Photo: Clare O'Shannessy
This is a version of the talk given by Denise Thompson at 'That's Radical Feminism' the Spinifex 25th anniversary event held in Melbourne, 9 Sept 2016.
I've been thinking about how to theorise masculinity for many years, not because I’m interested in men as such, but because I want to understand the kind of the human beings that do the kinds of things that men do, and what it is that motivates them. But I’m only interested in masculinity as a personality characteristic to the extent that it is characteristic of men who embrace the meanings and values of male domination, because there’s something more than individuals involved. There’s some kind of imperative driving the individuals. They don’t come out of nowhere, they don’t get together and collude in their murderous mayhem. There must be something else separate and apart from individuals, something that motivates them to commit the same forms of violence even though they are not personally acquainted with each other. That ‘something else’ is the culture of male supremacy.
So my question is two-fold: what kinds of men are made by and make male supremacy, and how does that affect the social world we all live in? I’m interested in masculinity primarily as a cultural imperative, but also as a personality characteristic of those individual men who embrace the culture. As culture, it’s both individual and social. It’s how men are made under conditions of male supremacy, but it also shapes and structures institutions and affects the lives of all of us. We can’t avoid it by avoiding interpersonal interactions with men (or, in the case of men, avoiding its worst manifestations). As meaning and value, that is, as culture, masculinity permeates the social world throughout, structuring institutions, creating the world-taken-for-granted, and presenting itself as a harmless ‘difference’ while disguising its true nature as the prerogative of men made powerful (including the power of physical violence) by a system whose reason for existence is to do exactly that.
Eventually I realised that the type of masculinity I was looking for is characterised by an overweening sense of entitlement at others’ expense and such a crazed dissociation from reality that they are able to ignore the damage they do. That is the kind of men bred by male supremacy, but it is also how social reality is structured—through entitlement for some privileged men, disentitlement for hundreds of millions of people (and ultimately, everyone), and the insanity of believing that you can base social arrangements on the belief that only men count as ‘human’. There is male entitlement whenever men amass wealth endlessly at the expense of most of the world’s population, whenever men demand and get sexual access to the bodies of women and children, whenever they wage war, bomb hospitals and massacre civilians, whenever they pick up guns and shoot random bystanders, whenever they murder ‘their’ wives and children, whenever they use women’s bodies to supply them with children (as in so-called ‘surrogacy’), whenever they demand to be acknowledged as ‘women’, whenever they use their power to harass, deprive or punish the innocent.
Neo-liberalism is the political aspect of male entitlement, with its hatred of government initiatives for the common good, and its vicious treatment of the people who fail to thrive under the system that bloats their own self-importance, whether those people are the unemployed, asylum seekers, people with disabilities, or women trying to escape from violent men. All of these are also examples of dissociation, of a crazed detachment from a common humanity and even from reality itself.
At the same time, it must be said that male supremacy is not the whole of society, that human decency is possible even in the midst of the dehumanisation of male supremacy. It must be possible, or the human race would have ceased to exist long ago, so lethal is the system of male power.
I’ve finished writing a book-length manuscript on the subject of masculinity. It’s divided into two parts, the first of which sets the scene, while the second investigates capitalism as the modern form of male power. In Part I, I draw out a number of strands of what I believe is involved in the masculinity I am referring to. I discuss: the ‘masculinities’ literature and its limitations for this project; notions of culture and symbolic violence; right-wing discourse as the ideological justification for male supremacy; the alternative to male domination, which I call ‘genuine humanity’; and what is involved in masculine entitlement and dissociation.
Part II discusses capitalism because wealth is the modern form of male power now that such forms as royalty, aristocracy, chieftainship, etc. have vanished or become irrelevant. It discusses the fact that wealth is owned by men (and by women attached to men), and then goes on to discuss also a number of capitalism’s standard operating procedures, namely: ‘primitive accumulation’ or ‘accumulation by dispossession’; ‘inequality’ (which I argue is more accurately called domination); tax havens; an interesting economic framework called Modern Money Theory and its implications for a genuinely human economy; poverty and recent claims that ‘extreme poverty’ has been reduced; and the finance industry (insofar as I can understand it). I also briefly discuss the question of whether capitalism can be redeemed (no, not unless its nature as male supremacy is acknowledged, and then it might not look like capitalism).
I’ve also been investigating a number of other institutions for the extent to which they display the characteristics of masculinity I am talking about, namely, arrogant male entitlement at others’ expense and dissociation from common humanity. Those other institutions are: surrogacy; transsexualism; fascism; and US ‘welfare reform’. But once I had written up capitalism, there wasn’t enough room left in the book for anything else. The sections on surrogacy, transsexualism and fascism are largely finished, and I’m currently writing up a final version of the US ‘welfare reform’ material.
Denise Thompson is the author of Reading Between the Lines: A Lesbian Feminist Critique of Feminist Accounts of Sexuality
A critical analysis of feminist writings on sexuality from a radical feminist and lesbian feminist standpoint. Critical of libertarianism, Denise Thompson provides a detailed analysis of the mechanisms of domination and the ways in which feminist theory is marginalised. A must-read for any serious feminist thinker.