Does Masculinity Have to Be the Opposite of Femininity? by Carol P. Christ


“Furthermore, like Obama, [de Blasio] projects a masculinity that is empathic and introspective — anathema to the patriarchal attitudes that dominate hierarchal institutions like the police.”

I wish the analysis that accompanies this quote had been mine, but maybe I should be glad that it comes from aninsightful young man who goes by the name liamcdg. He who argues that the real beef the New York police have with Bill de Blasio is his challenge to their definition of masculinity as dominance, or shall we say white male dominance.

As noted by liamcdg, in the NYPD version of reality, parents should teach children to comply “to comply with New York City police officers even if they think it’s unjust.” In terms of competing definitions of masculinity, the NYPD version is that men in power should be respected simply in virtue of their position, even if they are acting or appearing to act unjustly. In other words we should respect the powerful because they are powerful.

To be empathetic is to be able to put yourself in another person’s place, and in its literal meaning, to feel the feelings of another. In the recent public conversations about race and the police, both Obama and de Blasio have invited white Americans to put themselves in the place of a black man stopped by the police for little or no reason and to ask themselves how they would feel in that situation.

In so doing, liamcdg asserts, Obama and de Blasio were not simply trying to explain the feelings of those on the other side of the racial divide, they were also redefining masculinity. We all know that according to traditional stereotypes, the realm of feeling is the realm of women. And of course we also know that real men don’t cry. Yet what is happening to black men is enough to make anyone who feels their feelings want to cry.

The conflicts between de Blasio and the police and Obama and a large segment of the older white male voting public may have as much to do with the challenge to white male privilege as it has to do with any particular event or issue. White male privilege involves a complex interconnection of race and sex. It is about the power that comes or is expected to come to one simply by virtue of being born into a white male body.

In recent weeks I have been asking myself why the police are so upset. After all there is room for improvement in any profession. Over the past few years I have also struggled to understand why some people object so strongly to the idea that women have a right to control their own bodies, to choose birth control or abortion. I am coming to the conclusion that the vehemence of the protest is rooted in the perception that the patriarchal edifice is crumbling.

Forty years ago, inspired by the feminist movement, men began to speak about redefining masculinity. This was easier said than done. It is so easy to accuse men who criticize male power as domination of being “sissies,” “girls,” or “gay.” Even men who might of wanted to discuss the subject were all too often afraid of being labeled.

I say the fact that the NYPD is turning its back on de Blasio is one measure of how far we have come. I suggest that the NYPD recognizes that a different definition of masculinity and male power is being born right before their eyes. And it is this that they cannot bear to see.

We have been taught that feeling and feeling the feelings of others belongs in the feminine realm. What if it doesn’t? What if in the end male power and female power are much the same? And what if they both begin with empathy?

Perhaps we really have “come a long way baby.”

According to Heide Goettner-Abendroth, whose work I am fond of quoting in FAR, matriarchal societies defined the power of males and the power of females similarly.

What if Freud got it wrong? What if males do not have to differentiate themselves from their mothers by becoming “not like” women and girls? What if masculinity and feminity are not polar opposites? What if all any of us have to do is to learn to embody the qualities of those who nurture us?

We are beginning to glimpse a different world. Any thoughts on how to bring the NYPD and other older white males into a new world along with us?

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Categories: General

5 replies

  1. As a Quaker, I would say “hold them in the Light.” And then, like always with these bigger issues, I wonder, “Is this enough?” Certainly speaking out like you’ve done, Carol, and clarifying the issues, making them startlingly clear, is a big help. Thank you.

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  2. Carol I think you are correct that the reason many in the NYPD are reacting the way they are is because they are afraid that the days of white male privilege are ending. I know there are many good men and women in law enforcement, including my late husband, but they do tend to be conservative and traditional. I don’t know if there is any way we can bring older white males into the new world along with us. The best we can do is to educate them, as you have done, but in the end they have to want to make the change.

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  3. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, in an essay titled “White Negroes”, suggests that all of this push back, whether it be about race, gender, or class comes back to issues of power…. It is quite a compelling argument.

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  4. I believe that the patriarchal edifice is only just beginning to crack and that it will take many, many years for it to crumble. But I do believe that at least in certain parts of our society, we are beginning to forge new ideas about how to live together; how to see each other as individuals and not impose as many expectations about men and women as opposites; to be able to acknowledge those people who are biologically and psychologically in the middle between the two sexes and start to ask how to incorporate them without prejudice into our culture; to not believe automatically that sensitive men are “sissies” or strong women are “dykes” or “ball-breakers.” But it’s easier for these changes to happen when the underclass becomes more like the upperclass. So we see a lot of strong women out there, but sensitive men still feel they need to hide their sensitivity.

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