Man Up!

This is an article originally published in Ampersand magazine at the Kansas City Art Institute in the Spring of 2010. Enjoy! Downloadable PDF: Here

I took a feminist art and theory class this past semester, in which I was (unsurprisingly) one of two guys in the class of sixteen. I went into the class not liking feminism, feminists and especially not feminist art. I couldn’t relate to it, and I didn’t like the idea that it was making me (a man) into the enemy. Honestly, I took the class because I knew the teacher was good … and I needed the credit. It turned out to be one to the best classes I’ve had over the past three years here. My mind was quickly changed about feminism, and I started to see how every gender issue is connected. What helped me was to think of feminism as more about gender differences (masculine/feminine) than exclusively about a particular sex (male/female). It helped to think of sex and gender as separate qualities. Sex refers to your biology; gender refers to particular characteristics that are culturally viewed as masculine or feminine. For example, a man who acts “feminine” isn’t less of a man biologically; however, he may be regarded as less of a man by the cultural standards we’ve constructed around what a man “should” be.

I would bring up some of the class topics I was particularly interested in to my friends and family. What I found was that most guys weren’t shy to talk about these subjects, they had simply never been presented with these issues, and therefore never had the opportunity to voice their opinions. Still, I kept asking myself, “Why aren’t there any straight white guys in this class?” I came to realize it is always easier to confront these issues from the perspective of the persecuted, be it your sex, skin color, religion, sexuality, or whatever. Men have a more difficult time addressing these issues because we’re not under any kind of oppression; in fact, we’re usually the ones on top (no pun intended). Let’s face it; men have the upper hand in our society today. This doesn’t mean we’re responsible for all kinds of oppression, but it also doesn’t mean we should set a norm. Our society tells both women and men how to act, look, and think. The difference is women have challenged these ideas and thereby broke some ground on what constitutes contemporary womanhood. There hasn’t been a men’s liberation movement yet. The whole idea seems kind of silly actually. If men hold the highest status in our society why would they need a movement? Men’s status doesn’t change the fact that our culture as a whole sets finite boundaries on contemporary manhood.

Men don’t have the luxury of being able to discuss what constitutes manhood because our society expects us to just understand masculinity and embody it. If you begin to examine it by say, taking a gender studies class, you have already admitted to failing at masculinity in some respect.1 We’re raised in a society where boys are constantly conditioned to strive towards a culturally constructed ideal of masculinity. The music we listen to, the movies we watch, the sports we play and even our interactions with each other all facilitate this struggle. Unfortunately, this status is virtually unattainable and most men will end up struggling with it consciously or subconsciously. This is the paradox of contemporary masculinity: we’re all striving towards an unreachable goal that we know is unreachable, but the consequences of giving up the fight are so great that they end up feeding the struggle.

While the ultimate goal may never be reached, we are certainly good at pointing out what qualifies as manly and not manly. As a sculpture major, I’ll be the first to admit that there is definitely something manly about working with metal. Power tools, fire, and sharp spinning blades? Yeah, those are all pretty masculine things, but does that mean you can’t enjoy them just because of your sex? Of course not! Just like women can enjoy something we see as a “feminine” activity, say shoe shopping, men can still enjoy “masculine” activities. Someone isn’t more of a man or more of a woman because of what they choose to do. Men, shop for shoes! Women, grind metal! In fact, everybody just grind metal in heels! Who cares!?! Stereotypes are wrong and boring anyway. Still, acknowledging the gender of a particular activity is only the first step. We should also be questioning what makes these activities gendered. What makes iron-working masculine and needlework feminine? Who even qualifies to make these decisions? How has our culture evolved to arrive at this point? How is our culture still evolving out of these trends (think of metrosexuality)? My experience has been that issues such as these are more about asking questions than answering them. Most of the time, there simply aren’t clear answers, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth asking. Through questioning we challenge ourselves, and that line of questioning has the potential, like good art, to change the way we see the world.

Footnote:

[1] Harry Brod “ Studying Masculinities as Superiordinate Studies,” Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New
Directions, Judith Kegan Gardiner (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 167.

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About Matt Jacobs

Matt Jacobs is an artist and writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. He holds a BFA in Sculpture and Art History from the Kansas City Art Institute. His work has been exhibited internationally in Iceland and Italy as well as throughout the U.S. including Texas, California, and New York. In addition to maintaining a studio practice, Jacobs also pursues critical activities such as writing and curating. He has curated several exhibitions in the Kansas City area including “Twenty Something” at City Arts Project and at the H+R Block Artspace’s Biennial Flatfile exhibition. His writing has appeared in Art Tattler, Review Magazine, and Glasstire.
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One Response to Man Up!

  1. kathy says:

    Matt,
    It is strange because I consider myself a feminist, yet am not quick to say it, knowing all the misconceptions based on the f word. And I would agree, it is so much about critically looking at the world around us and how things have been presented to us. When I try to explain this to other people, I often tell them it is about being perceptive of all the things around us that are gendered, and what messages we are (often unknowingly) reading as we encounter our visual culture on a daily basis. I am not sure why, but I am continually reminded of how important this attentiveness is, when I see commercials for cleaning products. In particular, I think about how all cleaning commercials involve women cleaning. Just recently I remembered seeing a tube of antibacterial wipes, with a woman’s hand on the packaging. While I think most people I know would be offended to be told “you are not manly if you clean” or “your feminine duty is to clean”, there are still a million different visual messages that gender cleaning activities. It gets me all the time.

    I also really like the discussion of men being at an upperhand, and also markedly less manly by virtue of even taking a class about gender. All the power dynamics get so complicated and difficult. (As a white middle class man, are you supposed to feel guilty for the upper hand?) yet I think that best thing that somebody could take from a gender class is that those that ideas of masculinity and femininity are often about dichotomies that are about exclusion or negation, a series of nots, rather than inclusive. It reminds me of how often we think in life (and in art), “well, I can’t do that “, or “Those two things do not belong together”, and some genius asks you, “well why the hell not?” And so then somebody grinds metal in heels, and all sorts of interesting things happen from there. It’s about widening our options as human beings, and who doesn’t want to jump on that boat?

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