This week, conservatives who dwell in fringier corners of the internet got their knickers in a twist when they learned about a years-old academic program called the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, which is housed at Stony Brook University, part of the public State University of New York.
On paper, the name of the center suggests a friendly confine for the amalgam of human drudgery that is men’s rights activists, anti-feminists, and the nebulous assortment of men (usually white) who suffer from male pattern oppression. Instead, wayward misogynists hoping for academic validation are met with an institution dedicated to the study of toxic masculinity and of ways in which men can be effective allies and champions for their female colleagues and peers, and whose stated mission is to conduct research “in the service of healthy masculinities and greater gender equality.”
Anyone questioning the need for such a center need only look at the reaction to the center itself. Ground zero for the meltdown currently underway appears to be an article from The Daily Wire on Wednesday. The conservative site bemoans the fact that, for a center ostensibly dedicated to men, there are a shocking number of women who deign to have anything to say about the subject.
Over at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal — which originated as a project of the far-right John Locke Foundation and strives to install more conservatives in academia — author Bruce Bawer (who is, like this reporter, an alum of Stony Brook University) further distills his concern about the 10-person advisory board.
“Six were well-known women: feminist icon Gloria Steinem, actress Jane Fonda, author Eve Ensler (author of the play The Vagina Monologues) and leading women’s studies figures Madeleine Kunin, Catharine Stimpson, and Carol Gilligan, whose claims that girls were being denied their ‘voices’ in education led to Christina Hoff Sommers’ book The War Against Boys,” he writes.
Six! The nerve of an institution of higher learning to ask as many as six women to have opinions about men and masculinities! Of the four men, Bawer dismisses them all as “obscure”—one because he’s a queer studies historian, and gay men apparently don’t count as men; one because he’s married to a feminist; and two others, presumably for their unmanly, unheralded careers as “physician” and “university president.”
And then there’s the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities’ executive director, sociology professor Michael Kimmel. Insofar as there is a preeminent voice in the academic study of masculinity, Kimmel is it. His books and other scholarly work examining what makes men behave so garishly are renowned the world over, and so of course he is the biggest threat of all.
In aggregating Bawer’s post, The Weekly Standard expressed similar incredulity. “The idea of “men’s studies” is usually a trope used to bash the existence of “women’s studies” and is (usually) not a serious proposal,” they write. “Yet, such a department exists at Stony Brook University, and has for a few years. Except (surprise!), it’s actually feminists studying men.”
Here is a group of people — grown adults, all — who simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea that society may benefit from men being studied by anyone other than fellow men, or that the definition of a “real man” could be more malleable than they believe.
In conservative circles, this phenomenon isn’t limited to gender. When Fox News invited religion scholar Reza Aslan on to discuss a book he wrote about Jesus, the interviewer demanded to know: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”
Of course, the concern starts and stops right there. You will hear no similar complaints from Fox News hosts about white, Christian men who masquerade as experts on Islam. Or about the dozens of male professors who teach women’s studies at universities across the country (including Stony Brook, where a man serves as Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Department).
The double standard extends into policymaking. For years, conservative men have been perfectly comfortable passing draconian laws that affect the 175 million women living in the United States (along with trans men and other gender minorities) without actually consulting any of them.
When Republicans in the House of Representatives held hearings to restrict access to abortion, it was the 13 men of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice who decided whether to advance the legislation. When Donald Trump signed an executive order reinstating the Global Gag Rule, which restricts access to reproductive health care around the world, he was surrounded by a room full of men. Male lawmakers across the country have plenty of opinions about why mandatory waiting periods will help hapless women decide they don’t really want an abortion after all. These lawmakers’ qualifications in this area are dubious at best: The men who legislate uteruses don’t always have a firm grasp on how the female reproductive system actually works.
But heaven forbid Gloria Steinem shares her thoughts on what it means to be a man in an academic white paper.