Good Boys: Afterword to Men in Feminism

Paul Smith


In April 1990 I took up an invitation to talk, at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, on a topic that made me massively uncomfortable: the relation of men and feminism. The book I'd edited with Alice Jardine three years before, Men in Feminism, had proved somewhat controversial as it had broached an issue--or a set of issues--that seemed to many unwelcome and unpromising. It had also been the occasion for a certain amount of animosity or suspicion to be directed at both myself and Jardine. In that context, it was all the more uncomfortable to think of speaking at the ICA under the rubric of a panel called "The Good Boys: Men and Feminism." A "good boy" was certainly not what I'd been feeling myself to be--Men in Feminism had been seen in many circles as somehow transgressive, irritating, or bothersome, and in many ways I'd felt myself saddled with those same adjectives.

For the purposes of the ICA event, then, it would be necessary to distance myself somewhat from the "Good Boys" title. I think my imaginary would rebel against such a tag in almost any circumstance, but in relation to feminism, to the question of men and feminism, it's an especially awkward and unfortunate description. Clearly, it's a position or a sobriquet that quickly and inevitably degenerates into any number of other more overtly negative descriptions: in relation to feminism the good boy is really just insincere; he's trying to indulge feminists, to curry favour with women; he's flattering to deceive the feminist, to seduce her; he's really trying to divide women and conquer them; he's ultimately just another in a long line of colonisers, aiming to subjugate women and dominate their space. In other words, it's not very easy to believe in the goodness and integrity of such a good boy. So, instead of being a good boy, I'd have to prefer to be something else: perhaps a really good boy--or maybe even a good man. So what my talk became concerned with was a discussion of the possibilities of that; or, to put it this way--not entirely tongue in cheek--with the possibility of growing up and becoming a good man.

(As an aside, I might add that I wondered whether I should be a good boy in relation to the other general themes of the ICA event--postmodernism and performance art--and so I asked the organisers whether I should address those in my talk. They said no, that that wasn't necessary and that it would be fine if I just addressed the issue of men and feminism. So naturally I decided that I would talk a little bit about performance anyway; so there's a little about that toward the end of my paper.)

Already by 1990 Men in Feminism had in a sense had its day--it wasn't selling much anymore (though even now in 1994 it's still in print). But at the time it and the controversy it stirred up within academic feminism made it sell quite respectably. One thing that I'd claim for it now is that it somehow managed to broach issues that have turned out to be quite productive. That is, not only did it enable further discussion about the role of men in relation feminism, but it also seems to have cleared some ground for some other developments: a much more theorised version of masculinity studies, for instance, or even some strands of lesbigay studies. Not, of course, that it was by any stretch of the imagination alone in facilitating such things; I merely mean to say that the book constitutes some small part of the history of those developments. So the book is a bit old by now, but it produced a blip on the screen of feminism and gender studies in the academy (and to some extent outside it).

Looking back, then, partially with the help of a number of printed reviews of the book, I see this collection as primarily a book of theoretical and rhetorical spadework: a number of men and women involved in contemporary literary and cultural theory attempting to address a relatively new object--the relation (actual or imaginary, possible or impossible) between men and feminism--and trying to find what one reviewer called a "usable intonation", or the right language, to do it in. In many places the book seemed, in the words of another reviewer, to be just a demonstration of a kind of agonised "jockeying for position," a series of attempts to say in a proper and politically correct way how biological men might speak in, around, about, feminism. But that description is, I think, consistent with my description of the book as theoretical and rhetorical spadework.

Many of the contributors spoke about the relation of men to feminism as being impossible. That view was, I think, especially prevalent amongst some of the men--indeed, Stephen Heath began the collection with the statement that "Men's relation to feminism is an impossible one." Another man, Cary Nelson, spoke of the "wretched and intractable" nature of the topic, and proceeded to enter into the discussion even though he professed that he thought it was absolutely unrequired by feminism, an issue as low down on feminism's list of discursive priorities as could possibly be. This kind of reluctance or even antagonism towards the topic was also exhibited by a number of the women who wrote. I think especially of Meaghan Morris's contribution, whose most powerful recommendation was to suggest that men keep silent about the issue; or that, having now broached it, they might consider what she called a "strategic withdrawal" from the situation where they might be understood to be trying to penetrate feminism.

This repetition of a sense of impossibility and a tone of reluctance is what marks the book for the most part, and I'd admit that the apparent unwillingness to try to forge the possibility of male feminism bemused me at the time, and still bemuses me. Even now, after more years of reflection, after reading a whole series of thoughtful reviews of the book, after having had many further conversations about the issue with both men and women, and after any number of efforts to understand and formulate the issues and what's at stake (including many thwarted efforts to write a paper about it somewhat like this one), after all that I still feel the bemusement. That's to say, some bit of me still persists in seeing value in this inchoate project of trying to forge a relation or a relationship between men and feminism. I generally feel that the effort of the book was worthwhile and that the continuation of its effort in other works has been if not all to the good, then at least necessary. So now, I'd just like to say a few things about why I feel that way and to try to carry at least my own thoughts a little way further than before.

But to go forward I'll have to start with some basic assumptions. First of all, I begin with what I take to be a given: that feminism, or rather feminisms constitute first and foremost a political intervention; feminist discourse is inevitably that, and thus it is to some degree characterisable by the address that it makes, by the claims that it makes and the rhetoric that it deploys in relation to particular audiences. A preliminary question might then arise: the question of whether feminisms are addressed to women only, or whether they are addressed also, or in some way, to men.

My sense is that one can say by way of answer to that question at least that feminisms are to be heard by men, and that at least some part of feminist discourse does solicit a response from men. Biological men--gay, bi, or straight--are, after all, what I like to call the "homomorphs" of the systems of oppression of women; that is, we, as male sexed and gendered beings, are the same shape as the structures and systems of the oppression of women; certainly, we are the bearers of relative privilege and power within those systems against which feminisms necessarily struggle. Such privilege and power is, of course, different for different men, endlessly cut through by class, nation, sexual preference, and so on; but I'd want to deny that there are men who are altogether outside of the ambit, let's say, of power and privilege in relation to women.

In that sense it can be said that feminisms are addressed to us; the sound of feminisms is directed more or less closely to our ears depending upon where we sit in the structures of masculine power and privilege. I don't mean to say by this that feminisms are addressed against us necessarily (though that's evidently the case with some strands of feminist discourse); and I don't mean to say that there are no parts of feminism that necessarily and effectively address women only; just that, as a man, I feel that much of the feminist discourse around me often is telling me something, and this is sometimes the case even when it doesn't appear to intend to tell me something.

So then the next question becomes: what kind of response to the feminisms we hear can men make, or need to make? I understand that in many instances--perhaps even most--no discursive response is being solicited at all; perhaps just an act of conscientious hearing is required of us, a hearing that might encourage us to act in different ways. In Men in Feminism, Alice Jardine sets out a small agenda of things that men in academia might do differently having heard feminisms. Notably, for me, the agenda's last two items suggest that men "could critique your male colleagues on the issue of feminism..." and that men "could stop being reactive to feminism and start being active feminists--your cultural positionality as men allows you to!" When men begin to hear feminisms, begin to understand the claims, and begin to carry out the kind of agenda that Jardine recommends, then new situations might arise, new political situations. There's the necessity of dealing with a new political formation, of attempting to recognise feminism's success in making itself heard and any problems attendant upon that success.

None of this is meant to say that men actually have a place in feminism. Indeed, the preposition "in" caused great problems and provoked some outrage when it was used in the title of the book. Its presence was understood by some to be simply the preposition of irruption, interruption, and indeed penetration--the preposition of men repeating an age-old rapine, colonising, and finally silencing gesture. It's probably true that the use of the preposition was intended to be provocative, but it now also seems rather gratuitous. I'd now want to make something of a strategic withdrawal from that "in." And perhaps one way of marking that withdrawal is to talk of men's discourse and dialogue in relation to feminism in terms not of an "in" but rather of a "nearby."

But the questions still remains of what can be said and done, and of how, in what tone, and with whom men can respond to what they might hear. Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to suggest that the strategic withdrawal to "nearby" can result in men's turning the lessons of feminism onto themselves--perhaps then, the state of being nearby means that we can work with a feminism in men, or think of feminism working on men. Some part of what this entails can, I think, be seen in the way that the study of masculinity itself has become more intensified in the last few years--much of it learning from feminist work on sexuality, gender, etc.; and/or forging ways of thinking the political and representational significance of masculinities.

This, at any rate, has been the path that much of my own work has followed since Men in Feminism--trying to think the issue of gender relations and the construction of masculinity, specifically within the massive array of the popular discourses of our stage of capitalist culture--dealing, that is, with what I call the popular-cultural-commodity text. It's often (usually) astonishing, frustrating and depressing to be subjected to those texts and discourses, and to recognise in them and through them something about the state of our culture's understanding of the politics of gender. In that regard, just before the ICA event, the future of feminism had been sketched out by Newsweek with its dead-end vision of a "post-feminist" ideology--and the same discourse (i.e. Vanity Fair) now announces in 1994 the evolution from "post-feminism" to "Do-Me-Feminism."

In terms of men's involvement with feminism, while working on my recent book Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production, I thought to find what was almost an allegory of popular culture's view of men and feminism in Elle magazine, where Clint Eastwood, of all people, professed himself to have always been pro-feminist and to be pro-choice. This is a man who at the time was being sued in a palimony suit by his long-time lover, Sondra Locke, on the grounds--among others--that he stunted her career and forced her to have a tubal ligation. Nobody really knows who was telling what truth in that matter, but the contradiction itself is interesting as a question about men's relation to feminism. Particularly interesting is the fact that Eastwood saw the need--authentic or not--to position himself positively in relation to feminism. I don't know that many people would take seriously the idea of Eastwood as an active feminist, but even he has certainly heard something and has felt the need to respond.

The same kind of formation, the same kind of need to respond was being provoked at the time in 1990 but at the high culture end of our everyday scale, by a splashy art exhibition in Philadelphia--"Making their Mark: Women Move into the Mainstream." I'm thinking particularly of a review by Arthur Danto in The Nation which questioned the usefulness to feminism of exactly the move into the mainstream, while at the same time critically evaluating the women's work in the show. Danto's efforts at hearing seemed clumsy and insincere, always falling back into the systems and structures of the kind of criticism that has chronically privileged men's production and inhibited women from moving into the mainstream--or indeed into anything.

Of course, I'm setting up these two men, Eastwood and Danto (a more unlikely pair one might not imagine!); that is, as a man I'm critiquing their relation to feminisms, implicitly being holier than them, seeing them as merely "good boys," as inauthentic and insincere. When I do that, I can be understood as entering into a quite familiar kind of rivalry with such men. As many feminists have pointed out, such a move is a familiar one in our cultures; indeed it's a standard and powerful cultural narrative: men set themselves into opposition with other men in order to win the approval of, or even just to win, women. People like Eve Sedgwick and Nancy Miller have elaborated upon the cultural truth that all relations between men depend on this kind of mediation through women, where women are reduced to being the stakes in a homosocial or homoerotic struggle. This is a serious problem for the project of a male feminism, knowing that even working on ourselves, working on masculinity and so on, can be understood as business as usual, as yet another arena in which the systems and games of male prerogative and power are played out.

It seems to me that it's at this point that men who are near feminism can do nothing more than make an overt appeal to politics. That is, if the structural imperative will always have us situated in this homosocial rivalry, we perhaps need to take on the burden of that but to suggest at the same time that some ways of engaging in this rivalry are going to be useful to feminisms and others aren't. In other words, part of the project of working feminism on men is going to involve claiming our male feminism, not in relation to women, but in relation to other men.

Here, obviously, I'm arguing for the possibilities of political critique. And arguing too--perhaps somewhat naively or utopianly--that structural imperatives, structural constraints are there to be changed, that they can be modified by their context and by the tendency of the political will that fuels our actions. Male feminist relations to other men might have to become overtly politicised then--antagonistic rather than simply agonistic and opportunist as they usually are.

I'm not sure that any of this will sound very convincing, but that's part of the problem. There's no evidence of it, no clue about what this overtly political claim, this critical struggle between men, might look like. Perhaps the best I can do here is to point hopefully at a particular text, a particular popular cultural text which has some of the impetus, at least, of what I'm talking about: the movie, The Accused, and is normally assumed to be based upon the infamous gang-rape of a women in New Bedford bar in the mid-80s. Jody Foster stars as the woman who is raped and persists in bringing the case to trial. Her case finally depends upon the testimony of a fraternity boy who would have to testify against his own friend, and in a sense against himself because he watched the assault and rape without doing anything about it. At first he's dissuaded by his friend from testifying. When he comes to the DA's office to announce his refusal, he is confronted by the Jody Foster character. All she does, in effect, is ask him if he's like all the rest of the men--asks him in other words, how deep his complicity with his own gender is going to go. By whatever route, he decides not to be complicit and he lands up finally testifying for the successful prosecution of the men who encouraged the rape.

For me The Accused portrays a certain psychological truth at the point when the Foster character asks the boy whether he's scared, and he agrees that he is. And yet the movie resists the temptation to heroise this man for doing what he does. Instead it heroises the women who get together to resist and combat the gender solidarity of the rapists and their audience. It establishes a gender solidarity of women--the two women of totally different classes and indeed interests--against the men. It's this as much as anything else that might persuade you--if you were into this sort of classifying--to classify The Accused as a feminist film. But it can be read too as a male feminist film since it gives this crucial function to the renunciation of the gender interest of this fresh-faced fraternity boy who, with nothing to gain, speaks out to fight for women's.

I'm not meaning to suggest that his position, or the film's, is unambiguous or altogether unproblematical--all kinds of criticisms can be made, including the idea that in some way it's all too appropriate an allegory to show that the women's victory depends upon a mere boy. But I'm pointing to it merely as one small instance where the usual cultural narratives by which we live are made to bear more weight and strain than usual. To underscore the importance of his position and indeed the position of the film, you have only to look at a movie that was showing at the same time as The Accused, Working Girl (with Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford). There we see an altogether opposite kind of situation. The two women protagonists, a working class secretary and her boss, are separated by class just as much as the women in The Accused, but they never come to the same solidarity. They fight; they go head to head in a battle for the single position that the male world of this film will allow for women at the top of the corporate hierarchy. The mediating male figure, played by Harrison Ford, never contemplates the simple action of suggesting that the corporate hierarchy should allow both women in. Instead, he chooses, legislates, between them in a classic male gesture which, furthermore, is then brutally given the name love. At the risk, then, of invoking the usual Oedipal narratives and interpretations that are often used as accusations against the male feminist, perhaps I can say that the moral of the comparison here is this: that men might think about acting less out of what we tend to call love, and more out of a kind of fear.

This is where I can turn to the issue of performance art, funnily enough or perhaps predictably enough, with this notion of fear--a fear of what exactly, I don't know; but a fear that I want to suggest can be turned towards and can become part of the necessarily political gestures and intonations that I've been alluding to. My own involvement with and interest in feminism obviously has many overdetermined roots and origins, but I know that at least some small part of it derives from watching performances as a young man in the mid-seventies. I recall particularly two performance artists, Gina Pane and Renate Bertlmann, and a couple of their works in particular: Gina Pane's Action-Psyche, of which I saw two versions (the second more frightening that the first, perhaps because of the sheer fact of facing a repetition of Pane cutting her body with razor blades and sewing herself up again); and Bertlmann's Pantomime where, dressed in what was supposed to be (and I suppose was) the very stuff of my young male fantasies--stockings, garter belt, and so on--she has sex not with me but with a pantomime mask.

The primary force and impact for me of these kinds of performances was produced, inevitably, by their proposal of the female body and their construction of female agency in a way which challenged my male imaginary and fetishism, and my whole sense of the female body, its place and its inscription in a culture which would have it read my way and not their way. But more than that: these performances drove home to me what it meant for women to control the means of enunciation, to be the point of origin of their own discourses. The power of the enunciation in performances by Gina Pane, Renate Bertlmann, and others was such that I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that that's where I can remember being most effectively interpellated to recognise women as agents, as the producers of their own discourse.

The first shock of the scarifying self-mutilation that Gina Pane inflicted upon herself, her aggressive nonchalance about the body's pain and its boundaries; the experience in Bertlmann's work of being confronted by a woman who wants something from me other than whatever I might have wanted her to want; all this called up in me a certain fear--which I interpreted as something that these women wanted, these women who were seizing the discourses of the body that I already culturally "knew," and who were turning them back on me. For myself, then, the subsequent process of coming to understand--and importantly to utilise--that fear, that kind of fear, has been an experience that I can't help but call an experience of feminism, nearby feminism (not in it); an experience of feminism working on me myself: the lesson of how to recognise a productive fear of what women might want--what they might want from me, from other homomorphs, from the systems to whose control men seem to be born.

No doubt it would be easy to explain or interpret the kind of lesson that I'm talking about here as a little narrative about sado-masochism, or specifically about the narcissistic rewards and gratifications of masochism. And often that's how I've explained it to myself. But at the same time I have a sense--conducted through the bit of my psyche that's not content to be just a good boy, that wants to be more than a good boy--I have the sense that the narcissistic rewards of masochism and its sadistic corollaries aren't what's at stake here exactly.

No doubt, too, it will be easy to notice a certain slippage between my account of the male fear in The Accused (an unnamed fear that's probably somewhat related to a fear of male power structures) and my account of this male spectator's fear at those performances (a fear much more attached to the body). But, again, I have the sense that this fear isn't explicable quite as a castration fear, confronted with the mutilation and perverse exhibition of the mother's body.

I don't really yet know what the boy in The Accused was admitting to be afraid of. And I don't know what I am admitting to being afraid of in Pane and Bertlmann. Indeed, I don't know exactly what kind of a fear it is. What I do know is that it turns out to be something that I can no longer distinguish from my desire to be more than a good boy in relation to feminism. Or perhaps another way of saying it, it's a fear that I experience and have experienced as productive because of the way it lives right next door to what you might call the will to politics--to my desire to have my politics be always marked by the kind of experience that produced them. And that, I suppose, constitutes a certain kind of utopian moment.


Paul Smith is an associate professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at Carnegie Mellon University, and co-editor with Alice Jardine of Men in Feminism.