White supremacists. Violent extremists. Men’s rights activists. School shooters. Wife beaters.
For the past 40 years, Dr. Michael Kimmel has been studying angry young men. Early on, he realized something the rest of the country would take decades to figure out — American manhood is broken. Our current model of masculinity isn’t working, and it’s shattering the men who can’t make sense of it.
So Kimmel created the nation’s first master’s degree program in Masculinities Studies. It’s a lot like Women’s Studies, minus the Jane Austen, the long history of oppression and the fight for civil rights.
“It looks at the ways that boys develop into men, and all the mixed messages they get along the way,” Kimmel says.
Take, for example, an intro lesson of Masculinities Studies: good men vs. real men.
He asks his students, “Let’s say at your funeral, someone says, ‘He was a good man.’ What does that mean to you?” He lists the students’ responses on the whiteboard as they answer in turns. Honest. Compassionate. Putting others’ needs before your own.
“Now, what does it mean to be a real man?” he asks. His students respond. Dominant. Authoritative. Lifting weights. Never crying.
The Good Man list always looks drastically different from the Real Man list. It’s no wonder, Kimmel concludes, that we’re so confused about what it means to be a man.
So men feel conflicted about their natures, unable to talk about feeling trapped in a mold that doesn’t define them — because exposing vulnerability is emasculating. To cling onto their masculinity, sometimes they withdraw. Sometimes they get angry.
The result is violence. Boys pull the triggers on their classmates. They join violent extremist groups. They get behind the wheel and mow down pedestrians on busy sidewalks.
All these examples apply to the “incels” — a group of “involuntarily celibate” men whose violent ideology has inspired the murders of at least 16 people. These bitter boys believe they can only become “real men” through sexual conquest. But young, beautiful women who refuse to have sex with them have deprived them of that right.
Incels turn to violence for the same reasons as domestic abusers, Neo-Nazis or Islamic extremists.
“Men often use violence when they feel humiliated and powerless,” Kimmel adds. “They feel one down, and aggression is a way to restore the balance, restore what they’re entitled to feel. As they say, men don’t get mad. They get even.”
Of course, most men will never turn violent. Most men will find a way to cope with their vulnerabilities without ever becoming destructive. But many will not.
That’s why Kimmel developed the first-ever MA program fully accredited for Masculinities Studies. Naturally, it has its fair share of political enemies.
“Anybody in Gender Studies is going to face opposition from those who think the field is inherently anti-male, or so feminist-inspired that it must incite hatred of men,” Kimmel says.
However, the women’s movement may be exactly the model that men should look to. Today’s girls are raised in an era that is endlessly discussing the complexities of what womanhood means. Of all the different ways it can be expressed.
Men can benefit from these same kinds of conversations. And that’s exactly what they’ll find in Dr. Kimmel’s classroom.