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Could a Real Men’s Movement Be a Good Thing?

With violent misogyny on one side and endless navel-gazing on the other, there’s a call for a new, bullshit-free movement for positive masculinity

In her recent video, “Men,” LeftTube sensation Natalie Wynn, aka Contrapoints, surveys the current state of masculinity and concludes that it’s in disarray. “What are we going to do about men?” she asks rhetorically. “Because, no offense, but as a group, you kind of seem like you’re not doing okay.” 

She diagnoses a “genuine crisis of male identity” but isn’t particularly inspired by what she views as the left’s two prevailing solutions — “the Marxist promise of economic revolution” and the “feminist tranquilizer.” “Even if we did succeed at ending capitalism, there would still be gender, and my boys would still need some model of what it is to lead a good life as a man,” she says of the former approach. The latter she sums up as follows: “We kind of just tell men, ‘You’re lonely and suicidal because you’re toxic — stop it!’”

A better way forward, Wynn suggests, might require a new movement for men. “We need a new, positive ideal of manhood, and I don’t think this is something women can create for men,” she muses. “The best way for that to happen may actually be some kind of men’s movement.” A roadblock, she notes, is that this idea is “basically taboo” on the left because the men’s movement we know is “just a backlash to feminism, and at worst, straight up misogyny.” Nonetheless, Wynn thinks men and boys are crying out for a “positive ideal of 21st-century manhood,” and that this is probably the best way to go about achieving it. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to dozens of people, mostly men, about the idea of a new men’s movement and whether it’s possible — or even desirable. Like many of the people I talk to, Karl, a 29-year-old Parliamentary staffer in Australia, thinks it would be “difficult but doable.” “There’s a role for a progressive manosphere of sorts,” he tells me. “Lots of young men are lost and get radicalized to the far right since it’s so dominant in online and gaming spaces, and we have to meet people where they’re at rather than where we want them to be.” He says the men’s movement wouldn’t even necessarily need to be progressive, “just non-racist and non-sexist.” 

As it stands, that might be a tall order. The existing men’s movement Wynn references is the Men’s Rights Movement and its adherents, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), some of whom promote male supremacy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has classified certain MRA spaces like the website A Voice for Men as hate groups. Leftists, and indeed for this reason, but Wynn is probably exaggerating when she says the idea of a men’s movement is “basically taboo” on the left. In fact, men’s movements have their origin in leftist politics — specifically, the Men’s Liberation Movement that emerged in the 1970s in open support of second-wave feminism — and there’s been a recent wave of positive coverage in mainstream liberal publications about both the idea of a hypothetical new men’s movement and actually existing men’s groups beginning to further this goal. 

This Man Leads the Most ‘Hateful’ Men’s Rights Group in the Country

Last year, for example, Mashable covered the “positive masculinity movement,” including groups like Huddle Up and the Men of Strength (MOST) Club. Meanwhile, the Guardian profiled the men’s collective Rebel Wisdom and its attempt to launch a Men’s Movement 2.0. In an essay in Harper’s Bazaar about the male tendency to be emotional gold diggers, men’s groups are discussed as an antidote, with two case studies cited, including one group an interviewee started himself using an online manual. The Atlantic reports that former President Barack Obama is championing mentoring programs for boys as the solution to a “self-defeating model for being a man,” and that a range of classes and programs have been developed to encourage boys and men to get in touch with their feelings and to develop a healthy, “progressive” masculinity, some of which are becoming mandatory in certain educational settings. If anything, men’s groups are all the rage. 

Many of these groups are feminist-aligned, and are often earnestly committed to rooting out “toxic” masculinity and improving the lives of people in relationships with men, as well as men themselves. “We’re aligned with the Northern Women’s Centre and pro-feminist, and we’re partly designed to head off an MRA [group] on campus,” explains Rob, a 52-year-old professor at the University of Northern British Columbia who helps organize a group on campus called Fellas Addressing Masculinity. “The rationale was that it was time for men to start doing the heavy lifting on issues like consent, rape culture, intersectional gender oppression, men’s mental health and toxic masculinity.”

James, a pseudonymous 27-year-old journalist in London, says he was in a group like this in the Bay Area designed specifically for white men who opposed racial and gender-based injustice. “The first few sessions were like three to four hours on a Sunday afternoon, and there were about 40 guilty white men in a big room,” he says. “There was a real range of ages, and while I found it difficult to read the class make-up of the group, I was impressed that it seemed more diverse than I thought.” 

He says the aims of the group were men sharing personal experiences about being beneficiaries of white male privilege, how traditional masculinity had affected their personalities and relationships and how they could join upcoming actions and strikes. “There was one scheme for the men to offer childcare for mothers while they could go out and organize themselves,” he says. “There was a definite sense that as a group, us all coming to a realization about white supremacy and patriarchy didn’t immediately lead to an easy consensus about how to move through the world and engage in activism, and the leaders stressed the need to avoid a ‘white knight’ savior complex.” 

However, not all of these new men’s groups align themselves with the left, and some resist the idea that there’s anything wrong with traditional masculinity. Rebel Wisdom in particular has the hallmarks of a group that could easily go off the conservative deep end: a thinly veiled paranoia about free speech; open admiration for figures like Jordan Peterson and the “father of the Men’s Rights Movement,” Warren Farrell; and two white founders, David Fuller and Alexander Beiner, who insist that they’re above politics but describe themselves as “not on the left” and “anarchist libertarian,” respectively. Rebel Wisdom uses what the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “pseudo-academic, seemingly respectable” approach to make some conservative ideas about gender more palatable, which seems to have already attracted MRA types. “Western society is actually kind of okay compared with any other society that’s ever existed,” Nordic Men’s Gathering founder Paul Robson said at the launch of Rebel Wisdom’s Men’s Movement 2.0. “And it was built by a patriarchal system.”

There is a real risk that men’s groups can degenerate into hotbeds of male supremacy where alt-right talking points are parroted, especially when the members are overwhelmingly straight white men, which they often are. Attracting more diverse groups of men, too, might be a key difficulty for men’s groups: Men of color, gay, bisexual and trans men, and low-income or disabled men, for example, may be more likely to see their race, gender identity, sexuality, economic position and/or abilities as more pertinent facets of their identity than their manhood, and be less motivated to organize around the latter accordingly. Organizing around broad, multifaceted categories like “man” and “woman” is an inherent difficulty for gender-based movements, as demonstrated by the mainstream feminist movement, which has been criticized for ignoring the struggles of women who aren’t white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied and monied. 

Which relates to another potential problem for men’s groups: endless theorizing about masculinity and what it should be, which some sociologists suggest is a dead-end. “The claim of a singular, real masculinity has been roundly rejected since the late 1980s by a new sociology of masculinity,” Michael Salter, associate professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales, writes in the Atlantic. “The sociologist Raewyn Connell […] presents gender as the product of relations and behaviors, rather than as a fixed set of identities and attributes.” He says her work describes multiple masculinities shaped by other factors like class, race, culture and sexuality, often in competition with one another as to which can claim to be more authentic. “In this view,” he continues, “which is now the prevailing social-scientific understanding of masculinity, the standards by which a ‘real man’ is defined can vary dramatically across time and place.” 

Salter gives an example about how focusing too much on models of masculinity can mean avoiding more straightforwardly effective political solutions to problems like male violence. “The alcohol industry has funded research to deny the relationship between alcohol and violence, instead blaming ‘masculinity’ and ‘cultures of drinking,’” he writes. “In this regard, the industry is repeating liberal feminist arguments about toxic masculinity. However, there is strong evidence that the density of liquor shops in a given geographic area increases the local rate of domestic violence.” So, he says, “Any serious framework for preventing violence against women will address alcohol availability as well as masculine norms and sexism.”

Salter’s concern that sensible political action can be avoided by endless navel-gazing about masculinity’s nature is shared by some men on the ground, and the launch of the Men’s Movement 2.0 contained an illustrative exchange. “There is lots of talk about anima and animus, about how men need to make peace with their inner feminine,” Richard Godwin reports in the Guardian. “Duffell, a veteran of the first men’s movement, talks about how important it is for men to learn to admit their vulnerability.” He says an audience member became frustrated and asked why they were talking about their feelings when violent male fascists were marching on the streets in Poland, to which Duffell responded, “But how does that make you feel?”

When men can’t decide whether their groups should be focused on introspection or action, a split may be necessary. “When I left the country,” James, the journalist, tells me, “the group decided to split into one group for people who wanted to focus on internal issues, their own life and journey, versus an external group for organizing and activism.” 

Several men who have been involved with men’s groups say that they’re flailing, such as Nelson, a 20-year-old engineering student in New Zealand, who believes that online spaces for men in particular need more structure, knowledge and leadership. “I lurked on /r/MensLib for a little bit. It emphasized to me that guys are trying, but they really have no clue,” he tells me. “There wasn’t a coherent language or base of understanding, making communicating ideas between them quite fraught.” The current community-details section of MensLib, a subreddit with 96,400 members, reads as follows: “The men’s issues discussion has been sorely held back by counterproductive tribalism. We’re building a new dialogue on the real issues facing men through positivity, inclusiveness and solutions-building.”

Nelson says there’s a significant group of guys who “want to not be garbage dudes” and who recognize that problems like male violence are out of control. “But they aren’t really caught up on ‘the discourse,’ and there’s not much of a figurehead,” he continues. “They probably need a Jordan Peterson, but for positive masculinity.”

These myriad issues aside, though, plenty of people I speak to think some kind of positive men’s movement is a worthy goal, even if it’s difficult to iron out the details. “The men in the group desperately wanted to live a life that as much as possible served to lessen oppression rather than be complicit in it, but what that looked like could be difficult to identify for people,” James says of his Bay Area group. “The group aimed to help navigate that.” 

“It was all incredibly earnest, but really admirable and great,” he continues. “The guys who ran it didn’t feel performatively woke, and there was no one-upmanship of political theory. They were friendly and funny but took the terrain seriously — less like woke grad students flexing their intellects and more like seasoned, serious, experienced activists who wanted people to navigate masculinity in a healthy way.”

It sounds, at the very least, like a good start.