At one point in my feminist theology class last year, we wound up talking about “hook-up culture.” It was a risky topic — and indeed one that I only brought up because I wasn’t sure it actually existed, or at least assumed it was more a factor in frat-dominated big universities rather than in a relatively monastic liberal arts college like I (thought I) was teaching at. The discussion went better than you’d think, and as some of the students started asking essentially why guys act like assholes, I started to realize that a big role that pro-feminist men need to play is as internal critics of male culture — not just policing their own individual behavior, but looking for broader patterns of behavior that reinforce sexism.
Later, reading Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” I was struck by the fact that she finds Derrida so promising because he is simply an internal critic of the philosophical tradition and doesn’t presume to be explicitly political in a way that usually winds up making it impossible for the subaltern to speak for themselves. When combined with a remarkable essay on Eyes Wide Shut, Spivak’s insight convinced me that my gut feeling from the class discussion was on the right track.
There’s only one problem: I’ve never identified with male culture, and in fact I’ve always looked down my nose at it. In this, I’m following the example of my father, who has always been deeply suspicious of “male bonding” and generally seems to feel more comfortable around women on social occasions. I’ve always been very impatient with the way that male-dominated groups have been built on a toxic combination of homoeroticism and homophobia, and in college, I think that my male friends could detect that and therefore didn’t try to involve me in the often fully nude homoerotic horseplay that took place in our gender-segregated dorms. A related factor is the way that it’s built on a desperation for women’s esteem combined with misogyny — and the misogyny is the controlling factor here, as the value of women’s esteem is determined by the “male gaze” (i.e., you want a “hot” girlfriend, but you don’t want to seem too deeply in love with or dependent on your girlfriend).
In both cases, this inherent contradiction serves to keep young men in a constant state of fear — they can never be sure that they’re performing their gender correctly (and here I reveal that I think Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity applies most intuitively to the straight male experience), and they’re terrified of the mockery of their peers (mockery which is normally itself motivated by each peer’s own fear of mockery). This is how male culture can manipulate weak-willed men into doing things they’re not comfortable with. In the case of hook-up culture, one of the male students in the room revealed that he wasn’t comfortable with casual sex at all and also had a broader idea of attractiveness than most men he knew, but in both cases he was conforming out of fear of being made fun of. (And note how often one is accused of being either a “pussy” or a “faggot” in these contexts, often interchangeably.)
When I look at this structure among jocks and frat boys, it’s 100% obvious to me and not at all seductive. But then I have to ask myself: why are almost all the colleagues I am in serious dialogue with men? How is male culture duplicating itself in my academic life? I think that in part, male academics do imitate, in their self-deprecating way, the economy of using women as “trophies” — as I said in comments to Melissa’s recent post, one of the commenters here once publicly accused me of essentially blowing my chance with a woman I was arguing with, and of course there is always the hope of using one’s academic capital to “score” in the supposedly vibrant hook-up culture of national conferences.
On another note, while I think that the critique of the tone here is a bit superficial, I wonder if part of the desire not to be subject to the “niceness police” is a reflection of the desire not to be a “pussy/faggot” — hence, perhaps, the attraction of someone like Milbank, who performs a peculiar kind of academic masculinity. (Since this has come up before: any speculation or rumors about Milbank’s personal life in comments will be deleted.) And perhaps the general abstractness of the discourse, the “Men Discussing Important Things” tone that queenemily pointed out, is itself a desire not to get bogged down in “wimpy” personal narrative or, in a more abstract kind of language, a resentment of the perceived ability of women or minorities to “get by” on their personal history rather than having to really Work Through the Great Texts — here we men are proving our mettle by working through Hegel and Aristotle and Augustine and mastering classical languages, etc., etc., and now we’re supposed to engage seriously with someone who’s talking about their own life experience? That’d be like getting a pedicure instead of going to football practice: serious pussy/faggot behavior.
Surely that analogy seems strained, but you’ll never guess how I conceive of my superiority to male culture more generally: they’re the real pussies (who are totally controlled by their fear of being made fun of), they’re the real faggots (with their homoerotic horseplay and inability to interact meaningfully with women). Whether I’m ready to be a critic or not, one thing’s for certain: I’m internal.