 'for men'? Catherine Redfern explains how 'Refusing to be a Man' by John Stoltenberg may hold the answer.

, 16 April 2004

If the anti-feminists really were fair and objective in directing their anger against feminist ideas, then the name Stoltenberg would be top of their enemies lists right alongside radical feminists Dworkin and MacKinnon. Yet as far as I’ve seen, you won’t read that name attacked on the anti-feminist internet sites. Why don’t they care what Stoltenberg says about feminism? Because he’s a man.

The flaming mysteriously stops when the guys discover they are male

This is something that happens frequently on the internet, where it’s not always immediately obvious what sex someone is. Men who use gender neutral names on the net (such as ‘ampersand’ of the excellent Alas, a blog) have told how the flaming they get for their feminist principles mysteriously stops when the guys on the discussion lists discover they are male. This obvious double-standard illustrates the sexism and hypocrisy John Stoltenberg attacks in his book, Refusing to Be a Man.

Stoltenberg’s core argument is that patriarchy trains men to believe they can only be “real men” by positioning themselves as the opposite of everything that is feminine. “Our selfhood,” he explains, “is required to reside in a category that only seems real to the extent that those outside it are put down.”

The ‘all-male pack’ is essentially contemptuous of anyone who is female or who is construed as feminized, or not really manly… People born with penises must strive to make the idea of male sexual identity personally real by doing certain deeds, actions that are valued and chosen because they produce the desired feeling of belonging to a sex that is male and not female.

The impetus to prove oneself a “real man”, and the fear of not being a “real man” is the guiding force in men’s lives, he argues. What’s more, the status of being a “real man” is something that is fragile and can be revoked at any time.

The need to prove oneself a man is still rampant in our culture in 2004. You only have to look at the recent trend of marketing products to men by attacking women; the “Not for Girls” Yorkie ad campaign, with slogans like “save your money for driving lessons” claimed to be about men and ‘for’ men, but was actually all about putting down women. Similarly, the ads for lads mag Nuts attracted men by denigrating womens abilities. Go into any pub and you’ll hear men teasing each other about being ‘girls’ or acting ‘girly’ – an accusation which of course will be vehemently refuted (what they should actually do, of course, is smile and say “thanks for the compliment, mate”).

Men can only buy certain products if they are labelled “for men” and given dark, butch packaging

Whilst I don’t deny there are many women who put down men as much as men put down women, women can mostly aim to embody so-called ‘male’ attributes without being ridiculed – but woe betide the man or boy who dares to do anything thought of as ‘female’ or ‘feminine’. Why? Because female = weak. Female = inferior. Female = disgusting. This message is so ingrained into our brains that parents will still refuse to allow boy babies to wear pink, dress up, have long hair, or wear pastel clothes, for fear that their male identity will be tainted. There are certain colours, certain types of clothing, certain types of drinks, certain types of interests, certain types of activities and behaviour which are deemed suitable for men. Marketers think that men can only allow themselves to buy certain products if they are specifically labelled “for men” and given dark, butch packaging? I mean for goodness sake, Kleenex make a box of tissues specially “For Men” – as if a simple tissue could bring the whole of masculinity crashing down! Men’s lives appear to be a constant struggle to keep on the ‘masculine’ tightrope. The message is clear: men must unite around the fact that they are not women; this is the only way they can actually have an identity as a man.

Like other radical feminists, Stoltenberg argues that the practice of splitting human beings into “male” and “female” is the most basic form of discrimination and the most fundamental form of oppression in the history of humanity. Biologically, he points out, things are not as polarised between “male” and “female” as is generally believed. In fact, human beings are a “multisexed” species – people aren’t always one ‘thing’ or the other. Yet we’re forced into one box or the other from the moment we’re born.

I love books like this – books which feel not so much like a breath of fresh air as a slap in the face (the good kind, if there is such a thing) – ideas which turn the world upside down; ideas which tear open everything we have been told is the “truth”; ideas which threaten the very foundations of our world. The phrase “paradigm shift” is a cliche, but it certainly fits here.

Of course, the argument that “male” and “female” are culturally defined is something which radical feminists have already stated. What makes this book interesting is that Stoltenberg attempts to describe and explain how the need to be a “real man” leads men to see women as “less real” than themselves. He describes, sometimes in ways that can be shocking and disturbing, how womens humanity is crushed in the quest to be “real men”. He particularly focuses on the issues of sex and pornography. The sex industry and male sexuality, he argues, is completely wrapped up in the aim of trying to reinforce men’s identity as different from women, to make men feel like real men.

So much of men’s sexuality is tied up with gender-actualizing – with feeling like a real man… A fully realized male sexual identity also requires nonidentification with that which is perceived to be nonmale, or female. A male must not identify with females; he must not associate with females in feeling, interest or action. His identity as a member of the sex class men absolutely depends on the extent to which he repudiates the values and interests of the sex class ‘women’.

Stoltenberg is perhaps most powerful when he speaks to men directly, exhorting them to question the very core of how they create their identity. Men must ask themselves why they have such a need to feel different and opposite from women. He asks men to start to unpick and analyse their own sexuality; asking themselves whether they have sex with someone in order to feel like “a man” instead of having true erotic feelings with the individual they are with; to insist that “good sex” is between unique individuals, “actual people being together and actually being themselves – not “stand-ins for a gender type”; to refuse to accept that sexual objectification of women is natural behaviour.

Sexual objectification in and of itself is considered the norm of male sexuality. Men’s sexual objectifying is deemed a given, a biological mandate, having the same preordained relationship to male sexual responsiveness that, say, the smelling of food has to a ravenous person’s salivation. Men’s sexual objectifying – apart from hair-splitting quibbles about which sex objects are inappropriate – is seen as a ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ way of looking at other people…

The whole point of sexual objectification is not to empathize with the person who is being objectified. To call this mass-marketed necrophilia is only a slight exagerration; in differing degrees, men who sexually objectify through pictures tend to respond to images of ‘ecstasy,’ ‘wantonness,’ and sexual accessibility that are actually photographed signs of lifelessness. Certain druggy and drowsy facial expressions, postures of languidness bordering on paralysis, dull eyes that stare off emptily into space – these are all popular symbols – or, perhaps more accurately, commonplace symptoms – of a cancelled-out consciousness, an absence of self-possessed self-hood, a lack of independent volition, a kind of brain death.

Stoltenberg’s writing mixes flashes of humour with heart-rending and powerful rhetoric. It is often moving, thought-provoking and sometimes upsetting, but always passionate. It can also be quite hardline at times, but personally I found this refreshing rather than oppressive. Like Andrea Dworkin he often has a turn of phrase that can split open an argument and cut right to the heart of the issue. I found myself regularly underlining sentences and paragraphs which I wanted to remember, many of which I couldn’t resist using in this review.

Domination and subordination – the very essence of injustice and unfreedom – have become culturally eroticized, and we are supposed to believe that giving eroticized domination and subordination free expression is the fullest flowering of sexual freedom.

…it is the fashion nowadays to presume that an act is more or less outside the pale of ethical examination if at any point along the course of it there is an erection or an ejaculation.

Pornography keeps sexism sexy. It keeps sexism necessary for some to have sexual feelings. It makes reciprocity make you go limp. I makes mutuality leave you cold. It makes tenderness and intimacy and caring make you feel like you’re going to disappear into a void. It makes justice the opposite of erotic; it makes injustice a sexual thrill.

Some feminists may be put off by Stoltenberg’s strict anti-pornography stance, but even if you don’t agree with everything he says his central argument about the nature of manhood and masculinity is too important to be ignored. It should be read – especially by men.

I suspect that men would have a strong reaction to this book. Whilst most feminists will bend over backwards to explain (over and over again) that they are not anti-men – and add disclaimers in front of practically everything they say in order to avoid hurting men’s feelings or show they are not man-haters, Stoltenberg doesn’t flinch from just telling it like it is, refusing to accept excuses for men’s inaction in the face of systematic oppression.

What men of conscience will be doing in the 1990s

PREDICTION: Many men of conscience will do very little or nothing.

PREDICTION: Many men of conscience, if they notice they are doing nothing, will want to spend hours and hours struggling with the question of what is politically correct for them to do as men. As men: the two most paralyzing words in the vocabulary of the so-called man of conscience. He won’t do anything until it becomes clear to him how it affects him and his brethren as men. He won’t do anything until it is clear to him in what sense he can do it with other men as men, unless their action particularly matters because they are doing it as men, unless the action makes them feel much better about themselves as men. As men. Words to live by. Words to do nothing by.

Where I felt Stoltenberg was less convincing is in his attempts to explain exactly how fathers train boys to reject femininity and embrace masculinity; an argument that relies on psychological theories that I found a little too simplistic and not totally convincing.

To me, it is obvious that feminism is an ideology that can free both women and men. Men’s and women’s lives are so intertwined (even for seperatists, who must still live within our sexist culture) that feminism can’t truly be successful without freeing women and men from gender stereotypes. I don’t actually believe it is possible to let women be free of sexist stereotyping without simultaneously breaking down the stereotypes about men.

At the same time as enforcing the boundaries, they claim the boundaries are “natural”

Feminism is always accused of stereotyping men, but this is actually just a misunderstanding about exactly what feminism criticises. Feminism criticises how how people are treated differently because of their gender. This is a critique of behaviour, which can be changed. Anti-feminists claim that its natural for men to be as they are; that men are only being “real men” by acting out behaviours that disadvantage women. Feminism calls men on their behaviour; anti-feminism stereotypes men into rigid, macho boxes. Feminism says men and women are unique human beings. Anti-feminism says all men are identical, and all women are identical. Anti-feminism defines “male” behaviour as different from “female” behaviour. It spends a hell of a lot of time and energy training boys and girls to fit into their alotted gender role and punishes those who dare to break free of the boundaries set for them. At the same time as enforcing the boundaries, anti-feminism claims that the boundaries are “natural”. If it’s so natural, then why the need to enforce it all the time?

This is where the wishy-washy phrase “different but equal” fails, in my view. This line is popular because it accepts that people should be equal, whilst still clinging to the idea that men and women are “different”. It doesn’t threaten anyone’s sense of masculinity or femininity. Why do we feel the need to emphasise difference all the time? The problem with “different but equal” is that it allows the status quo to continue. It does not challenge the idea that men and women are polar opposites; it doesn’t really stop the world ridiculing anyone who really does want to break the rules and be more like their true selves than a gender stereotype.

The vexed question of whether men can be feminists or not, something which both male and female feminists spend (waste?) a lot of time discussing, is irrelevant. Feminism can only fulfil its full, radical, revolutionary potential if it liberates men. This is what radical feminism really means: liberation from sex stereotypes for women, men, and anyone who doesn’t fit into either of those categories. I strongly believe that one of the aims of third wave feminism must be to break open masculinity as well as femininity. In case anyone thinks I’m one of those people who argue that a feminist action is unimportant if it “only” improves the lives of women, I’ve said exactly what I think of that argument in the article Feminists are Sexist. But breaking down masculinity should not mean forgetting women’s problems – on the contrary, it will help women. To put it in simplistic terms, how can the oppressed be free unless the oppressors change?

I’ve wondered sometimes whether men might be more willing to call themselves feminists if we tweak the word somehow specially for them, e.g. a male feminist could call himself a femanist or a femenist. But this seems to fall into the same trap yet again – that men must be able to identify “as men” if they are to support women’s issues, otherwise it threatens their masculinity too much. I don’t know the answer, but I believe it is essential that men come to understand that feminism is vital to their freedom, and that freedom will always be better than having earned the dubious honour of “being a man”. More importantly, “being a man” should never be at the expense of women. As Stoltenberg himself tells the guys, “the core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood.”

Catherine Redfern wishes she could be more concise, but hopes people will read to the end. She looks forward to seeing more men coming out as feminists.

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