What is Redemptive Masculinity? It is a particular ideal often discussed as the reason men should embrace feminism. It is a way of pointing out how men suffer under patriarchy by being forced to stick to rigid ideas of masculinity that are violent, unemotional, and restrictive to a fully flourishing life. Redemptive Masculinity does not posit that men suffer equally from structural inequality or material harm under patriarchy, but that it is a valuable outcome for men to be able to embrace their “feminine” sides without fear of suffering violence. In short, masculinity can be “redeemed” from its distorted form under patriarchy by incorporating the “feminine,” constructed as emotional and nurturing. Now, to be clear I don’t think men can’t be feminists or work for women’s equity. I follow Donna Haraway in thinking that there is no totalizeable feminism, there is nothing “natural” about being a women, and there are multiple standpoints from which feminist politics can arise. However, I do think there are a couple insidious elements to Redemptive Masculinity that need to be questioned.
First, despite the forced stoicism of traditional masculinity, there is nothing “unemotional” about patriarchal masculinity; if anything it is driven by excessive emotions. Underneath the veneer of patriarchal masculinity lurks both fear and rage. Fear at the loss of control, at being unequal, at losing status, and most importantly fear of losing power - whether structurally or in the most microscopic of power relations. For power is indubitably linked to pleasure, to the experience of pleasure and the fear of its being diminished. Afraid of this loss of power/pleasure patriarchal masculinity reacts with rage and violence, expressing man’s desire to exercise his control, a control society has often promised him. Zizek’s idea that at the heart of racism is the thought that the Other has stolen my jouissance seems pertinent here. Under patriarchy men will fear that women have access to a pleasure that is denied to them, to their jouissance, and will lash out if they think that fear has been proven true. Kate Zambreno’s book Heroines is interesting in this regard, as she shows how the male modernists were as “hysterical” as the wives they claimed were crazy and abused. Their emotions, of paranoia and fear, were socially sanctioned and thus these men were not overly emotional but Great Artists. Patriarchal masculinity then does not suffer from being “unemotional” but from an excess of negative emotions that are socially sanctioned for the maintenance of women’s inequality.
This leads me to the other aspect of Redemptive Masculinity, that the emotions men need to incorporate from women are their “caring” ones. However, such thinking buys into one of the key myths of patriarchy concerning women. It confirms that women are the “emotional” ones in society, possessing something men need to possess as well. Structurally this is the inverse of the dominant logic of patriarchy, that women possess a jouissance men lack. Redemptive Masculinity then does nothing to breakdown societal stereotypes of sexual difference but only flips them. Men go from seeing being emotionless as a virtue to a lack, while women’s “emotional” nature goes from being denigrated to valued, something men require access to as well. Women are still seen as the possessors of all that is good (their jouissance, their virginity) and that men must acquire. Despite the best intentions of forming more tolerant, open men Redemptive Masculinity does not breakdown the essential connections between sexual difference, desire, and potential violence.
Recognizing this, what are the roots for a socially viable masculinity? I find the work of Leo Bersani useful here. In “Is the Rectum a Grave?” he argues that there is an essential link between misogyny and homophobia - a fear of the radical passivity of the woman/gay man. The way out of this fear is to embrace radical passivity itself, to be open to being “penetrated” by others and willing to form radical socialities with them. In his later work in Forms of Being and Intimacies Bersani has expanded this question into how to recognize correspondences between the self and the world. Moving away from the question of the difference of the Other Bersani asks how a person can recognize the sameness of their selves in the world. Radical passivity then gives way to forging non-violent correspondences in the world that will allow for both socially viable communities and sexual pleasure. I see this as a possible, though surely not the only, starting point for rethinking masculinities outside of patriarchal sexual difference, where it is not a question of the fear/desire of the Other’s jouissance but of a particular correspondence between “men,” however determined. This would by necessity be a masculinity aware of patriachal violence and histories of sexual control, while still allowing for particular pleasures of activity AND passivity for the subject. The other potential upside is that motivation for men to work alongside women for social justice is not predicated on the idea that this is the only way for men to gain something they lack, but instead they can be motivated by a correspondence they see between themselves and other women - a correspondence that springs from the mutual enmeshment of men, women, and others in communities that should be embraced instead of rejected.