September 7, 2011
Feminism makes some men very scared, others very angry. Tom Martin, who is taking legal action against the London School of Economics , risks being seen as falling into both of these categories. A former student at the LSE Gender Institute , Martin claims he had the misfortune of being subject to a torrent of anti-male discrimination during his (very brief) time there, and has cited the Gender Equality Duty to support his case. The irony of attacking feminists by invoking a piece of legislation whose existence is largely down to the energy and commitment of feminist campaigners scarcely needs pointing out.
Martin alleges that the course material he studied during his six weeks at the LSE was systematically anti-male overlooked men's issues, and ignored any research that contested a "women good, men bad" line of reasoning. Furthermore, Martin claims that the Gender Institute drummed into the students, with quasi-religious fervour, a simplistic view of women as victims and men as perpetrators. If his experience is anything to go by, any self-respecting male should steer well clear of such institutionalised misandry. Well, male readers, before you start cowering behind the sofa fearful of the castrating gender studies professor who's about to get you, let me reassure you. Although I don't know the specifics of Martin's experience, I am a male academic active in gender studies, and was a researcher at the very institution that Martin is suing. And yet for me, as with many other male gender studies scholars and students, my academic engagement with feminism and gender issues has been nothing short of life-affirming.
Let's get a few things straight. The dominant ideas, approaches and insights of the vast majority of academic disciplines are produced by, for and about men. This does not necessarily make them bad ideas, but it does mean that there are entrenched gender biases in most fields. In my own discipline – politics – the key undergraduate texts are overwhelmingly by and about men. And yet this is seen by most as unproblematic, as natural or inevitable.
Gender studies is an attempt to critique this entrenched male bias. As an emerging area of study, it remains small and lacks the financial and institutional clout of the bigger disciplines. It strikes me as utterly bemusing that one would want to direct one's ire towards one of the few academic spaces in which the implications of biases that go largely unchallenged elsewhere are explored.
But let's clear up a few further points. Firstly, the perception that gender studies is doctrinal and dogmatic is simply untrue. It is sceptical of traditional distinctions between fields of research, and is more dynamic, innovative and open to new perspectives than established disciplines. And far from sticking to a crude "women good, men bad" line, gender studies programmes encourage students to acknowledge the diversity of relations between men and women, the limitations of a victim-centred understanding of womanhood, and the complex ways in which gender intersects with race, class and sexuality. The development of this more holistic approach to gender analysis is one of the reasons why the name "gender studies" is now usually given preference over "women's studies", although the name of the field remains a controversial topic.
What is not in dispute, though, is the contribution to gender studies of current research into the changing nature of masculinity. Scholars such as Jeff Hearn, R W Connell, Keith Pringle, Michael Kimmel and Terrell Carver have all taken inspiration from feminism and women's studies to analyse, for example, class and racial inequalities between men, the causes and consequences of male violence, the lived experience of different kinds of male sexuality, and the ways in which ideas of masculinity influence social and political thought. Although most gender studies scholars and students are women, the likes of Jeff Hearn and Michael Kimmel have paved the way for increasing numbers of men to contribute to academic gender studies, contributions that have been unambiguously welcomed. In this context, if a gender studies scholar were to put forward a crude "women good, men bad" analysis, it would never stand up to peer scrutiny.
Finally, gender studies courses are extremely friendly and supportive environments. In contrast to the stuffiness and conformity of many academic settings, gender studies students and scholars are tolerant, friendly, and enlightened in their attitudes to race, sexual orientation and transsexuality. Gender studies is invariably more sociable than other academic settings, and all kinds of people are welcome, so long as you are willing to engage with people and ideas in a considered and respectful manner. If you're committed to combating discrimination and prejudice in academia, gender studies is an eccentrically misguided choice of target.