(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/06/fonda4.jpg)The thrilling news was announced just a couple of weeks ago: the State University of New York at Stony Brook is starting a brand-new Women’s Studies Center. Among the distinguished members of its Advisory Board will be iconic Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, renowned stand-up comic Andrew “Dice” Clay, gridiron legend and screen actor extraordinaire O. J. Simpson, former President Bill Clinton…
Oh, sorry. My mistake. The real story is this: according to a May 20 press release, Stony Brook, which happens to be my (cough) alma mater (cough), has received a hefty grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to start a “Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.” The Center, which will open this fall and which will also get additional funding from the university and from other (unnamed) donors, plans to offer an M.A. in Masculinity Studies, to host “the first international conference on Men and Masculinities in 2015,” and to hold seminars, forums, and all kinds of other activities on a regular basis.
But the real kicker (and what follows, unlike my first-paragraph attempt at whimsy, is no joke whatsoever) is the list of Advisory Board members. I’ll quote the press release in full – and keep in mind, please, that this is a Center supposedly devoted to the study of men, not women: “Members of the Center’s advisory board include Gloria Steinem, Martin Duberman, Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler, Carol Gilligan, James Gilligan, Frank Ochberg, Gov. Madeleine Kunin (Vermont), Catharine Stimpson and Hampden-Sydney College President Chris Howard.”
Where to start? Well, perhaps by noting that this list includes the names of six women and only four men. Six to four! Not to be a bean counter, as they say, but can you imagine a university press release in this day and age announcing the establishment of a new Women’s Studies Center and including more men’s names than women’s? Me neither.
Anyway, let’s unpack that list – shall we? – starting with the men. Who’s Duberman? He’s a longtime Queer Studies macher whose involvement in this undertaking is no surprise. James Gilligan is a psychiatrist who specializes in violence, and I guess he’s on the list partly because violence is perceived in the academy as the province of males – but probably even more so because he’s married to Carol Gilligan (see below). Ochberg, as I’ve just now learned from Wikipedia, is an M.D. who specializes in trauma; I have no idea why he’s part of this. And Howard, it appears, has a background in business, philanthropy, and the military; I suppose they tapped him at least in part because the military is also a guy thing. And it doesn’t hurt, given the way things work in the academy, that he’s African-American.
The real news, however, is that list of women. And what a list! Again, keep in mind that these people are going to preside over a Center whose purported purpose is to deepen our understanding of male identity. Gloria Steinem, longtime editor of Ms.? Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler? Carol Gilligan, who in her 1982 book In a Different Voice attempted to identify a distinctively female way of thinking? Catherine Stimpson, founder of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and author of Where the Meanings Are: Feminism and Cultural Spaces? Madeleine Kunin, who in addition to being Governor of Vermont has written books entitled The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family and Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead?
Every single one of these women has evinced, over the course of her career (and most of these careers have been long ones indeed), a virtually undivided preoccupation with the study of women – not men, who appear in their work only marginally, and then almost exclusively as bullies, oppressors, impediments, encumbrances, annoyances, predators, and, at best, unnecessary appendages, the human equivalent of the vermiform appendix in the sense that they have no known useful function. (Steinem apparently wasn’t the first person to say that “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” but she repeated it enough to make people think she’d made it up herself.)
And, oh yes: last but not least, Jane Fonda?
What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you’re a member of the academy in the year 2013. At the relatively few colleges that offer courses in manhood and maleness and masculinity, it’s commonplace for those courses to be part of Women’s Studies departments or programs. (Stony Brook’s M.A. program in Masculinity Studies, we’re told, will be “a free-standing program associated with the Department of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies.”) For with very few – and very controversial – exceptions, the academy today peers at maleness through the narrow and highly distorted lens of PC academic feminism, the extent of whose understanding of the male of the species is pretty fairly summed up in the sentiment, drilled every year into the minds of countless college freshmen, that every man is a potential rapist.
To be sure, Stony Brook’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities will be run by a man – namely, Michael Kimmel, who’s already a “Distinguished Professor of Sociology” there. But the Women’s Studies commissars need not worry: Kimmel is a loyal protégé of Robert W. Connell, the founding father of Men’s Studies – a discipline that heterodox California professor David Clemens has succinctly defined as “a camouflage version of Women’s Studies” in which the “operative question” is “Why are men so awful?” It was Connell who coined the term “hegemonic masculinity” – and who was so fond of being a man that (again, this is no joke) he ended up getting sex-reassignment surgery and becoming a woman named Raewyn Connell.
Like his mentor, Kimmel is a reliable practitioner of the feminist approach to the subject of men, focusing obsessively on patriarchal oppression and female victimhood. Co-author of The Guy’s Guide to Feminism (which sounds like the last book you’d ever want to be left alone with on a desert island) and co-editor of an anthology entitled Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776-1990, Kimmel is frank in Stony Brook’s press release about his utter devotion to “the prisms of feminist theory, multiculturalism and queer theory” (to which he refers as if they were fresh and exciting new ideas rather than stale academic clichés) and his intention to foster dialogue “between academics and activists,” which he says is “too rare on both sides of that divide” (an assertion that could hardly be less true: identity studies is all about mixing academic activity with political activism, to the point that it becomes impossible to tell one from the other).
Miles Groth, a professor at Wagner College who actually takes the study of maleness seriously and whose own determinedly non-feminist version of Men’s Studies, called Male Studies, deals not in activism and grievance-mongering but in objective scholarship, is – to put it mildly – less than thrilled by Stony Brook’s big plans. The absurdity of that list of women speaks for itself; but none of the men on the Advisory Board, either, has any real background in either Male Studies or Men’s Studies. In addition to pointing out that – contrary to the press release’s grand claims – neither the vaunted M.A. program nor the “international conference” will be the first of its kind, Groth has a few things to say about Kimmel, calling him “a prolific anthologizer of pro-feminist apologetics for undergraduate consumption” and describing his book Guyland as having been “discredited on the basis of faulty research methodology.”
But a mediocre academic record is no impediment to stellar success in today’s humanities and social sciences departments, where the profs who rise to the top tend to be not brilliant scholars but spectacularly gifted self-promoters. It’s ironic that while there’s no type that comes in for more derision nowadays in the reflexively anti-capitalist academy than the aggressive businessman or salesman – the George Babbitt, the Willy Loman – the faculty members who are most successful tend to be those who most closely approximate academic versions of Babbitt and Loman: that is, slick, smooth-talking hustlers who could sell sand in the desert.
If Stony Brook’s press release makes for especially depressing reading, it’s because the subject of maleness is one that actually deserves serious and objective scholarly attention but in today’s politicized, feminism-drenched, male-bashing academy has received next to none. As Groth explained to me in an interview for my book The Victims’ Revolution, he started teaching a course on male psychology a decade or so ago because it’s something “about which we know next to nothing.” While the behavior of men “has dominated the history books,” the fact is that “apart from a few standard explanations – testosterone, an irrational desire to dominate women sexually, hunger for power – the deeper story of what motivates men remains untold.” Nothing in the press release announcing Stony Brook’s new Center suggests that it’ll do the slightest thing to answer the questions with which Groth is so deeply engaged. On the contrary, if you wanted to parody the feckless, fatuous way in which today’s academy pretends to study maleness, you could hardly have improved on Stony Brook’s inane press release.
Although no savvy prankster, of course, would have included the name of Jane Fonda – that would have been taking the joke one step too far.
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