I’ll admit, I’m the first one to make a joke about the privilege of straight, white men. (I’ll also be the first to admit that as a straight, white woman, I have a huge amount of privilege myself.) However, I still never pass up the chance to throw out a joke manspreading or mansplaining. It’s kind of not a great joke, but so much of this year has been devoted to thinking about gender that it’s right in my wheelhouse.
So much of the beginning of this year was devoted to thinking about femininity, but these past few months, I’ve tried to think more about masculinity. I started reading Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men to understand one of my less-great male characters and also the larger political climate. My friend, Laura, was kind enough to recommend and lend me the book, so I started reading it around the time of the second debate, thinking that it was just so fascinating and interesting to read at this time.
I read it up until the day of the election and then I stopped reading it for a while, because it was too relevant, and I didn’t really ready to absorb anything it was going to try and tell me.
Just this week, I picked this book back up, because I wanted to return it to Laura before break. It wasn’t an easy read—and at one point Kimmel mentions Hillary and it really hurt—but it’s an important read for right now, because it deconstructs this masculinity in such an incredible way.
Kimmel looks at different groups of men and traces this masculine privilege to see why these men are angry. In short, he comes up with two reasons: they feel entitled to a certain life (money, a woman, kids, a house, etc.) and feel disempowered because they do not have that life (because of their job or peer rejection or loneliness). He uses this thesis to explain why young men shoot peers, sexual assault, the men’s rights movement, and neo-Nazis.
It all boils down to this ideal of traditional masculinity and the American Dream. Men grew up with this as an expectation, so when they don’t have those things, they feel what Kimmel labels as “aggrieved entitlement” and explains this to be why—though they are in power in so may ways—white men feel like the victims in this narrative (18).
He explains, “Angry White Men tend to feel their sense of aggrieved entitlement because of the past; they want to restore what they once had. Their entitlement is not aspirational; it’s nostalgic” (63).
This entitlement is the through line for much of the book, and Kimmel blames this entitlement not on the angry white men themselves but on the larger system of expectations of masculinity. These expectations are aggravated by media outlets that fan this outrage and internet pockets that allow men to support one another. Many of these men feel unheard and therefore disempowered, and this disempowerment moves them to action.
In this way, the anger these men feel is “real” but “not true” in the sense that they are feeling these emotions but they ways in which they take out these emotions—on non-male, non-straight, and non-white people—is misdirected.
He ends his book trying to think up ways in which we can help change this narrative, and that boils down to the ways that men feel angry because they feel simultaneously entitled and disempowered.
Kimmel concludes, “Addressing this anger requires that we ‘empower’ men to embrace a new definition of masculinity, decoupled from the false sense of entitlement, so that white men may move confidently into the more egalitarian future that is inevitable. At the same time, we must work to restrain those whose policies and programs disenfranchise wide swaths of American men, leaving them lost, itching for something to start.” (284)
In this time, I feel like this book is painfully relevant, and it’s definitely worth a read.