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Talking in Circles About Masculinity

Patriarchy-laden panel embarks on "fool's errand"

by Laura Shepherd

What are the characteristics of "manhood"? Perhaps more importantly, who cares? Just let the kids be. [Photo: via flickr]
What are the characteristics of "manhood"? Perhaps more importantly, who cares? Just let the kids be. [Photo: via flickr]

How do we cultivate non-toxic masculinity?

If you planned to attend the panel discussion, Building Boys, Raising Men: Masculinity in the 21st Century at Sharr Shalom Synagogue, March 24, you may have thought the above question would be central to the discussion.

If you did attend, you know the panel never really got past the question, “What is masculinity?”

It was, to be sure, a large panel. Organized by the evening’s host, Shaar Shalom Rabbi Ari Isenberg-Grzeda, panelists included Russell Daye of the Atlantic School of Theology; Robert Marchand, Headmaster of Fountain School (the province’s lone boys-only private school); Chike Jeffers, Dalhousie Philosophy professor; Jacqueline Warwick, Music and Gender/Women’s Studies professor; and Sheena Jamieson, longtime Youth Project staffer. CBC Radio personality Stephanie Domet moderated the panel.

Each panelist offered introductory comments – a lengthy procedure given the panel size. Jacqueline Warwick referenced the patriarchy in relation to the reframing of masculinity. Chike Jeffers, the panel’s only person of colour, elaborated, asserting that any effort to explore and reposition masculinity, “…Must come with some kind of commitment to dismantling patriarchy.” He concluded his opening remarks by re-framing the central question, “How do we articulate problems of men and boys without centring them, and without repeating the models of patriarchy?”

In contrast, the white men on the panel (two clergy and an educator) spoke of promoting the positive qualities of ‘manhood’ – a goal that sounds worthwhile until you actually try to define what characteristics and traits embody “manhood” (or any other gendered matrix of traits, for that matter).

That’s where the panel went awry.

We know, for example, that the system of power and privilege that underpins patriarchy, and the cultivated behaviours which sustain it, are problematic. So why not explore the behaviours which sustain patriarchy, as it is that system, and not men, per se, that is the root of inequality?

Rather, the panel appears to have satisfied itself with defining the problem and perhaps ignoring it in the process.

The clergy present – a Christian and a Jew – are leaders of religions whose doctrines themselves establish and reinforce patriarchy. Similarly, many educational administrators see themselves in part as arbiters of values. Principal Marchand several times referenced the imperative that “good men protect the weak”.

Thus, the panel found itself trying to define masculinity – a fool’s errand. The same traits and characteristics, taken in isolation, that panelists cited as inherently male or masculine are in reality human traits, assigned one cultural meaning when engaged in by men, and another meaning when engaged in by others. The arbiter is not masculinity or one’s relationship to it; the arbiter is the relationship to the system of inequity we call ‘patriarchy’.

One theme emerging from the comments was the problematic popular cultural depiction of the Father as a clown - ineffectual, buffoonish and full of bad jokes.

Jacqueline Warwick reminded those too young for 1950s and 1960s television that such depictions are relatively recent, citing I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver and others. Warwick asked the audience to imagine The Simpsons with Marge as the buffoon and Lisa as the chronically underachieving child.

In recounting research findings, Warwick noted: “Most children’s self-esteem suffers when they see TV. The exception are able-bodied white boys,” who see themselves reflected in the protagonist’s roles. A consequence is that such boys are “not trained to relate to other genders, races, classes.”

Chike Jeffers concluded his opening remarks by re-framing the central question, “How do we articulate problems of men and boys without centring them, and without repeating the models of patriarchy?”

Youth Project educator, Sheen Jamieson, spoke of her experience with students in public schools. A common exercise she does is to ask students in elementary school to list the things “they are supposed to like” because of their gender. Whatever the student’s actual likes or dislikes, Jamieson noted, “they all know the list.” At the same time, we all occupy spaces where we do not fit. Jamieson pointedly concluded by noting: “The hardest thing to be is a boy who likes things on the girls’ list.”

In the final introductory comment, host Rabbi Ari Isenberg-Grzeda noted that: “Our boys live in a world where messages leave a lot to be desired.” He then explained the blessings bestowed upon boy and girl children every Friday, noting one might expect the boys’ prayer to emulate Abraham, Moses and the patriarchs.

Instead, he said, the prayer translates as, “May you be like Ephraim and Menacha”. The Rabi explained the reference, humorously noting the two “were the first pair of Biblical brothers who got along”, and perhaps more importantly the first Israelites to have lived the entirety of their lives outside Israel (in Egypt) yet preserved the integrity of their religious and ethnic identities. The point, he said, is to model behaviours that lead to harmonic community and family relations, requiring a range of approaches and responses.

The panel may have been well-intentioned but it missed the mark because the men who organized and dominated the discussion clung to erroneous and problematic belief that it is productive to talk about masculinity largely apart from power, privilege, and patriarchy.

It is not.

Moderator Stephanie Domet offered headline-like questions rather than critical and probing ones, asking, for example , “Why don’t we give boys and men more credit?” This only served to reinforce the guessing game over gendered traits, which, after an hour, wore thin. Many are tired of having to thank white male patriarchs for entering into a discussion of patriarchy, especially when it bogs down in the circular that attempts to impose a gender essentialism on and inventory of behaviours.

After several questions explored the same maze, without much progress, Jacqueline Warwick opined: “As long as we’re entrenched in a gender binary, it’s a zero-sum game. Men over here. Women over there. Nothing in between. It’s depressing how quickly we return to that.”

Theologian Russell Daye offered that masculinity and femininity are “particular forms of vitality,” noting that the roster of potential role models includes those who embody “the best of both characteristics”. But no one could pinpoint what those characteristics are.

Audience member Dr. John LeBlanc, a paediatrician, introduced biology, noting the common phrase, “Biology is destiny”, and the discussion swirled even more around polar notions of binary gender oppositeness.

It came as a mercy cut – a coup de grace - when a self-identified two-spirited indigenous speaker bluntly stated, “I don’t understand the language you are using,” then politely reminded the audience of the spectral nature of gender in most societies.


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Topics: Gender
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