This is part 2 (of 2) of some reflections on bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Here’s part 1 if you missed it or want a refresher.
The Will to Change was also very much on my mind as I was writing this essay, posted yesterday at Feminism & Religion: The People Who Have Always Had Questions. Check it out if you like.
Otherwise, since super chill book review thoughts #1-3 were in part 1, I’ll jump right back with…
4) I appreciate hooks’ clarity in laying out how exactly patriarchy harms men. It’s not only that everyone is harmed when women are prevented from flourishing fully, although this is true. It’s also that, in a world shaped by patriarchal thinking, men are subjected to violence, and they are expected to do violence to themselves. They are cut off from full humanity in their own way.
hooks explores the impact of patriarchy on boys during childhood; for example:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem” (66).
And she explores the impact of patriarchy on men during adulthood; for example:
“Men who win on patriarchal terms end up losing in terms of their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first foregoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others” (72).
I thought this was an interesting way of framing things. Men are pressured to compete and win patriarchal contests that are not actually good for them. There’s a toxic construction of masculinity that’s at odds with real “loving connection”—both self-love and love shared with others.
For men, divesting from patriarchy entails healing from the “psychic self mutilation” that is pushed on them from a young age.
I appreciate these perspectives, because I feel like sometimes we tend to think of justice in terms of one group with outsized power needing to hand some of this power over to those who haven’t had enough. But it’s not just that—it’s not just about men, or white folks, or other privileged groups giving up some of their privileges, although sometimes that needs to happen. It’s also about making a way for men (and white folks, etc.) to regain the fullness of their humanity—the self-esteem, the emotional richness, the loving connection, the love of self and others, all of which has been cut off by a violent system of domination that isn’t actually good for the ones trained to dominate.
5) I have a long quote for you. But at least it’s the last one? I would have made it shorter, but it’s just all so action packed…
“Many of the critics who have written about masculinity suggest that we need to do away with the term, that we need ‘an end to manhood.’ yet such a stance furthers the notion that there is something inherently evil, bad, or unworthy about maleness…
“There is a creative, life-sustaining, life-enhancing place for the masculine in a nondominator culture. And those of us committed to ending patriarchy can touch the hearts of real men where they live, not by demanding that they give up manhood or maleness, but by asking that they allow its meaning to be transformed, that they become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity in order to find a place for the masculine that does not make it synonymous with domination or the will to do violence.
“Patriarchal culture continues to control the hearts of men precisely because it socialized males to believe that without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being. Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others…
“To offer men a different way of being, we must first replace the dominator model with a partnership model that sees interbeing and interdependency as the organic relationship of all living beings. In the partnership model selfhood, whether one is female or male, is always at the core of one’s identity. Patriarchal masculinity teaches males to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent for self-definition on the privileges (however relative) that they receive from having been born male. Hence many males feel that their very existence is threatened if these privileges are taken away. In a partnership model male identity, like its female counterpart, would be centered around the notion of an essential goodness that is inherently relationally oriented. Rather than assuming that males are born with the will to aggress, the culture would assume that males are born with the inherent will to connect” (114-117).
Whew. That’s a lot. But there’s so much good stuff there.
I like this idea that we’re not looking for an end to manhood or masculinity, but an end to the patriarchal kind of manhood that harms people of all genders. We’re looking to transform the meaning of maleness.
We’re looking to “become disloyal to patriarchal masculinity,” to find a new “place for the masculine” and new ways of being men. We’re looking to “replace the dominator model with a partnership model”—with interdependency, interconnectedness, and a healthy sense of self esteem at its core. We’re looking to assume males are born with the desire and need for connection, mutuality, and love.
If you don’t mind a religious turn to a not-super-religious post so far, all these things—hooks’ visions of what a healthier, more life-and-love-affirming version of masculinity could look like—remind me of Jesus.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus’ maleness is an interesting thing. God is not exactly male or female, but when God took on human flesh, that flesh was male. Some people use this fact to suggest that God was showing God’s preference for masculinity, perhaps demonstrating the naturalness and rightness of male authority in the world. Jesus’ maleness has often been among the arguments used to support solely male priesthood or solely male pastoral leadership.
What if, instead, Jesus’ maleness was meant to call forth a better kind of masculinity—better than that of the patriarchal cultures Jesus was born into, and better than what we see in today’s patriarchal cultures as well? If any man was disloyal to the ways of domination—rejecting power plays, remaining true to his core self, partnering with others, respecting and loving others at every turn, always speaking peace and moving toward healing—surely it was the God-man who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45). The one who made sure everyone was fed. The one who made sure women knew they could be disciples as equals alongside men (Luke 10:38-42). The one who did not use his equality with God to his own advantage but embodied humility in every fiber of his being (Phil 2:5-11).
Perhaps as we imagine healthier ways of being male—and just being human—in this world, we can look to the gospel stories. (And we can notice how at odds all of this is with the patriarchal evangelical masculinity Kristin Kobes Du Mez did such a great job of detailing in Jesus and John Wayne—super chill book review here and here.)
Well, as always, there’s a lot more that could be said. But I’ll leave it here, for now anyway. bell hooks has some hard-hitting words, and you might be thinking some thoughts and/or feeling some feelings. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about it!