We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity. It's time to abandon the claim that there are certain psychological or social traits that inherently come with being biologically male. If we can get past that, we have a chance to create a better world for men and women ...
Of course, if we are going to jettison masculinity, we have to scrap femininity along with it. We have to stop trying to define what men and women are going to be in the world based on extrapolations from physical sex differences.
Why would Robert Jensen take such an attitude? Jensen claims that in his twenties he was an apolitical journalist:
Then I went to graduate school and studied, among other things, feminism. And feminism politicized me ...
Why would a feminist oppose masculinity and femininity? One reason is that feminism follows some of the assumptions of liberalism. One of these assumptions is that our humanity is contingent: that we only become human when we create who we are from our own reasoned choices.
Since women's lives were traditionally defined more by a biological role (motherhood) and by the emotions (love and marriage) rather than by a sphere of rational choice (careers and formal study) this seemed, under the terms of liberalism, to make their role inferior to that of men.
So from quite early on there were thinkers who were keen to "defend" women by asserting that women were "equal" to men; to do this they had to deny that existing sex roles were natural, so they claimed that such roles were the product of a social custom designed to artificifically perpetuate a male dominance.
So there are some basic liberal assumptions which lead on to the negative view of masculinity and femininity as oppressive social constructs.
Is the way that this issue is framed by liberalism helpful? I think the answer is clearly no. The liberal framework distorts the discussion of gender in several ways.
First, it forces us to define equality as sameness. Equality can't be defined as men and women being valued equally in their distinct roles. Instead, there is only one "human" role (the male one) which men and women must occupy to the same degree in order to be considered equal.
Second, it means that motherhood and marriage, which were once considered core human activities, are relegated to the non-human realm - to the animal realm of biology and the emotions.
Thus we find feminist Betty Friedan telling us that the traditional female role is to be rejected because:
Women are human beings, not stuffed dolls, not animals. Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind's power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it ... when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from the past, he is a man, a human being.
A woman giving birth to a new life is no longer regarded with awe by Friedan, as this is not our intellect acting on the world to shape things according to our individual reason and will.
Third, the idea that masculinity and femininity aren't natural defies both everyday experience and modern science. Anyone who has been in a serious relationship knows that there are important, deeply grounded sex differences. Modern science has confirmed that sex differences are caused, at least in part, by hard-wired, biological factors.
Fourth, even though the masculine role is assumed to be the human one, it has its legitimacy undermined by the idea that it's upheld artificially as an act of domination over women.
For liberals, what matters is our will to act in any direction. So the power to enact our individual will becomes critical. If one group in society appears to have more power (more political power, money or status), liberals readily interpret this as an illegitimate power grab at the expense of an oppressed group.
At this point, we can return to Robert Jensen, as he very clearly thinks along these lines. Jensen speaks of masculinity as a "project of dominance" in which men,
seek to control 'their' women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery.
(It's no surprise that Jensen is also a "whiteness theorist". He observes that American whites live in a majority white culture and concludes that this makes them privileged - which, by his logic, makes their position illegitimate.)
Fifth, the liberal view that sex differences are artificial and unnatural runs directly against heterosexuality. In practice we don't want our future spouse to be androgynous; we're attracted by the more appealing qualities of the opposite sex.
In short, Robert Jensen is following a faulty political template when he attacks masculinity. This template generates a whole series of negative consequences, each of which invites serious criticism.
Which brings me to the happy ending. Robert Jensen's attack on masculinity didn't go unanswered. A female columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle has penned an excellent reply, drawing on several of the points I've outlined above.
I'd like to give her comments some space, so I'll leave her reply to Robert Jensen till tomorrow.