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The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, And Love. Bell Hooks – A Review By Claudia Mazzilli

The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. bell hooks – A review by Claudia Mazzilli

We cannot turn our hearts away from boys and men, then ponder why the politics of war continues to shape our national policy and our intimate romantic lives.”

The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. bell hooks (2004)

 Women die at the hands of men, just as in a hushed war. A hand-to-hand combat happens again and again somewhere, hidden within the domestic walls more often than elsewhere, under the merciless blows of someone we know, love or have loved. A steady, constant loss, a human sacrifice, almost every day. And then the epitaph in the pages of the newspapers, the mournful chorus amplified by social media and the news – harassment, violence, “feminicide” – now increasing, at times decreasing, in shades that shift from indignation to posthumous resignation, crossing the ford of stereotypical narratives: “He was a quiet man.” “They hadn’t been getting along lately.” “A sudden fit of rage” … Looking for a cause, a glitch, something that didn’t work: she who had already filed a complaint. Or she had hesitated to do so: the shame, the guilt, the reluctance to report, which is like spreading open the walls of one’s home, like opening a curtain and turning one’s intimate space into an open space, into a bleak theatrical vicissitude to be offered to an audience.

There is much we could say, echoing what feminist jurists tell us: that the laws and protective devices – while perfectible – exist, but often judges and other institutional actors, drenched in patriarchal culture, fail to apply norms and procedures adequately and in a speedy and effective manner. We could invoke the Istanbul Convention Action against violence against women, the most advanced international device against gender-based violence, but it has been defeated by quite a few States, which have slipped or are slipping out of the Convention, crushed in the grip of the patriarchal, chauvinist and nationalist ultra-rights.

As lunàdigas, we focus on reflecting on emotional relationships, parenting, new family models, and raising children. Therefore, we propose the book The Will to Change. Men, Masculinity and Love, by bell hooks whose other texts we have already reviewed. The Will to Change is perhaps the book that best succeeds in sounding out in the deepest and most vertical way the “scam” of patriarchy: we cannot call it otherwise; and it is a scam that is consummated primarily to the detriment of men.

Patriarchal upbringing to gender roles is so rigid that women are allowed to express their feelings, in the form of a confidence or in the outburst of weeping, while men, from early childhood, are asked for a kind of emotional stoicism. To the point that many men remember as a trauma the first moment in childhood or boyhood when they were forbidden to express their feelings. All emotions must be repressed except anger, a natural and positive expression of masculinity. Women are weak. Men are strong. This is patriarchal dogma in a nutshell. This educational system is practiced in the family and is then reinforced by all institutions: school, church, courts, sports or political circles, etc.

With her own insightful critical and self-critical talent, bell hooks points out that such a culture also permeates through mothers, janitors and handmaidens of patriarchal upbringing (even when single mothers raise their children alone, they teach them to repress their feelings, fearing that the lack of a father figure in the household will not make them masculine enough). bell hooks does not hesitate to criticise herself and the feminists of the golden years of feminism: when men tried to open up to the expression of their feelings, they were considered narcissists or manipulators or “wimps” who tried to steal the show from women, hindering their path to liberation. She identifies some gaps in feminist literature: the lack of studies on childhood and male education (for example, only recently have we begun to talk about the educational impact of toy guns, playing with dolls not exclusive to little girls, etc., gender stereotypes inculcated by children’s narratives). Another gap is the lack of studies on “maternal sadism” (the mother exploits her male child’s vulnerability to bind him to herself and manipulate him, being the only male over whom she can have control), in the misconception that the female is sweeter and kinder and nothing to do with the transmission of patriarchal values through family upbringing. So much can a stereotype be internalized.

Also, myths and religious tales in which the son is the rival of the father (Laius and Oedipus, Uranus and Kronos): the competitive patriarchal model sees father and son struggling for power.

With his usual aptitude for combining theory and practice, analysis and self-narrative, bell hooks also narrates about her own mistakes in accommodating the expression of feelings by family men, friends and especially partners. Without hesitation, bell hooks observes that top psychotherapists, sociologists, psychoanalysts (both men and women) have rarely used the word “patriarchy” believing it too disruptive, preferring to use milder expressions such as “tradition,” “traditional upbringing,” ” male chauvinism,” “sexism.” But this omission fosters silence and does not allow for change in a system permeated with violence in every facet.

Often in my lectures when I use the phrase “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe our nation’s political system, audiences laugh.No one has ever explained why accurately naming this system is funny.  […] I often tell audiences that if we were to go door-to-door asking if we should end male violence against women, most people would give their unequivocal support. Then if you told them we can only stop male violence against women by ending male domination, by eradicating patriarchy, they would begin to hesitate, to change their position.

Violence against women, the slaughter of millions in wars, differential access to wealth, services and common goods, the exploitation of nature up to the destructive outcomes of biodiversity extinction, all of this is patriarchy and needs to be addressed holistically, that is, it needs to be fought and eradicated in a comprehensive way. In order to do so, it is necessary to re-found the education of girls and boys, starting with the realization that emotional well-being is one thing, power over others is quite another, and it is this “power,” or “success,” or “control,” that patriarchy assigns to men, but without guaranteeing the capacity for dialogue, interconnection, and deep relationship with oneself and with others. If power, success, and control were truly rewarding, violence would not exist.

Although therapists tell us that mass media images of male violence and domination teach boys that violence is alluring and satisfying, when individual boys are violent, especially when they murder randomly, pundits tend to behave as though it were a mystery why boys are so violent.

We should marvel at the fact that there are so few outbursts of violence in a political, social, educational system that in all its expressions is permeated with force, anger, violence, as if a lubricating oil: “the truth that no one wants to admit is that we are all natural-born killers, even though they learn to hide the predator in them acting as benevolent young patriarchs. Anger and violence cut across race, class and family conditions. But it is also true that in the poorer classes violence is sometimes the only expression of patriarchal masculinity: there where you cannot scale the heights of political success, there where you cannot access luxury consumption, you can be at least a violent man.

As for work: workaholism becomes a way to silence one’s feelings and disconnect from oneself. But it is not enough, because few men can expect full employment for life in a society based on precariousness and exploitation. The myth of the patriarch who, though grouchy or violent, is absolved or self-absolved himself because he provides for the material needs of the family. Moreover, in patriarchal culture, unemployed men are anxious and panic-stricken because they do not want to have time on their hands, much less to care for relationships, affections and emotions. In a non-patriarchal society, this time could be used for self-development programs: not only to educate about emotions and to understand that work is part of life but not the whole of it, but also to learn how to read and write (illiteracy, in its various nuances, is more widespread than is believed in capitalist societies). Instead, today’s patriarchal, digitized society offers easily accessible drugs and narcotics, consolations and escapes, distractions and opportunities for isolation, useful to compress feelings, to disconnect from one’s self: music, video games, social media, pornography (bell hooks also develops sharp reflections on sex education, rape culture, sex separated from love, pornography as compensation and promise of domination…). All these entertainments narcotise feelings, but then feelings explode in the only possible way, that is, in an angry and violent form.

Even in movies, TV series, and seemingly harmless sagas (such as Harry Potter), bell hooks find patriarchal, sexist, and racist innate defects with predictable story-telling: if men express feelings, if they break away from an anger-centred style of communication and relationship, if they are connected to their emotional selves and others, then either they have discovered that they are seriously ill or, in some other way, they are doomed to die: this is how the patriarchal system is reinforced in filmmaking. Cinema tells us that in everyday, peaceful and ordinary living, healthy and deep emotional communication is not possible, not useful, not virtuous. Yet communication of diverse and non-patriarchal content would only be possible through mass media, because books reach a more elite audience. And here is an example: when a large number of young people in the United States rebelled and demanded an end to the war in Vietnam, many did so searching for justice, others simply did it to avoid death. They were ridiculed, and still in recent years, a large number of films celebrating the war have been produced: Saving Private Ryan, Independence Day, Men in Black, Pearl Harbor, all films that, according to bell hooks, are part of the patriarchy’s reaction to feminism.

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of men is, therefore, not violence against women, but psychological self-mutilation, hiding themselves behind the mask of invulnerability. Patriarchy rewards strong men who deny their feelings. Thus it is easier to kill the enemy in war without compassion. It is easier to maintain distance from one’s family members at home. It is easier to preserve a socio-economic system based on inequality.

Indeed, some studies even infer that violence against women is triggered when women see beyond the mask of male invulnerability. But denying one’s vulnerability means killing one’s soul before one’s woman. So male violence has increased, according to bell hooks, not because the achievements of feminism have created greater competition between women and men (in accessing professional roles or in gender equality within the family, goals that are actually still far from being achieved). Violence is unleashed because men have discovered that patriarchal dominance does not coincide with happiness, and yet they express this dissatisfaction in the only way they know how to practice, which is through anger, not instead though  communication on love, dialogue, knowledge of feelings and their sharing, responsibility and mutual respect. Things they never learned. Things that men have never been taught either in the family or in school or through a progressive popular culture spread by the mass media.

Thus, while episodically men have been able to oppose patriarchy when it interfered with their personal values or desires, men have never been willing to embrace feminism (a feminist education, a feminist relational apprenticeship…) in the name of radical change, and this is partly because even for women engaged in feminism, except for a few visionaries, it was difficult to accept a more articulate theorization within which not only men but also women were and are responsible for perpetuating the patriarchal system. Recognizing that males are as much victims of patriarchy as women is crucial to engaging them in the feminist movement. It is easier, especially in common opinion, to say that “feminists hate men.” Or that “men must liberate themselves.”

But this prevents boys and adult men from allying with the feminist movement to overthrow patriarchy. And it also prevents them from substituting being loved for being feared. It prevents replacing patriarchal masculinity with “feminist masculinity” and the model of domination with the model of collaborative relationship based on mutuality and interdependence, not only among human beings, but among all living things. Focusing on life and not death, peace and not war, love and not violence.

Claudia Mazzilli

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