Feminist Men “Most men have a sadomasochistic relationship to masculinity”
An interview with Leipzig feminist and publicist Kim Posster about masculine ideals and the suffering they inflict. He is convinced that feminist critique is indispensable in helping men come to terms with themselves and models of masculinity.
By Viktoria MokrezowaYour nails are varnished. Is that an act of protest or your personal preference?
Actually, this is something you often see in the left-wing scene. Many men wear nail varnish only for political reasons. I find that perfectly legitimate, though such a purely symbolic act was always too superficial for me. I wanted to wear nail varnish from the moment I felt beautiful with it on.
How do people react?
Depends where you go. Sometimes people are shocked, in the tram for example. Children in particular show their confusion quite blatantly. They have to learn these gender roles very consciously, so they’re extremely strict and attentive when they see a contradiction.
What do gender roles mean today? We know that the role of women has changed over the past few decades due to feminist movements. Has the role of men adapted accordingly?
It has become more flexible and globalised. Sensitivity has now been incorporated into the masculine image, partly because flatter hierarchies and emotional intelligence are more desirable for working in neoliberal networks. So this changes masculine norms and they’re not always clear. There is no space where masculinity can feel safe and at home. Its essence is to seek that out.
Do you mean to say that society has no clear-cut conception of masculinity?
No, it does. Masculinity as a concept always means being a subject, autonomous, supposedly independent. The traits that make for this sense of superiority do change, but it’s always a given that men have to be superior. The model of hegemonic masculinity posits the existence of a socially dominant form of masculinity to which all men must conform if they want to prove they’re masculine. It changes historically, but not randomly, due to other factors, such as the state of capitalist relations. At the time of the Enlightenment, men didn’t have to be physically strong. The muscular image was not requested until the 19th century with the growth of industrial labour.
Lately people are talking a lot about toxic masculinity. Do we need a good masculinity nowadays, a sort of ideal that men should go by?
By no means. I can understand why people might think that. Men try to measure up to norms and ideals, are wrecked as a result and then use violence on themselves and the people around them. So we try to change that by replacing “bad” norms with “good” ones, that allow men to be gentle, for example. My question is: Why cater for this compulsion to be “real men”? There is no good, authentic, and most certainly no feminist answer to the question: “Am I manly enough?” And men don't need an answer to that anyway.
They need support in the form of critical reflection to put up resistance to this question. Edgar Forster, a Swiss masculinity researcher, did a fine analysis of gender-awareness training for boys. It was about whether this kind of critical training for boys requires good male role models. Forster says he understands the idea, but it actually presupposes that men can only take their bearings by other men and won’t accept women as role models. One very fine line of his is: “Criticism of masculinity is outspoken because it doesn’t create any new images of masculinity. It draws its power not from the ‘crisis of masculinity’, but from the desire for a different form of desiring.” The driving force for men to critically explore masculinity shouldn’t be: “I'm reflecting a little to reconcile myself to my masculinity,” but rather: “I want to open things up. To stop being the way society tells me to be and the way I’ve become in society.”
How do men reach this point of being themselves?
It doesn’t even occur to most men to think about themselves critically until they’re confronted with women, until a feminist critique hits them squarely and they have to come to terms with it. That's why I think feminist critique is essential. Men can try to break up this male complicity themselves, this tone of chummy, sporting respect they use towards other men. Instead of unconditionally accepting one another, they should start a conversation and discuss the problematic sides of things. That’s a way of opening up spaces. Still, I wouldn't underestimate the extent to which men in a patriarchy are socialised into a domineering ignorance and take advantage of it. That's why for many men the question is whether they want to engage with these issues in the first place.
In feminist discourse, men are usually portrayed as perpetrators. The #MeToo movement really brought this perpetrator-victim relationship between men and women to the fore. But men are certainly victims of patriarchal structures themselves, too, though this is mentioned far too seldom.
This is a problem with feminism, but not its fault. It’s the men's responsibility to open it all up. Feminist discourse focuses on the role of the perpetrator, and I think that's right and important. Not only that, but, unfortunately, male suffering is much too often used as an argument against the feminist critique.
What is male suffering?
The term “toxic masculinity” covers a lot of ground in this regard, including poor and brutal access to one's own emotional and sexual life and poor self-care. This is one reason why heterosexual men are so incredibly dependent on women, as caregivers, too. At the same time women and femininity are devalorized in the masculine ideal, and men are not supposed to be dependent on them – which often leads to violent conflicts. But the main cause of suffering is simply being structured male and having this question forced on them their whole lives long: “Am I masculine enough?” As a result, most men have a sadomasochistic relationship to masculinity. On the one hand, they suffer under these social pressures and hierarchies. They get shamed, subjected to violence, and end up disappointed. On the other hand, that often makes them "want to follow" this ideal even more. They internalise and justify the violence – and pass it on to “unmanly” men and especially women.
Kim Posster is 30 years old. He lives in Leipzig and works on a feminist research project. His focus is on masculinity, feminist theory and the feminist movement. As author he writes for Konkret, Jungle World, Analyse & Kritik and runs the Kritische Männlichkeit?! blog together with other feminist men.