Shyaonti Talwar


"Another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
- Arundhati Roy

Articles > Robert Jensen on Questions of Masculinity

By Dr. Shyaonti Talwar

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Robert Jensen on Questions of Masculinity

Robert Jensen, in his talk, starts by asking and eliciting from his audience, the qualities they would want the ideal man to have or putting it differently, if they were raising a male child what were the values they would inculcate in the child so that he developed certain qualities. The responses that come are qualifiers like affectionate, provider, protector, self-reliant, hardworking, respectful, caring, etc. He goes on to reflect on if what he has elicited is actually how masculinity is perceived and constructed in the real world. He recalls how as a child he had a diminutive frame which was a constant source of worry and concern to his father who would bring all kinds of health drinks and supplements for him to grow taller, heftier, stronger and more muscular. He seemed to have been a considerable source of embarrassment to his parents, especially his father because of his slight frame and supposedly underdeveloped male characteristics for a long long time. What he is trying to indicate through this narrative account of his personal life is how masculinity is constructed and socially perceived in a certain way just like femininity. Masculinity then would refer to certain qualities, traits, characteristics that are desirable and preferred manifestations in men i.e. through the male body, what is understood to be the biological approximation of a male body from a poststructuralist postmodern standpoint which accesses all bodies and identities as discursively formed.

Jensen refers to common parlance related to sex; phrases like “I am hitting it” or “Did you get any?” which has a high currency among men. These expressions make obvious the perception of men (the reference is to heterosexual men) about women and their attitude to sex as a commodity. Sex over here is both a noun and a verb – the person (the woman) and the act of sexual intercourse (as in did you have sex?) However the use of the pronoun ‘it’ in the first instance and “get any” in the second instance very clearly commodifies and dehumanises the person in the first instance and the act in the second instance respectively. This process positions men with agency as active beings and women embodying the lack of agency, in other words, as passive, dormant receptive beings. Men are the doers, women, the acted upon. The verb “hitting” also connotes a latent violence and condescension. It speaks of authority and exploitation. This language and many similar terms as these, could be expressions that reflect the power dynamics embedded in our collective and individual unconscious; at the same time, they might contribute to further entrenching these hierarchies.

And this, in Robert Jensen’s opinion is exactly what pornography does. It is a powerful graphic representation of this unequal power relation between men and women. It very firmly positions man as the superior and woman as the inferior; man as the seeker of pleasure, woman as the giver of pleasure. The films that are completely decontextualized and primarily produced for heterosexual men (consumers) reflect the ultimate sexual imagination of a man which is soaked in misogyny. Most of the films that use the woman’s body in unutterably reductive ways, are shot under conditions that are unimaginable to the pleasure-seeking male consumer. The women are often drugged, locally anesthetised and administered enemas to handle the pain resulting out of the acts they have to perform. It is worth reflecting why pornography is steeped in misogyny and one obvious reason becomes patriarchy which is all-pervasive and omnipresent. Patriarchy is a hierarchical arrangement that assigns more power to men than women.

Robert Jensen however goes on to note that patriarchy probably as an ideology came into existence and practice only 5000 years ago when human beings started transitioning from hunter-gatherer occupations to more sedentary life styles leading to the dawn of civilisations. This time span is a very small fragment in the entire span of human evolution and thus ought not to determine or control or be the pretext to justify male domination and assertion of authority over women. The worrisome facet about pornography is that it perpetrates misogyny and shapes the discourse around sexuality and sexual acts creating and justifying expectations in a certain way that is detrimental to the physical, emotional and mental well-being and self-esteem of women.

Robert Jensen goes on to say that feminism is probably the greatest gift by women to men as it has the potential to enable men to realise their human side. Prescriptive masculinity, certain expected standards and norms of behaviour prevent men entirely from experiencing certain emotions and expressing certain feelings because of social taboo. In this sense, men who stick to normative behaviour and perform qualities that are associated with masculinity, remain thwarted and emotionally stunted as human beings. In this sense masculinity too is an oppressive construct; but lamenting over the perils and predicament of men as a result of masculinity compared to women’s predicament, Robert Jensen notes, is ludicrous if one were to understand what was at stake quoting a feminist saying: Yeah sure, you men have problems and feel restricted. But the problems of men and women are dissimilar in intensity and degree. You see men have a problem because they are not supposed to cry. Women have a problem because they can be killed.

The woman’s body and her sexuality have always been commodified and monitored and for this the female body becomes the site of violence, control and exploitation. In fact, unlike men, women are primarily regarded as sexual beings which is evident in any society. In case you have a doubt, you can have a look at matrimonial advertisements to liquor and automobile ads, beauty pageants and cheerleaders; most of the time women’s bodies are props. They are present to titillate. An eligible woman stands qualified for marriage, career prospects, opportunities more than others if she is beautiful or if not beautiful, reasonably attractive.

Men, according to Robert Jensen are doing a disservice to themselves by not coming out of the patriarchal trap and being party to their own regression; by denying women as humans, they are denying the humanity they are capable of achieving and practising. He concludes from where he began invoking the qualities an ideal man ought to have. All the qualities mentioned at the start are not qualities that are peculiar or particular to men. Is there an argument we can extend that men are particularly more qualified or more competent or biologically more adept at being more affectionate or caring or strong or better providers as compared to women? So when we say these are desirable qualities in an ideal man, what we mean is, they are desirable qualities in any human being irrespective of their gender. Because there is nothing that can prove that these qualities are more appropriate for men or that men are naturally endowed to display and practice these qualities more than women. This should be adequate to demolish the notion of gender and gender-specific roles which privileges one and marginalises another, which deepens the divide and pushes men and women to opposite extremes. For the exact same reason, we ought to get over generalisations and not encourage the idea of men being from Mars and women from Venus because if anything, these generalisations universalise and reinforce the already existing undesirable chasms essentialising masculine and feminine qualities and in a way suggesting there’s no hope for men 😊.

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