After my interview with Dr. Helen Smith (which proved to be highly successful, I am very pleased to report!), I really wanted to get the chance to chat a bit with Prof. Michael Kimmel, since Dr. Helen and I did discuss him and his work a bit during our exchange. I am very pleased to announce that I was able to reach Prof. Kimmel, and he agreed to sitdown for an e-interview!
Prof. Kimmel is considered by some as one of, if not the foremost, authority when it comes to Gender Issues as they relate to Men in our time. He has written more than half a dozen books, including his most recent, “Guyland” and “Angry White Men”, both of which we discuss in the following interview. He is the Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies and the Executive Director for the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. Though I find myself in strong disargeement with Prof. Kimmel at varying points in his works, I am nevertheless grateful that he is contributing to the “conversation” on Gender and Sexual Politics issues in our time, and most thankful that he has agreed to chat with the J4G audience. It has always been my view, that in order for a Democracy to survive, Debate and the Free Exchange of Ideas MUST be allowed to thrive; Good People CAN Disagree.
OK, so with all that out of the way, I bring you Prof. Michael Kimmel!
Ten Questions For Prof. Michael Kimmel
1. First, let’s start with you – how and why did you want to get into the whole “gender thing”? What prompted you to go there, why do you think it’s important particularly for Men, and what do you hope to accomplish?
PROF. MICHAEL KIMMEL: Gee, let’s start off with the easy question, huh? Well the short answer is that I had two parents who were both nurturing and both ambitious in their careers. So it always seemed to me that those divisions between male=career, ambition, competence and female=loving and kind and nurturing were fictions. These were all human traits, and it seemed wrong to divide them up by biological sex.
But the real answer to your question is not “why am I so different from other men?” but rather how am I so similar to other men? I grew up breathing the same air, and drinking the same water as you did. I believe firmly in the ideals of American democracy, and so I feel compelled as a citizen to speak out against inequality and injustice. Supporting gender equality is right, fair, and patriotically American.
There’s an old story about Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom opposed usurious taxation in the 1840s. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes, and went to jail. When Emerson went to visit him, he is said to have said “Henry, what are you doing in jail?” Thoreau is said to have replied, “Why Ralph, what are you doing out?”
So the answer to your question about why I support feminism, Obsidian, is another question to you: since we know that women and men are not equal in our society, that women still face enormous discrimination, how can you not be a feminist?
2. In my interview with Dr. Helen Smith, I specifically referenced you and your works “Guyland” and “Angry White Men”; I’d like to get your reaction to what she said about you, in response to my questions posed to her:
“I am familiar with Michael Kimmel and I do not care much for “Guyland” as it seeks to make men look like overly- indulged frat boys who do nothing but fart and act in immature ways that must be curbed by society. I care even less for his premise in “Angry White Men.” I must admit that I have not read the full book but if it is as biased as “Guyland” and from the book description, it seems to be–then I have to say that this man is a hater of men, an “Uncle Tim” type who gets his kicks in the academic world by kicking men to the curb and making women feel good about themselves. His books get in libraries and probably get used as a textbook because it tells those in academia what they want to hear: men suck and he can tell them how and why.”
“I think that what Kimmel is attempting to do and what many anti -men’s rights types want to do is make the MRM look like a bunch of nasty racists who do not include others and some of them might even be (gasp) Republicans! It is a way of marginalizing the MRM even further. This is a mind-hit being used to make the MRM seem out of the mainstream and weird. It is anything but. Millions of men and some women across the US believe that men are entitled to reproductive rights, due process and liberty just as women are.”
“I think that the MRM can cut across all demographic groups because as you mention, Men of Color have much to add and many of them have encountered severe sexism in the form of domestic abuse charges and jail time for lack of child support payments for kids that are not even their own. Many Men of Color in the NFL and sports world are keenly aware that women can falsely accuse them of rape and paternity fraud is so rampant that Kanye West has a whole song written about it. I have come across many Men of Color in my work who have been treated unfairly by the legal system in domestic disputes, so much so that they have a sense of learned helplessness about such issues. I would hope that all men would be welcome in the MRM.”
Your response? Also, are you familiar with her work, “Men on Strike” and if so, what do you make of it and her arguments?
PROF. KIMMEL: There are many people who misread my work, some deliberately, and others because they are misled in how to read it. Given what Helen Smith says about my work, it’s clear she hasn’t read it. It is not about those farting frat boys, as she seems to think. It is a compassionate look at the lives of young men, and especially the things that those young me are being asked to do – by other guys – to prove their manhood. And the argument of the book is that proving masculinity becomes a sort of relentless test for guys, and that THAT is what we have to pay attention to. The book is a sort of catalog of how guys feel they have to prove it — video games, porn, sports, binge drinking, hooking up, initiation and hazing. All of it. It’s not about how awful guys are because they are doing it. It’s about how awful it is that they often feel they are being forced to do those things they don’t want to do because if they don’t other guys will call them pussies.
Serious reviewers of Angry White Men have also commented that the book is empathic towards men, compassionate about their plight. I do believe that men have been screwed over by the system. I simply argue that in their anguish about being screwed over, they are being misled to blame their plight on immigrants or women or LGBT people. Their anger is real, but their mail is being delivered to the wrong address. It’s not immigrants who offered them predatory loans; it’s not feminists who caused climate change; it’s not LGBT people who downsized their corporations or outsourced their jobs.
The research I did in Angry White Men brought me to men’s rights groups and father rights groups all over the country. They are among the whitest and straightest places I’ve ever seen. Rarely, if ever, was there a black man in the fatherhood group. Never a gay father. This is empirical, not ideological (as you note below).
Anyone who thinks I hate men, or that I am somehow “anti-male” hasn’t read my work. I think men are wonderful, and wonderfully capable of being whole human beings: ambitious and assertive and loving and nurturing. I consider it male bashing to suggest that men are biologically driven by testosterone to be aggressive jerks. That’s not what I say; it’s what anti-feminists say.
Oh, and Helen Smith’s comments above about how men of color are in crisis because she’s met one or two who have been falsely accused of being fathers when they aren’t, or athletes are accused of sexual assault and Kanye wrote a whole entire song about it — this is indicative of her methodology. The crisis among boys of color is a little more, uh, systematic, than that. Let’s start with stop and frisk. Let’s talk about Trayvon Martin. Talk about Jordan Davis. These are boys — and for those of you who care about boys, we have to stand up for them. Racism makes us “see” young black men as violent monsters. Fear them. They should not be asked, as Helen does, to join the Men’s Rights movement. As white people, as white men, we need to stand with them in their struggle for equality, not ask them to join us. Because it’s right, and just and fair.
3. As noted above, I’ve read “Guyland” and “Angry White Men” and the while both books were interesting reads, the latter in particular resonated with me for a number of reasons; most notably your argument that the “Manosphere”, such as it is, seems to be a bit, shall we say, “monochromatic” – in other words, primarily made up of White, middle-class and straight Men. Given that I’ve been in the Manosphere space as a blogger and writer for some five years at this point, I must say that you do indeed make a point. Do you feel that the Manosphere Project, as it were, is seriously compromising itself by not being as “diverse” as it could be, or not, and why?
PROF. KIMMEL: I started to answer this question above with my response about race.
In AWM, I listed the Top 10 issues raised by the men’s rights movement — as recounted by a survey of those men themselves. (This isn’t what I said; it’s what they said.) I was shocked that among these 10 things there was not one mention of the crisis of young black males in America, not a word about HIV (actually not a word about men’s health, about getting men to screenings, about how ideas about masculinity – stoic, never expresses emotion- is often an impediment to health), and not a word about supporting gay men as men, as fathers, as their brothers. No wonder the message fails to resonate outside a certain demographic. (Editor’s Note: Please see my post “How & Why The Men’s Rights Agenda Is Important To Black Men” for more on all of this, published on Jul 29, 2013)
With notable exceptions (i.e. you) the manosphere project looks like its clientele. Middle class, middle aged, white. That’s not, in itself, bad. It just means that claims about “men” seem sort of hollow when you only speak about a specific subset of men.
As I show in the book, African-American men are vitally concerned with fatherhood issues. But to approach them with a rhetoric of “rights” will miss their experience entirely. Serious work with African-American men talks about “responsibility.”
4. I’d like to stay with some of the themes you developed and pursued in your book “Angry White Men”. Another of your arguments is that (White) Men who are involved in the Men’s Rights Movement seem to “lean” even more to the Right sociopolitically, even when it is against their own best interests to do so, and you cite the fictional character of Tom Joad as a model of what you think (White) Men in our time should be more like. My problem with your argument quite frankly, is that I see little evidence that the “Professional Left”, as former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs once put it, actually wants to partner and make common cause with disaffected White Males; indeed, if anything, they seem to hold them in contempt. Would you mind expounding a bit on this idea/argument of yours?
PROF. KIMMEL: I think you are conflating two distinct chapters in the book. Yes, the chapter on the White Nationalists, based on interviews with them, does make the case that they turn to the right because they blame women, people of color or immigrants, orJews, for their plight — and not those in power who have actually dealt them a very bad hand. The chapter on the MR movement, though, doesn’t address their positions in electoral politics; my guess is that many vote democratic, though many more used to vote democratic than do today. I cite Tom Joad or Bruce Springsteen not as MR activists but in contrast to the White Nationalists. They see the plight of America’s white working man in CLASS terms, not in race or gender terms. I think they’re right, as I said above.
5. Going back to “Angry White Men” again – you also make the case that, when it comes to the “Father’s Rights” movement, Black and Gay Men are making headway in what you refer to as the “Responsibility” movement – a kind of variation on the numerous “Man Up!” campaigns that we hear of in our time. As a Black Man, I take a different view of your position, and find myself much more in alignment with outfits like “Fathers For Justice” which was founded in the UK, and which you discussed in your book. To be sure, I support the right of dads to be involved in the lives of their children (which would begin with Shared Custody); but I also support full Reproductive Justice for Men – which would include both Mandatory Paternity Testing, solid legal protections for Men against Paternity Fraud (and stiff legal penalties for Women who engage in it) and of course, Roe For Men. What are your views of this? Also, are you familiar with the work of Kathryn Edin and Tim Nelson, “Doing The Best I Can”, and if so, what is your take of it in relation to the arguments you made in “Angry White Men” as per above?
PROF. KIMMEL: Well, I make the case that the Fathers Rights Movement has some valid concerns. Many fathers are “new” fathers – in that they are spending more time with their children than ever before. This is not ideological, but empirical. But the courts treat these guys as if they were Don Drapers, as if the only nurturing they did was with their wallets. So the courts are about 25 years behind reality — which is fairly typical, actually. (Think about same-sex marriage; they’re just getting around to it.) So many fathers are, indeed, aggrieved, rightly, by a court system that operates on archaic views of fathers participation.
Since I agree with them, I’m waiting now to see the legions of these new involved fathers campaigning for onsite childcare, for flex time, for parental leave for men. These are not women’s issues, after all; they’re parents’ issues! I want to see men campaigning as parents. I want to see hordes of fathers campaigning for adequate comprehensive sex education and birth control, so that all reproductive choices can be made with greater freedom and autonomy.
Since you agree with these Father Rights groups, will you do that? Will you make your active engaged fatherhood “political” before the divorce? Because if you do, I think it will have a lot more credibility after the divorce.
6. You also discuss the role(s) of Women in the various iterations of Men’s Rights Movements in your book, “Angry White Men”; I am not sure if you are aware of this or not, but there has been quite a robust debate on the role, if any, of Women in the Manosphere, and there is no one “official” stance or position on the matter. For example, Pickup and travel blogger RooshV, has instituted a “No Women Allowed” policy over at his blogging collective Return of Kings; while Paul Elam and Dean Esmay over at A Voice For Men are quite amenable to the active involvement of Women, with quite a few on their editorial board, etc. Do you see the involvement of Women in the Manosphere as something that is good and essential for the Men’s Rights Movement, or no, and why?
PROF. KIMMEL: I regard the Manosphere as a virtual locker room, a place of refuge for men who feel that they are constantly being harangued and are walking on eggshells in every arena of their lives. Once upon a time, the entire public sphere was a locker room — the corporate board room, the hospital operating theatre, the law firm, the military, the university. Now not even the locker room is a locker room! There are women everywhere. So there is a defensive circling of the wagons, a sense that men need a place where they can go, and hang out, and not worry about being politically incorrect, and just chill, relax, exhale. I think of the Manosphere like that. A virtual man cave.
About women — well, I have no position on it. It’s not the world in which I travel.
7. Throughout your body of work as best I understand it, you seem to emphasize not only the idea of Men and Women, boys and girls, being platonic friends, but also that, per your arguments, they are becoming so at increasing rates in more recent years. While I don’t have any problem in the least with this from a “freedom of association” sense, I DO take objection to the meme in our time that if I, as a (Black) Man, do not wish to make platonic friends with Women, I am somehow retrograde or chauvanistic or sexist or misogynistic. Whatever happened to again, the right to freedom of association? Must I befriend everyone I meet, in the service of some supposedly higher social goal? Isn’t such a thing, a tyranny of its own kind, to be coerced in such a fashion?
PROF. KIMMEL: You miss my point. I’m not being normative; I’m being descriptive. Women and men are more capable of cross-sex friendship than ever in our history. That’s not normative — it doesn’t mean you have to be friends with anyone you don’t want to be friends with. I’m interested in how this is playing out in our society — that women and men are easily able to be friends. I think, frankly, it’s a revolutionary change, because we make friends with people whom we consider our equals, our peers. It means that young women and men are more comfortable with day-to-day gender equality in their personal relationships than any generation ever. It’s what is. You can do what you like.
8. In your book, again, “Angry White Men”, you scoff at the argument put forth by the MRM, that domestic violence can be in any way “equal” – in other words, that Women can be just as violent toward Men as the other way around, and your expend quite a bit of energy debunking such arguments. In light of that, I’d like to ask if you were familiar with Hip-Hop/R&B “Queen” Mary J. Blige’s flagrant act of violence when she suckerpunched her husband in full view of onlookers at a NYC niteclub – following up with the question, “Whatcha gonna do – “Chris Brown” me?”. Would you consider that a legitimate case of spousal abuse and assault, however aberrational, or would you consider it something that, in the overall scheme of things, as just not that important?
PROF. KIMMEL: There are two levels to your question. The first is: do I think it reprehensible when one person is violent to another, regardless of gender. Answer: of course. It’s wrong. And in her case, as well as his, it comes from the same sense of entitlement: I do it because I can get away with doing it. Of course it’s wrong. And we have to be compassionate towards all those who are victims of violence done by a partner, an ex-partner, or a spouse.
The second question is empirical. It’s not based on anecdote. The research that seems to prove gender symmetry is crafted in such a way as to ensure that result. It’s just empirically demonstrably false. If you include the following variables, the gender asymmetry is clear: severity, frequency, initiation defensive or offensive, in front of children or not, including sexual assault. If you include ex-partners or spouses, it skews enormously. If you include stalking or harassing after divorce or breakup, it’s even more asymmetrical. The empirical research on tis is very clear and very persuasive.
Claims about gender symmetry are also contradictory. The same people who claim, suddenly, that in intimate partner violence women are just as likely as men to hit their partners also often make the argument that biological males are far more aggressive because of testosterone and that therefore women’s shouldn’t be police officers or serve in the military. How can it be that men are biologically programmed to be more violent, except around women, while women are biologically programmed to not be violent except in relationship with men. It’s kind of hard to understand, doncha think?
9. From what I’ve gathered of your writings, most notably “Guyland” you do not seem to have a very high opinion of the Pickup/Seduction community – and to be sure, they have made quite a stir in the wider culture since the publication of Neil “Style” Strauss’ NYT bestselling book “The Game” came out nearly a decade ago. Could you explain exactly what you see as problematic with Game, and where Men could go for a more Feminist-friendly source for dating/mating advice?
PROF. KIMMEL: What’s “wrong” with the pickup seduction manuals is not so much that they treat women as objects, the means to get laid, notches on belts etc., and not as whole people. That’s pretty silly in the modern era. But what bothers me about these books is that they treat men as pathetic losers, utterly incapable of honest conversation, genuine affection, and authentic emotion. So they male-bash. They treat men as such losers that they have to be inauthentic game players in order to be successful with women. I have a much more sanguine view of men than that. I believe that when men are honest, communicative, and authentic, they will have great relationships.
10. I think we can both agree that these are historic times in many ways for Men; one that presents big challenges but also big opportunities. As we move forward from here in early 2014, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Men in the United States currently face, and will face in the near future? What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities?
PROF. KIMMEL: The United States has never been more gender equal. We’ve never been more sexually equal. We’ve never been more racially equal. Sure, on each front, we have a long way to go for full equality. There is still lots of discrimination against women, LGBT people, and people of color. But we have never been more equal. And we will be more equal tomorrow than we are today. And I’m happy to report that we are not going to go forward into the past. Women are not going to have some V8 moment in which they say “Oh, yeah, this equality stuff sucks, I hate voting, and driving, and serving on juries, and having a job, and having my own bank account, and having orgasms.” Let’s go back the way it used to be on Mad Men.
So the question for men, in my view, is simple: we can be dragged kicking and screaming into that more equal future, or we can walk courageously into that future, knowing that our lives, as men, will, be better for it, that the more equal we are, the better our relationships with our friends, our wives and partners, our children will be. Gender equality is not a zero-sum game; it’s a win-win. I support gender equality not only because it’s right and fair and just and patriotically American – which it is – but because I also know it is in my interests to do so.
Thank you so much Prof. Kimmel for your time, and while again I do not agree with everything you’ve said in your books, I nevertheless am thankful to you for contributing to the ongoing conversation surrounding Gender, Sexual Politics and Masculinity issues in our time. Much appreciated!
So, there you have it, folks. Now is the time for you to have your say: what do you make of Prof. Kimmel’s remarks? For that matter, what do you make of my questions?
What sayeth you?
Now adjourn your arses…