NEW YORK — Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who studies gender inequality, has been pitching feminism to American men for almost 40 years. This can be a tough sell, though he notes that when he omits the F-word — feminism — he does better.
But here, at the first International Conference on Masculinities, no such half-measures are necessary. The Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan is filled with male feminists. They brainstorm how to combat sex trafficking, they discuss wage inequality and they talk of masculinity not as a fixed biological state but as an evolving cultural construct.
“Most men don’t see feminism as being about them, let alone in their interests,” says Kimmel, who ran the four-day conference gathering some 700 academics and activists — the pinnacle, says his wife, of his many decades of work. He is the organizational and philosophical center of a progressive movement to transform the American male — and it turns out this is a busy job. He’s trying to eat a sandwich, but he’s also giving interviews, and being handed someone’s lost hotel keys, and checking on Sheryl Sandberg’s schedule, and trying to get the water pitchers at his table refilled, and being interrupted by a guy who wants to talk about “typologies,” which might be some sort of academic term (like “hegemony” or “norm change,” which also get thrown around a lot by this crowd).
“The common way that we think about gender equality is as a zero sum game, so if women win, men lose,” Kimmel says, in between hurried bites. “We believe the evidence lies squarely on the other side, whether it’s in corporations, where the more gender-equal corporations turn out to be more profitable, or in relationships, where the more men do housework and child-care, the happier the women are, the happier the men are, the happier their kids are.”
A professor at Stony Brook University who has written more than 20 books, Kimmel travels about half of every month, lecturing and networking with everyone in this field. Who’s everyone? Well, there’s “Jane, Gloria and Eve” — that’s Fonda, Steinem and Ensler, who sit on the board of Stony Brook’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, which Kimmel, 64, founded two years ago. Kimmel and Steinem go back at least 20 years, she says, and she likes to recommend his books.
As for Fonda, they’d met a few times when she called and asked for input on her book, “Being a Teen.” (Kimmel suggested the more valuable reader would be his 13-year-old son, Zachary.) And as you circulate through the conference of people from Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Germany, Portugal and all across the United States, Kimmel is somehow the hub of the wheel. “Even in Europe, Michael is the common denominator,” says a woman from Belgium. “Dude got me my job!” says an activist from Indiana.
The goal of this conference, and of Kimmel’s center at Stony Brook, is to bring together academics and activists, so that research conducted on issues such as campus rape and reproductive rights can be translated into action. Academic types are not always the best at translating their ideas into the real world. Kimmel’s knack for reaching wider audiences with humor and catchy one-liners is unusual. (And a bit controversial: Some rivals call it a “merchandized approach to men’s studies.”) For sure, sociologists don’t usually get to hobnob with Sandberg and Rosanna Arquette, as Kimmel does at a Thursday-night press scrum, or wrangle proclamations in honor of their conference — an academic conference! — from the mayor. Kimmel’s wife, Fordham University media professor Amy Aronson, carries in the “International Conference on Masculinities Week” proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Does it shout you out?” asks Zachary, now 16, as they skim the long-winded text.
“No, but it has ‘Gloria Steinem’ and ‘Roe v. Wade’ in it,” Kimmel says, sounding pleased.
Kimmel’s work ranges widely, from scholarly tomes such as “Manhood in America: A Cultural History” and the “Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis,” which he co-edited, to more accessible books like “Guyland” and “Angry White Men,” which attempted to understand the “aggrieved entitlement” of men left behind by a changing economy and an evolving culture. Kimmel has thoughts on everything manly and unmanly, from Jack Palance’s one-armed push-ups to what he claims is the direct relationship between the degree to which a sport reveals male athletes’ bodies and the likelihood that sport will have cheerleaders — who, he claims, act as a kind of sanitizing force for any latent homoeroticism the audience might feel.
Whoa. Sociologists, man.
Kimmel’s background is as an activist, and he wants not just research but policy changes. (“Yemen offers paid parental leave!” he exclaims. “Come on! What’s wrong with us?!”) At the University of California at Berkeley, in the mid ’70s, he was writing his dissertation on 17th-century tax policy in France and England while his girlfriend worked at a domestic violence shelter as part of her own dissertation. Kimmel drove their VW bus on escape missions when battered women needed help leaving home. That experience changed him indelibly. He remembers a woman with a swollen face saying, “Sometimes I deserve it, but this time I didn’t.”
Kimmel asked his girlfriend if he could volunteer at the shelter, too. “You have a natural constituency of half the human race,” she replied. “Go talk to them.” He became an activist, and a few years later, began teaching classes on masculinity. He wanted to understand why, for instance, men beat women, and how to change the beliefs and social forces and laws that fueled them. The way he and other male feminists see it, it can’t fall on women alone to make men better.
Kimmel is deeply optimistic. For a few decades, he says, there was a lag where men’s conception of masculinity seemed stuck in amber even as they helped out more around the house. But recently he’s seen a shift toward more egalitarian attitudes and more acceptance of homosexuality among millennial guys — a change in the “ideology of masculinity.”
If that’s the case, then the men here, many of them young, are several steps beyond the modern bro, and into the future. They use phrases like “5,000 years of patriarchy.” Two men hug, and it’s not one of those macho Obama-style half-hugs. Another refers to his “partner,” gender-neutral-style, and he could just as well be straight as gay. These are subtle things, but the way attendees here see it, culture is made up of countless tiny cues, and a man crying in public amounts to a political act.
This gathering is also pretty wonky; it can’t help it, with this many academics in the room. In addition to panels on fatherhood, homophobia and men’s health, there are scheduled discussions on “De-Linking the Phallus as a Symbol of Power From the Body as Lived” and “Bronies and the Discursive Construction of Abject Masculinity Online.” And some talk about men needing to be careful not to wind up mansplaining feminism to women.
But the real mission of these four days is explaining why feminism should appeal to men. After all, if the patriarchy confers benefits, why would guys give it up? Appeals to fairness are not enough, it seems; the current vogue is to persuade men their lives will be better if women have more freedom and better jobs and work-life balance.
Kimmel is convinced history is on his side. In the early ’80s, masculinity courses were rare, and now the topic rates eight scholarly journals. In 2017, Kimmel’s new center is slated to start offering a master’s degree in masculinity studies, the first he knows of in the world. If it remains to be seen whether self-proclaimed feminists like Beyoncé and John Legend can resurrect the F-word, let alone make it safe for men, Kimmel’s not sure it matters.
“On campuses a lot of my colleagues are very concerned with the phrase, ‘I’m not a feminist, but — ’ ” he says. “I want to focus on the part that says, ‘But — I happen to agree with absolutely everything they say.’ Because that, to me, is the opening. I don’t care what you call yourself.”
Copeland is a freelance writer.