Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Men in Power"

I came across this Tribune article about the new University of Chicago "Men in Power" group a few days ago. When I first saw it, I thought: "Oh! Isn't this cute. I bet the University of Chicago, being an extremely liberal environment, might be ready for a group like this!" and then I thought nothing more of it. I sent it to my gentleman friend, who said something along the lines of "Oh, Feministing did an article on that," and when I asked for the link, he gave it to me. My OpenID through LiveJournal apparently doesn't work on Feministing (I've had this error before, and apparently it's still not been fixed), so the only way I can respond is here.

That Feministing article hurt. I honestly expected more from Feministing. I expected an intelligent discussion of what it means for feminism, why the author does or does not support the group, and thoughts about the future of gender equalism movements. Instead, I read a character attack on the founder. How is responding to the community's needs not humble, authentic or empathetic? This man did not write the article actually intending to make such a group, but he realized after the response that he got that it was his responsibility to do so.

A little background might help. I grew up in the neighborhood of the University of Chicago, I attended its attached preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school, my sister and I have both taken several classes there, and I have friends who go there. Both my parents are graduates. I am pretty familiar with the culture, and I can tell you that it's liberal. Extremely liberal. Acceptance and support of feminist ideas, if not self-identification as a feminist, is practically a given. And beyond the University, the neighborhood of Hyde Park is a liberal activist neighborhood. It's no surprise that Obama chose to make his home here.

If there is anywhere in the country that feminism can be said to have "worked," destroying male privilege, I would argue that it is small liberal-arts colleges and universities. While this might not be true of the country at large, America is not a monolith of culture, and we have to assume that there will be places where certain groups have privileges that they might not elsewhere.

Honestly, can't we give feminism some credit? Having grown up in this environment and shipping myself off to another small liberal-arts college, I can tell you that I have never, ever felt oppressed or discriminated against or anything of the sort. I have experienced the exact opposite, being encouraged sometimes through the actual curriculum of the school- particularly in Humanities classes- to celebrate the triumphs of women over men. I don't think my experience was unique, either, because it appears that girls now outperform boys at most levels of education and are more likely to graduate from secondary school.

My point here is that whatever might have been the case in the past does not mean that it is the case now. At least in some environments, feminism works. The new generation of women who grew up in these environments and go to these colleges and so on nowadays do not suffer the same trials and tribulations that past generations of women did. Just because the older generations have not achieved this does not mean that it is not the case for the youngest generations. Not all women are victims of patriarchy, because patriarchy is an overly simplistic term when applied to the entirety of Western culture or even to the entirety of American society. And if we accept that not all women are victims- that in some places, there are other privileges that might surpass that of gender in strength, or that in some places there are no privileges based on gender, or even that in some places gender privilege is reversed- then we have to accept that in some places, men do need solidarity groups like this.

Even if you disagree with the premise of the group, which as far as I can tell is to provide support and solidarity for men in the same way that women's groups provide those things for women, to bring speakers onto campus to discuss gender issues, and to reach out to the community and help underachieving boys and men by giving them positive role models, consider what its existence means for the progress of feminism.

First, it means that gender privilege has been erased in this environment to the point that there is sufficient interest in supporting men as a minority or underserved group, even if that is not true in the country at large. This group started as a joke. The leader of the group (who is not a very good speaker, it sadly appears) wrote a satirical article for the Maroon (the U of C's newspaper), and received a number of emails from University of Chicago students who took it quite seriously and thought that there was indeed a need for such a group on campus. Personally I don't think this is such a stretch. Here at Vassar, we have a women's health clinic with several doctors and nurses, but only one male doctor in the entire health facilities who is only a part-time employee. If you have a problem under your boxers and you don't feel comfortable exposing yourself to a nurse, or if you're having a problem with your penis and you need a male specialist, good luck getting an appointment. I've heard that this discrepancy is because of demand, but who puts demand forward? Advocacy groups, that's who. Women have an advocacy group on this campus who can ensure that that they're properly treated by health services, but men do not. Is there a male gender privilege here?

Second, it means that feminism has encouraged gender dismantling to the point that such a support group is not a distasteful idea to men. Isn't one hypermasculine trait supposed to be the ability to bear hardship with a stiff upper lip and fight your own battles if there are battles to be fought? I would think the macho response to perceived inequity would not be to form a girly support group but to start breaking things and setting fire to them. That this group exists and is supported by the male element should indicate some triumph for feminism, if feminism is fighting against negative judgment based on feminine characteristics.

The progress of feminism aside, I actually think the group is pretty cute and I like the idea. Why does gender stereotype dismantling have to come from women, or on women's terms? If Patriarchy Hurts Men Too, what's the big idea denying men the ability to address their own issues their own way? Feminist organizations often fail to address many elements of gender stereotypes that disproportionately harm men, such as the assumption of a nurturing, kind nature in women. Male rape is a problem, but not everyone seems to even realize it's possible. News articles discussing molestation of children by women often refer to the molestation as an "affair" or a "relationship" rather than "rape." Children are taught to gravitate towards "nurturing" women and away from "dangerous" men. When two teenagers have sex, even if it should legally be rape because the male was sufficiently younger than the female, he still often bears legal responsibility for sex or she is not prosecuted. Even college administrators have started to notice men falling behind. Men are more likely to have grave occupational hazards because they're more likely to be blue-collar workers (such as construction workers) and have been hit much harder by the recession than women. Nowhere is the importance of advocacy groups more obvious than reverse sexist advertisements (British example), but rarely do I see advocacy groups for men supported by other gender equalists or thriving.

Even though these are stereotypes and problems that should theoretically be feminist issues if feminism is all about gender equality, I don't see the feminist blogosphere up in arms about these issues. Please, do correct me if I'm wrong here. I would love to be.

If feminist groups aren't going to address these issues, then they ought to band together with groups who will, since they're both heading towards the same goal: gender equality.

Before I finish, a note on the name. The hugest complaints I've heard about the group are about its name. Realize that the name was birthed in satire. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss gender issues starting with a discussion of the widely-held assumption that men are in power. Why would it be?