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Feminists We Love: Jackson Katz on Anti-Sexist Activism

Feminists We Love: Jackson Katz

anti-sexist activismAfter earning a a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Education from UCLA, Jackson Katz became one of the nation’s leaders in anti-sexist activism. This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of his greatest accomplishments, the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program he co-founded at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. MVP is a multiracial, mixed gender program that assists high school, collegiate, and professional athletes in the fight against men’s violence against women. MVP was one of the first programs to employ the “bystander” approach to sexual and domestic violence prevention, a concept Katz also co-developed. In 1997, the New England Patriots became the first National Football League team to work with MVP. Since then, 25% of NFL teams have participated in the program. Additionally, several Major League Baseball teams, including the Boston Red Sox, NASCAR, and other professional sports organizations have been trained by MVP. Dr. Katz is the founder and Director of MVP Strategies, which provides gender violence prevention training to high schools, colleges, law enforcement agencies, the military, community organizations, and corporations in the United States, and he is also the Director of MVP-MC, the first worldwide gender violence prevention program that works with the United States Marine Corps.

Dr. Katz is also the author of several influential books that are committed to theorizing and eradicating gender inequality. In 2006, he published The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How all Men Can Help. In response, Michael Kimmel wrote,

Jackson Katz is an American hero! With integrity and courage, he has taken his message—that the epidemic of violence against women is a men’s issue—into athletic terms, the military, and frat houses across the country. His book explains carefully and convincingly why—and how—men can become part of the solution, and work with women to build a world in which everyone is safer.

Dr. Katz is also the author of Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns and the Politics of Manhood (2012). He is also a co-writer of Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity (1999), a script consultant for Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying, and Battering (2002), and a co-creator of Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies, and Alcohol (2004).

Dr. Katz has also been published in Brothers Keepers: New Perspectives on Jewish Masculinity, the Handbook on Cultural Politics and Education, Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader, Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, Learning Culture through Sport, the New York Daily News, Prison Masculinities, the Los Angeles Times, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, the Boston Globe, Masculinities at School, Sport in Society: Equal Opportunity or Business as Usual?, The Impact of Domestic Violence on Your Legal Practice: A Lawyer’s Handbook, and Harvard Educational Review, among many others. He also writes a blog on masculinities and politics on The Huffington Post.

From 1988-1998, Dr. Katz was the Chief Organizer for Real Men, the Boston-based anti-sexist men’s organization. He also served on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence from 1998-2000. Dr. Katz was also a member of the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s Task Force on Domestic Violence from 2000-2003. He has also served as a consultant for Women’s Work, the Liz Claiborne Company’s award-winning program, for nearly a decade. Because of the significance of his work, Dr. Katz has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, and the CBS Evening News.

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Mentors in Violence Prevention

TFW: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program you co-founded in order to prevent all forms of men’s violence against women.  Your organization was instrumental in introducing the bystander approach to gendered violence prevention, and has accomplished a tremendous lot over the past 20 years.  What accomplishment(s) make you the most proud?

A few things we’ve accomplished with MVP stand out for me: not only did we introduce the bystander approach to the gender violence prevention field, but we’ve preserved its social justice roots and feminist foundation even as we’ve managed to work successfully in very traditional areas like the sports and military cultures. I’m also proud of the leadership role we have played in what is now known as “engaging men” in sexual and domestic violence prevention — at both the personal and institutional levels. And of course there are the many young (and no longer so young!) men and women from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations whom we have helped to inspire, mentor and support in their life’s work on gender justice issues.

TFW: What are you looking forward to accomplishing with MVP in the years ahead?

Institutionalizing MVP training in schools, colleges, sports culture, the military, etc. From the beginning, I realized that our biggest challenge was not pedagogical but political: How do you get school systems to prioritize prevention education that deals honestly with an ongoing relationship abuse and sexual violence pandemic that is rooted in systems of gender and sexual equality? How do you build this kind of education organically into existing curricula?  How do you make it mandatory in varying contexts for educational, political, community and faith leaders to be trained in gender violence and gender justice issues – not because they’re good people or “nice guys,” but because we expect a greater level of knowledge and leadership on these issues from our leaders – men as well as women?  I’m looking forward to spending more and more of my time talking to and with leaders of all types about how to make this happen. And MVP is growing internationally. I look forward to expansion around the world as well as in our own schools and communities.

TFW: MVP works with athletic groups, corporations, and the military—institutions that are often the most entrenched in preserving hegemonic masculinity. I imagine, then, that you’ve experienced a lot of resistance to your theories and projects over the years.  Can you tell us a bit about that?  Along those lines, can you provide some suggestions for scholars, teachers, and activists that are working to eradicate violence regarding ways to combat such resistance?

You have to think strategically about how to align your goals with the institutional goals and stated values of the organizations with whom you are working. This means thinking about the self-interest of those organizations, because what motivates individuals to act – especially in institutional contexts – is not necessarily altruism or a commitment to social justice, but rather the requirements and imperatives of their jobs or their need to fulfill organizational objectives.  I know a lot of “movement” people who wish everyone could just see the simple justice that underlies our work and join us. But what opens more doors is when you can show people how reducing sexual and domestic violence helps them accomplish some of their other goals. For example, in organized athletics it might be preventing valuable players from “screwing up” off the field and thus not being able to excel on it; for the military preventing gender violence has a direct relation to “mission readiness.”  I don’t think we have to compromise our values to do this. And once we’re “in the door,” so to speak, we have the opportunity to reach people with ideas and insights that can be life-changing, even for people in those institutions most entrenched in preserving hegemonic masculinity. Also, I believe it’s possible to change ideas about what constitutes “hegemonic masculinity” in a more democratic and healthier direction, and thus undermine its power to enforce an unfair authoritarian gender and sexual order.

TFW: I often screen your documentary Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity in my courses.  One of the most poignant scenes for me and my students is the discussion about the transformation of boys’ dolls. You remind us that boys’ dolls (e.g. G.I. Joe and Luke Skywalker) weren’t always hypermasculine, especially regarding the construction of their bodies. That example really hits home, because these powerful visuals illustrate the ways in which masculinity has become more aggressive and more violent over time.  At the end of the film, I challenge students to think about how the film might be updated in consideration of events over the past decade.  Along thoes lines, are there any talks about updating the film?

Yes!  It’s long overdue, but Tough Guise 2 (TG2) is in post-production and should be out this fall.  And we’ve included an expanded section of “Upping the Ante,” where we show men’s bodies and gun size increasing over the decades. We still show the body size increase, but also use many contemporary examples, from the increasing (male) aggressiveness in advertising, to the increasingly realistic and brutal violence in video games, to men’s increased violence and aggression toward women in gonzo porn. We even get in a brief reference to the increase in truck size and power and the amping up of verbiage used to describe trucks.

TFW: That’s really exciting! I can’t wait to see the update! And this has me thinking about the scenes in which you connected school shooting tragedies, namely the Columbine High School massacre, to white masculinity. I can only imagine the backlash you received at the time.  I say that, because even though we’ve made a lot of progress, it’s still hard to make that connection today, more than 10 years later.  I’m thinking specifically about Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and James Holmes (Aurora).  In what ways have our conversations about white masculinity progressed, and in what ways might they still improve?

It is still an uphill fight to get mainstream/corporate media to acknowledge the gender and racial factors at the heart of so much violence, a subject we discuss in TG and TG2 when we talk about power and hidden privilege. I wonder how much of the resistance to people in mainstream media talking honestly about white masculinity has to do strictly with market worries – they don’t want to alienate male consumers by laying bare some of the misogyny, violence and other unattractive features of traditional masculinity, or whites by talking honestly about white racism – and how much it has to do with ideological policing. Of course the shootings continue. Arguably the biggest change we’ve seen since we made TG is the proliferation of the Internet, Web and social media. Now I can write an article about the gender issues at the heart of the Newtown massacre and get it published on The Huffington Post, and tens of thousands of people read it, tweet it, post it on Facebook, etc. Back in the day I’d write op-eds analyzing these kinds of events, urgently advocating a “national conversation about masculinity and violence,” and with the exception of a few I managed to get past the ideological gatekeepers in the MSM, they’d all be rejected. I might add that we address connections between white masculinity and violence thoroughly in TG2, with riffs and clips on everything from the shame and “aggrieved entitlement” of white school shooters and other rampage killers to the fear-driven arming up of older rural white male NRA members, to the constructed need for power and control you find in domestic and sexual violence perpetrators.

TFW: Speaking of your writing, you’ve often written about “white male anger.”  In “Rush Limbaugh and the Mobilization of White Male Anger in the Health Care Debate,” you write,

Limbaugh regularly takes (white) men’s sadness, disappointment and apprehension […] and interprets it for them as anger. This is effective, in part, because for so many men, anger is much less treacherous emotional terrain than other emotions – and much more socially acceptable.  In fact, countless men deal with their vulnerability by transferring vulnerable feelings to feelings of anger. The anger then serves to ‘prove’ that they are not, in fact, vulnerable, which would imply they are not man enough to take the pressure. This process affects millions of men in our society, but is especially pronounced in the lives of social conservatives, who are heavily invested in maintaining the tenets and practices of Father Knows Best masculinity.

Often, when I’ve taught or discussed this text and white masculinity in general, people will say, “That’s not necessarily a white thing.”  Can you talk a bit about that—about how this actually is a white masculinity thing?

The simplest explanation is that it’s both a “masculinity” thing and a “white” thing. And because of how cultural hegemony works, it’s difficult if not impossible to disentangle the two. After all, in our culture the idealized version of “what it means to be a man” largely reflects not some essential idea about “men” but rather the narrow racial, class and subsequent identity interests and experiences of middle to-upper middle-class white men. Just look at the history of Hollywood movies or TV shows in the 20th century — that ideal was presented repeatedly. Ronald Reagan’s political ascendance and popularity with a wide swath of white America had a lot to do with his embodiment of a kind of throwback white manhood. In an era when 1960s and 1970s social movements had been challenging heterosexual white male power in both concrete and symbolic realms, Reagan represented a powerful reassertion of that white male power both in terms of substance (policy) and symbolism. Having said that, I do think it’s fair to say that men (and women) across the racial/ethnic spectrum are influenced by these hegemonic constructions. So, for example, many men of color adopt certain aspects of male supremacist ideology and misogyny even as they struggle against racism and other forms of exclusion and oppression.

Macklemore

Macklemore

TFW: You’ve done a lot of work on hip hop.  You were featured in Byron Hurt’s 2006 documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, and you’ve written some powerful essays on rapper Eminem.  So, I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking much about the state of hip hop these days.  I’m really curious to know what you think about modern day white rappers like Macklemore, Mac Miller, and Yelawolf.

As you suggest, I’ve long been fascinated by various aspects of masculinities and music, and how race intersects with other factors not only in the art itself but in the conditions of its production, distribution and consumption. Speaking of that I recently watched the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman. It was really moving to learn that the words and music of an unaffected working-class Latino from Detroit played an important progressive role in the cultural politics of white South Africa during the struggle against apartheid. But for me Macklemore (and MC Ryan Lewis) is more complicated than Eminem, in large measure because my primary concern about Eminem was less about his cultural appropriation of a Black form than it was about how the violent misogyny and heterosexism of his lyrics drew a pass in large sectors of mainstream America, including among many cultural sophisticates, in part because of his skill at navigating the racial complexities of his position as a white pioneer in the rap genre. There’s much more to say about this, but for now I will say that while much of the praise and criticism that white male rappers like Macklemore receive has to do with race and the politics of appropriation and representation, I am interested in how Macklemore’s progressive lyrics and personal disclosures about addiction and vulnerability as a man transgress mainstream rap’s emphasis on hypermasculine posturing and misogynist lyrical aggression. I know, I know, many black male rappers have written about these things but have been unable to break through and be heard in a way that he has.  Obviously his whiteness is centrally responsible, but nonetheless I admire his efforts to articulate a more progressive and even feminist sensibility about sex and gender, from within a self-conscious position of racial privilege.

TFW: In one of your essays, you wrote about the ways in which powerful women and girls are often only acceptable in narratives that are situated in times long gone. Of course, I thought about this when we took our children to see Pixar’s Oscar-winning animated film Brave. Can you talk a bit about why this is significant for those of us concerned with women’s empowerment, especially in the media?

The stories we tell have a profound impact on our beliefs about how the world works, who should lead, whose voice counts, whose lives are more or less important. Girls/women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds need to be exposed to stories and representations of women’s strength not only to see that it’s possible and help them develop confidence, but also to help them think through how to navigate personal, professional and political relationships in a still very sexist world.  But boys/men need this exposure as well. They need to see and value women’s strengths in order for them to develop not just respect for women but also a more fully realized sense of social justice and fairness.  It frustrates me that every time there is public discussion about the latest outrageous example of objectified women in media, everybody focuses on the deleterious effects on girls’ self-esteem, as if boys and men are not profoundly influenced in their attitudes toward gender equality by those sexist objectifications. And then of course there is the proliferation of gonzo pornography, in which women are constructed simultaneously as objects of male heterosexual desire and misogynist contempt. In porn culture, women of color in particular are often portrayed in the most reductively racist ways. How can boys and young men learn to respect and value women’s strength – not to mention their humanity – when they’re being trained to get turned on by displays of sexualized callousness and cruelty toward them?

barack-obama-1

President Barack Obama

TFW: One of the things I’ve always appreciated about your work is that you understand masculinity to be inextricably linked to both race and socioeconomic status.  This was most certainly the case with your most recent book, Leading Men. Can you talk a bit about the Barack Obama presidency since his re-election this past January? What might we gain from examining these past few months of his second term through the lens of gender, race, and class?

The main point in Leading Men is that contests for the US presidency are the center stage of an ongoing national debate about hegemonic masculinity. Voters are voting in a quadrennial referendum about what type of (male) leader gets to embody the national manhood and thus the national identity. This has been especially true since the 1960s, when powerful democratic social movements including the Civil Rights, women’s and gay and lesbian movements have all mobilized challenges to traditional heterosexual white male authority in the cultural and political realms.  One way to think about this is that gender is a central factor in presidential politics not only when a woman is running, but even in contests between two or three men. But the gender that’s central is men, and thus remains largely invisible. Similarly with race.  Race is a major factor even when it’s two white guys running against each other, but because the race is whiteness, it’s rendered largely invisible unless a person of color is running. Barack Obama’s election broke a major racial barrier and was a major historical event, but it reaffirmed the centrality of men’s leadership. When he took office as a moderate liberal Democrat, the right-wing opposition that coalesced quickly against him drew from deeply-seated white anxiety and racial resentment. But there was also a powerful gender subtext. Democratic presidents have been feminized in popular discourse since at least 1972, a big part of the reason why they’ve had such a hard time winning white male votes, especially working-class white males whose economic interests align much more closely to Democratic policy positions. If you listen to right-wing talk radio, which I have voluminously for nearly three decades, you’ll see that race (and racism) is a powerful subtext. But gender is often even more overt, especially in the sense that Democrats, liberals and progressives (who are all typically and absurdly conflated) are routinely ridiculed and mocked in explicitly gendered terms.

As the first even moderately liberal Democrat since the 1960s, Obama has had to deal with all of this. I think he was first elected at a time of national crisis and that played to his strengths; he seemed amazingly self-assured and intellectually confident at a time when such confidence was a strong advantage politically. But I think his coolness and detachment have been a deficit in his ability to project solidarity with working-class white voters in an era of structurally high unemployment. He’s struggled to project strength and toughness in a political culture dominated by symbolism and media. He’s also an intellectual in a culture where anti-intellectualism is a major force in male culture, so in spite of his sponsorship of the extra-judicial killing of Bin Laden and the drone killings that have earned grudging approval on the right and much opprobrium on the left, he has struggled to maintain an image of forceful manhood at the helm of the world’s most powerful country. There’s another way to think about the fierce opposition Obama has faced. Consider this: in 2012 Mitt Romney beat Obama by 27 % among white male voters and Obama still won decisively. So the right detests Obama not just because he’s black and they’re racist, but because his rise to power and subsequent reelection were made possible by a demographic shift that is causing the inexorable decline of white men’s cultural authority and political power.  As the man who occupies the White House – the symbolic palace of white male hegemony — he’s the natural target of their resentment, fear, and anger in the face of this historic development.

Ukrainian Activist Inna Shevchenko in Paris September 18, 2012. [Photo Credit: REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen]

Ukrainian Activist Inna Shevchenko in Paris September 18, 2012. [Photo Credit: REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen]

TFW: Unfortunately, I only have time for one last question, and I want ot make sure to ask you about men and feminism. This always seems to be an exciting but contentious topic of discussion within and outside of formal feminist spaces. However, the conversation seems to be happening more often lately. I’m thinking about the recent events involving Hugo Schwyzer, who recently said, after declaring his retirement from social media,

If you look at the men who are writing about feminism, they toe the line very carefully. It’s almost like they take their cues from the women around them.

Additionally, we’re now hearing that FEMEN, the Ukranian feminist group known for their slogan: “Our mission is protest! Our weapons are bare breasts!” was founded by a man, Victor Svyatski, who hand-picked “attractive” women in order to increase the chances of publicitiy. All of these events, and so many others, have me wondering if you would be willing to talk to our readers about your own perspectives on the role of men in feminism. 

I cringe when I hear about some of the things some men who are supposedly profeminist have said or done.  But I must say I have been both surprised and a bit disheartened by some of the recent discussions I’ve seen among feminists – mostly online – about “men in feminism.” It sometimes feels as if the people arguing a point (“men can/can’t be feminists;” “men can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a woman,” “there is no place for men’s leadership in women’s movements,” etc.) are not aware that these lines of discussion/argument have been batted about for nearly two generations! And that many of us have been engaging with these sorts of questions all along, and that just because some well-known (online) men have displayed questionable judgment or worse that somehow the entire project of “men in feminism” is open to fresh scrutiny…I find this entire business deflating.  The editor of Voice Male magazine, Rob Okun, has an anthology coming out this fall entitled Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement. It features writings by men over the past thirty years who have been grappling with all of this. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to the collection and a Voice Male magazine advisor). The sub-title of the book is instructive: “the untold story.”

There has been so much profeminist men’s work under the radar, unchronicled or marginalized in mainstream media, academia, and the professions (like much other feminist work), as well as in the private sphere of families and relationships. Inspired by women, many men – men of color, white men, men across the sexual orientation spectrum — have carved out space to bring feminist ideas and commitments into male culture in ways that are potentially transformative. There are  nowhere near enough of us yet. But just look at the growing presence of men in broader women-led movements against gender-based violence and for gender and sexual equality: on college campuses, in communities – even in bastions of traditional male power like law enforcement and the military. There is still, for sure, sexism among many men in the broader progressive movement, even among men with stated commitments to feminist goals and values.  But I think we’re way past the moment when one, two or a handful of men or events can be said to represent “men in feminism,” as if it’s just a boutique enterprise that can be tossed aside when some individuals get the politics wrong or bungle their way through the sensitive dynamic of being a member of a dominant group trying to be a good ally in progressive struggle. Multiracial, multiethnic, multinational feminism is one of the great transformative social movements in human history. Men have and always will be a part of that, even as we continuously grapple with how to get it right.