Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Here’s My "Male Perspective" by Ben Conover

For my first year of undergraduate studies, I made my way to Boston University in hopes of studying philosophy and classics. One of my professors suggested I pair my activism in LGBT matters with media and take the Women’s Studies class on the topic. So I enrolled in the once-a-week class with optimism.

On the first day of class, I walked in and took a seat around a circle of about 30 women and one other man. While I was not used to having class in which there were very few male students – I went to an “all-guys” high school – I was not bothered by the skewed percentages. After all, it was what I had expected since it was a Women’s Studies class.

While I was getting a few dirty glances from some of the students – those “Why are you here?” stares – my uneasiness only slightly increased; as far as the course material went, it was one of my favorite classes. How can you not enjoy a class where you write your term paper comparing gender representations between two alternative music magazines and a final that analyzes the stereotypes and gendered biases in How I Met Your Mother?

One of the basic principles you learn in a Women’s Studies class: it is unfair to generalize about people based on gender, race, etc. Our class often discussed how the public perceptions of women were based largely around stereotypes and limited diversity among public personas. Women of color were grossly underrepresented, as well as any women that did not fit stereotypical norms of appearance, gender, or sexuality. Similarly, there is not one feminist writer/thinker/perspective that represents all views. Simply, it is problematic and often erroneous to generalize about the “female” or “woman’s” perspective. Another important topic in Women’s Studies is equality; gender equality, sex equality, and just equality in general are always at the forefront of discussion.

In this particular class, however, both principles were violated. Now I am not talking about “man-hating” or anything like that. Certainly this can be a tendency of discussion for a group of young female cohorts, but it is vehemently denounced by most feminists. However, after our discussions that would thoroughly cover the different perspectives on a topic from various women’s points of view, my teacher would turn towards my chair and ask, “So Ben, what is the male perspective on this?”

The first time this happened I was slightly stunned, meekly replying that I felt unequipped to speak for all men. “Right, right okay Ben, can you give us a male perspective?” So I talk about the role of masculinity in my life and the general verbal/emotional abuse that comes with being labeled feminine within the social circles I occupy. Sure, I can represent a man’s perspective. I can add to the many voices that make up men’s perspectives, but I certainly feel no ability to speak for all men, or “the male perspective.”

This question reoccurred time after time. Finally, I went up to my professor and told her I felt it was problematic to be asked for the male perspective in light of our diversification of perspectives of women.

“Well, you are the only one in the class who can provide such a perspective, Ben.”
True enough, but what I am saying is that there is no one male perspective.
“Your insight is very important to this class Ben. I don’t often have too many men in my classes. It is refreshing to have that perspective.”

My former professor’s question is problematic for several reasons. First, it upholds a strict gender binary in its assumption that men and women must have drastically different ideas on the same subject. It also implies that we as men are all the same. I can only speak for myself, but I want to understand other perspectives and I do not think men or women are all the same. A lot can be accomplished from the acceptance of men into the field, especially feminist men with varying backgrounds.

So here’s just one male perspective of being “the guy” in a Women’s Studies class. I expect the questions about why I am a Women’s Studies minor. I expect the questions as to why I took whatever class I happen to be in. I even expect the expectation of others that I am gay – although this is a stereotype in it of itself. But I expect more from my professors and fellow students. I do not represent THE male perspective, as there is no one universal male (or female) perspective and it hurts everyone to generalize about who or what people are supposed to be. So if you do not want to be put into a box of oppressive social “norms,” please do not put others in boxes. But that's just my perspective.

Happy Holidays,

Ben is a sophomore Philosophy/Psychology major and Women’s Studies minor at Saint Louis University.