biology is not destiny – men are just as capable as women of being fully human

South African men’s lives have changed remarkably little over the last few centuries – according to the bulk of my undergraduate students. Such an understanding seems common knowledge in the communities from which most of my students are drawn. Since time immemorial, the dominant narrative goes, South African men have ‘always’ been breadwinning heads of heterosexual households. While sociopolitical and economic contexts have changed, patriarchal relationships between men, wives and children have, in this view, remained pretty constant.

In contrast my students imagine women’s lives to have changed dramatically . Racialised and racist processes of colonialism, imperialism, industrialization, urbanization etc created a diverse array of opportunities for women. My students draw attention to women’s increased access to education – even tertiary education and to women’s access to paid work – even careers – outside the home. My students note that nowadays many women are not economically dependent on men, and that, in theory at least, women control their own fertility. While a few always note that, if women’s lives have changed so dramatically then men’s lives must have changed too, the dominant understanding of masculinity is of something fixed and static across time and space, emerging quite simply, out of an (unruly) body part. In this view biology is destiny – at least for men.

Femininity, in contrast, is understood as responsive to contextual shifts, as a socially produced artifact – as gender. Masculinity is then positioned in opposition to this, as an authentic expression of nature/biology (rather than culture), that has little or nothing to do with gender. But seeing biology as destiny denies men the opportunities to reach the potential of their full humanity. It also precludes the possibility of change in the future. This has to be a major concern for all of us living in a country in which every single man, woman and child’s opportunities and potentials are regularly and seriously compromised (and even ended) by the men with whom we share our lives.

If, on the other hand, we see masculinity as something that has changed dramatically in the past, then the possibilities for the future are much more positive. And, as history shows, the ways in which particular societies expect men to behave has changed enormously. What counts as a ‘real’ man is contextually and historically specific. In ancient Greece high status men were expected to enjoy same sex relations with younger men as well as their wives. In early modern Europe men were intimately involved in child care to the extent that they could be seen as the primary parent. Once a child was weaned it would be turned over to its father – boys in particular – as it ‘took a man to raise a man’. In the USA it was only in the early 20th century that the child care articles in newspapers and magazines took the innovative step of relocating to the women’s pages. There is little that is novel in contemporary trends (sometimes described as the ‘new’ man) towards hands on fathering.

‘Breadwinner’ is also a relatively recent masculine construct. To cut a long and complex story very short, the concept or identity of the male ‘breadwinner’ emerged through centuries of change in Europe, out of communities in which agrarian production was men’s work, through processes of industrialization and the emergence of a middle class whose defining feature was the home based wife and mother: As more and more women became housewives so more and more men became breadwinners.

Closer to home there’s little evidence to suggest that most men in Africa have ever understood themselves as ‘breadwinners’, despite ‘developmental’ change predicated on the colonial imports of the male ‘breadwinner’ and female ‘housewife’ that saw men’s access to and control over land substantially increased. In Africa these changes saw food production fall – precisely because it was (and remains) primarily women’s work. Despite what can be described as ‘affirmative action’ for men in terms of enhanced access to agrarian resources, traditional gender dynamics have combined with poverty and global inequalities to mitigate against the emergence of the identities of both ‘breadwinner’ and ‘housewife’ on any substantial scale in the global South. In South Africa apartheid and male migrancy further compromised the development of these roles.

Across the world history demonstrates how the fluidity and flexibility of what ‘real’ men should (and shouldn’t) do undermines claims that men have ‘always’ been this or that. And yet the myth of a timeless masculinity that somehow exists outside history and culture endures. But biology is not destiny – men are just as capable as women of being fully human.


This post first appeared in


men in women’s studies (contd)

A male student who sued his women’s studies professor for failing him for never attending class was the subject of what I thought (as a women’s studies professor) was an extraordinary report a few weeks ago. The story revealed that, as the only man in a room full of women, Wongene Daniel Kim felt unable to attend classes. While he completed his coursework, his absence from class meant he didn’t get it back and so remained unaware that his work did not meet the required standard. When he ultimately failed the course he took his professor to court on the grounds that she had discriminated against him.

In reflecting on this report I wondered about the extent to which Kim was a “chancer of note” as well as about the questions the story raises about contemporary teaching and learning practices. In these days of the “flipped classroom”, chat rooms, discussion forums and the internet-based learning management systems that universities employ, how necessary is the physical presence of students in the classroom?

My reflection elicited a response from psychologist Kopano Ratele.

Finding the story “rather sad” Ratele drew attention to questions of group identities and how we belong — and how we don’t:

“If you were to pause for a minute and think back about the group-related experiences you have had so far, you may recognise how it touches on some of your own well-concealed anxieties about gender and other social categorisations. Or maybe they are not concealed at all. ‘Others’ make us panic. And if you are the only self-identified ‘non-other’ in a room you perceive to be full of ‘others’, it can be terrifying.”

Ratele certainly has a point. I imagine we have all felt the odd one out at some point in our lives and it is not a comfortable space at all. And, as Ratele notes, in spaces run by men, heterosexuals, whites, able-bodied persons and other hegemonic groups it is women, lesbians, blacks, disabled persons and other minoritised groups who are generally positioned as “other”.

In considering this, and to get back to Kim, it seems important to also acknowledge that Kim apparently felt no shame in his non-attendance; his absence was apparently justifiable in his own mind. He seemingly lost no status among his peers for his absenteeism. In addition he was willing and able to employ the legal system to protect him from exposure to the ”others” in the class. The ”others” in question were women, and presumably, given the subject matter, at least some would be women with feminist sympathies.

By absenting himself from class Kim thus protected himself from potential challenges to his masculine world view. On the one hand then, his ability to draw on both social and legal resources to justify his nonattendance can be read as an expression of male privilege in a society in which men are dominant.

Would, for example, the only woman in an engineering class have had access to similar social and legal resources? At the same time his ability to call on this privilege, to feel justified in absenting himself from class, denied him the opportunity to engage with and learn from ”the other”. In taking advantage of the formal and informal resources available to secure his comfort zone Kim denied himself the opportunity for the intellectual and emotional growth that emerges out of interactions with those who see and experience the world a little differently. And that is indeed sad — both for Kim himself as well as those who imagine the university as a place to promote the development of graduates who are engaged and critical citizens committed to social justice.

This post also appeared on Thoughtleader at

Teaching Men and Boys to Understand How Some Performances of Masculinity Compromise Lives

Questions that go to the heart of one of my main research interests raised by Kopano Ratele in this blog post

African Men and Masculinities


Last year Lisa Vetten and I co-edited a special issue of the journal Agenda. One of the papers that we received and published was by Professor Lindsay Clowes.  A really well-argued piece of reflection, it is concerned with the issue of teaching on the subject of masculinity. The paper has the title “The limits of discourse: Masculinity as vulnerability”. It’s a kind of paper that sticks in the head. I have read it several times. Clowes, a historian who teaches in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape, writes on, among other subjects, representations and experiences of South African masculinities and feminist pedagogy.

In the paper on masculinity as vulnerability she reflects on what it means that for many men and women “the idea that men might benefit from gender equity seems unthinkable”. She says that she finds that it is “extraordinarily difficult for most…

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men in women’s studies classes

I came across an extraordinary article a couple of days ago, about a young man who signed up for a women’s studies class. He was so unsettled on finding himself to be the only man among about 40 women that he did not attend any classes. And when he ultimately failed the course he sued his professor. Check out the story in the link below

On the one hand I find this very funny. On the other it raises all sorts of questions around pedagogy, about the obligations of learners and teachers as well as for the broader aims of social activism and the production of graduates who are critically engaged citizens. How important, for example, is face to face contact and interactions in this age of chat rooms discussion forums and so on? Should the student have discussed his anxieties with the teacher at the beginning of the course? Should the professor have alerted the young man that his continued absence from class would compromise his ability to pass the course? I wonder what my own students think about all this in relation to their own experiences at university. Is he a chancer of note or does he have a point? And more broadly, what does a young man’s anxieties about sitting in a women’s and gender studies class mean for the broader project of gender equity? There are very few men in my undergraduate classes. How – and even whether – we should engage with their absence is an important issue for the feminist professors teaching in women’s & gender studies departments.

men and gender studies


While the popular understanding of the teacher/learner relationships is that it involves a one way flow of information from teacher to learner, I am becoming increasingly aware that I learn some important things about my own subject matter from my students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast bulk of my students are young women, although there are some young men, and their numbers seem to be gradually increasing each year.  Some of these young men are there by choice, but others are there by default – eg they many just need one course to graduate and this looks like the best option. It is what I have learned about the challenges facing young men who take courses on gender that I aim to comment on here.

I first became conscious of the depth of young men’s  reluctance to engage with the feminist theorising that lies at the heart of my teaching several years ago when a male postgraduate exchange student from another department was advised that his proposed research would be strengthened if he took our feminist research methodologies course. He gave up after just one class on the grounds that he couldn’t return to his country with a feminist research methodologies course listed on his academic transcript. I was reminded of his engagement with gender studies the following year in a discussion with second years students. I had set an assignment asking them to break a gender norm. The assignment asked students to explain what norm they had broken (or even simply considered breaking), to record their anxieties about breaking this norm, to record how others responded to their challenge to gender normativity, to consider their own reactions to the responses of others and, finally, to draw on the theory covered in the course to reflect critically on the discomforts (if any) that these experiences produced and the ways they were themselves implicated in reinscribing gender normativity.

When we brainstormed the possible norms that could be broken, female students suggested that they could wear trousers to church, shave their heads, drink beer out of cans, and tell people they didn’t ever want to have children and so on. When we moved on to consider the norms male students might break, it slowly emerged that the men in the class had already broken a gender norm simply by signing up for the course. Their decision to take my course had elicited questions about their sexuality and their masculinity and they’d been required to explain and justify their choice of a gender studies course to both friends and family.  ‘Real’ men, it became clear, can’t do gender studies and should not engage in feminist theorising.

When you think about it it’s extraordinary that such a rich and vibrant body of thought is largely out of bounds for half the population. Given the nature of gender inequalities in South Africa and the ways in which unearned gender privileges come at great cost, it’s deeply proplematic.

Masculinity as vulnerability at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana


Professor Akosua Ampofo delivering the Welcome Address

Travelling between Europe, Latin America and Africa have made it difficult to keep connected to this blog – there is some catching up to do! Let’s start with the most recent experience – my visit to Accra and the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. The paper I presented considered the possibilities and challenges of teaching Critical Masculinity Theory to young South African men and women in a context in which so many (most?) people understand gender equity as a zero sum game in which men should be willing to give up their privileges for the creation of a more equitable and just society. There’s little or no space in such an understanding to consider how gender makes men vulnerable. As I’ve written elsewhere, this was brought home to me a few years agoin an introduction to a gender studies test in which students answering a question on what men might gain from gender equality had nothing to say. Instead 54 (out of 56 students) explained how women would benefit. I’ve thought a lot about this. Was the problem poor teaching and/or poor learning? Or was something more complicated going on? The paper I presented at the University of Ghana considered how young men and women experienced an intro to gender studies course that foregrounded masculinities. The course drew on the ideas of bel hooks, Raewyn Connell and Michael Kimmel and asked students to consider the idea that contemporary masculinities might be harmful to South African boys and men. In analysing the original interviews they did with young men, students drew on the work of local theorists such as Kopano Ratele, Malose Langa, Tina Sideris, and Gender Sonke Justice. Evidence from course evaluations, focus groups and the online discussion forum suggests that the focus on masculinities surprises students. Evidence also suggests that such a focus helps challenge the zero sum thinking that positions men as the enemy, deepens understandings of the ways in which masculinity is harmful to men and increases the possibilities that young men may be more willing to consider their own performances of gender. I suggest that the struggle for social justice will be advanced by feminist activists and teachers help men and boys understand the ways that that performances of masculinity deeply compromise their own lives.

doing masculinity – gender and dress

American apparel

In a post available at

Lisa Wade draws attention to how doing femininity requires the female body to be sexed up and observes that rather than consumers of a product, women are more often presented AS the product. At the same time, masculinity is visible through the absence of ‘sexyness’, the figures on the right hand side are readable as ‘men’ precisely because they aren’t exposing or posing their bodies in any way, they are ‘just standing there’.
Several years ago we did research into how students understood gender to be signaled by dress, how clothes signaled masculinity and femininity. Students found it easy to talk about how femininity was signaled by clothes and the ways in which clothes were worn. In contrast they found it very difficult to think about how masculinity was signaled by clothes. Many were deeply invested in challenging any suggestion that men might be doing gender when they got dressed in the morning, men ‘just wore’ their clothes. Underpinning their position was an essentialised understanding of masculinity as purely biological, as somehow outside the social. But of course this ‘just standing there’ is itself a performance of masculinity. In the pictures above viewers draw on their own complex and extensive experiences of seeing particular bodies behave in similar ways in the past to read the figures on the right as ‘men’. Imagine transposing the poses and how uncomfortable it might make some (most?) viewers.  The figures on the right might suddenly become ‘gay men’ if their postures or their clothes were changed, and gender would become easily visible again. But just because we struggle to see heterosexual masculinities doesn’t mean they aren’t performances of gender.

Let women lead …

Let women lead initiation debate

Mthetho Tshemese reports that “In his opening remarks Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, Chairman for the House of Traditional Leaders, intimated: ‘Akekho umntu osezingqondweni onokuzingca ngolwaluko xa ebona lentlekele yokufa kwabantwana (there is no sane person who can be proud of our initiation when one looks at the tragic deaths of initiates).'” Apparently Chief Matanzima also declared that “I want women in this room to speak freely without any fear, and not be silenced by anyone in this room.”

On the one hand calling for women’s involvement is a move forward, in that it is everyone’s work to protect young people from harm. But we also need to be careful that we don’t end up blaming women if nothing gets better.

men in women’s month

“Men need to take equal responsibility for the emancipation of women. Men need to realise that their freedom, in many ways, is indivisible from the freedom afforded women” Says Ryland Fisher in the article below.

A thoughtful piece by Ryland Fisher.  I think he has misframed his article though. So called ‘women’s rights’ are in fact human rights. Can you see how he positions men/masculinity as the unmarked default? Women should be ‘included’ in the status quo that benefits men, the rights that men have should be extended to the ‘other’. Yet men have issues of their own when it comes to human rights .  Patriarchy is as huge problem for men as it is for women, albeit in different ways. bel hooks said that the first violence that patriarchy demands of men is violence against themselves, that patriarchy demands that men become and remain emotional cripples. So I’d go a bit further than saying that ‘men need to realise that their freedom, in many ways, is indivisible from the freedom afforded women.’  Men’s freedom is directly tied to women’s freedom. The sooner men figure this out the happier they (and everyone else) will be. As Fisher notes, men need to join the struggle for gender equality, but for their own sakes, not for women. They need to realise that patriarchy is killing them and work against patriarchy for themselves.  As long as masculinity, and patriarchal masculinity specifically, remains unmarked then men, or at least most men, will struggle to see the relevance of gender equality to their own lives.

What would happen if black men pulled up their pants?

the politics of respectability: what would happen if black men pulled up their pants?

Great take on the politics of dress and gender in the US. Does it have any resonance for South African men?