On “Guyland,” and how Michael Kimmel has some catching up to do

Today I finished reading Michael Kimmel’s book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. I wrote a previous post calling out Kimmel for his failure to speak out for women as valuable human beings, blaming this failure primarily on his choice to narrate his book from the perspective of the (awful) men he’s depicting. Now, though, I’m not sure that’s the only reason.

Kimmel has moments in this book where behind his progressive pro-feminist front, his lingering chauvinist ideology peeks through. In his chapter on sports, he tells us that:

For decades girls had heard that sports was where it was at, the same way that their mothers heard that the workplace was where real life happened. And so, naturally, if those fields were the place to be, they wanted to be there too. (p. 136)

Obviously, girls want to play sports because boys play sports. Also, women want to get jobs because that’s what men do. In his view, women are drawn to historically male-dominated areas by some sort of “anything you can do I can do better” drive, as opposed to actually, maybe, wanting to do those things. In the very chapter where he tells us that women are under-represented and under-supported in sports, he makes this patronizing assumption that the only reason women play sports in the first place is because men taught them that sports are “where it’s at” (and by the way, when’s the last time you heard anyone use the phrase “where it’s at?”).

In a more generalized sense, Kimmel feeds us his chauvinism through gently pushing traditional gender roles as his ideal solution to the “Guy Code” problem. Though he’ll usually backtrack, reminding us that single-parent or same-sex-couple households are just as capable of raising healthy well-rounded people (p. 274), his overall arguments rely on traditional heterosexual parenting. Mothers, he tells us, represent “compassion, empathy, love, and nurturance” (p.20), and fathers must teach their sons how to be real men, with “honor and integrity [...] responsibility and accountability and self-respect” (p. 277-278). I’m really not comfortable with the pioneer of masculinity studies falling back on such dated views of what men and women are, and ought to be, like. Of course, mothers nurture their children, but so should fathers. And the reverse is equally true. A father absolutely should teach his children accountability and self-respect: and so should a mother. It’s not a woman’s job to teach a man to be “vulnerable” or “open about [his] feelings” (p. 275), because to place her in that role is to teach that man that vulnerability and emotion are feminine traits. Though Kimmel’s argument is to encourage young men to bond with their mothers, by assigning these traits to the female parent he is perpetuating stereotypes about how men and women treat their emotions. If the author’s goal is to encourage emotional openness and maturity in young men, the way to achieve it is by either/both gendered parents teaching these values so that he will not see emotions as gendered traits. 

Those are the more innocuous of his frustrating chauvinist comments. The more infuriating is the way in which he lumps sexual assault into the overall grouping of “dumb things guys do because they don’t want to grow up,” on par with hazing, binge drinking, or online poker. After explaining a “Social Norms” program, (wherein college students drinking levels have been successfully reduced by clarifying students’ ideas on how much is a “normal” amount of drinking, and thus allowing them to not feel like they have to “keep up” with anyone) he suggests implementing similar programs to reduce “hazing or sexual assault” (p. 287). To lay that out a little more clearly, Kimmel just suggested that a good way to reduce the instances of sexual assault on college campuses is to teach guys that not as many people are doing it as they think. It’s ok, you don’t have to rape that drunk girl, because your friends aren’t all doing it! Great!

Or, for a better example of not treating sexual assault like the real crime it is, here’s a nice bit of nostalgia from Kimmel’s boyhood days:

If she says no, keep going. If she pushes your hand away, keep going. You only stop if she hits you. [...] I followed it assiduously, although, alas, not especially successfully. [...] In the years since, of course, the rules have changed. Completely. My generation’s “dating etiquette” is now called sexual assault. You can’t keep going if she says no. You can’t keep going if she says stop. You can’t keep going if she pushes your hand away, or if she hits you. Today, guys know that the rules are completely different. (p. 217-218)

Oh, those good old days when women didn’t have rights. Never does Kimmel say that the things he learned as a boy were wrong. He doesn’t once say “I can’t believe I ever thought such awful misogynistic things.” He simply says the rules have changed. You can’t just go around raping women anymore. His only regret is that he never got to do it himself before the rules changed. He really and truly uses the word “alas” to express his regret at never forcing himself on a woman. I’m sorry, Mr Kimmel, but the rules aren’t different. Your buddies back in the 60′s were little rapists in the making, and you were complicit. You believed it, you followed it, and you don’t express once that every one of you was absolutely wrong. On the very next page, he tells the story of a college guy raping a semiconscious girl:

[...]one time this girl was so drunk she was near passed out, and I kind of dragged her into my room and had sex with her. When she sort of came to a little bit, she was really upset and started crying and asked why I had done that. [...] it was because, well, because I was drunk and wanted to get laid. And she was, like, there. (p. 219)

This is a completely clear case of rape that Kimmel chooses to describe as a “gray area,” and when he does call it assault, he puts it in softening quotation marks. Having sex with an unconscious woman is rape. It’s not a gray area. It’s not “assault,” it’s assault. That man should have been arrested, and if Kimmel had any decency he would find a way to encourage that victim to press charges.

What Michael Kimmel set out to do with his book is a good thing. It truly is. There are a swarm of entitled, privileged, heterosexual white young cis-men in the world doing incredibly stupid things, and not learning to recognize other human beings as agents with rights. This is bad. He was hoping, by delving into this culture, explaining it, and exposing it, to help subvert it. The trouble is, he is coming from a perspective that is too stereotypical, heteronormative, protofeminist, and just plain dated. If he wants to really help raise idiotic, cruel, entitled young men into worthwhile adults, he needs to catch up on becoming a worthwhile adult himself, and what that means in a world where feminism has evolved so far that some people are even calling us postfeminist.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I actually agree with Kimmel on his description of violence against women as “childish” — for the same reason I view violence in general as childish. I’m mostly pulling this argument out of “A Clockwork Orange”… and the full, unabridged UK version with the 21st chapter, at that… in that committing acts of violence shows the perpetrator as immature, either because something angers them and instead of having the maturity and composure to mount an argument, they just skip straight to throwing punches or pulling out weapons, or because they lose control and instead of being grown-up enough to accept it, they decide to hurt someone to “regain” control.

    For that reason, I honestly think the argument that assault and rape are behaviors practiced by childish, not fully mature people COULD be used as a way to combat violence against women — we could use it to DEMEAN rapists, to reevaluate the culture. Like the anti-rape posters which will say things like “Real Men Don’t Force” — something along those lines. Now, Kimmel… he was so close, but then he fell back on the immaturity argument with a “Oh, boys will be boys” attitude, and that ruined it.

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