another rant about gender
or: why we should stop trying rehabilitate masculinity. or, how i learned to stop worrying and love androgyny
Of late, I’ve noticed that there is an emerging micro-genre of articles about the need for “progressives” (a word rarely used by leftists and more often used by centrists, in my experience) to rehabilitate masculinity, lest it be coopted entirely by nefarious forces on the far-right. Here’s a short but representative entry in the genre by one of its lodestars, Brookings fellow and man-defender extraordinaire Richard Reeves. In an article about why celebrity chauvinist Andrew Tate (lately of sex-trafficking fame) is so popular, he writes:
The failure of mainstream institutions, including governments, the media, philanthropy and academia to acknowledge and tackle the real problems facing many boys and men has created a vacuum in our politics and in our culture. This is a vacuum that populist politicians like Donald Trump can fill at the ballot box. And it is a vacuum that internet performers like Tate can fill online. It is tempting to simply de-platform men like Tate, and cut off the supply of this kind of content, but the deeper challenge is to reduce the demand. Millions of boys and men are desperate for help answering the question of what it means to be a good man today. If we don’t like Tate’s answer, we need a better one ourselves.
Reeves offers no first principles here: he makes no effort to defend the idea that we should structure our lives and loves in deference to the constraints of gender (although I strongly suspect that he thinks we should, probably for biological reasons; you know, testosterone and all that). Instead, he’s making the limited claim that, as a practical matter, people (and, in particular men) do define themselves in gendered terms—that, as I put it in my piece about Josh Hawley, men demand role models who are not just “good and, incidentally, male, but…good at being male.” Given that men want to be told how to be men, not how to be good simplicter, we on the left (or on the center-but-not-psychotic right) ought to provide them with models of positive masculinity. And if we do not, they will fall into the cluthes of Trump and Tate et al.
I think this is a more reasonable version of the argument that we should attempt to rehabilitate masculinity than others I’ve encountered before—basically all of which are about how religious texts say gender essentialism is real or about how biology consigns men to aggressiveness and women to docility—but I remain fundamentally unconvinced, and I am going to tell you why! (Maybe I should insert this brief caveat: the reason I’m discussing whether we should rehabilitate men, and not whether we should rehabilitate women, is because there is an entire micro-hysteria about the lack of male role models—and, for whatever reason, there is no parallel sea of hands wringing about rehabilitating femininity, at least not in my social world. But I continue to think that gender, as a way of structuring human life, is bad for everyone. Still, my interlocuters are on about men in particular, so I too shall be on about men in particular, for at least the span of this ‘Stack. Most of what I say should apply, mutatis mutandis, to arguments about rehabilitating femininity.)
Permit me a bit of analytic philosophy! I apologize, but now that I’ve defected from the academy, I have only two outlets for pedantry: my Kant reading group, and this annoying Substack! I am a compulsive putter of arguments into premise-conclusion form, and I cannot deny or suppress my true nature!!! MY INNATE FEMINITY COMPELS ME TO PUT ARGUMENTS INTO PREMISE-CONCLUSION FORM. THIS IS JUST WHAT A UTERUS DOES TO YOU. So here, I think, is Reeves’s argument, thus anatomized.
Premise 1: The Lost Men of Modernity (TM) (LMM for short) writ large demand guidance about how to be men, specifically, and they won’t settle for anything else (for instance, guidance about how to be a good person, good chess player, good runner, good Kant scholar, etc).
Premise 2: We on the left/center right/rational side of the sanity divide do not provide the LLMs with “positive” male role models.
Premise 3: if LLMs demand guidance about how to be men, and they won’t settle for anything else—and if we on the left do not provide them with “positive” male role models—then they will turn to reactionary ghouls.
Conclusion 1: LLMS are turning to reactionary ghouls.
Conclusion 2: So we ought to provide LLMs with some nice guy role models of our own.
First of all: Let’s begin with some combition of premise 3 and premise 2. Premise 2 assumes that the reason LLMs are turning to reactionary ghouls is because, upon earnestly seeking guidance about how to conduct themselves, they only find only Andrew Tates. How sad for them.
But it strikes me as a bit naive and credulous to assume that all or most of the men turning to Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate are doing so because they’re sincerely desperate for guidance. There is a simpler explanation available, and it’s that these men turn to reactionary ghouls because reactionary ghouls affirm their priors—that is, because they are reactionary ghouls themselves, and they want to hear their reactionary ghoulery parotted by someone with nominal authority. After all—and here I call premise 2 into question—there actually are plenty of less noxious role models available to men who actually look for any. There are any number of men doing cool shit: male writers who interrogate masculinity in their books (Andrew Holleran), male filmmakers whose work probes the boundaries of the body (David Cronenberg), male athletes who are reimagining athletic achievement (Eliud Kipchoge). Admittedly, given my own assumptions, I understand these figures not as models of how to be men but as models of how to be, period, who also happen to be men. But if I were a sad lost man absolutely intent on someone telling me how to be a MAN and not just a writer or runner, I would have no trouble interpreting them as masculine role models. I think the problem is that they aren’t the kind of masculine role models Reeves and his ilk really want: I think in reality, Reeves-heads cloak their bias towards more traditionalist conceptions of masculinity in a pragmatic call for the left to provide what it’s already providing, namely models of masculinity, when what they really want is for us to be providing hearty, rugged, and largely traditionalist but not vulgarly misogynistic and totally embarassing role models. (Basically the same thing can be said about the many dicussions of masculinity that already exist within the feminist tradition, many of which are sympathetic to the idea that masculinity harms men and is constraining, and many of which are not in the least dismissive of male pain. It’s just that almost none of these say what Reeves-types want them to say, namely that men should still be strong little soldiers, but strong little soldiers who open the door for women and do not sexually enslave them.)
Now for premise 1. Why must we accept this premise? Why can’t we ask whether men should be demanding a roadmap for masculinity, rather than just a roadmap for being a good dude, in the gender-neutral sense of dude? And if we conclude that men should not want this thing, that this thing yields injustice, why can’t we tell them that they ought to alter their desires? Why should I care what men want, if what they want is immoral?
Here’s why I think normative accounts of masculinity are inherently dangerous, even if their content is comparatively nice, and of the opening-doors and not conscripting-into-sex-slavery variety. I haven’t seen the concern I’m about to raise adequately addressed in any of the writing about masculinity and its possible redemption I’ve read, and I really think it is central. Sometimes people acknowledge that it is a concern and then move on without responding to it. Here it is.
If we say that some quality (let’s say heroism) is masculine in a normative sense—that GOOD MEN display this trait, that men SHOULD display this trait—then what about women? Can women not display this trait? Do "good women" not display this trait? If a woman displays this trait, is she a bad woman but a good man….? Any time we say heroism or courage or whatever makes men good men, we risk implying that women with these traits are bad women, that women who display these traits are doing something wrong. (That normative masculinity has functioned in 100% of historical contexts in which it’s existed as a tool with which to bludgeon women who are intellectual, assertive, courageous, etc is evidence that the risk is very high.) Now, many attempts to rehabilitate masculinity studiously avoid confonting this issue. Consider Hawley’s book. It’s politic of him to say that men are courageous, protective, etc, etc, without ever discussing whether women can or should display these qualities, too. My colleague Monica Hess does a good job of breaking this down in her piece about the book: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2023/05/24/hawley-manhood-book/.
I think the answer that people usually offer in response to this kind of objection is either:
a. “Yeah, women shouldn’t be courageous.”
In which case, our fundamental intuitions are so different that I’m not sure what to say to you.
B. “Well, I’m not providing an airtight definition, I’m kind of just vibing. Good masculinity isn’t a precisely definable thing but some vague haze of warrior-like traits that probably overlaps with good femininity to some degree!”
In which case: but if you say this about every trait—which you’ll have to, unless you want to end up saying women should not be at least one of the things that men should be, in which case you end up in camp a—you’ll end up saying that positive traits for men and positive traits for women overlap entirely. Which amounts to saying that the traits in question are….positive traits for everyone. Which amounts to saying that the role models on offer are not models of positive masculinity but of positive personhood. Which is what I think we should be doing, but which defeats the point for the masculinity-defenders and which would not satisfy a committed LLM who wants to be told how to be a man.
b. “I’m not saying that all men are like this, I’m saying some men are like this, and of course there are deviations from the norm. And that’s okay!”
In which case: sure, but this is completely non-responsive. This is a defense of a different descriptive claim about what men in general are like, not a defense of the normative claim at issue, about what men should be like. No party to this discussion—not feminists, not middle-of-the-road gender essentialists, not hardcore complementarians—thinks that, as a descriptive matter, men and women are alike. Everyone thinks men and women differ demonstrably. Their disagreement is about why—for reasons of socialization (my camp), reasons of biology (evolutionary psychologist camp), or reasons of spirit (Christian complementarian camp). But the claim that not all men do display “masculine” qualities has nothing to do with the moral defensibility of rehabilitating masculinity. I suppose one could say “not all men *should* display heroism,” but then in what sense is heroism normative for men? If it’s normative for some men, then we’re back in “helping people be good people in the many ways people can be good” territory, which is what we wanted to avoid. We wanted a model for MEN, DAMMIT!
I understand that some people think gender is a biological necessity, and that the traits like heroism (or whatever) would not be evenly distributed in the world where patriarchal forms of socialization were minimized—but if that’s true, so? Why would this descriptive commitment imply a normative one? If more men end up displaying heroism than women in the gender-neutral utopia of the future, that’s fine. Every person can display the traits they display, and that’s cool. What exactly are we gaining by telling the men who don’t display this trait (and surely there will be some?) that they’re failed instances of their kind….? Instead of successful individuals (or successful community-members!) along some other axis?
I suppose my parting question is: what, exactly, is gender doing for us in the way of guidance that other categories, with a better track record of not yielding centuries of oppression, cannot do? This is what I was trying to ask in my Hawley piece, and what I still absolutely do not understand. I understand the desire for concrete role models rather than vague instructions about how to be a good person, but concrete role models abound (and accounts of good masculinity tend to be extremely vague! What is being courageous, protective?). Want to learn how to be good at chess? Watch Ding Liren play. Want to learn to write a good book? Read Helen Dewitt. There you go. Why can’t we simply let people be good at being whatever they are? What—seriously, what in the world—do we lose if we do that?