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  • Male Pro-Feminism and the Masculinist Gigantism of Gravity’s Rainbow
  • Wes Chapman

The title of Tania Modleski’s Feminism Without Women refers, Modleski explains, to a confluence of two political/intellectual trends: the subsumption of feminism within a “more comprehensive” field of gender studies, accompanied by the rise of a “male feminist perspective that excludes women,” and the dominance within feminist thought of an “anti-essentialism so radical that every use of the term ‘woman,’ however ‘provisionally’ it is adopted, is disallowed” (14–15). The two trends are linked, Modleski argues, because “the rise of gender studies is linked to, and often depends for its justification on, the tendendency within poststructuralist thought to dispute notions of identity and the subject” (15). These trends are troubling for Modleski because she fears that, insofar as gender studies tend to decenter women as the subjects of feminism, they may be not a “new phase” in feminism but rather feminism’s “phase-out” (5).

My concern in this essay is with male-authored work on gender of the type identified by Modleski, and in particular with its intersections with anti-essentialism (which, for the purposes of this essay, I will define broadly as the belief that gender is socially constructed). Although not all male-authored gender criticism by men is radically anti-essentialist1, I believe that the confluence between anti-essentialism and male-authored work on gender exceeds mere theoretical justification. Anti-essentialism is both symptom and cause of a deep anxiety which I take to underlie much gender criticism written by men today, an anxiety about being a male subject in a society in which male subjectivity has been identified as a problem. On the one hand, an awareness of the social construction of the self can lead to a heightened anxiety in men about gender, as it implies an awareness of the complicity of male subjectivity with social structures which are oppressive to women. On the other hand, male anxiety about gender can encourage an anti-essentialist viewpoint, both because anti-essentialism appears to offers hope that positive changes in gender identity are possible and because anti-essentialism can diffuse personal responsibility by shifting the object of critique from the self to social codes which have “always already” constructed the self.

In speaking in this way about “men,” “male subjectivity,” and the like, I am not at all presupposing that all men in contemporary culture are alike. I do think that the anxiety I am identifying is widespread, but it is not universal, and even for those men who feel such anxiety there are many ways to respond, including the direct backlash against feminism identified by Susan Faludi and others. My interest in this essay lies with a fairly narrow spectrum of men: those men who accept to some degree the charge that male subjectivity is a political problem of some kind — male anti-masculinists, for lack of a better term, since not all can be considered pro-feminist.2 I wish to explore the relationship between anti-masculinism and anti-essentialism in male authors and to determine whether anti-essentialism is a viable political strategy for male anti-masculinists. To this end I shall examine a text by a male writer, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in which the relationship between an anxiety about gender and a anti-essentialist view of the self is particularly complex and revealing.3 I shall argue that, just as Modleski suggests, anti-essentialism in the novel does indeed serve to decenter women’s perspectives, and that, while anti-essentialism has been and still is an important part of pro-feminist men’s understanding of their gender identities, it is not a sufficient base for a politics which is not merely anti-masculinist but pro-feminist.

Late in Gravity’s Rainbow, the narrator describes a culvert in the middle of a narrow road. There is a variety of graffiti in it from those who have taken shelter there, including a drawing of a man looking closely at a flower.

In the distance, or smaller, appears to be a woman, approaching. Or some kind of elf, or something. The man isn’t looking at...

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