An Interview with Michael Kimmel
Michael Kimmel is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today. The author or editor of more than twenty volumes, his books include Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity (1987), Men Confront Pornography (1990), The Politics of Manhood (1996), The Gender of Desire (2005), The History of Men (2005) and more recently Guyland (2008) and The Guy's Guide to Feminism (2011).
I hadn't really thought much about the difficulties guys face in our culture before I read Guyland by Michael Kimmel. I had focused so much energy on figuring out the societal pressures placed on girls that Kimmel's account of what it means to grow up and be male was completely eye-opening. It confirmed to me just how much men need a place in the feminist movement, and I'm glad there are men like Michael Kimmel who are working to make that a reality.
I had the privilege of speaking with Michael Kimmel about his work on masculinity, body image and feminism, amongst other things. Here's what he had to share with the FBomb community.
When does the transition from “boy” to “man” occur in our society? When do boys start to feel the pressure of masculinity standards?
I think it varies from culture to culture. I think it often even varies amongst different groups of boys. But I think we start learning about gender very early. I believe all of the research that suggests that boys and girls differentiate themselves and know that they’re boys and girls and that they’re different, from a very early age. But most of the time you go into a preschool, if you go into a nursery school or a Kindergarden or first grade class, the boys and girls are playing very happily together. Sometime around second grade girls get cooties, and then you don’t want to be associated with them. And that’s the first moment of boys’ socialization, and that happens in several different ways. It happens because they see the teachers treat boys and girls differently, they find out that their peers are treating boys and girls differently, they find out that the materials they’re reading in school treat boys and girls differently, and so they begin to get a sense that these differences actually matter. So these moments of “cootiedom” around second grade means that boys and girls separate and they have their own zones on the playground and do their own things. Now sometime around 7th or 8th grade you somehow lose your cooties, and boys are coming back and are attracted to you. So something else happens in between second and eighth grade. So that’s the first thing – that there’s this cultural separation of boys and girls.
The second thing boys learn – obviously where they learn this and at what age are very linked – they start learning what it means to be a man early on in those same sex groups. They may get it from their father or from older brothers, or they may get it from media, but mostly they get it from their friends and that’s where it begins. And I’ve asked young guys of pretty much every age what it means to be a man, and they pretty much give me the same answer starting at around age 8 or 9. So, I’ll tell you the story that I think is most useful.
I wrote a piece about my son and his encounters with masculinity. It was my son Zachary’s 8th birthday party, and he wanted a dancing party. He said not like a dancing party with slow dances, but like with dancing games and cotton eyed joe and a disco ball and disco dancing. I said sure. We had it at his school and what happened – it’s typical, in the school, at least in the lower grades you invite everybody in the grade. So all the girls come and immediately get into the dancing and are having a fantastic time, one girl comes up to me and says “this is the best party ever!” And the boys, some of the boys like my son started dancing away and had a great time. About a third of them did that. And a third of the boys walked in the room, and immediately back to the wall, arms folded going, “I don’t dance” and completely shut down. But what was interesting to me was the last third, because they came in and saw all of these kids having a great time and they started to dance, and then they looked over and saw the guys over by the wall and went to stand with them, but they couldn’t stand it so they started to dance, and then they went back to the wall. They couldn’t figure out where they were. Those guys were in that moment where they were in the transition to shutting down. They know it’s going to be asked of them, but come on, can’t they just dance a little bit? I found it so interesting because there didn’t seem to be a lot of pressure on anybody. The guys weren’t saying “You’re a pussy if you dance.” But they couldn’t completely embrace it. And another third were like, “I don’t care what everybody else is doing, I’m dancing.” So I thought it was really interesting – this is really a moment in time that you don’t get to see that clearly that often.
Two years later Zachary was ten and we were walking to school and I was saying to him, “You know what I do, right? You know I do these workshops?” Guyland had just come out. So I said to him, “Zach, let me ask you, you know when you talk with your friends about this do you ever talk about what it means to be a man?” And he said, “Yeah, we were talking about it on my hockey team last week because one of the teammates was hurt and didn’t want to play and all the other guys were calling him a ‘wimp’ and a ‘pussy’ – you’ve got to play even if you’re hurt,” so he said, “I guess, Dad, that being a man means being really tough.” And then he takes two more steps and stops and says, “Actually, Dad. I don’t think it means being tough. I think it means acting tougher than you really are.” So he understands that masculinity is a performance, he understands what’s asked of him. And I thought, “My work’s done here.”
So the answer to your question about when, is that they get messages from the get-go about what it means, and they get it watching TV where the boys are playing with crashing cars and girls are dressing up with Barbies or Bratz and it starts there and it continues and the place where it becomes most salient is in their same-sex friendship networks, amongst their peers.
It seems that both and men and women define their respective masculinity and femininity primarily through their bodies. Are girls and boys, in terms of our bodies, on parallel unhealthy tracks?
Good question. In 1985, just around the time that America was discovering eating disorders for the first time, just in the beginning, you know we were discovering that women had terrible relationships with their bodies and were just discovering anorexia and bulimia. The New York Times published an article whose headline was, “Women Dissatisfied With Their Bodies” – something like that. You know, big deal. But what I want you to listen to is what the subheading was, the subtitle – it said “Men Tend To See Themselves As Just About Perfect.” So I would ask you, which one of those two statements is no longer true? The second one, of course. What has happened in the past 35 years is that men have come to see their bodies in similar, but not in quite as extreme ways, as women have. We no longer see our bodies as just about perfect. We are at work on our bodies, also. We go to the gym, we work out, we take steroids. So now, the analysis of anorexia and bulimia or women who have eating disorders or body dysmorphia or problems with their bodies is that they are over-conformists to crazy ideas of femininity. Not that they were non-conformist, not that they were deviant -- in fact they’re OVER conformists, in the same way that men who are compulsive body builders are not deviants, but over-conformists to a crazy idea of what masculinity means. So now there are there researchers who have written a book called the “Adonnis Complex” where men have similar problematic relationships with themselves, they look in the mirror and say to themselves, “I have to get more pumped, I have to get more washboardy, I have to do all of these sorts of things.”
Now of course it’s also the case that men get cut a lot more slack than women do, especially as they age. We’re actually allowed to age. You’re not. You’re supposed to hit about 24 and then stay there for the next 25 years. We’re allowed to age, not too much and not too badly, but a little bit, so that guys like Sean Connery are still sex symbols, but it’s very, very rare that a woman can age sexily. So it’s not as extreme, but, for example, women way outnumber men in cosmetic susrgery procedures. But that’s if you take all cosmetic procedures. Take out breast augmentation and breast reduction – which are the two most common surgical procedures for women – and the rate of increase for men in cosmetic surgery is similar to the rate of cosmetic surgery for women. So we’re getting almost as fucked up as you are. This is not progress or gender equality, for us to be as crazy about it as you are.
Can you expound upon the irony of a homoerotic undertone to masculinity performance while part of masculinity is being homophobic?
Well, I think as a gender studies axiom, the more homoerotic the male behavior the more overt and important the homophobia is as an overlay. When I went to some fraternities’ initiations, I couldn’t believe it. And I’ve given lectures about this, and when I read some of the passages about these initiation rituals, I say, “Now think about it. Imagine you’re an anthropologist from Mars and you come down here and this is your fieldwork site and now you have to go back to the Martian Anthropological Society and tell them what you found. So your first statement is: they’re all gay.” I mean, they’re running around grabbing each other’s penises, it’s unbelievable. So my axiom is this: the more obviously homoerotic, the more transparently homoerotic, the more you need this overlay of homophobia so that nobody can see what you’re actually doing.
So, for example, why is it that the only sports that require cheerleaders in skimpy dresses are the only sports where you can really see men’s bodies? Why doesn’t lacrosse have female, skimpy cheerleaders? Why do football and basketball? Because those bodies are so utterly fetishised. If you think about it, baseball has baggy uniforms, but with some of those basketball uniforms you can tell what religion those guys are. In basketball their bodies are sweaty and you’re standing there in the stands looking at these gorgeous male bodies and your palms are getting sweaty and your heartbeat is quick, you’re getting aroused and you say about the cheerleaders, “I would take her.” And it sanitizes it, it neutralizes any confusion that anybody might feel. That’s why you need cheerleaders at basketball games. The only outlier here is swimming. Because with those bathing suits…my theory is that nobody thought of it because they’re in the water all the time. But swimming and diving, if we were serious about it, would need cheerleaders.
But actually – and this is important for younger men-- I think we’ve made a move. I think we’re a little less homophobic. There’s good evidence that young men are less homophobic than older men are. And I illustrate this often by the difference between “that’s so gay” and “no homo.” Because “that’s so gay” is a way of policing other guys, saying don’t do that, that’s gay. But “no homo” says "you can do it, no homo." Or "I love you, no homo." It gives us permission to say something but then back away from it. That’s really different than not being able to do it at all. It’s a small step. The next step is to be able to say it and then not back away from it at all. I think it’s a little bit progressive, not a lot bit progressive.
How is the authentic boy-girl friendship you raise in your book Guyland a positive and progressive step for boys and gender equality? There’s two parts of this that I want to talk about. The first part is the truth about younger men - that is to say guys that are in high school, college, in their 20’s – I think there are three signs of real progress amongst this age group. The first is that they assume, if they’re straight, that their wives will have careers and will be equally as committed to their careers as they are. This is not a big ideological shift, this is simply financial – they assume their moms worked so their wives will work and they’re cool with that. And it’s not a big deal. My father used to sit around with his classmates in college and they would say, “Are you going to let your wife work?” It was a serious question.
The second thing is that they also assume they’re going to be really involved fathers. Way more than their own fathers. They’re going to be equal parents. They may not be equal on the housework front, but they definitely expect to be equal on the childcare front. This is new.
The third thing is that they are comfortable and accustomed to cross-sex friendships. Most baby-boomers are of the “Harry Met Sally” generation – men and women can’t be friends because sex always gets in the way. I used to ask my students twenty years ago when I first started, “How many of you have a good cross-sex friend?” About half the hands. Now I say “How many of you do not have a good cross-sex friend?” Everybody does. So that’s one part.
But now you ask about gender inequality, and I think that’s really key. Here’s my theory. I’ve asked my students for twenty years, “Who makes a better friend: Men or Women and why?” And I teach courses on gender, sexuality, masculinity. And up until about ten years ago it was about 2/3 said women make better friends and the reason was because women really can talk about their feelings, you can share stuff, with men you watch a ball game and have a good time together but with women you can open up. Now, about 2/3 say men and for the same reason. With women you have to talk about your feelings all the time, but with guys you can just hang out and relax. Girls say that too. So what’s happened, I think, that the reason men and women can be friends is because friendship has become masculinized. You just chill. You don’t agonize over what you’re feeling and what everybody’s talking about. And in that sense, I think gender inequality persists despite the fact that you make friends with people who you think are your peers. But what’s happened is the reason that women and men are peers is because women have come to men’s level, rather than men coming to women’s level. I think what’s really tricky about this is that it looks like gender equality, but it’s not. Are you giving up something to be part of the guys?
Why do you think that many men oppose feminism?
I think most young men oppose feminism, but support equality. Most young men subscribe – if you were to take feminism’s top ten policy initiatives – equal pay for equal work, right to choose, make a list – most men support those. Most men overwhelmingly support those. So the right to walk the street without being afraid – sure I’m down with that. They’re opposed to feminism, and here’s why. There’s a new study that came out not long ago in which it was found that a higher percentage of white people believe they’re the victims of discrimination than black people. They’re wrong, of course, but they believe it. That tells you something, doesn’t it. It tells you that they don’t see the privileges that they have. What they see is the privileges that they don’t have, or the ones they feel entitled to but don’t have. I think that’s true of men as well.
There’s a great article that you should read in a book called, “Privilege” and he talks about being an undergraduate at Columbia when they only took men, and how they thought that that was just the way it should be. Now, of course, half the class wouldn’t be there because they’re women. And it never occurred to them how privileged they were to be able to apply and feel special because it was built on the exclusion of others. I think this idea that privilege is invisible to those who have it is still very important to men. Most men don’t think that they have privilege – what they assume is that they are in fact victims, that they don’t have privilege. I think that’s important. I think that’s where it really comes from. I think it comes from – this is why I wrote The Guy's Guide to Feminism – most guys think that feminism is about angry unattractive women who couldn’t get laid if they wanted to, but probably don’t because they’re lesbians. Whatever. But the media has so demonized feminism that you can support everything that feminists want but still think that feminism is evil. And you’ll find, by the way, that women think the same thing. And that’s how men and women are more similar than different. I don’t think most guys oppose feminism. I think they actually think that gender equality is already there, and it’s already a done deal. Most men would say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” also.
How do you think the feminism movement can be more inclusive of men? This is where my book and your book converge. I think two things: one, I think it’s important to make the distinction to young guys that you’re angry at inequality, but you’re not necessarily angry at them. Most guys think that women are angry at them or that feminists are women who hate men, they’re all male bashers, whatever. I think it’s crazy nonsense and that most feminist women like men enough to believe that we’re capable of changing. I think the real male bashers are Rush Limbaugh and the right wing who think men are biologically wired to be wild and rapacious animals and there’s nothing we can do about it – oh well, boys will be boys. I think that’s real male bashing. I think when you say “boys will be boys” and are only referring to bad things, then you’re male bashing. I think in fact what we should be saying is, “A man won a Nobel Peace Prize, boys will be boys.” Or, “A man is a brilliant surgeon, oh well, boys will be boys.” Because that’s part of being a man, too, but we only focus on the bad stuff. So, I think the idea that feminist women are angry with men is a mistake. I think therefore women need to make it clear that “We’re angry at inequality, we’re angry at masculinity, but we’re not necessarily mad at you.”
On the other hand, we’re angry at you. This is the question I’m asked most often on college campuses by women. The women say, “My boyfriend, when I’m with him by myself, he’s really nice. He’s really considerate and really treats me equally and listens to me and talks about his feelings. But then when he’s with a group of his guy friends, he laughs at homophobic jokes, he says homophobic stuff – what’s up with guys in groups?” And that’s where women need to hold men accountable. That is, if you’re okay with me, you can’t abandon me in the name of the brotherhood. You have to stand up to that bro’s before ho’s mentality. So if you abandon me and betray me, I’ll be pissed off at you, as you would be with me if I betrayed you.
Now the second thing I want to say is that it shouldn’t be your job to do that, it should be mine. That is, it’s my job to talk about this stuff with other guys. You have enough to worry about than having to take care of the men in your life, and making sure they’re okay. You get into that position where you’re in a mixed group, and somebody says something sexist or stupid and then they look at you and they go, “Is she going to say something?” And they wait and roll their eyes, right? That’s where your male friends should say, “That’s not on you, you shouldn’t have to be the one to say something. We shouldn’t wait for you to say something, that should be on us, we have to say something, because it makes us look bad.” If you and I were in a mixed group and some guy says something really sexist and you say, “That upsets me,” and I don’t say anything, what that means is that you get the mistaken impression that I agree with him. It makes you think that all the guys agree with that because they didn’t say anything. It gives me a bad name when they do that. It’s my responsibility to stand up to it, not yours, because it gives me a bad name and makes you think I’m like them. It’s a betrayal and I think we have to be held accountable for those betrayals.
Learn more about Michael Kimmel's work here.
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