Gender violence conversations require accurate assumptions

Carrigan Miller

By Elizabeth Levi

I went to the Jackson Katz event, held on April 6, because I was interested in how masculinity studies plays out on college campuses and in the world of feminism generally. I felt informed on the theory behind the importance of studying masculinity as a way to undo the “othering” of other groups in relation to men. But on a practical level, I’m not aware of how scholars and activists act on this theory. Katz began his talk by discussing feminist theory and the importance of introspection for addressing the patriarchal structures we live in that creates violence in our society. Katz claims that he has figured out a way to talk about gender problems with people who normally turn away from these kinds of discussions. I was on board for this part of the talk. What began to make me uneasy was Katz’s advocacy for a prevailing “masculine” leadership style to take over the feminist mission of changing men’s behavior towards women.

The assumption in Katz’s argument for more men taking on this role is that there is something about “male” nature that wants to do violence to women, and there is something about “female” nature that is easily victimized. This is a deeply problematic assumption. There are feminine and masculine qualities in every body, and I hope to live in a world where these nuances can be expressed in a unique and powerful way for every individual. Katz’s message, if adopted without a grain of salt, could result in a ideology where men feel like taking the mic and “standing up” for women for their protection. This would just be a contest to see who is the better “man,” and in this case, “better” is being nice to women.

A major part of the feminist methodology is understanding how the feminine is consumed and constructed as subordinate within a patriarchy. Jackson Katz is correct in his analysis that in order for gender violence to be reduced, we need to understand how masculinity is also a part of the patriarchy and how this institution affects men in a variety of harmful ways. Yet Katz misunderstands the relationship that needs to subsequently change between feminine and masculine attributes. Katz’ advocacy for “male” leadership as a way to keep men in line and treat women with respect only further perpetuates that men’s nature is violent and that women’s nature is subordinate. This is a destructive way of treating individuals and theorizing gender violence.

Katz misses the point that feminism calls for: dismantling the idea that the feminine is passive and not as powerful or deserving as the masculine. Uplifting feminine attributes and qualities needs to happen in tandem with understanding how masculine qualities are made powerful. The goal is to remove these default assumptions, not keep them as the norm. Katz instead uses his acknowledged privilege and position to merely nod to the feminist method without understanding his position in it. The call for change that Katz advocates for is perhaps beneficial for men educating other men and inviting introspection into their lives. This call should not be mistaken, however, as a feminist method or as a mouthpiece for the work that feminist leaders have been doing for decades. I fear that Katz leadership will only further silence and subordinate women, without giving feminine voices the space to be heard in the same way he knows he can be.

I value that Katz’s presence on campus is inviting these conversations to be happening among the student body. But I hope we can use Katz’s influence and message to dismantle the current gender hierarchy instead of just trying to find a solution to the violence within it. For example, Katz’s lecture could have occurred alongside giving victims of sexual assault a voice in these discussions, instead of having a male theorist of masculinity studies facilitate this conversation for them. No idyllic feminist virtues are ever going to magically touch the soul of every human, but we could all benefit from introspection in how we play out and challenge our stereotypes with the people around us.