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Can men be feminists?

Can men be feminists?

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Published by Ash Hibbert
In line with international trends, the “Woman’s Studies” program at the University of Melbourne has just been renamed the “Gender Studies” program. What are the implications of such a shift for feminist literary and or cultural studies in the academy?
In line with international trends, the “Woman’s Studies” program at the University of Melbourne has just been renamed the “Gender Studies” program. What are the implications of such a shift for feminist literary and or cultural studies in the academy?

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Published by: Ash Hibbert on Nov 25, 2012
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12/29/2013

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 In line with international trends, the “Woman’s Studies” program at the University of  Melbourne has just been renamed the “Gender Studies” program. What are theimplications of such a shift for feminist literary and or cultural studies in theacademy?
While Gynocriticism was self-conscious of women’s writing as gendered, only in theearly 80s did “Gender theory began to develop … in feminist thought”, and gender inwritings by male authors began to be seen as a rule rather than as an exception(Showalter 4-5). In
 Australian Feminist Studies
, Terry Threadgold announced that“The Women’s Studies Centre at Monash University has just decided, in 1997, tochange its name to The Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies.” (Threadgold 43)The “problematic nomination” (Threadgold 39) indicates a formal broadening of thescopes of feminism to a less gender-specific approach, and could be read as an openinvitation to male academics to legitimise their self-proclaimed ‘male feminist’ status.Whether a man can be a feminist, however, is still contentious. Men’sinvolvement in Feminist Studies is sometimes seen as potentially appropriation,invasion, and valorised colonisation (Boone and Cadden 3). Assuming that men
can
 have a “possible” contribution to make to feminist criticism, how should such acontribution best be made?Various critics will be analysed in terms of what such a union of Masculineand Feminine studies can mean, and whether it is doomed to a ‘divorce’. Showalter who proposes a compromise that ensures a ‘safe’ segregation between gender-specificstudies will follow Heath, who is much against allowing for any exception to the ruleof chauvinism. Boone, whose deliberate choice to write personally and his editorialchoice of an all-male authorial line-up for their compilation can be understood better in terms of an attempt to balance out the tendency of women to dominate thediscussion of men in feminism (Boone 18). Sedgwick, finally, will be analysed toquestion the assumptions behind perceived benefits of combining gay and lesbiantheory, implicitly through Gender Studies.Pessimistic as to men’s possible contribution to Feminism is Heath, whose slightlydidactic, awkwardly written, and - as Boone will be later shown to suggest – 
 
generalising essay, argues that though men can position themselves in relation tofeminism, men are not completely able to
relate
to feminism. (Heath 1)“Men are the objects, part of the analysis, agents of the structure to betransformed, representative in, carriers of the patriarchal model.” (Heath 1) …“Feminism is a subject for women … it is their affair.” (Heath 9)Yet Heath does not exclude men from the formula, from the opportunity to be
involved 
indirectly in Feminism (Heath 14) – rather he states that men cannot befeminist or write feminist criticism. All a man can do is avoid being “anti feminist,supportive of the old oppressive structures” (Heath 9). Men can write about femalesexuality (Heath 12+13), they can be
 Pro-Feminist 
, but they cannot be Feminist.Heath’s refuses to even refer to
himself 
as an exception to the supposeduniversal bias of men towards women: “… I have to think [my] identity through in thesocial terms it carries at its center…” (Heath 10). As admirable as it is for Heath tostrive to keep in mind what he
represents
, he may have failed to appreciate that heonly comes to represent part of the patriarchy if he allows himself to be part of the patriarchy.Heath mentions Freud and Lacan’s frustration at the supposed failure of ‘woman’ to say what ‘she’ wants and thus prove that ‘she’ has her own voice (Heath13). In doing so he inadvertently gives reason that broadening the scope of women’sstudies to the study of gender is a negative shift, as it may ask women to consider their own gender ‘objectively’ – that is, as objects and thus through the eyes of men.Boone would, however, argue that objectifying gender would allow men to seethemselves as part of a gender.Heath’s assertion that though a woman’s status as a Feminist is not
a priori
(Heath 1) is further unfair, since he also believes in men’s status as masculine,misogynist, and patriarchal as
 given
. Though Heath states that “We know that there isno essential woman” (Heath 17) he does seem to believe in a common essence of man – ‘sexist’.Heath suggests that since only women have experienced the suffering,together, of the patriarchy, only women can be feminists: “The relation betweendiscourse and experience is
 politically
negotiable by women in respect of the realityof their position as objects of oppression.” (Heath 10) Men cannot share the status as
 
feminists, this means, as men have not experienced the suffering of being a woman ina man’s world.However, if patriarchy also entails the privileging of heterosexuality as well asnumerous other biological, ideological, and circumstantial conditions then perhaps allthose who have been disadvantaged by the patriarchy can to some extent empathisewith the plight of women. This also applies to Heath’s argument that the problemfacing men with feminist sympathies is that while in a position of privilege it isimpossible to consider the periphery. (Heath 25)Indeed, Hooks argues that “…patriarchy [is] harmful to men [,stripping them]of certain rights, imposing on them a sexist masculine identity.” (Hooks 69) Thissuggests that simply from a change of view point, even those men favoured by the patriarchy can gain an appreciation of the injustice that has been done to themselvesas well as to women. Heath, however, argues against the involvement of even thosemen who are already converted to the Feminist ‘agenda’.Instead of trying to speak for, or with female Feminists, the one permissibleavenue for self-proclaimed ‘male-feminists’ that Heath suggests, is “admiration”.(Heath 30). Rather than men trying to answer the question, ‘What does woman want’themselves and try calling themselves feminists, men should listen to the answer women have to give, in their own language, through their own eyes.Showalter echoes Heath’s wariness about permitting men the chance to be formallyrecognised as feminists – mentioning that “for this first wave of ‘male feminists’, thecall to develop an awareness of gender was initially heard not as an invitation to think about masculinity, but rather as a challenge to ‘master’ feminist criticism and tocorrect what they saw as its shortcomings and flaws.” (Showalter 6) Accordingly,Showalter would prefer that male feminist partake in Men’s Studies than in Women’sStudies, in which case Gender Studies is an ideal and
important 
environment for ‘male feminists’, for by rethinking “literary theory in the light of gender” critics areable to show “how talking about gender foregrounds the masculine constructs andassumptions of reader-response criticism.” (Showalter 8)With, and only with a commitment to dismantling sexism, can men “move usa step further towards post-patriarchy … together.” (Showalter 10 and 11) – Showalter appears unwilling to believe that men share this willingness.

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