When I was reading The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity & Love by bell hooks, I was approaching the book from two angles. First, I was inspired by my social breaching experiment to explore the concepts of healthy black masculinity. Second, I looked towards the book to reaffirm my faith in the goodness of men and to seek ways I could apply the lessons to my life. For example, where was I falling short in my feminism, and were there ways I was reinforcing patriarchy in the way I treated men? I find that kind of self-assessment not only helpful but necessary to my belief system. A commitment to change should represent an internal and external change. To remain stagnant in my feminism means accepting a life without change.
Some notes: I am a cisgender, heterosexual woman so this post is written through that lens and speaks to my personal experience alone.
There are a few ideas within hooks that apply to all genders that appealed to me:
1. Defining love as the will to nurture one’s own and another’s spiritual and emotional growth.
In defining love like this, hooks calls on us to think about how the way we tend to talk about love is possessive. We rarely see her definition of love represented in mainstream discourse. The language of belonging, he is hers or she is his, tends to be used most often. Seeing love as less transactional, that is ceasing to see love between men and women as a platform for “what can he provide for me”, is a healthier and more anti-patriarchal way to conceive of love.
2. Rejecting “dominator models” in loving relationships
This idea applies to all kinds of relationships. Here, she called for rejecting power dynamics in relationships based on gender roles. hooks doesn’t think feminism means an inversion of a patriarchal power dynamic, where women suddenly become dominant in a relationship. Instead, this “dominator model” should be eliminated with both parties working towards mutual growth and love as she defines it.
3. Defining masculinity “divorced from the dominator model”.
This is best explained in hooks own words:
“… one of the first revolutionary acts of visionary feminism must be to restore maleness and masculinity as an ethical biological category divorced from the dominator model.”
We need to define what it means to be a man as something unrelated to holding power over others, especially when maintaining power relies on violence and disenfranchisement.
While reading this book, I wondered what could be done. (I’m a woman committed to action.) Were there solutions to the crisis of masculinity that’s not only touted by the media but addressed by hooks herself? While I’ve never had the chance to be in any sort of relationship with a man who has rejected patriarchal masculinity completely, I do think there are men who come close to it.
In fact, I know these men are out there. Perhaps their abstinence from self-identifying as feminists is what pushes them away from being completely anti-patriarchal or easily identified as such. However, these men exist and I think they are crucial to solving the “masculinity crisis” we hear about nearly every day. We need the men on the fringe who decide for themselves what makes them a man. We need the men who have discovered healthy manhood in the absence of fathers are pioneers and have the potential to lead other men down similar journeys.
It’s not up to me or any woman to tell men how to “be men”. The solution to this crisis is out of my hands. Women can support, assist and step back from projecting expectations of patriarchal masculinity, but we cannot tell men how to be. They need to find the rare beings who have solved their own masculinity crises. Men need new leaders and role models. Your daddy’s 1950’s masculinity just won’t work anymore. I think these leaders are among us; they are the men who are struggling daily against the entrapments of patriarchal masculinity and forging a way for themselves, challenging society’s expectations without compromising their essence.