What I Meant To Say
A Collective Critique of the Controversial Book
by the Wondering Women
Entitlement Politics Anyone?When asked by Elise to participate in this project, my first reaction was ambivalence, then delay. 'Sorry, I can't get to this right now, I have to prepare a lecture/a talk/grade papers/fill in the blank'. Ambivalence turned into embarrassment and embarrassment into a sense of obligation to a bright and accomplished former student who is passionate about this project. Still, I argued, I am an expert in social history and health policy, not women's studies or even literary analysis. How does an academic engage in a non-academic debate outside their expertise? My unease was also generated by the nature of the work itself: a self-stylized journey into the minds of MEN, not quite the vox populi, but MEN writ large, their interests, their supposed sub-culture and their understanding of the world they inhabit. How can someone criticize the self-reflective articulation from men about their own lives? Our intellectual culture scorns such social commentary from women - how many Op Ed pieces are written by women? I was also reminded of the stark contrast between the impact of a few lines of heresy from Salomen Rushdie and the largely ignored reformist battle cries of the lesbian Muslim Feminist Irshad Manji. 'It won't really matter what we think, Elise, that is my point, that is the real take-home message about Brown's work, even the introduction is an auto-voyeuristic venture into his own life, a monologue not a dialogue'. He wants to be understood, not understand; he wants absolution and acceptance, to naturalize and reconcile, not to challenge the unease he feels about his behaviour as a husband, father, man.
The purpose of this work is at war with itself. It is meant as a collection of autobiographical reflections about the world of men but it purports to serve a didactic purpose for the world of women. The book, in totem, is meant to reify gender differences based on how gender is lived and imagined by a select group of men (does this sound familiar any first wave feminists out there?). To be fair, the post-modern impulse to see these differences as products of specific and temporal social and cultural institutions are not lost on Brown, however he clearly understands the power in naming these differences. By laying claim to the power to name the components and characteristics of gender, Brown aims to discipline women-at-large and the future of identity politics in his own image. I have chosen not to dissect Brown's confessional chapter where he makes an analogy between his sexual voyeurism and objectification of women in strip clubs, and his own submission to the voyeuristic gaze of society as the father of a severely disabled son. I leave it to others to analyze the claims of equivalence that he makes, but instead I would like to focus on the claims made in the introduction about the nature of gender and its revelation through these auto-biographies.
Brown's own viewpoint about the 'two solitudes' runs through the introduction and his own contribution. His tone and the subtext are both pleading and plaintive: Men and women are biologically different, set apart by centuries of evolution and socio-cultural development. This claim is not the last gasp from the dying pre-feminist era of Western culture. These differences are evolutionary, real, sustained and reflected in the younger men Brown interacts with. The book then proposes to inject balance in a popular culture dominated by the perspectives and viewpoints of women. We (apparently) live different lives and yet the moral and cultural life of Western culture is apparently dominated by the world of women? The underlying argument goes something like this: we know very well how women have been constrained by Western culture but men too have become oppressed. Men's primordial nature has been so constrained by the 'civilizing' influence of modern culture (read women's culture) and driven underground that they must find an outlet to express themselves. Women, it seems, have made society's needs their own by bending men's sexuality to conform to their own biological interests using their power over the biological destiny of men. Brown escapes the stifling restraints of our culture by visiting strip clubs where he can fulfill his natural instincts and gain male equilibrium. In his earnest descriptions, Brown clearly attempts to normalize his own behaviour by referring to his biological and basic instincts. But to whom is Brown rationalizing his behaviour? To the dominion of women?
The fingerprint of the rule of women is overwhelming isn't it? Governments, Universities, the top-earning companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Media Empires, Leading Scientific Agencies and Institutions are all dominated indirectly by women's ability to choose their mate. Perhaps, this tongue-in-cheek socio-economic analysis of Western culture merely supports Brown's assertion that men and women really are different and live in very different worlds. However, the gendering of Brown's universe goes further and deeper because it really is a female dominated world that Brown is responding to. Echoing Victorian ideas of femininity as the moral and civilizing agency in society versus an antiquated male physicality and ruthlessness, Brown argues that his role and agency in the world of free women is limited and distorted. Presumably men are innately polygamous and women are monogamous and these drives can be separated from social and financial systems? It is only by paying women to perform for him that he can reconnect with his fundamental male nature, and re-balance his relationships with women and society.
Unfortunately, the examples Brown uses in his introduction to show the disciplining of men are superficial and trite: a wife 'asks' her husband, 'do I look fat in this', or later in his chapter, he notes that the stripper he pays to dance for him is pursuing a master's degree. In both examples, even when a woman seems vulnerable, literally dancing to a male audience, it is her material world that dominates. The husband must interpret the question and satisfy his wife, and the patron in the strip joint is willingly duped by a clever femme fatale who preys on his base need for sexual variety. But herein lies the tension between the purpose of the book, to give voice to men, and the stark political and social realities that confront its female readers. Brown's own narrative about objectifying and being objectified suggests that power, class, sexual mores, context and place overwhelm concepts of gender. So what do we gain by thinking about these diverse lives as men's lives? What is the underlying prescription to the world of women? See us as we are and accept us?
If the book allowed us to see the world through the diverse lives of
the contributors, it would indeed be an interesting cultural experience.
However this book is as much about Brown's desire to cast women in specific
roles as it is about men's lives. He selectively forages through gender
research to support his intuitive and starkly naturalistic understanding
of gender and sex. In doing so, he distorts decades of sociological
and anthropological research to feather a comfortable and easy nest
for his apparently tortured conscience (it was biology that made me
do it!). He also fails to see that a strong commitment to gender difference
itself constrains the kinds of meaningful relationship he can have with
women. This is a great pity, for if I didn't myself feel so type-cast
when reading his work, I could indeed have easily empathized with his
expressions of sexuality, his emotions and struggles as a father, and
accepted him as he his, a moral, interesting and passionate human being.
by Dr. Jennifer Keelan