What Does the Men’s Rights Movement Really Want?
“We can’t come off as a bunch of angry white men.”
—Robert Bennett, chair of the Ohio Republican Party
One of the enduring legacies of the 2012 presidential election was the demise of the American male voter as a dominant force on the political landscape. The evening Barack Obama was reelected, a distressed Bill O’Reilly lamented that he no longer lived in “a traditional America anymore.” His voice was part of a chorus bellowing its grief over talk radio airwaves, the traditional bastion of angry white men. Why were they so angry? Voice Male contributing editor and sociologist Michael Kimmel, who has long been recognized for his study of men andmasculinity, spent hundreds of hours with angry white men—from men’s rights activists to white supremacists— in pursuit of an answer. The result is his latest book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (Nation Books, 2013). It is Kimmel’s comprehensive diagnosis of angry white men’s fears, anxieties, and rage. What follows is an excerpt.
Is there method to their madness, some coherent set of policy issues, changes in relationships, shifts in gender roles that men’s rights activists want? The “Good Men Project”—a website that purports to be for such self-described “good men” but shows remarkable sympathy for antifeminist diatribes (alongside some pro-equality content)—recently conducted a survey of its readers to find out the Top 10 issues that incite MRA passion. The number one issue was Fathers’ Rights, which garnered 20 percent of the total votes. It was followed by:
2. “Feminism”—it has “harmed men.”
3. “Anti-Male Double Standards” like this one: “An adult man has a relationship with a younger teenage girl? He’s a disgusting pedophile. A teenage guy with an adult woman? She’s lauded and called a cougar—it’s considered hot.”
4. “Removing the Notion that All Men are Potential Rapists/Pedophiles”— reminding the public that rapists are few, and bad, and do not represent the entire male gender.
5. “Reproductive Rights”—complaints that there is no male pill, or that men have no “right to choose.” “There are countless options for women, and none for men.”
6. “Better Treatment of Men Regarding False Accusations” —expanding anonymity for men accused of sexual assault, and insistence that false accusations be prosecuted as a serious crime.
7. “Making Government Programs Gender Neutral”—since, MRAs claim, “tremendous amounts of government money goes to women’s aid,” men should have a right to equal amounts.
8. “Educating Boys”—helping boys improve their achievement and attendance in school.
9. “Negative Portrayal in the Media” —MRAs are tired of “seeing dumb and deadbeat dads,” of “every man on TV being a sex-obsessed womanizer,” and “incompetent, misogynistic, brutish slobs with few redeeming qualities.”
10. “The Male Gender Role”—The complaint here is that the traditional male role—honor, chivalry, and the like—“has got to go.” “No longer should men be expected to be the providers and protectors of society.”
Men should be free to express their feelings. “Just because we have penises doesn’t mean we should be forced to abide by additional societal expectations, especially when those lead to an early grave.”
I listed all of their Top 10 because I didn’t want to cherry-pick only the more egregious reversals. Obviously there are several issues with which feminists would agree— negative portrayals of men and women are harmful; sexual predation, especially toward children, is a bad thing no matter which sex is doing it; school reforms that pay attention to different learning styles, initially a feminist reform, are obviously good for both girls and boys.
What if Robert Bennett, chair of the Ohio Republican Party, began asking all the important questions?
And several rest on those tired and misplaced reversals—men’s right to choose, the disparate public spending, the problem of false accusations that dissolve when contextualized. Men’s right to choose, of course, needs to be coupled with men’s increased responsibility to care for children they father, and for ensuring that women
have access to safe and reliable birth control, for both their sakes. It’s interesting that discomfort with the “male gender role” came in last, and that it expresses that same contradiction in the Men’s Rights cosmology: men don’t want to be saddled with those traditional expectations of robotic stoicism, but they also are tired of being nice to women, who should be pulling their own weight in the workplace.
And it’s also interesting that Fathers’ Rights tops the list, but that fatherhood is utterly absent. Men’s Rights activists are furious about having burdensome responsibilities, like child support, but rarely, if ever, wax rhapsodic about the joys of fatherhood, the loving connections that fathers are capable of having with their children. That right to be a dad, to be a devoted and loving parent, doesn’t actually fall on the Men’s Rights radar. That’s probably because to be that kind of dad, you’d need to balance work and family responsibilities, and work with your wife or partner to support her efforts to balance work and family too. Involved fatherhood—a fatherhood based on shared family responsibilities as a foundation for the rights to experience the transcendent joys of parenthood—has actually always been a feminist issue. Feminist women have urged, pleaded, insisted, and demanded that men share housework and childcare, because they know that women can’t “have it all” as long as men do—that is, as long as women alone are responsible for the second shift, the housework and the childcare. It turns out that the only way women can have it all is if men and women halve it all. You want your rights to be a father? It’s simple. Take your share of the responsibility.
However, perhaps most revealing is what—or, rather, who—is missing from the Men’s Rights Top 10. Not a word about the especially dismal plight of African American men, or Latino men, or working-class men—the types of racial and ethnic and class discrimination they experience, as men, the stereotypes of their masculinity they are forced to endure, all of which deprives them of the “rights” claimed by other men.
Nor a word about gay men, and the ways in which they suffer discrimination in employment, housing, or in their ability to marry the person they love, or the terrible violence that gay, bisexual, and transgender men suffer every single day at the hands of other men (just who do we think commits virtually every single act of gay bashing?). Where are the legions of Men’s Rights guys when it comes to “other” men? Men’s Rights is almost entirely a movement of angry straight white men. Gay men, Black men, Asian men, Latino men, and other racial and ethnic minority men feel no such sense of entitlement to power that these middle-class white men feel has been unceremoniously and illegitimately snatched from them. That’s not to say that in their personal relationships they don’t feel entitled to unfettered obedience from their children, subservience from women, and a drive to find their place in the hierarchical pecking order. Many do. They just don’t make a federal case out of their sense of entitlement. They don’t take it to court or demand legislation. It’s personal, not political. Are there some arenas in which men are disadvantaged—in which it’s actually “better” to be a woman? Sure. It’s here that the familiar litany of the MRAs makes some sense: men have to register for the draft; women don’t. Men are more likely to be denied joint custody, no matter how much time and energy they spend with their children.
But there is a major difference between being disadvantaged and being discriminated against. The former suggests that there are areas of public policy that still rely on outdated stereotypes, paternalistic policies designed to
“protect” helpless, fragile, vulnerable women from the predations of men and the privations of individual freedom. The latter, being the victim of discrimination, relies on policies implemented to single certain groups out for unequal treatment. For example, men are dramatically over represented in all those hazardous occupations—but every single time women have sought entry into those occupations, men have vigorously opposed
their entry. Once again, that contradiction: on the one hand, MRAs believe men shouldn’t be “forced” to do all the dangerous jobs; on the other hand, they also believe that women shouldn’t (and are probably ill qualified to)
invade men’s territory. While it’s true that there remain some areas in which being a man is a disadvantage, there is no evidence that white men are the victims of discrimination.
Author or editor of more than 20 books on men and masculinity, Michael Kimmel is the Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at New York’s Stony Brook University and executive director of the new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.