The Reality of a "Men's Movement": Where Critical Discourse Dances with the Soul
June 12, 2015
As one who is committed to self-growth and collective healing, as well as critical academic conversation, I often feel torn between these two worlds, which are unfortunately too often at ideological odds with one another, and rarely agree. I recently read sociologist Michael Kimmel's Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012, 3rd ed.), an extended critique of American masculinities since the American Revolution, including the way masculinity has been defined, explored, practiced, and defended - often at the expense of women, minority groups, or any perceived "other." Kimmel eloquently explains how, in order to perpetuate a solid self- and economic-identity (which have become inextricably linked for most men), the American "self-made man" has tended to project his own insecurities onto any perceived threats to his established identity; shoring up his own anxious search for self through the exclusion of others (think resistance to women, African-Americans, or other minority groups in the workplace, for example).
While Kimmel goes the distance in outlining the history of American masculinity through a critical lens, what I felt was severely lacking were any concrete modern day solutions. Kimmel is extremely critical of the Bly/Meade/Moore-led Men's Movement of the 1990s as an anachronistic throwback to earlier times, including further cultural appropriation of Native American traditions, the exclusion of women, and an "essentialist" understanding of inherent male values (e.g., that there is an abiding masculine 'essence' or 'deep masculinity' to the male psyche, which, coming from a sociological persepective, Kimmel vehemently rejects). While there are certainly massive truths in his critique (which he is not the first to point out), what is missing from my reading of Kimmel are any solutions to the depth of men's struggles, alienation, and pain that the movement originally spoke to, or an acknowledgement of the immense amount of healing that has been made available to men through the (re)discovery of "mythopoesis" as a path to soul (i.e., the use of myth and ritual as poetic meaning-making and as care or recovery of the soul).
The movement that Bly unintentionally began in the early 1990s with his bestselling Iron John spoke to a deep need in the male psyche. Kimmel understands this as a need for identity appropriated through other cultures and at the expense of women's voices, and arising from sociological circumstances at home and in the workplace. While I cannot argue with his reasoning about the socio-cultural forces that gave rise to the Men's Movement, I cannot agree with his critique of the work of the movement itself. What I have witnessed through my own involvement in men's groups has been of quite a different tenor: men learning the art of inclusion, men owning their projections, men becoming more accepting of the darkness of their own shadow behaviors, and the very profound healing of personal and perpetuated traumas.
My hope in continuing, or re-engaging with this very tricky conversation along the slippery slope of gender, "masculinities," and "femininities," is that we - as both healers and critical thinkers - can come to a mutual understanding and work together to create what Kimmel refers to as "democratic manhood," a sense of maleness that is inclusive at its core. I see this as the basis of my own archetypally-inspired approach to men's work that honors and engages with all aspects of the psyche - both "masculine" and "feminine" - that all persons (male, female, transgendered, or nonidentified) contain within that mythic ground called "soul." Archetypal psychology, when done with creativity and imagination, as well as with intelligence and skill, can articulate these varying needs without reducing the human person to mere "androgyny" (Kimmel's critique). A Jungian-archetypal perspective holds these masculine-feminine polarities in a creative tension that births a "third" - a differentiated union that creates the new kind of consciousness that I believe Kimmel is actually working towards. At its root, Kimmel's critical feminist discourse is not at odds with the actual results that many men in soul-based mythopoetic movements are actually experiencing. It is a deeply democratic masculinity that honors all dimensions of self, particularly those that are "other," for it is in accepting and engaging the other that I come to a broader and more open understanding and acceptance of my self.