By Michael Kehler
With the hearings that led to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a United States Supreme Court justice still in our rear-view mirrors, what have men learned from the events of the past few weeks?
I watched the hearings streaming live on my phone. That moment in time will be with me forever. Over 20 million others also watched, transfixed by those live-broadcast hearings.
The millions who viewed the hearings saw the courageous narrative of one woman who opted to speak up and speak out about sexual assault. But we also saw the defence and reaffirmation of heteronormative masculinity that rests at the core of a gender politics so finely scripted in these hearings.
As a masculinities scholar, I was struck by the familiar narrative of masculinity as I listened to Kavanaugh during the hearings. Kavanaugh’s recollections, reflections and details of his boyhood days are similar to what many (but not all) boys might claim as their own. Kavanaugh dismissed drunkenness as normal and acceptable among boys. Drinking beer, football training, beach parties and being among “the boys” are part of a long narrative of dominant masculinity in North America.
Kavanaugh normalized a set of practices of masculinity that resonated not because they are valid, but because they show the dominating, oppressive and typical ways some men wield power over others. The reverberation of this message with the Republican party and a president who claims that “locker room talk” is normal and nothing more than boys being boys is disturbing.
Kavanaugh revealed what masculinity was to him then and validated what masculinity is to him now.
Kavanaugh’s 1982 calendar reads like an archival rendering of privileged adolescent masculinity in the 1980s. Boyhood and being a boy, according to the calendar, was a series of validating and reaffirming “boyish” events. Kavanaugh affirmed his place within and among the masculinizing privileged boys familiar to us all. He showed the taken-for-granted ways that he had participated as just “one of the boys” doing what boys typically do.
There were no apologies, no reflections, not even an acknowledgement of his actions as questionable or dubious. There was no reflection of his privileged white, middle-class masculinity. On that he was silent, but his actions, his temperament and his calendar spoke volumes.
Kavanaugh’s performance while in the hearings was enough to raise concerns from some senators about his conduct, his attitude, his ability to assume the job of Supreme Court justice. Other senators saw the narrative of his life as typical, common and nothing more than a window on life as it was. They argued that the future Supreme Court justice was just like the rest of the boys. But being like the “rest of the boys” does not legitimize or validate bad behaviour.
A lesson of survival among men?
Maintaining membership by acting like the rest of the boys is a lesson of survival among men. President Donald Trump said “it’s a scary time for men in America.” His claim suggests that from Trump’s perspective, there are no differences among men; they are all the same.
Times have been unsettling and indeed scary for many men for a long time, but not for the reasons Trump is suggesting. Trump failed to consider the true situation of men in a nuanced and complex way. He ignored the diversity of masculinities by race, class, sexual orientation, ethnic location and religion. In so doing, he collapsed all masculinities and took away the agency of men — their ability to act differently and to be unlike the rest of “the boys.”
This singular, unified version of masculinity is powerful. The suggestion that all boys and men share similar positions of power and privilege contributes to an “us/them,” “men/women” divide. Trump effectively reaffirmed that the ability to speak and to be believed is what it always has been, a narrative of power and privilege.
Sexual assault, rape culture and the voices of many women continue to struggle to be believed and to be heard.
What have men learned?
What have men learned from this series of events and who is listening?
Men need to see, hear and mobilize on the lessons they are learning about themselves as men and the culture of masculinities they navigate every day. Men need to stop legitimizing, validating and excusing the harassing, objectifying and sexualizing of women along with the marginalizing and belittling of other men who do not subscribe to the Kavanaugh-esque rules of boys being boys.
To speak up and speak out within and among men and boys, alongside women and girls as allies, is to push back on the myth that boys and men are naturally aggressive, dominating and oppressive. Masculinity is not simply genetic, we learn how to become certain kinds of boys and we also learn which boys are more valued than others.
The story told during the Senate confirmation hearings is one that showcases the state of gender relations in North America. Kavanaugh has attempted to show the nation that his experiences as a young man are typical, normal and simply the way it is for all boys. This is North American masculinity and Kavanaugh makes no excuses but instead is exalted as a typical man.
We are left asking ourselves what are men learning about being men in the current climate of post #MeToo? Why the defensiveness, the polarizing of men against women as though men will “lose” something by speaking up and speaking out against sexual assaults and the oppression of others who are different?
Membership does have its privilege, but that does not justify the silence of some men. The white upper middle-class privilege we witnessed on stage during the Senate hearings was unsettling and disturbing because it does not reflect the experiences or attitudes of all men. Men have an opportunity to, particularly now, resist and be unlike the rest of the boys.
Men can be agents of and for change. The dominant narrative of being one of the boys is fractured and we can rewrite it but only if men and boys resist the simplification and dumbing down of what it means to be a man.
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