I had a great professor in Seminary who I felt came up short in one regard. She taught our Spiritual Care class and in her lecture on masculinity, she had us watch a video of a movie, the title of which I can’t remember. In it, a deadbeat dad played by (I think) Nick Nolte is depicted in a scene as being unable to relate to his young daughter and getting angry at her when she suggests she wants to see her mother. I cannot recall the ensuing discussion or what else was taught but I remember feeling uncomfortable about that scene and finding the whole class hard to sit through.
Now let’s be clear: I’m a cishet white guy. It’s really not the biggest problem in the world to ask me to be uncomfortable for the sake of addressing privilege and critiquing the worst aspects of masculinity. But I was also 22. It was the first time in my life I was seriously examining the concept of masculinity and what that meant. Plus, I am the product of divorce (that scene was more than familiar) and, at the time, had zero desire to be a parent, then or ever. I was taught to respect teachers as authority figures so I came away thinking of that wondering: That’s really all God thinks of my maleness? Being crammed into a parenting role I don’t want with an anger I don’t understand?
It took me years to really unpack that and while my memory is hazy as to what else was said during the class, it really messed with me. I gradually came to see masculine expression as a bad thing and frequently juxtaposed it with (good) femininity. That class wasn’t the singular reason why but it was quite impactful.
Over the years, I came to realize that this is wrongheaded and unnecessary. But until I finished bell hooks’ The Will to Change an hour ago, I wasn’t aware of how to articulate this.
bell hooks writes with such a deep, abiding empathy for the subjects of her polemics that I felt like she was speaking directly to me. All of the things I’ve often wondered about myself over the years: why I suppress my feelings, why I feel sexually inadequate, why I get reflexively angry, why I am driven to depression, were laid out in a way that made such sense. bell hooks does a great job at separating masculinity from patriarchy; an argument I’ve never heard made before. She talked about the shortcomings of her generation’s feminism: how many wrote men off as unfeeling monsters instead of confused overgrown children who don’t know how to deal with the problem.
This is not to say I have not contributed to patriarchal violence passively or actively. I certainly have. The book is not a Get Out of Patriarchy free card. bell hooks is not making a “not all men” argument. She is arguing that yes all men have been negatively impacted by patriarchal violence and we must commit violence upon our person to continue to fit into this role that is never satisfying. Considering we are coming off the most patriarchal Presidential administration in the last century, addressing this feels more poignant than ever.
It’s wild to read bell hooks get defensive of arguments she made in 2004; showing how we have changed as a society. She mentioned how the phrasing of “imperialist capitalist patriarchy” was roundly rejected by most. Now it’s parroted by many. She also talked about how using the word “patriarchy” would draw sneers in conferences. Not the case today! We’ve come a long way but as the Trump administration shows, the fight is far from over.
I’d recommend this book to every male figure in my life and I’m gonna hold on to my copy in hopes that my son will pick it up some day. It may help you too.