I started reflecting on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Washington Square Press, 2004), and it got kind of long. So, here’s part 1!
In all the “super chill book reviews” I’ve done so far (and I believe I’ve done twenty now in total—check ‘em out here if you like), I haven’t written yet about any of bell hooks’ books. In the last year or so, I’ve read All About Love: New Visions, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, and, mostly recently, The Will to Change.
bell hooks is one of those authors I’d heard about and seen quoted a lot before I ever actually read any of her stuff. I’m very glad I started reading. Because quotable quotes are great, but they don’t begin to scratch the surface. There’s so much depth, so much insight, so much courage, so much omg that’s still true a couple decades later and I wish it weren’t but I’m glad she named it so directly and brilliantly.
There’s also, at least for me, some I don’t know if I fully agree with that, but I’m glad she said it, because there’s definitely something there worth talking about. This is also valuable.
So, here are some thoughts on The Will to Change, just because that’s the book I’ve read most recently—but I’d recommend them all. (And maybe there’s a bell hooks book—or something else related to these topics—I haven’t read yet that you’d recommend. If so, I’d love to hear!)
1) I was interested in how bell hooks writes about the separatist impulse that can sometimes arise in feminism. Personally, I haven’t really been involved in any separatist movements (is that still a thing, or is it more tied to the second wave feminism of a few decades ago?), but I do very much appreciate women-only spaces.
I sometimes find men frustrating—certainly not all men all the time, but many men, much of the time. I really enjoy the chances I have to seek friendship, mentoring, perspective, advice, etc. from women. I think this is all good.
At the same time, hooks writes, “It is a fiction of false feminism that we women can find our power in a world without men, in a world where we deny our connections to men. We claim our power fully only when we can speak the truth that we need men in our lives, that men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not, that we need men to challenge patriarchy, that we need men to change” (xv-xvi).
I definitely agree that “men are in our lives whether we want them to be or not.” And, of course, even though I’m very frustrated with the way many men often act, especially in groups and/or in positions of power, I also have connections with men that I value deeply.
And so, I appreciate hooks’ perspective: the point isn’t necessarily to build female power apart from men, but to speak our truth about the ways we want to see men change—for our good, and for their good too.
2) This was an “oof” for me:
“The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture really does not care if men are unhappy. When females are in emotional pain, the sexist thinking that says that emotions should and can matter to women makes it possible for most of us to at least voice our heart, to speak it to someone, whether a close friend, a therapist, or the stranger sitting next to us on a plane or bus. Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the manly response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away…
The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, ‘Please do not tell us what you feel’” (5-6).
For any men out there—I’m curious how you’d respond to this. It kind of feels right to me, but…it’s not exactly my lived experience.
When I read this, I thought about Brené Brown’s research and reflections on how men are shamed above all else for being (perceived as) weak—and how many men want to be more in touch with their emotions and more vulnerable in sharing their feelings with their loved ones, but their partners sometimes shame them for doing so. (Unfortunately I’m not totally sure which Brené Brown book this was in—maybe I Thought It Was Just Me?)
I wonder if men today sometimes get a mixed message—“it’s okay to feel feelings, I want to know what’s going on, you don’t have to hide it and be so stoic,” but also “oh, you have that feeling? I’m surprised by that and don’t know what to do with it, so I’m going to laugh at you or criticize you for it, or respect you less because you shared that with me.” Or something like that.
It was helpful for me to hear bell hooks frame this expectation of stoicism in terms of patriarchal thinking that harms us all. Being deeply concerned with women’s experiences and committed to calling out ways women are not regarded as fully human does not have to be at odds with paying attention to men’s pain, hearing how men are hurting, caring about their unhappiness.
Really, these things go together. Each gender’s different ways of becoming liberated from oppressive patriarchal norms help liberate us all.
3) hooks writes, “Despite the contemporary visionary feminist thinking that makes clear that a patriarchal thinker need not be male, most folks continue to see men as the problem of patriarchy. This is simply not the case. Women can be as wedded to patriarchal thinking and action as men…
Patriarchal thinking shapes the values of our culture. We are socialized into this system, females as well as males” (23).
I always appreciate—and, to be honest, often need to be reminded of—a hearty distinction between maleness and patriarchy. hooks has some helpful ways of writing about this.
She is very clear that the issue is “patriarchal thinking,” and it’s a “system” we’re all “socialized into.” Women and men are impacted by it in different ways, and liberation from it looks different depending on gender (and other things)—but we all need to consciously choose to reject patriarchy, to divest from it, to change.
That’s all for now. More to come next week! I welcome your thoughts, as always. I know gender and patriarchy and masculinity are such complicated things, and I bet you have thoughts and/or feelings. I’d love to hear them (and will attempt to throw my subconscious expectations of stoicism out the window!).