My minor in college was Women’s and Gender Studies. One of my favorite courses I took as part of my minor was titled “Masculinities.” My classmates and I spent the semester studying historic, philosophic, theoretical and cultural analyses of masculinity. We read Freud, Foucault and Lacan, talked about female masculinity and queer masculinity, and watched movies like Pumping Iron, Dirty Harry and M. Butterfly. It was one of the most enlightening classes I had ever taken, because it was the first time I learned to acknowledge the social forces that influence masculinity and the oppressions and challenges faced by those whose genders are masculine. So it makes me thrilled to know that the academic discipline of “men’s studies” is gaining traction in universities in the U.S. and abroad.
Last week in The Globe and Mail, Leah McLaren wrote a column on the rise of men’s studies courses in universities, and why she believes such courses are irrelevant:
As an extension of women’s studies, the study of masculinity is illogical. After all, couldn’t most academic inquiry throughout history be classified as men’s studies? By viewing everything through the lens of gender, universities risk losing sight of one of their basic purposes, which is to connect young minds with great literature and big ideas.
Reading McLaren’s piece, I couldn’t help but think that, perhaps, she has missed the point of men’s studies — and gender studies in general. This is evident in the way she discusses women’s studies. McLaren writes, “The whole point of women’s studies, so we were taught in Feminist and Critical Thinking 101, is to bring academic focus to women’s perspective in history and literature.” While she is certainly correct that discussions of Great Literature often exclude works by women and that women’s studies have allowed women’s literature to gain greater acclaim, that is hardly the sole focus of the academic discipline of women’s studies today. In addition to literature and history, women’s studies curricula include theory, sociology, media analysis and intersectionality. Likewise, men’s studies is much more than a study of masculinity in literature and history. As feminism and other gender-based movements have evolved, so has our need to deeper explore gender. It is therefore no wonder why women’s studies and men’s studies include many more topics and lenses than McLaren may realize.
The column also reeks of privilege. It is easy for a cisgender woman to argue that studying the theory of gender construction is less important than reading classical literature, because perhaps she does not need to think about her gender consciously on a regular basis. But many people — including queer, transgender, gender non-conforming and otherwise socially oppressed people — do think about their gender regularly. Theory may not always be the answer to combating oppression, but it does often provide a useful framework for looking at one’s identity and understanding how identities are shaped by the world around us. For people who do not need to think about gender, or the relationship gender identity has with other facets of one’s identity, perhaps studying classical literature is an excellent top priority. But for those who are interested in exploring gender studies — and, particularly, for those who need to think about and reconcile gender constantly — gender studies courses should not be dismissed as unimportant or unnecessary.
Gender is a “big idea.” As time goes on, I learn more about different gender identities and theories and representation, and I feel like I understand the topic less and less. This is precisely why studying and discussing gender is so important. Since higher education is often the first place where people are introduced to feminism and gender analysis (it was for me, at least), courses in gender studies are necessary to help young people begin to question the nature and construction of gender. Traditionally, gender studies programs have focused on women’s studies, and in many ways rightly so — women are still marginalized in academia, and women’s studies give us a voice that is noticeably absent in other departments. But a gender studies program that focuses exclusively on women’s studies is missing a great opportunity. Though men are in a position of privilege, masculinity is accompanied by its own degree of societal expectations, pressures and baggage. Moreover, the relationship masculinity plays with race, religion, sexuality and other identity facets is important to discuss, as no two men necessarily have the same institutional privileges or expectations. Gender studies is an enormous topic, one too vast to explore in one blog post. So for McLaren to dismiss the study of masculinity as a whole is misguided and disappointing. There is much that needs to be learned and discussed about masculine identities — more than even Shakespeare alone can teach us.
What are your thoughts on men’s studies as an academic discipline? For those who have studied masculinity in the past, how did your studies influence your understanding of gender?