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by Judith Kegan Gardiner
Columbia University Press, 2002
Review by Glenda M. Russell, Ph.D. on Apr 7th 2003

Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory

The whole notion of masculinity studies may conjure up images of masculine protests to women’s studies and feminism in general and, more specifically, images expressing a need on the part of some men to reassert masculine privilege in the face of women’s critiques of gender relationships in society.  The reader who approaches Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions with such images in mind is in for a surprise.  This edited volume on masculinity studies offers a very different approach—one that does not fight with feminism but complements and extends feminism even as it challenges some feminist premises.  The volume of fourteen essays represents a broad base of approaches to understanding masculinity that collectively inquire and provoke (in the best sense of that word), all the while offering new understandings of masculinity that are at once complex and accessible.  The volume is marked by a commitment to enact an observation made by one of the authors, Calvin Thomas: “To leave masculinity unstudied, to proceed as if it were somehow not a form of gender, is to leave it naturalized, and thus to render it less permeable to change” (p. 61). 

The fourteen essays in the book bring a critical approach to studying gender by focusing on constructions of masculinity.  Generally, these authors’ view of masculinity has much in common with Michael Kimmel’s view, as expressed in his foreword to the book: “masculinity studies is a significant outgrowth of feminist studies and an ally to its older sister in a complex and constantly shifting relationship” (p. ix).  This observation should not be taken to mean that there is a high degree of agreement among the book’s contributors.  In fact, considerable breadth of approach can be found in the essays.  Most of the essays are arranged in pairs; each pair of essays focuses on the same phenomenon but each member of the pair approaches it in a decidedly different fashion.   These essays address such areas as the relationship between feminism and theories of masculinity, developmental/historical influences, teaching masculinity, the academy and masculinity studies, masculinity and psychoanalytic thought, masculinities and racialized and national identities, and female masculinity.

If there is one thing with which nearly every author in the volume agrees, it is that there is a crisis around issues of masculinity.  Most would also agree that this crisis is not altogether a bad thing.  The crisis offers challenges to old renditions of masculinity, thereby opening the possibility for new ways of thinking and even behaving—although there is far less emphasis on behaving, on the possibilities for enactment that flow from new understandings, than there is on these understandings themselves.

Editor Judith Kegan Gardiner has brought together a collection of essays that challenge the gender binary found in essentialist notions of gender.  Just as importantly—perhaps more so—her collection challenges the binary that casts people as victims and victimizers, a binary that has hampered many movements for liberation, particularly movements that are vulnerable to the simplistic but appealing pull for identity politics.  These essays neither ignore the power of the would-be victim position nor are they seduced by the constraints of the victimizer position.  Instead, the authors, taken collectively, insist that we are all in this soup together, all of us expressing “masculine” and “feminine” possibilities, all of us caught in the reified gender binary, and all of us capable of challenging it at the same time.  The book is a satisfying read, rarely lapsing into pedantic or jingoistic language.  I kept hoping for an essay that would directly address the question of transgender issues; my desire had more to do with how well the authors in the book succeeded at taking on tough issues than with any failing on the part of the book itself.

In sum, this is a very fine volume, far more interesting than its title implies.  Its essays stayed with me, inviting me back, unsettling me in good ways, and offering me expanded notions of gender.

           

© 2003 Glenda M. Russell

Glenda M. Russell, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Associate and Project Director at the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies in Amherst, Massachusetts.  A psychologist and an activist, she is the author of Voted Out: Psychological Consequences of Anti-Gay Politics and co-author, with Janis S. Bohan, of Conversations About Psychology and Sexual Orientation.

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