Hello and welcome to a bit of an experimental series. Starting today, every other installment of guy talk (about once a month) we’ll be going through Bell Hooks’ book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love” as a way of prompting conversations about maleness. That doesn’t mean other conversations can’t happen here as well. Think of these headers as conversation prompts in addition to whatever is on your mind, not a replacement or a limitation. I don’t want to call this a book club because I’m going to be writing for people who haven’t read the book. But if you want to read along, you are certainly welcome to do so. And as always, this is a trans-inclusive space and everyone is welcome to comment.
Each installment will be covering a different topic she addresses in her book. I’ve collapsed a longer introduction below, but you can skip if you want to get straight to today’s topic.
I’ve adored Bell Hooks for a long time, though I have to admit that I am much more familiar with her earlier books than her later works. But she was such a refreshing breath of strong powerful CANDID thought when I was first discovering feminism, that no matter what else I’ve read I’ve always come back to putting it in discussion with her, especially her “Ain’t I a Woman.” So I kind of felt embarassed that I was completely unaware that in 2004 she wrote not one but two books about men — “The Will to Change” and “We Real Cool.” “The Will to Change” is the one I’ll be talking about, since “We Real Cool” is specifically about black masculinity which is an area I have no firsthand experience in.
Now one thing I have to point out is that writing in 2004, Hooks falls into the trap of thinking genitals=gender. It’s hard to overstate just how commonplace this was in even academic writing at the time. I did a deep dive into her work and reactions to her work and found that there are definitely people who thinks she is TERF-ish. I do not personally see it — she disagrees with people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, but she disagrees with them as fellow women — but I do not want to invalidate what others see. See that’s the thing, I wouldn’t see it. Not being a trans woman of color, the hill I’m standing on is too far afield. I’m certainly not in a place to make a definitive statement. I wanted to put it out there that some are not happy with how she addresses the topics (though I was unable to find a consensus. If I had this wouldn’t even be a question no matter what my personal view). If you are interested, here is a conversation she had with Laverne Cox that I think shows Hooks both at her best and her most complicated.
When I learned how some in the trans community felt about her, I considered flushing this series. What I decided was that there are times when one decides to study voices even if they are problematic, especially if it is not the problematic elements we are hoping to emulate. But anyone reading this who thinks I am downplaying or minimizing the issues, please let me know so I can improve or abort this series. I admire Hooks because I think she promotes marginalized voices, and I would hate for marginalized voices in criticism of her to be silenced. As for right now, In my opinion Hooks is an imperfect voice worthy of being heard. It is most likely inevitable that as time goes on, she will be replaced with even better and more nuanced takes. Such is the progressive ethos.
Getting back to the book, The introduction itself begins with a “there needs to be more of a focus on men’s needs” critique that, if it were coming from almost anyone else, would make me roll my eyes. But Hooks’ purpose is not to coddle men but to to dismantle the patriarchy, and she has the experience and expertise to be listened to on how to do that, so I dived in trusting her.
Hooks begins her book by talking about how important male love is supposed to be to women in this culture. But she doesn’t present that in essentialist terms. The patriarchy teaches girls that father love and acceptance is more of an achievement and a sign of worth than mother love. A mother is expected to dote and faun. To catch the eye of the father, that is a sign of whether the world at large will love you. But at the same time, the father is pressured to not give his love too freely — both for fear of being seen as weak and for fear of making his children weak.
For this first week, I want to really dive into an early thesis of hers: “The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying “please do not tell us what you feel.”
Taken at face value, is that a statement you agree with? These days, I can’t help but compare any characterization of a toxic male with Donald Trump. Did I see his enablers not caring how he feels? No, the opposite. It is his employees, especially the women, who were supposed to swallow their own emotions in order to bolster him. So at first glance, this is a hard point for me to square with Bell’s opinion.
But on the other hand it is true that while Trump as The Big Man had wide latitude to fret and flail, there were limits that kept his emotional outbursts from being authentic. He could not say he was scared. He could not say he feared his own weakness. He could say things were “SAD!” but he could not be sincerely regretful or tender.
Was that even possible for him? Who knows. But it wouldn’t be allowed. And even if he tweeted out some authentic weakness, the people around him NEEDED him to be the Alpha, so they wouldn’t accept it. Just like they did with everyone, the people around him would only hear what they want to hear. So they let the tyrant be angry, petty, vindictive. But never truly vulnerable.
Of course none of this is about having sympathy for a monster. It’s about fighting the forces that created the monster. A patriarchy that is both overly permissive of men lashing out at their worst and yet strictly prohibitive of them being authentic and open.
Hooks is writing before Trump, but she says similar things about her own past relationships — that when she was in her twenties she had so much work to do on herself that she took it as an affront if the men around her were not stoic and all-suffering. Because the world gave men such a loud voice, she had a hard time letting the men in her own life have any say at all. And a big part of that was because the patriarchy teaches that men are just fine except for the women who cause them pain. So it was hard to see a man be sad without hearing an implicit accusation. She doesn’t specifically say it, but another element of the fear of men emoting is that an emotional man is thought to be a man out of control, and out of control men are too often violent men.
So what do you think? In what ways are men allowed to share more than women? In what ways are men more restricted in what they are allowed to share? Where are men given too much freedom regarding their emotions, and where are they given not enough?
In 4 weeks: Boyhood, Patriarchy, and “acting out”