As I walked into school on Monday morning it was suspiciously quiet and there were no kids hanging around. It wasn’t until I got into the office that I was reminded that we had a late start and there was staff professional development. Staff PD is not something that always gets me going; it’s not the highlight of my professional career, but thankfully on Monday I was left inspired and motivated after having the absolute pleasure of hearing Dr Michael Kimmel address the whole staff for just over an hour.
Dr Kimmel is one of the world’s leading experts on men and masculinities and working in a boys’ school his visit seemed more than apt. As it turned out he got me thinking about a lot more than just the boys I teach on a daily basis.
Dr Kimmel said a lot on Monday morning, but there are few things I want to mention here. He acknowledged how the world is changing for men and boys because of changes in women’s lives and how there is often a defensiveness from males that is derived from their fear of this. For many men masculinity is not something you have, it is something that you prove; something that you prove predominately to other men. I have witnessed this first hand teaching in a boys’ school. And as Dr Kimmel went on to explain, it is something that we have to challenge in boys in order to make them more resilient in today’s society.
There is a tension that exists in what it means to be a good man and what it means to be a real man. When boys were asked what it means to be a good man, words such as loyal, protective, honourable, strong were thrown up. When asked what it means to be a real man, the responses were very much more about proving their masculinity to other men – to not show emotion, to harden up. This conflict of ideas is where the problem lies. Other men are constantly judging and policing masculinity in society.
To explore this further, Dr Kimmel went on to discuss how we must take gender seriously and build character through discussion. As an English teacher this puts me in an enviable position. I am able to explore feelings and emotions through the texts I choose to teach. I am able to create a classroom environment where boys are comfortable to discuss poetry, present dramatic performances and write about both male and female characters and how they are presented in a text. Having also taught in co-ed schools I have witnessed how in an all boy environment boys are more supportive of one another, more affectionate with one other and have more empathy for one another than in a mixed environment. It is something I have always found interesting. Dr Kimmel reinforced the importance of the subject of literature for boys.
He argued that we need to make gender visible; that when girls look in the mirror they see a female, when boys look they see a human. We need to encourage boys to recognise their masculinities (plural yes, I’ll talk more about this in a minute), and if they do they will then recognise their privilege. Yes, underpinning all of this was the fact that privilege needs to be visible too. Something that I said in my last blogpost. If we can recognise our privilege, we can use it to help others. Dr Kimmel said the same about the privilege of masculinities. It’s a good point, right?
So, on to this masculinities business. Quite rightly, he acknowledges that we are not all the same. Indeed, not all men are the same. We need to take masculinity seriously and accept that different groups of men view themselves differently, and once they recognise this and it becomes visible, then so too does the privilege of being male.
Boys are in crisis in how they fit into today’s world. They need their parents, “charismatic adults”, male friends and female friends to see them through it. They need guidance and a range of these supportive people around them to point out when their behaviour is unacceptable, or in turn to say, “yes, what you did there makes you a good man.”
As always it is always good to hear a well-educated speaker talk about their life’s work and even Dr Kimmel acknowledged the irony in him being a middle class white man, but for him his privilege is certainly visible and he is using it to help and improve the lives of those without it. This is just a brief snapshot of my thoughts on the morning but I hope you find it thought provoking.
If any of this interests you, I suggest you check out some of Dr Kimmel’s TED talks which can easily be found online.