Michael Kimmel, founder of men’s studies in the United States, talks about the origins of the academic study of masculinity. In this interview, he discusses the relationship between men’s studies and feminism. Kimmel comments on the themes and issues about masculinity and men’s lives that permeate advertising and discusses ways he has used advertisements in teaching.
Many people consider you to have founded the academic study of masculinity. How did that happen?
I wouldn’t say I “founded” it! I think it’s more accurate to say that I was one of several scholars who have tried to apply the insights of feminist thinking about gender to men’s lives. I came at it largely through personal experiences and politics in a way that parallels the way many of us discover gender. I was simultaneously challenged by feminist women to think about gender and it personally challenged my own behaviors and practices and my relationships with women. I’m no different from a lot of other men in that respect.
When was this?
It’s hard to say exactly. But I could give you a slide show, rather than a seamless narrative, in which there were moments before I went to graduate school that would be pushing me in that direction. But many people’s lives, as you know, don’t follow very straight trajectories. We make a series of small, micro-level decisions along the way, and then we suddenly go, “Wow, I seem to be all the way over here rather than way back there.”
In my own case, I grew up with an implicit critique of gender within my own family. My mother always had a job, and so I grew up with the idea that women worked outside the home and could still be good mothers. And my father was very nurturing, very loving, and caring. He’s a chiropractor, and his office was attached to the house. So he was very involved in my upbringing. I always had the idea that men were loving and kind and nurturing. It came as a big shock to me when I was confronted with what were then called “traditional gender roles” that said women don’t do this and men don’t do that. And so I said to myself, “My parents do. There’s nothing un-masculine or un-feminine about them.”
That’s not everybody’s experience.
No, it isn’t. Then I went to college. I went to an all-male college. That surprises a lot of my students.
Where did you go?
Lehigh. It was all male. I knew something was off. Something was definitely wrong. The ideology of the all-male school was that men alone would be able to be more serious about their studies because women were only a weekend distraction. Let me say that we were far, far more distracted by their absence than by their presence. We couldn’t stop thinking or talking about women every minute! Partly, I suppose, because of the obvious homoeroticism that’s contained within homosocial interactions—which is to say that if we didn’t talk about women and we actually noticed that we were all men in the same place together, things might get out of hand. So, of course, we had to keep up the heterosexual banter all the time.
But my political sensibilities didn’t really take shape until graduate school. My undergraduate years were focused on the war in Vietnam, racism, imperialism. And frankly, I thought women’s liberation meant there would be more women to have sex with. They were liberated; they liked to have sex; they were as impersonal as any man. I thought this was great. I was a hippie. I was a radical. Free love and good politics seemed to mesh. I don’t mean to sound too cynical about that, because the behavior of male 60s radicals was often interpersonally opportunistic, and also because there’s something about that era that I’m terribly nostalgic for. It was the idea we...