Man up to gender studies

Activists say the media's feminisation of Caster Semenya reflects social unease about gender ambiguity. (AP)

Activists say the media's feminisation of Caster Semenya reflects social unease about gender ambiguity. (AP)

Because the rise of women's studies as a moral line of inquiry for those in the arts and social sciences was arguably motivated by a sense of a grave injustice at what had been "done" to women, one cannot help but ask whether the same is true for the sudden interest academe is showing in men.

Are the claims that male students are disadvantaged by university selection processes or that men are marginalised in the workplace because of affirmative action quotas the reason for the swell in conferences, seminars and graduate courses with masculinity as their theme?  

A recent Stellenbosch University conference was centred on the representation of South African masculinity in the media, a subject I had been interested in for some time, but that suddenly felt too obvious to be meaningful. What more was there to say about the many faces (and costumes) of Julius Malema, the reductionist logic of Angus Buchan, or our president's most notorious spear?

What I did not anticipate was the very personal nature of each scholar's interest in masculinity and how the "interiority" of their rhetoric would safeguard its theorists from the follies of cliché and regurgitation.

When acclaimed masculinity theorist Kopano Ratele spoke of his disappointment in a president who publicly denies that oral sex is sex, his frustration was not only that of a defender of the disenfranchised, but also that of a man grieved by the very blunt instrument used to formulate masculinity at the highest level in South Africa, a narrative of personal disillusionment as well as public critique.

Mark Behr, a celebrated South African novelist lauded by the Times for his ability to capture the "mentality of the Afrikaner male", presented a dialogue with Eusebius McKaiser, political analyst and columnist for the New York Times. They questioned the so-called feminisation of Caster Semenya in the media. To them, any form of ambiguity in the gender presentation of our role models makes the South African public anxious and thus, when an athlete like Semenya appears in the popular media, she is often dressed up in an unambiguously kitsch femininity. With startling empathy, Behr and McKaiser related how a fear of ambiguity had influenced their own identities as South African men.

The point, then, is not that men have been or are the victims of some kind of marginalisation, although that might be true as well, but that, as with the women's movement of the past century, gender offers a point of entry into a critical reappraisal of the past. By speaking about our masculinity and that of our partner, president or clan, we are speaking about the relational hegemony at the core of our identity as a nation.

In a seminar on gender equality, sociologist Cherryl Walker argued that the ANC had recently undone some of the work done by the women's movement in the early 1990s. She noted that, in the current ANC government, women were constructed as a special-interest group, their disenfranchisement a "mere" question of representation that could be resolved by means of quotas.

The superficiality of this recent governmental approach perpetuates the idea that redressing the injustices of the past is a mere question of appearance and that the decision-makers in this country are not true converts to equality but play-acting in the theatre of political correctness. Combined with damning statistics, especially on sexual crime and domestic violence, our government's attitude towards the feminine paints an incriminating portrait of the masculine.   

The overly simplistic treatment of complex difficulties is evident at grassroots level too. The 400 000 "mighty men" who gathered to commiserate on manhood arearguably there with the hope of finding instant solutions to problems only understood from one side.

So, too, the violence that occurred at Marikana speaks of an impatience (on all sides) that may very well be fuelled by the ideal of a muscular masculinity, which requires of men that they take what they want by force without too much deliberation.

The business of "doing gender" in any kind of meaningful or revolutionary way is always going to be difficult precisely because it is personal and requires sacrifice, something that has not been part of the aspirational rhetoric of a country historically delineated by the too easy binary of oppressor and oppressed.

To paraphrase anthropologist Gayle Rubin: "To some, gender may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease or racism. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about gender. Consequently, gender should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress."

Stella Viljoen is a senior lecturer in the visual arts department at Stellenbosch University and the convenor of the Work/Force: South African Masculinities in the Media conference

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