Against Redemptive Masculinity


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.

This is generally a problem with TV shows with fantasy elements set in the present day. They simply don’t have the time or money to be thoughtful about their use of special effects (apparently), and so what we get feels like a collection of post-production presets: human faces morphing into demon faces, moving so fast someone becomes a blur, or those damned orbs: you see ‘em in Grimm, and you see ‘em in True Blood, and you’ve seen ‘em in Charmed, and they all kinda look the same. Fantasy powers can serve as deeply layered metaphors for the human condition when depicted in prose, but once you have to visualize ‘em, they always seem to look like things people who went to liberal arts college regret wearing as a teenager. As a result, the visuals on these shows are resolutely disreputable. Even the most well-regarded show in the genre, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, gets far more laughs than praise for its monsters and magic, with its value coming solely from the writing and performances. That meant a lot back in the late ’90s, but to be a quality TV show in 2013, you have to have both great dialogue and visual composition.
If we go back to the 19th century, photography was kind of born as a labor-saving device, although we don’t think of it that way. One of my favorite stories, which might be apocryphal — I can’t tell you for sure that this is so, although photographers traded this story for many years. But the way the piece of folklore goes is that during the Civil War era, and a little after, the very earliest photographers would go around with a collection of photographs of people who matched a certain archetype. So they would find the photograph that most closely matched your loved one and you’d buy that because at least there would be representation a little like the person, even if it was the wrong person. And that sounds just incredibly weird to us.
Sometimes you have to remind people that a critic can mock something, deride it even, and still love it, or at least love parts of it. This is always how I read Meltzer and Bangs on the Doors. In one of his early reviews of them (I forget of which album), Meltzer calls the band (not even Morrison, but the band) “ridiculous” but means it, I’m pretty sure, in a way that is entirely complimentary. Bangs referred to Morrison as a bozo, but also was intensely moved by some of their music; in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, he suggests that “Light My Fire” paved the way for “Gimme Shelter” (an argument I think Greil Marcus picked up in his recent book on the band). One of the trends I find disconcerting in so much music criticism today is that writers seem unwilling to acknowledge the idea that ridiculousness and pretensiousness and buffoonery sometimes don’t prevent great music, and in fact, sometimes lead directly to great music.
Scott Woods, “Critics Are Strange

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors

Svenson has turned outward from his usual studio based practice to study the daily activities of his downtown Manhattan neighbors as seen through his windows into theirs. Svenson has always combined a highly developed aesthetic sense viewed from the perspective of social anthropology in his eclectic projects with subjects ranging from prisoners to sock monkeys. His projects are almost always instigated by an external or random experience which brings new objects or equipment into his life- in this case he inherited a bird watching telephoto lens from a friend.

The grid structure of the windows frame the quotidian activities of the neighbors, forming images which are puzzling, endearing, theatrical and often seem to mimic art history, from Delacroix to Vermeer.

Voyeuristic and investigative, The Neighbors is social documentation in a very rarified environment. The large color prints have been cropped to various orientations and sizes to condense and focus the action. In a recent review in Photograph from his LA show C. Wagley wrote, “had you not read the press release, you might think these were film stills from some slow-moving art-house picture.” Svenson has shown with the gallery since 1992 and is known for such diverse bodies of works as the aforementioned Prisoners (1997), Sock Monkeys (2003) and recent book projects Strays (2012), Chewed (2011), and Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots (2005). He recently completed the solo exhibition About Face at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. His work is in the collections of the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 1997, NBC canceled the sitcom “The Single Guy” after two seasons; it had an audience of 20.1 million people. This month, NBC is on the verge of renewing “Parks and Recreation,” which has an audience of 2.5 million, which tells you everything you need to know about the dwindling viewership for network TV. The highest-rated show this season among 18- to 49-years-olds — the demographic advertisers really care about — is not even a network show: it’s AMC’s “Walking Dead,” a cable show that drew a total of 12.4 million viewers for its recent season finale.
From the 19th century onward, liberally educated people from a variety of backgrounds have had at least four ways of responding to the onward march of industrial capitalism and state-supported ideology: they can become bourgeois (like most college professors), they can become anarchists (which means dropping out and behaving badly, like Rimbaud, Tzara and the Sex Pistols), they can become aesthetes (like Baudelaire, Wilde, Joyce, Woolf, and all the great modernists), or they can become revolutionary political activists (like Mother Jones, Lenin, Fanon and Malcolm X).
James Naremore, Movie Mutations

Everything is at once hideous and hilarious, from the gory apparition of the parasitic creature in the bathtub to the zombielike orgy in the swimming pool at the end. [Shivers] neither idealizes nor condemns these transgressive moments of physical violation and orgiastic excess. Rather, it slyly suggests that the bourgeois sexual ‘revolution’ in fact merely reproduces the aggressive, hysterical logic of a commodified competitive society. Transgression is not transcendence.

Cronenberg is thus equally skeptical of “left-Fruedian” visions of personal and social liberation through the lifting of repression, and of right-wing claims that desire must always be repressed because it is inherently evil and disruptive. These positions are, in fact, mirror images of one another. They both posit a soul, an originary human essence—whether good or evil—and ignore the shady complicity that always already contaminates desire with the regulation and repression of desire. Humanist visions of unlimited freedom and conservative visions of original sin (or of inevitable limits) both strive to reject monstrosity, to deny the violent ambivalence of bodily passion. Harmonious utopian projections and anxious defenses of the status quo alike betray a continuing need to idealize, a panic in face of the excesses of the flesh. Both ideologies are trying to transcend the anxiety and insecurity implicit in the state of being a body.

Teachers are often unaware of the gender distribution of talk in their classrooms. They usually consider that they give equal amounts of attention to girls and boys, and it is only when they make a tape recording that they realize that boys are dominating the interactions.

Dale Spender, an Australian feminist who has been a strong advocate of female rights in this area, noted that teachers who tried to restore the balance by deliberately ‘favouring’ the girls were astounded to find that despite their efforts they continued to devote more time to the boys in their classrooms. Another study reported that a male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.

In other public contexts, too, such as seminars and debates, when women and men are deliberately given an equal amount of the highly valued talking time, there is often a perception that they are getting more than their fair share. Dale Spender explains this as follows:

The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.

In other words, if women talk at all, this may be perceived as ‘too much’ by men who expect them to provide a silent, decorative background in many social contexts. This may sound outrageous, but think about how you react when precocious children dominate the talk at an adult party. As women begin to make inroads into formerly ‘male’ domains such as business and professional contexts, we should not be surprised to find that their contributions are not always perceived positively or even accurately.