Discover more from a fête worse than death
men: an addendum
a note for men who feel I don't take their suffering seriously
A quick addendum: a lot of people seem to feel I’m not taking male suffering or the problem of masculinity-at-sea seriously enough, so I thought I’d spend a few procrastinatory minutes clarifying. I don’t think that the issue of masculinity (or the issue of gender more generally, thus the complementary issue of femininity) is trivial or silly at all! That’s why I keep returning to it in my thinking and writing. I tried hard in my Hawley piece to emphasize that, while Hawley’s book invites and merits ridicule, the men desperate enough to turn to him for advice about how to live are clearly in real pain and clearly in pursuit of real answers. Gender is dangerous, in my view, precisely because it’s such a thoroughly defining force—precisely because so many men and women cannot help but measure their worth in terms of their success at satisfying its impossible and flattening standards. The pain that attends not knowing what the standards even are, or of regarding them as contradictory, is especially acute. In my own case: what’s required to be successful at analytic philosophy—intellectual bloodthirst, aggression, and so on, traits I naturally and irrepressibly possess in spades—is simply at odds with what’s required to be successful at the practice of femininity. I’ve thought a lot about how women called to “masculine” pursuits, or pursuits that demand they deviate sharply from traditional feminine roles, tend to over-compensate in other domains, for instance by dressing in a hyper-feminine way or emphasizing their ditziness about other topics. (There’s a great passage in Susan Taubes’s novel Divorcing in which the narrator apologizes to male interlocuter for being a Spinoza scholar, insisting that she also wants to have babies. Unfortunately, I’m ambivalent about babies, so this defense is not, or not yet, available to me.) I did not mean to suggest that men do not face an analagous problem, or that it is not a serious problem. It is no small thing to exist in a society in which gender is taken by many to be one’s most defining quality, and to have no idea how gender is done well, or to feel that to do gender well is to betray one’s true nature.
But, first of all, the pressures of gender are not totally exculpatory. I can take the suffering of confused men seriously without thinking it’s forgivable that they’d turn to Andrew Tate in their despair, since a more thoughtful response to the contradictions of the moment is available to even the most battered victims of “gender ideology” (by which I mean, the imperative to be masculine or feminine). Two things can be true at once: men are suffering for reasons that are beyond their control, reasons having to do with how they’ve been forcibly gendered and how unforgivingly their gender has been constructed, and many men turn to Andrew Tate because they are sexist and hateful, and not because they are sincerely seeking humane and sensible guidance about how to be good. Even people in a bad position through no fault of their own retain moral agency.
And second of all, I’ve been surprised that a lot of respondants have concluded that I don’t take this issue seriously instead of concluding that I take it seriously but simply disagree about what is to be done. To propose that gender, as a method of organizing thought and human behavior, be eradicated or supplanted or at least softened is not to suggest that gender is not a real problem; it is simply to propose one way of responding to the problem that may be affronting to those invested in being men. To illustrate, the difference is: I think the solution to my sense that I’m failing as a woman when I succeed as a philosopher is to try to dissolve the standards of femininity that define it in terms of docility and irrationality, not to coax me to quit philosophy and take up homesteading and procreate a lot. I appreciate—believe me, I am very aware, lol—that other disagree. But both proposals adress the problem, and neither denies that it is a problem. I remain convinced that few gendder essentialists answer the two questions I continue to think are central:
First, is there a coherent way of saying the masculinity normatively requires X, without saying that women should not display X, where X is any positive trait? (Some would simply bite this bullet and say: yes, women should not be courageous, because that is not their place. I would argue with them, too, but that’s a different and darker argument.) (Even if the argument is generalized, so that it’s about populations and not individuals, it sounds sexist to me, at least when it’s normative: should women, in general, be less courageous than men, in general?)
Second, is there any advantage to categorizing people in gendered terms, instead of categorizing them with respect to various traits that people of both genders display? I think it’s an open question whether there would be an uneven distribution of traits in a culture in which gendered socialization were abolished. But if there still turned out to be an unven distribution, okay: wouldwe we have lost anything by caring about the capacities people in fact end up displaying, rather than the capacities we expect them to display on the basis of the gender roles we’ve assigned them? Wouldn’t we have gained something by ensuring that men or women with talents rare for their demographics still get to cultivate those talents?
Now, my questions concern the ontological status of gender, about what we should aspire to ultimately. They certainly don’t settle the question of what we should do right now, given practical constraints. To say that, theoretically speaking, there are no good answers to these questions (or none that I have seen) from those who would defend the gender binary is one thing; it isn’t to invalidate the pain of men raised to believe their value is a matter of their performance of a gender role right now, it is only to offer reasons to prefer one sort of ultimate solution to another.
If there is better discussion of this somewhere, or if any of you all have a more compelling way of defending gender not as an intermediary measure but as a general way of organizing society, I’m truly keen to know. I’ve looked and looked and I haven’t found anything I think is very persuasive. There are people who find an approach demanding clarity sterile, and people who are highly moved by texts about masculinity I find sentimental and unconvincing. There are many literary treatments of masculinity I respect aesthetically—I love Mishima!—without feeling that they provide good arguments for accepting that masculinity is a category worth preserving in the long term. I don’t think I’m a clarity fetishist all the time—I’m a literary critic, after all, and I chose literature over philosophy for a reason—but about this issue, I think there is an enormous amount of atavistic obfuscation. I do find the technocratic tone of someone like Reeves aesthetically off-putting, but at least he’s actually saying things with content, and not just waving his arms at some romantic ideal of a man toiling in a field while his wife at home rocks the baby. I haven’t really found much writing about masculinity that rises above the level of the romantic blathering, and it is not because I haven’t looked; if you disagree, and think there is plenty of literature of this kind or plenty of better writing about this issue, point me to it. But be apprised that I may know it already; I may simply think it is bad.
(I need to stop wasting time writing Substacks….so I’m going to try to stop posting them so much in the future….if I continue posting at this rate, please yell at me to get back to my real work! Thanks!!!)