Taking A Look At Men's Studies
Issue date: 9/28/07 Section: Focus
"Feminist," "misogynist" and "women's studies" are concepts familiar to the average college student. Less familiar, though, may be concepts like "misandrist" or "male-positivist." Dr. Dennis Gouws, a professor of English, presented these ideas to a talkative and insightful audience in the Shippee Pit at his "Last Lecture" Thursday evening.
"I'm not actually retiring," joked Gouws as he took the podium. The "Last Lecture" series invites professors to lecture as if it were the last time they would ever do so, as if they had one chance to give students the most important thing they would ever teach.
Gouws' interest in "men's studies," as he described the field, developed during his stint at graduate school. The classroom environment, said Gouws, sometimes enabled bigotry under the guise of feminism with nasty consequences. During a class on gender sociology, the instructor presented a paper describing a female 'wild zone' that represented an area of thinking that women alone could experience due purely to their sex.
"Is there a complimentary 'wild zone' for men?" he asked. "The resounding response from the professor was 'no,' and I took exception to that."
Pairing this experience with his concern for undergraduate education, Gouws attempted to redress the issues that he saw with the classroom environment. The way he understood it, many students - both men and women - felt uncomfortable with the framing of the gender debate. What if, Gouws asked, one agrees that misogyny is wrong but can find no acceptable point of view in traditional feminist discourse? What if one disagrees with patriarchy but also with misandry - the hatred of men? Or, as one student asked, "What if I'm a peopleist?"
The solution that Gouws found was the idea of "male-positive" discourse. A male-positive outlook, as described by Gouws, is one that allows men to define their masculinity without the pressure to conform to a societal idea of manhood. Certainly, said Gouws, there are well-known societal pressures on women. The issue of pressures on men, however, pressures that exist entirely due to their gender, is one that hasn't been adequately explored in the classroom. Gouws raised the issue of competition as an example: from an early age, men are expected and sometimes forced to compete, and as a result will find it acceptable to take extreme measures in order to compete. Male-positivism accepts that these concerns exist, and allows men to define themselves outside of the prevailing social pressures.
Gouws was sensitive to the history behind these issues as well. He agreed that feminism is "a positive agenda for women," and that men by no means have a sovereign claim to victimhood.
"There's something perverse about a group in power claiming to victims," Gouws said.
The primary problem, regardless of which group purports to be the victim, is one of exclusion. This exclusion can happen from any direction and target any victim. He posed the question to the audience: is it hypocritical for men to talk about women's issues, or vice versa? The prevailing sentiment in the audience, and one echoed by Gouws, was that any gender issue, if it affects the society in which one lives, can and should be discussed openly by everyone.
The idea of manhood as a cultural construct leads to a new method for understanding literature in particular, said Gouws, who has previously taught a Men in Literature course. But what might be offered by such a course?
Using feminist interpretations of literature as a springboard, he described the central conceit of a male-positive literature class.
"[It's about] asserting our right to liberate new and possibly different significances from the same text."
The importance of male-positive masculinities cannot be understated, said Gouws. "The manhood question" - how men define themselves in relation to their gender - is an essential one, and it deserves the same attention that "the woman question" has received. And since he's not retiring just yet, Gouws and his students will have plenty of time to delve further.