On Teaching Inequality, Privilege, and Masculinities

13 Jan

With the Spring semester about to begin, I am deep in “course prep” mode. This semester I will be teaching American Society, a staple in the sociology department. I generally teach this class as a course on inequality, specifically debunking the myth that our society is a classless, egalitarian society. I divide the course into four segments on class, race, gender, and sexuality, with the final component of each segment working to tie these categories together and introduce students to the theory of intersectionality. We explore how science, medicine, family, religion, popular culture, media, education, and public policies (like marriage, health care, and immigration law) both create and propagate inequality. And we talk about whether institutions like these, which are often used to preserve the status quo, can instead be used to fight inequality. By the end of the semester, students are able to explain how social identity categories operate in the United States, and accurately link these categories to existing problems of inequality. It is my favorite course to teach, and generally students seem to enjoy the provocative discussions that emerge out of the readings and lectures.

This term, however, I am prepping the class in the midst of writing my dissertation, specifically a chapter documenting the men’s movement in the United States. This movement is comprised of diverse groups with different, often contradictory, goals. For example, the profeminist men’s movement works alongside feminist organizations, and aims to change masculinity in ways that improve the lives of both women and men. Profeminist men are well known for their work engaging men in anti-rape and anti-violence causes (for example,the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, or NOMAS). But not all of the strands of the men’s movement share these politics. Some, called the mythopoetic men’s movement (like the ManKind Project), are decidedly apolitical, advocating instead for personal, psychological growth and change. These men believe that changes in modern society have left men struggling, searching for decent role models of “true” masculine behavior. The solution for them is not necessarily working for social change, but helping men develop more fulfilling identities and relationships. And finally, there is the men’s rights (or men’s human rights) contingent (like A Voice for Men and the National Coalition for Men, or NCFM). This wing of the movement is highly conservative and reactionary. They see modern social changes, especially those brought about by feminism and other civil rights movements, as the cause of a great many ills for American men. They believe that the tables have turned so dramatically in our society, that now women have advantages over men. Issues tackled by these groups run the gamut: from concerns about false rape allegations and coercive military draft policies, to the unfairness of “ladies’ nights” and men’s lower health quality. The solution for these organizations is enacting legal and policy changes, especially through litigation. While they do not share goals or tactics, one thing they all share is a belief that current iterations of masculinity are limiting and fail to represent the diversity of men’s needs and desires.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with my class. Well, I like to push students to see inequality not just as a disabling force, but also an enabling one. In other words, while inequality is disadvantaging for many, it persists because it seems to “work” for a small (but powerful) few. But inequality is bad for everyone—this is a big message in my class. Highly unequal societies are less healthy and happy societies overall. That means that it is disadvantaging even for those who also benefit from it. Studying the men’s movement pushes me to think about ways to teach inequality that highlight its schizophrenic nature. Inequality is not just about those on the bottom rung, it also about each privileged step up the ladder. Even those in power are often unhappy, as evidenced by the men’s movement.

So when I teach gender inequality, I begin with what students expect: namely, with the assertion that ours is a male dominated society. That means that the qualities we value in one’s character, in leadership positions, in the public sphere generally, are those qualities associated with masculinity. Masculinity reaps rewards—we can see this in the gender wage gap, among other things. But then I go further. Whose masculinity reaps rewards, I ask? Upper class, white, heterosexual men’s masculinity is the masculinity that pays. That leaves out most men. Moreover, masculinity demands much from men, sometimes much more than it repays.

My favorite example is (American) football (see some great posts on the topic here, here, and here). It is definitively American and blatantly masculine. It creates heroes of its players, and provides fame and fortune. But, it is a warlike sport that ravages men’s bodies. Men battle on the field to demonstrate their physical ability, their courage, their competitiveness, just as in society where men compete with one another for dates, promotions, etc., all of which rests on their masculine performance. But this performance can be grueling. For football players, it brings broken bones, chronic pain, and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a condition in the brain, produced by repeated sub-concussive trauma, leading to early onset dementia, mood disorders, and memory loss. In society, the price men pay may not be as obvious as the scars and bruises that football causes; men pay for their privilege in shorter life spans (often attributed to risk-taking behaviors like fast driving and drinking, and lifestyle choices like eating red meat), stunted emotional development, and a lack of fulfilling relationships (because the characteristics that make good businessmen do not always make good friends or partners).

We do not have to turn to reactionary models like the men’s rights movement to make sense of why American men are unhappy and feel dissatisfied by their social roles, nor should we. We do not have to blame feminists or women for making things better for themselves, nor should we. In fact, any move toward greater social equality is good for everyone, even those whose power is threatened (or diminished). We can, however, take note of the facets of life where different groups (of men, of women, of immigrants, of workers, etc.) find flaws, and see how these flaws emerge out of unequal conditions. We will obviously find them among those most disadvantaged in society, but we will also discover them hidden behind social privilege. The solutions to these concerns will be found in dismantling structures of inequality.

How do you teach inequality? Have you discovered innovative ways to get students (at any level) to think about privilege and power? Or have you encountered resistance when teaching these topics, and if so, how do you manage that response?

Further Reading

Kimmel, Michael. 2013. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books.

Rothenberg, Paula. 2014. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. 9th Edition. New York: Worth Publishers. [this is the textbook I use for the class, which contains a variety of readings that lend themselves to the structure I’ve laid out]

And, for more on teaching and pedagogy, see Markus Gerke’s post here

Amanda Kennedy is a founder and editor of Masculinities 101. She is currently completing her PhD in Sociology at Stony Brook University.

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5 Responses to “On Teaching Inequality, Privilege, and Masculinities”

  1. genderneutrallanguage January 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    It sickens me that this is what is being taught in universities today.

    Based on your blind unfounded assertion that men are privliged, you dismiss the problems that men face. You are the new face of bigotry.

    • Amanda Kennedy January 15, 2014 at 10:14 am #

      Hi Genderneutrallanguage–I’m sorry that you feel that way, but I think you didn’t read my post thoroughly (perhaps having made the unfounded assumption that I’m a bigot blinded you to my point).
      My argument was first, that most men don’t experience the feeling of male privilege/power because the real power is held by a small minority of men (rich, white, heterosexual, native-born etc.). Second, I also argued that that power costs men a lot. What I said was that we should not dismiss the problems that men face; in fact, I devoted a good deal of space to some of those problems (relationships, health and life expectancy, general unhappiness). Where you and I disagree, I’m sure, is the causes of and solutions to those problems. I believe that men will benefit greatly from gender equality, especially from the solutions offered by feminists of color. Gender equality is good for everyone because, as I explain above, even privilege/power can be harmful to those who have it.

      • genderneutrallanguage January 15, 2014 at 11:00 am #

        You are just talking in circles now.

        Real power is held by a very small minority. Everyone else doesn’t have real power. Men as a group do not have power.

        What you said was that feminism, advocacy for women’s rights, benefits for women, was the solution. If empowering women in relation to men is the solution, empowering men in relation to women is counter productive ie. solving the problems men face will just make things worse and we should shut up about it.

        Privilege/power can be harmful to those who have it. After 50 years of very successful activism by feminists, women are now in this position of privilege/power and it is very harmful to them. Feminism, more privlige/power for the privliged isn’t the solution, it is the problem.

  2. Cliff Leek January 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    Hey “genderneutrallanguage”, I must be honest and say that I truly have no idea what it is about this article that you are disagreeing with. You claim that feminism is the problem and seem to believe that Amanda wants men to “shut up” because “solving the problems men face will just make things worse”. I don’t see any of that in her post.

    Here is what I do see in her post:

    1. She argues that only some men (upper class straight white men) get the biggest rewards for being men even though we are all expected to still fulfill traditionally masculine roles that are often unhealthy for us

    2. She talks about how traditional notions of masculinity are actually unhealthy for men in a lot of ways and points to the negative health outcomes caused by football as an example of that.

    3. She argues that feminism is a potential solution to these problems because it pushes for broadening gender roles for everyone… giving both women AND men more options in terms of what roles we want fill in our lives.

    Which of these arguments do you disagree with and why?

    Also, you seem to define feminism in an incredibly narrow way that doesn’t actually reflect most feminists beliefs. Feminism isn’t simply about empowering women. Feminism is about transforming and broadening gender norms and roles so that people have more options to lead happy, healthy, and equitable lives. That means that just as feminists are about empowering women to take on roles that they have in the past be denied access to, they are also about empowering men to take on roles we have been denied access to as well. Do you know who the leaders are of the movement for men to get paternal leave? Feminists. Do you know who celebrates men when they defy traditional gender norms to do childcare or housework? Feminists. Boys and young men all over this country are often emotionally and physically bullied when they behave in ways that aren’t traditionally masculine. Do you know who is at the forefront of the anti-bullying movement and protecting men’s rights to defy traditional masculinity? Feminists.

    Please… tell me again… how is feminism bad for men? or women? or anyone for that matter.

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