As the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities prepares for its first international conference this week, its director, Michael Kimmel, talks about the Center, how his students view gender equality, and the rules governing masculinity known as the ‘Guy Code.’
Michael Kimmel is a SUNY Distinguished Professor of sociology and gender studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University, where he directs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. An activist and author of more than 20 books, including Manhood in America: A Cultural History and Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, Kimmel is one of the world’s leading authorities in gender studies.
The Center, which opened in 2013, is having a banner year. This week it will hold its first International Conference on Masculinities, in New York City; and in April it will be the focus of the annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala, as Academy Award-winning actress and activist Jane Fonda is honored for her advocacy of the Center and for her work on behalf of gender equality and social justice.
Q: What was the genesis of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook?
Michael Kimmel: The Center is really one institutional expression of a new subfield of gender studies called masculinity studies that has emerged over the past few decades. There are several scholarly journals, academic conferences and a healthy number of courses and young scholars doing research. At the same time, there are thousands of activists all over the world engaging men and boys to support gender equality. The idea of the Center is to bring those two groups together — academic researchers and activists — under one roof, one umbrella. And that’s the idea of the Center.
Q: The Center’s International Conference on Masculinities: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality is taking place March 5–8 in Manhattan. Is this the first conference of its kind?
Kimmel: No, but this is the first in the United States of its kind. There have been two others: one in Rio five years ago and one in New Delhi last November. We are doing ours in New York because of the Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] at the UN, which will begin on March 9. It’s a really important event because it is the 20th anniversary of the UN’s Beijing conference on women’s rights. So there will be about 20,000 people from all over the world coming to New York to CSW, and we are going to have our conference the three days before that to bring in all the activists who are working to engage men for gender equality. So, it’s political activists engaging men — and it’s also, of course, researchers — in that kind of dialogue.
Q: Jane Fonda, this year’s Gala honoree, and Gloria Steinem will participate in the conference and are on the Center’s board of directors. How did they come to be involved?
Kimmel: Both Jane and Gloria are very well-known feminists, and both of them understand and believe that engaging men is important. Here’s kind of a motto that I work with: You cannot empower women and girls unless you also engage men and boys. And they understand that it is necessary to engage men and boys — and it’s vital to do that — because men are often the gatekeepers, the obstacles, the ones who have to do the changing to enable women to achieve equality.
Q: How do young people today view feminism and gender equality? Do your male and female students view them differently?
Kimmel: My female students very often say, “Feminism was your generation’s issue, Professor Kimmel, and thank you so much because we won. We don’t need feminism anymore because we now are completely liberated, and we can do anything we want. We can have as much sex as men; we can go out drinking as much as men. We are going to be able to balance work and family and have great careers and go to law school” and whatever. So they think that feminism is unnecessary.
On the other hand, these women also support gender equality, and they absolutely oppose discrimination against women on any grounds and in any arena. But they think it’s basically a done deal. What’s interesting is that these women often come back to me five years after they’ve graduated and say, “You know, when I said that stuff about feminism not being necessary anymore, boy, was I wrong. You were right, Professor Kimmel. I just experienced wage discrimination in my workplace.” So what happens is, they have the luxury as college students of believing feminism is not necessary anymore, but when they get out into the working world, they realize there’s still a lot of discrimination and stereotypes.
Now the men — I’m very optimistic about the men. On one hand, the men say, “Oh no, I’m not a feminist. Feminism is ridiculous. Feminism is women’s power over men,” etc. But the men that I talk to also expect to live far more gender-equal lives than their fathers or grandfathers. In fact, most of my male students will live lives that their grandfathers will barely recognize.
Q: In what ways?
Kimmel: My male students assume that their wives or partners are going to have careers to which they are just as committed as they are. They also assume that they are going to be really, really involved dads, that they are going to be there for their kids, etc., and that’s very important to them.
And here’s another thing that’s really different about this generation: When I started teaching at Stony Brook 25 years ago, I would walk into my class and ask, “How many of you have a good friend of the opposite sex?” and maybe 10 or 15 percent of the hands would go up. Now when I walk into a class and ask, “Is there anyone in the room who does not have a good friend of the opposite sex?” I never see a hand anymore. Cross-sex friendship is the biggest change in young people’s lives.
And the thing about friendship is, you don’t make friends with your boss or your servant. You make friends with your peers, right? You make friends with people who are your equals. So what I would say is that this generation of college students has more experience with gender equality in their interpersonal relations than any generation in the history of the world.
Q: Your best-selling book Guyland is based on more than 400 interviews you conducted with men aged 16 to 24 about sex, sports, bullying, video games, relationships and the “Guy Code.” Can you explain what the Guy Code is?
Kimmel: The Guy Code is the rules about masculinities that guys are asked to live up to by other guys. Masculinity is enforced by other guys. Other guys police each other making sure they do it right. That fear of being seen as not being a real man, or misperceived as being gay — something like that. This is what the Guy Code is. You have to always perform masculinity and win the approval of your male friends. … Everything is constantly policed —from how you look at your fingernails, how you walk and how you talk, to how you cross your legs. The Guy Code is two things: It says you have to conform to this idea of masculinity, and second, it says if you don’t, we’re going to ostracize you.
Q: What about its culture of silence?
Kimmel: Well, that’s the other side of the Guy Code. One side is that they’re constantly policing you. And the other is that you must always remain quiet about them and what they’re doing.
The bro code is, What happens in Guyland stays in Guyland. You never rat out the brotherhood. You never tell what’s actually happening. So that’s also part of it, I think. There is a kind of enforced silence. That’s why so much of the work around sexual assault these days is around bystander intervention and getting these guys to stand up to each other and say, “No, this is wrong.”
But that’s not easy. So I would say, maybe don’t do this alone. We need to develop alliances among guys, so they don’t feel isolated and alone when they stand up.
— Patricia Sarica