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Male Studies vs. Men's Studies

April 8, 2010

First came women’s studies, then came men’s studies, and now, a new field in reaction to both: male studies.

Scholars of boys and men converged Wednesday at Wagner College, in Staten Island, N.Y., to announce the creation of the Foundation for Male Studies, which will support a conference and a journal targeted at exploring the triumphs and struggles of the XY-chromosomed of the human race -- without needing to contextualize their ideas as being one half of a male-female binary or an offshoot of feminist theory. Organizers positioned themselves in contrast to men's studies, which is seen as based on the same theories as women's studies and is grouped together with it as gender studies.

More than anything else, the event was a chance for supporters to frame men and boys as an underrepresented minority, and to justify the need for a male studies discipline in a society that many perceive to be male-dominated.

Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, said the field takes its cues “from the notion that male and female organisms really are different” and the “enormous relation between ... a person’s biology and their behavior” that’s not being addressed in most contemporary scholarship on men and boys.

““I am concerned that male-averse attitudes are widespread in the United States and that masculinity is becoming politically incorrect,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

The culprit, said Tiger, is feminism: “a well-meaning, highly successful, very colorful denigration of maleness as a force, as a phenomenon.”

Paul Nathanson, a researcher in religious studies at McGill University and co-author of a series of books on misandry -- the hatred of men and boys -- conceded that “there is some critique of feminism that’s going to be involved” in male studies. “There are some fundamental features of ideological feminism over the last 30 or 40 years that we need to question.”

He also decried “the institutionalization of misandry” which, he said, is “being generated by feminists, [though] not all feminists.”

Male studies’ combative tone toward feminism and women’s studies programs is one reason why Robert Heasley, president of the American Men’s Studies Association, turned down an invitation to speak at the event. "Men's studies came out of feminist analysis of gender, which includes biological differences" -- the very thing male studies says is different about its approach.

Heasley, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, also sees the “new” discipline as an affront to his field, which has been around for three decades. “Their argument is that they’re inventing something that I think already exists.”

Male studies will hold its first conference at the New York Academy of Medicine on Oct. 1 and 2, but AMSA already has an annual convention, which met in Atlanta late last month. The foundation will launch Male Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal next year, but thousands of journal articles on men’s studies have already been published.

Rocco Capraro, an associate dean and assistant professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said that “men are both powerful and powerless.” Though men and boys as a group may be powerful, “today’s discourse on individual men is not a discourse of power -- men do not feel powerful in today’s society.”

Instead, they feel ashamed of their masculinity. While women may perceive pornography as degrading to their gender, men consider it to be a manifestation of “sexual scarcity, rejection and shame,” he said. “Porn falls into a larger structure of masculinity as a shame-based existence.”

Primary and secondary schools, as well as higher education, have been so heavily influenced by feminism, Tiger said, “that the academic lives of males are systematically discriminated against.” If the female-favoring gender gaps in postsecondary enrollment and graduation rates damaged a group other than males, “there would be an outcry.” But because men and boys are perceived to be a powerful group, few academics and policy makers see much of a problem.

Heasley, of the men’s studies group, said that much of what male studies’ supporters are propagating is untrue, or at least not the whole story. “These are really unfounded claims that are being made,” he said. “It’s kind of a Glenn Beck approach.”

Edward Stevens, chair of the On Step Institute for Mental Health Research, said he wants to see male studies search for ways to improve male academic performance. “What are the ethical concerns of devoting 90 percent of resources to one gender?” he asked (though without explaining exactly what he meant). “What are the unintended consequences of the failure of our academic institutions to consider the 21st century needs of males?”

 

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