STONY BROOK, N.Y. — The professor scrawls “macho,” ”brave” and “strong” on a crowded blackboard, apt words for someone whose book titles are littered with “masculinity” and “manhood.” He’s spent three decades building a nascent corner of academia, presenting himself as a feminist as he dissects what it means to be a man. Now, he hopscotches from college campuses to company conference rooms as a movement baring abuse by men rages.
Michael Kimmel may be made for this moment.
The 67-year-old sociologist is a leader in what’s known as “masculinities studies,” and an in-demand purveyor of insight on why men are the way they are. The field he helped develop has long had men’s misdeeds as an area of focus, but it’s gained newfound exposure and relevance with #MeToo and #TimesUp.
A 2015 TED Talk elevated Kimmel’s profile just in time for the election of President Donald Trump and the subsequent women’s movements that put gender issues at the forefront. These days, he balances lectures to students with speaking engagements at a motley range of companies, from mining and pasta manufacturing to banking and film — all looking to him to explain the importance of equality.
“This didn’t happen by chance. This didn’t happen overnight,” Kimmel says. “This has been simmering for a long time.”
This wasn’t the career Kimmel had in mind. He focused his Ph.D. thesis on 17th-century French tax policy and settled into a job teaching introductory sociology classes. He had been active in some pro-women causes and spoke at an anti-domestic violence “Take Back the Night” rally in the early 1980s when a student in attendance approached him with an idea.
“You should teach a course on masculinity,” he recalls the student saying. “My first reaction was, ‘Every course is about men.'”
The thought nagged at him, though, prompting a search to see what scholarship had been done on the subject. The answer was little. He took the proposal to his then-dean at Rutgers University, who approved it as one of the early academic efforts examining men. The class filled up, moving in successive semesters to bigger and bigger rooms, and Kimmel eventually made men’s studies his entire focus.
With a dearth of books devoted to the subject, Kimmel became a prolific author on men’s issues, including “Manhood in America: A Cultural History,” ”Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” ”The Guy’s Guide to Feminism,” ”Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” and “Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis.” He also established the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, which is preparing to launch the first master’s program in masculinities next year.
With a smattering of other academics likewise publishing and teaching on the subject, masculinities — like women’s studies — is now a recognized area of research.
“I think it’s more relevant than ever right now,” says Michael Messner, a University of Southern California sociologist who was another pioneer of men’s studies and who has marveled at how reverberations of #MeToo have helped validate the field. “It’s really allowed for a deepening of the discussion right now.”
Messner was among the scholars who formed a men’s studies group within the National Organization for Men in the early 1980s that grew into the independent American Men’s Studies Association a decade later. Today, more than 150 academics from around the world belong to the organization, which promotes men’s studies and holds conferences.
The association says the number of classes in men’s studies varies widely from semester to semester, but they’ve become common enough that academics who choose the specialty can no longer count on having the field to themselves on a given campus. Cliff Leek, the president of the American Men’s Studies Association, studied under Kimmel, focusing his Ph.D. work on masculinities before becoming a professor at the University of Northern Colorado. The university already had another professor who taught a masculinities course when Leek arrived.
At the birth of men’s studies, much of the initial work was an outgrowth of male academics’ activism in feminist movements and focused on violence against women and related issues. In the years since, the field has grown far more diverse, with research on everything from grooming choices and “man caves” to gender’s role in suicide and mass killings.
“It’s grown to a point where we’re not just addressing men’s perpetration of violence,” Leek says. “We’re now exploring a really, really wide range of topics.”
Tristan Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who focuses on masculinities, has studied male microcosms from bodybuilders to barflies and fathers’ rights activists to pro-feminist men. He says the field has prompted new looks at familiar subjects, too. Students of 19th-century literature likely would be accustomed to discussing the role Louisa May Alcott’s gender played in her writing. Masculinities studies, he says, has helped prompt academics to do the same with male figures such as Charles Dickens.
“Most of what’s been taught for most of history has been the ideas and experiences of men, but they haven’t really been studied as men,” Bridges says.
If it seems odd for men to be lecturing about the inclusion and equality of women, professors in the field say it’s a complaint they don’t often hear. Bridges says there can, at times, be an awkward balance, and that men need to “know their place” in the conversation, but that it’s important for members of dominant groups to be a part of solutions for those who are oppressed.
“We don’t need to be the people at the front of the parade or the people holding megaphones, but it’s important that we’re there,” he says.
The work has earned a seal of approval from some feminists, including Gloria Steinem, who sits on the advisory board for Kimmel’s center, and from rank-and-file women who see strength in adding men to their causes as allies. At a recent Stony Brook workshop Kimmel held for a group of invited students, Alicia Jones was among those taking part in an animated discussion of the difference in perception of what makes a good man versus what makes a real man. She is finishing up her undergraduate degree and is interested in the forthcoming masculinities master’s.
“Men listen to other men. They don’t listen to women,” she said after the session, welcoming Kimmel’s message. “If they were going to listen to a woman they would have already done it.”
Now, with #MeToo persisting in influence for months, Kimmel sees the movement as reaching a turning point. Men, fearful of having attention cast on their own lives or of simply saying the wrong thing, have largely sat out of the conversation. Kimmel thinks men could step up in the movement’s next chapter and be a determining factor whether it is more than a blip of activism.
The discomfort and fear men are feeling is good, he says, dismissing the hopes of some men of a return to the status quo.
“We’ve had millennia of not ever questioning this,” Kimmel says, “so let’s just sit with it for an hour or two.”