WHEN ACCLAIMED AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST MATT HAIG announced on Twitter in June that he was thinking of writing a book on masculinity, the first comment he received was, “oh the things white cisgender heteronormative dude writers say…. That is so adorable.” After clarifying that the book would critically examine “toxic masculinity,” culminating in the point that “men benefit more than women from sexism, but both would be better off with feminism,” he was accused of “mansplaining feminism” and told that “feminism doesn’t exist to help males. Period.” One woman tweeted, “I think Matt Haig should stop talking about feminism now. Somebody stop him, please.” After only a few hundred characters, Haig was shut down.
On his blog in September, Haig announced that, due to the vitriolic reaction from some of the commenters, he will not be writing the book.
We need more, not less, conversation around the harms of masculine norms – including how they harm men. In the UK, 79% of suicides are committed by men; in 2013, the number of male suicides was at a 15-year high, whereas suicide rates among women have been steadily declining. Figures in the U.S. are similar. Men are less likely to express their pain or seek help. And it’s killing them.
Masculine norms don’t only hurt the men pressured to fulfill them; they perpetuate violence and oppression. A recent survey of 600 American men found that those who were stressed about not meeting what they perceived as expectations of male gender norms were 348% more likely to have participated in an assault that caused injury. Another study found that men whose masculinity was threatened expressed more homophobic attitudes and support for war. In another study, researchers found a correlation between hostility toward women and men’s stress levels surrounding their own masculinity as well as their adherence to the belief that men should be tough and rigidly independent.
This growing body of research supports what common sense already suggests. The pressure to adopt and perform traditional masculine behaviors and attitudes can destroy the lives of men, harm the people around them, and perpetuate the oppression of women. That we need to talk about masculinity is pretty clear.
But the response to Haig’s proposed book raises the questions: How should that conversation go? And who should do the talking?
Mychal Denzel Smith, writing for Feministing, expresses what he sees as the problem with the conversations about male suffering that he often hears among advocates and activists: “My issue is that masculinity acts as [an] oppressive force, and any conversation about oppression that leaves out the oppressed is not one I find worth having. What masculinity does to heterosexual cis men is important to discuss, but what it does to everyone else, especially women, is far more important.”
As I understand him, Smith makes a few arguments in these two sentences. One is that conversations about the oppressive force of masculinity should include a discussion about how it impacts women. The second is that, if conversations don’t do that, they are useless. Third, Smith says that the discussion of women’s oppression should not only be included in discussions of toxic masculinity, but should be front and center.
Within feminist circles where people are working toward equality, as Smith was describing, a conversation about male suffering that fails to acknowledge how masculinity plays into a broader system of sex-based oppression falls short. As Smith points out, the impact of toxic masculinity on women won’t likely be resolved if the issue is only addressed with men’s suffering in view.
However, I think Smith’s language reinforces a problematically rigid distinction between dominant group and oppressed group that makes the suffering of men a side issue of comparably little importance. And that could serve to limit conversations involving men and their experiences of harm.
Intersectionality brings the hope of acknowledging that even people with privilege can be oppressed in various ways. At the same time, re-centering — that is, putting the concerns and voices of a dominant group at the center — is a behavior that we should be wary of. There’s some tension between the generosity of intersectionality and the concern with re-centering. Sometimes the intersectional lens gets lost when it comes to listening to people’s experiences, and the fear of re-centering gets us thinking we should only listen to people who are the most marginalized, and that only the harm done to them really matters. This can have a marginalizing effect in turn – by suggesting men’s suffering is insignificant, or barely significant, in view of what women face, and that men’s voices aren’t needed. This may alienate men from engaging in conversations about toxic masculinity – either by their own fear of re-centering or by being silenced. And that’s a real problem, because these norms cannot be fully understood, dismantled, and replaced by something better without the voices, experiences, and work of the men expected to enact them.
As for conversations about masculinity between feminists and non-feminists, particularly non-feminist men (who may have comprised a large portion of Matt Haig’s readers), I think we should not expect or demand that women’s oppression be front and center, especially not initially. Even though Haig expressed a desire to incorporate the broader themes of feminism and women’s oppression into his book, it seems that making the effects of masculinity on men the central theme is what sparked derision from many commenters. For those of us immersed in feminism, it can be easy to forget that, for some, male privilege and female oppression are not readily apparent. For such individuals, particularly men who are experiencing the oppressive impact of masculine norms, the requirement that women’s oppression be treated as worse and as most important from the get-go can be an insurmountable obstacle to the project in the first place.
A conversation critical of gender norms, starting with the person’s own experiences, can serve as a point of access to feminist discourse. Then a path is open for conversations about the role of masculine norms in a broader system of women’s oppression and the importance of feminism, with its work of dismantling such norms. It is important to get to these broader matters, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to demand that they be front and center from the beginning, especially when we’re trying to bring people into the movement. Placing rigid demands and taboos on the conversation of toxic masculinity can inhibit progress, harming both men and women.
Re-centering is a thing. Points of access are a thing, too. Male privilege is a thing. Male suffering is, too. Having a male ally like Haig give credence to the extent of male suffering while making the feminist case for a general readership would have been a valuable counterpoint to the conclusions drawn from male suffering by the men’s rights movement — conclusions men are more likely to come to if a vocal minority of feminists tell them to stop whining about their “suffering.” Let’s not allow a constant focus on who’s worse off to mistake a discussion about male suffering for a dismissal of women’s oppression, or the inclusion of men’s well-being into feminism for a co-opting thereof.