Gender: its value and its limitations

This is a talk I gave at a high table dinner at the ANU College Bruce Hall on Tuesday the 6th of August (republished with their permission). Thank you for the organisers at Bruce Hall for inviting me to speak. I had a great night!

Last weekend Patrick Crisius walked into a Walmart in El Paso Texas and opened fire, killing twenty people. Later that night Connor Betts walked into a bar in Dayton Ohio and also started shooting, murdering nine people, including his sister. Over the course of 24 hours another 29 people died in the United States due to mass shootings.

Back in Texas information soon came out about the motives of the shooter, who had posted a manifesto on the site 8chan. In his manifesto he said the attack was due to his opposition to immigration and he said the inspiration that he took from the shooting in Christchurch earlier this year, conducted by Brenton Tarrant.

There is one thing that brings these three people, two connected in politics and third not, together. All three were men. Look at the statistics and you’ll see that men conduct the vast majority of mass shootings in the United States, as well as the majority of violent crimes, domestic violence, and terrorists attacks at a global level.

Now, I’m not to lecture you men in the room about your behaviour. Maybe controversially I actually don’t believe that those of you who are men, or who are white, for example, are culpable in these attacks. Just as I do not see every Muslim person as being culpable in every Islamist terrorist attack. I am not here to tell you all to check your toxic masculinity – a very much undefined and unclear notion – nor to blame your expression of masculinity for what happened over the weekend.

What I do want to argue however is that looking at stats like this I think it is impossible for us ignore to gendered nature of these events. In fact I think that the very existence of this gendered divide highlights to us the very strong role that gender still plays in our society. At the same time however, and almost paradoxically, I also want to argue that these events highlight the very real limitations of modern discourse around gender.

Why gender is important

It is easy today to dismiss ‘gender studies’ as a niche subject, or even to dismiss the discussion of gender at all as a concern of the past.

In fact there’s even an entire political philosophy dedicated to this practice. Post-feminism argues that equality for women has already been won, and that feminism have even started to go too far. Now it’s time to move on.

Even my focus on post-feminism highlights an issue with discussions we have about gender in many ways. In our modern discourse gender is only about women, or is something only women should or are concerned about. When we think of gender it is easy to think of ‘women’s issues’ – abortion, family care, domestic labour, the wage gap etc. Alternatively discourse about gender is turning towards debate about trans rights and an array of non-binary identities.

This is something we see in gender studies courses here at the ANU. Gender courses are dominated by women, and increasingly trans and non-binary students. The students attending are also a particular type of woman – primarily, although not exclusively, white and middle class.

None of these things are inherently bad, and I’m certainly not having a go at white middle class women for enrolling in gender studies. Moreover, the issues I’ve detailed – abortion, family care, domestic labour, the wage gap etc. are deeply important. Just today we saw debate in the New South Wales to finally see the decriminalisation of abortion in the state – a vitally important decision that has come far too late. Actually in some ways it is good that women still dominate gender studies, and it’s even better than more non-binary and trans people are participating in the space. It turns gender studies into what some in my department call a queer space, and that is not inherently a bad thing. I am certainly not here to line up with post feminists in arguing that equality has been won and we should move on.

Yet at the same time I think there is a problem with the way we think about gender. This narrowed view suggests that gender studies, unlike, for example sociology more broadly, is only valuable to a particular segment of the population. That concerns me as I think it means we miss key parts of the discussion, limiting our capacity to engage deeply in debates about the role gender plays in our society.

Tonight therefore I want to do two things: convince those of you who have never considered taking a gender studies course, and potentially don’t think gender is important, that it is. And I want to get those of you who are already on board to think about gender it in a slightly different way.

I want to talk today about how gender is something that affects us all and in turn is something that deeply influences some of the most important topics of our day. But more than that I want to argue that because of our very limited approach to thinking about gender we are missing the nuanced discussions we need to have about it.

Domestic violence and terrorism

Let’s have a look at two examples to explain what I mean.

First, we can return back to the issue I started with in this talk, the gendered nature of violence, extremism and terrorism. This ranges from terrorist acts to intimate partner violence. As I said earlier we know that the large majority of terrorist attacks are carried out by men, as is, despite the arguments of detractors, the vast majority of violence in the home. Yes, it is certainly true that men can and frequently are victims of domestic abuse, yes it is true that women join ISIS and fight, but these are overwhelmingly gendered crimes.

What does this tell us?

I think there are two ways we can think about this question, one far too shallow, the other much more interesting.

The first approach is the one that I think dominates much of debate around these issues today – a focus on the idea of masculinity, and toxic masculinity specifically. In this argument gendered violence is due to something going wrong with masculinity in our society – that our society has infected masculinity to turn it ‘toxic’. This toxic shift is what causes men to become violent.

The problem with this argument is that it argues that there is, out there somewhere, some inherent, pure and good masculinity – a masculinity we simply want men to return to. These arguments, whether intended or not, treat masculinity, and in turn violence, as something that is essential to ‘men’ – a notion that in and of itself is ill defined and heavily contested.

Where this leads us is to a very individualised approach to understanding violence. Violence in this system is about men being bad, about men being toxic, not about any form of social process. It is the nature of ‘manhood’ that is to blame, and in turn it is solely on the shoulders of individual men to change their behaviours.

A second, and I argue far more interesting and nuanced argument, is that violence is the result of particular social processes, ones which, because of the gendered nature of our capitalist society, result in men taking out their frustrations in more violent ways. In a recent book on domestic abuse for example (See What You Made Me Do), the journalist Jess Hill argues that domestic abuse is largely about control – it is about one person exercising control over the other. Hill argues that men have been socially conditioned, I would argue due to the historic and continued role they have been expected to play in our economic system, to expect a level of control, both in their homes and in society overall. When men don’t feel like they have that control they often take it out in the home, sometimes violently.

In another example, the academic Michael Kimmel argues that violent far right organisations, ones he studied both in Europe and the United States, are dominated by young men. These men, he argues, join these groups not because they are true believers in the ideology, but to deep feelings of social isolation, and a lack of purpose. Far right groups are often the first place to make these men feel included. In turn men, compared to women, are more likely to find these groups appealing for two reasons; (1) they have been socialised to expect some level of control in their life, meaning that when they lack it they search for it in other ways, and (2) recent social changes, in particular the shift to a service economy has deeply impacted men’s roles in society, leaving many feeling lost and isolated.

I find this approach far more valuable as it presents an analysis that includes gender as part of our thinking, but doesn’t limit itself to gender. It sees gender as one element of our social processes, but not the only one. Going back for example to domestic abuse, while we know the crime is gendered and that negative perceptions play a strong role, we also know that other factors play an important role – health services, homelessness, socio-economic status for example. Even the density of alcohol providers in a local community has a correlation with the level of domestic violence and abuse. Gender is a part of the puzzle, but it is not the only part of the puzzle. Such an approach allows us to understand this phenomenon at a larger level – to understand why men commit this crime more commonly, but also why others do as well.

The Manosphere

Let us reflect on this in our second example – my particular research focus – the ‘manosphere’.

The manosphere is a large online space focused on men’s issues, self help, and primarily sexual and romantic relationships. I’m studying three groups within the manosphere. Incels, who believe that they are so ugly and socially awkward they will never get a romantic relationship. Men Going Their Own Way, or MGTOW, who argue that relationship norms and gendered relationships are so bad that they have to opt out of relationships all together. And finally The Red Pill, who also agree that relationship standards are bad, but instead focus on a range of self-help tips, ranging from going to the gym to learning ‘game’ — i.e. how to pick up women — as a solution to this problem.

When I speak about the manosphere people immediately assume it to be a toxic space. I often get people who say “wow that must be really tough to study”. In many ways it is. There is a large amount of misogyny in the space, and it is often awful to read.

Yet, at the same time, there is something fascinating about it, and I often myself feeling awkward reading posts. That is because I often agree with the complaints that these men are making about society.

Let’s take one example: incels. There are lots of misunderstandings about incels out there at the moment, and of course it is a diverse community, with lots of different ideas. But one thing is common – they generally believe that the beauty standards of our society are structured pretty terribly. They believe that because of their facial bone structure, their height, their looks overall that society, and by extension, women, judge them as inherently ugly.

I read this and I cannot help but agree. Our standards of beauty in our society are pretty fucked. They’re standards based entirely in capitalist system that wants people to buy lots of beauty products. They are right when they say our beauty standards are biased against short people. In fact many of these ideas line up with feminist thinking.

But this is where I hit a wall with incels. Because they do not make these same connections. Instead, similar to the question of violence and extremism that I discussed earlier, they see this issue solely through the lens of gender. Our beauty standards, according to many of them, are created by women, and feminism more specifically, and therefore women are to blame for their misery. Worse, many look at examples of women judging men because of their appearance and see these behaviours as somehow inherent to womanhood. This leads to a deep misogyny, and can in turn to violent attacks. We’ve unfortunately seen multiple attacks of these kind in recent years, including when Elliot Rodger’s killed six people in California in 2014, and when Alex Minassian murdered 10 in Toronto just last year.

Here we see the real challenge with the manosphere. They are right to bring up many of the issues they bring up. They are right to point out some of the gendered dymanics behind these issues. They are wrong however to see gender as the only part of the equation. As we are certainly wrong to assume that terrorism is an essential trait in men they are wrong to essentialise their concerns – to somehow assume that there are inherent traits associated with women, that these traits are all bad, and to turn that understanding in misogyny, abuse and violence.

Gender: its value and its limitations

And so we come to the end.

Here is the point I want to emphasise.

Gender, and in particular our social gendered relations, are an important issue. In fact it is just as important a point of discussion today as it ever has been, despite what the postfeminists may tell you. It’s a topic we should be bringing into all of our analysis – whether its on terrorism, online abuse, or even issues like climate change and environmental protection.

But, and I hope I have shown this through both of my examples, gender is also only one part of the equation. We cannot ignore it, but we should also not make it our only focus. I think our limited approach to gender has shifted it to the point where we often think about it as a silo – as a totalising explanatory point, not as something that is part of a bigger analysis.

So think about gender, make it part of your analysis, and expand the way you think about it. But don’t just think about gender either.


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