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The Masculine Mystique

Sociologist Michael Messner in front of a downtown Los Angeles office building with a statue of a man possibly frustrated by traditional views of masculinity. The bronze, by sculptor Terry Allen is called Corporate Head.

They die earlier, drink and smoke more and are more likely to become incarcerated or victims of accidents.

Faced with such sobering statistics, any other sector of society would start a movement to protect its rights, which is precisely the motivation behind a half-dozen seemingly disconnected men’s groups, says sociologist Michael Messner.

Messner, however, maintains that members of groups as diverse as the Christian fundamentalist Promise Keepers and the politically active Men’s Rights Movement are going about addressing the “costs” of manhood in the wrong way.

“The groups that make up a growing men’s movement cannot hope to improve the male situation until they confront the privileged status enjoyed by men, particularly white men,” said Messner, the author of a new book about the groundswell of men’s support groups and political organizations.

By failing to renounce privileges that men continue to enjoy three decades after the birth of the modern women’s movement, the men’s movement alienates groups that could be building blocks for coalitions effecting real change in gender relations, Messner contends in Politics of Masculinities (Sage Publications, 1997).

“If men can set aside some of the narrowly defined interests that we’ve come to see as our patriarchal birthright, we might see that it’s in our own interest to work with women to create a more just and equal world,” writes Messner, an associate professor in the department of sociology and the Gender Studies Program.

In addition to exploring the Promise Keepers and the Men’s Rights Movement, Messner studied the gay liberation movement, the Million Man March, the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and the so-called “mythopoetic movement,” which is best known for its drum-beating workshops.

Far from rushing to forge alliances with feminists, most of the groups turned out to be backlashes against the women’s movement. As such, the groups share a wellspring with such venerable American traditions as organized sports, fraternal organizations and the Boys Scouts of America, Messner found.

“After the first wave of the women’s movement at the turn of the century, some men were organizing in ways we would now say were movements,” Messner said. “It’s as though men only become conscious of their collective interests as men when their privileges are challenged by women.”

The most obvious example is the Men’s Rights Movement, which is best known for championing the rights of divorced fathers. Originally allied with the women’s movement, the Men’s Rights Movement has evolved over the past two decades from the view that men are as oppressed by sexism as women, to views that are the antithesis of feminism.

“In blatant disregard for widely accepted sociological, economic and psychological studies, men’s rights advocates have claimed that men are the true victims of prostitution, pornography, dating rituals, sexist media conventions, divorce settlements, false rape accusations, sexual harassment and even domestic violence,” Messner said.

Feminism is the last place that the movement’s members look for ways to improve their lives, he found.

“To the contrary, they disagree with the feminist contention that men enjoy such instituional privileges as being paid more and working less,” Messner said. “They see only the costs of masculinity and believe a men’s movement is needed to fight for men’s rights vis-à-vis women.”

Another strain of the men’s movement blames feminists for undermining what it views as the fundamental essence of masculinity: leadership in families and communities.

By far the largest such “essentialist” group is the Promise Keepers, which – in gospel-like “crusades” that attracted 600,000 men in 1995 alone – urge men to “reclaim the spiritual leadership in their families and communities.”

“I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back,” Messner quotes one leader as saying, “I’m urging that you take it back.”

Not only do the Promise Keepers fail to criticize male privilege, but the organizers claim that problems men face today can be blamed on a feminist-inspired departure from “a God-given” division of labor with women as mothers and domestic caretakers and men as providers, protectors and leaders.

Another “essentialist retreat,” according to Messner, is led by the poet Robert Bly, who captured the imagination of middle- and upper-class white-collar men with his 1990 book Iron John. Over the course of weekend workshops, Bly encourages followers to rediscover a pre-modern, pre-industrial version of manhood by immersing themselves in myths, poems and group activities designed to empower them as men and to reconnect with what the poet calls “Zeus power” or “male authority accepted for the good of the community.”

“Relatively privileged men are attracted to the mythopoetic men’s movement because, on the one hand, it acknowledges and validates their painful ‘wounds,’ while guiding them to connect with other men in ways that are nurturing and mutually empowering,” Messner said. “But it does not confront men with the reality of how their privileges are based on the continued subordination of women and other men.”

Yet other branches of the men’s movement are more forward- looking.

“Instead of attempting to return men to a less egalitarian era, movements created by African American and gay males try to arrive at a presumably more progressive future when privileges historically enjoyed only by white, heterosexual males will be extended to traditionally marginalized men,” Messner said. “In these legitimate quests, women’s issues too often take an unjustifiable and counterproductive back seat.”

In the quarter-century since the Stonewall uprising, the dominant strand of the gay male liberation movement has moved from attempting to challenge gender stereotypes to merely trying to secure the same rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual men. Such positions have sometimes put members of the gay liberation movement at odds with feminists and lesbians. Messner cites the debate over bans on pornography, which have been supported by many feminists and lesbians but opposed by most gay men.

Although gay male organizations have at times created impressive alliances with lesbians (as in the fight against AIDS) and with feminist women (as in the defense of abortion clinics), the male-centered stands of gay male organizations have often alienated them from these allies. Similarly, the often male-centered racial politics in the U.S., as exemplified by the 1995 Million Man March, have impeded the prospects for the growth of alliances, Messner said.

While promoting such laudable goals as stopping violence and self-destructive behavior in the African American community, the event that attracted more than 800,000 African American men in 1995 also exemplified a worrisome tendency in the civil rights movement, Messner said.

“The fight against racism has come to be defined largely as a battle for the rights and dignity of black men to be men,” he writes. “By assuming that restoring black males to their ‘proper’ positions of leadership necessarily represented the interests of black families and communities as a whole, any feminist sentiment is seen as divisive within the anti-racism struggle.”

“From a critical feminist perspective it may become clear that the pursuit of dominant social definitions of masculinity – rather than liberating men – tends to lock men into self-destructive behaviors and into oppressive and destructive relations with women and with other men,” Messner writes.

While entering into alliances with feminists may offer the only hope for true change, a pro-feminist strain within the men’s movement is not the answer, either, Messner warns. Such well-meaning groups as NOMAS lack an agenda that is appealing enough to attract a widespread following.

“Pro-feminist men are doing important and impressive work – supporting women’s rights in workplaces, fighting against sexual harassment,and pioneering education and counseling with boys and men to stop rape and wife beating,” he said. “But organizing a movement among men to undermine men’s power and privilege is like organizing an anti-capitalism movement among the Fortune 500 – it’s doomed to failure.”

Challenging gender relations may never make sense in the context of a men’s movement, he concludes.

“Pro-feminist male activism will be most effective in mixed-sex and mixed-race workplaces, unions, educational institutions, therapeutic environments and multiracial feminist social movements that confront men’s power and privilege but also acknowledge the costs that men often pay for trying to adhere to narrow definitions of masculinity,” Messner said.

The Masculine Mystique

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