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Left to right: Michael Kaufman, Harry Brod and Michael Kimmel connect at St. Norbert

Half the Human Race

“I did not go looking for this,” Michael Kimmel says of his life’s work. “This found me.”

At the time, he was working on his dissertation on 17th-century French tax policy while his partner focused hers on the first shelter for battered women in the San Francisco Bay area. The couple had one car between them and only Kimmel could navigate the stick shift, so whenever women called for help getting their kids out of the house or looking for a ride to the hospital, he was the one to drive. “It changes things when it touches you,” he says, “When it’s not some abstract statistic, but when it’s sitting in your car; and a woman says on your way to the hospital through a broken jaw, ‘You know, sometimes I deserve it, but this time I didn’t,’ it rips you apart.”

Realizing his partner was involved in something he deeply cared about, Kimmel wanted in. The shelter was for women, she explained, but in the same breath, she suggested talking to the men who had abused these women.

Though Kimmel balked initially, her next comment changed the course of his career and life. Decades later, he can still hear the inflection in her voice. “You have a natural constituency of half the human race,” she said. “Go talk to them.”

Kimmel soon realized his partner was right. He found a group involved in organizing battery intervention projects and began to work with men who chose group therapy over jail. Meanwhile, he also completed his dissertation and has since maintained ties to academia. His activism has informed his research, and vice versa.

As he shares this story, Kimmel – at St. Norbert for the two-day 2016 Masculinity Summit – is joined on the Walter Theatre stage by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman – two fellow pioneers in the field of masculinities studies.

Great Expectations
For Kaufman, it was parenthood that gave birth to his lightbulb moment. As tears of joy blurred his vision in the moments following the arrival of his child 35 years ago, he did not yet know if he was father to a boy or girl. It was the nurse who removed all doubt. As her voice lowered for added effect, she shared: “It’s a boy, and what a strong little fellow.” Kaufman was shocked by that intentional change in voice and by what she said. “Here my kid was five seconds old,” he recalls, “and he was being fitted for his first Packers jersey.” He quickly realized his son’s life was already being shaped by society’s stereotypes – most of which are infused with a sense of power.

It was around this same time that Kaufman felt as if he did not mesh with many of these notions of what men are supposed to be. “I just assumed that I must be the only man on the planet who didn’t fit into all the expectations of manhood,” he says. “I must be the only guy who just wasn’t always confident or wasn’t always fearless or wasn’t always strong or wasn’t always in control.”

After training as a peer counselor and winding up at a men’s group, he was soon confronted by individuals who all appeared to fit the stereotypical notions of manhood. Until these successful athletes and businessmen spoke, that is. As he listened to them express the same sorts of thoughts and feelings he’d been dealing with, Kaufman came to realize he was far from alone. They were all essentially saying the same thing. The expectations that had been placed on them and that they had placed upon themselves were impossible to live up to. It was then that Kaufman began his quest to understand those expectations and how they impact the lives of men. In other words, he was compelled to explore what it means to live in a society where men are profiting from their power and privilege and yet, in a bizarre way, also feel powerless.

Game of Catch
“Cubs are up 3-1 in the bottom of the fourth,” Kimmel announces. As he and his fellow presenters field questions from audience members, game seven of the World Series is playing out at Progressive Field in Cleveland. While the occasional score update ensured that he and others wouldn’t miss out entirely on the big game, it also resembled a practice that Kimmel and Kaufman have brought to other serious discussions.

After attending plenty of conferences that explore heavy issues like sexism and oppression, somewhere along the way, the friends decided to grab their gloves and play catch right in the middle of it all. Bringing intellectual rigor to their work has always been crucial, no doubt, but equally important is the need to find ways to lighten up, laugh and enjoy the positive aspects of male culture as well.

Some parts, like baseball, are worth celebrating. Others, like the experiences that first drew Kimmel into the field, are awful. And yet, as Kaufman reminds us, all men are part of it. It is crucial to remember, though, that this culture impacts more than just men. As Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer ’11 (Cassandra Voss Center) reflected on the Masculinity Summit and her participation in a class geared toward faculty and staff, she pointed to the power/powerlessness paradox – which can lead to the domination of women and others – as the most impactful concept absorbed.

The class was just one of many opportunities springing from Harry Brod’s continuous on-campus presence as St. Norbert College’s first semester-long distinguished visiting scholar. Annie Beauchaine ’15 (along with Czarnik-Neimeyer now a student in the M.L.S. program) was also able to join the group. Femininity and masculinity are deeply intertwined, Beauchaine learned. One gender cannot be studied without the other because our sense of who we are and how we engender each other is reciprocal.

Part of the challenge for men thinking about feminism is starting from an uncomfortable position. Their discerning brings them face-to-face with the privilege that is given to those who are willing to conform to masculine power norms. With greater awareness, however, some will choose to relinquish the power received from enacting these roles of male dominance.

“As human beings,” Brod says, “we benefit from giving that up.” It’s a statement that takes on added significance when you consider his family history. Group identity and oppression are built into Brod’s DNA, as a child of Holocaust survivors, and he, of all people, realizes that these issues extend beyond gender. If you talk about masculinity in the singular of the male sex role, you end up painting with such a broad brush that it incorporates everyone in the picture and doesn’t describe anybody, he explains. It feels more like a caricature or cartoon. To address the realities of people’s lives, we need to get much more specific and talk about masculinities in the plural, examining the variety of categories such as age, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness that intersect with one another and divide us in hierarchical ways.

So it only makes sense that the Masculinity Summit used a variety of these lenses to consider what it means to be a man. Workshops tackled topics like the intersection of masculinities with sports, the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community, while others focused on mentorship programs and support groups. In addition, a community conversation included Green Bay Packers director of player development Rob Davis; Oneida Nation leader (and St. Norbert College trustee) Norbert Hill; masculinity and sport scholar Jesse Steinfeldt; and Harry Sydney – former Green Bay Packer and founder of My Brother’s Keeper.

“You can’t separate out, now I’m a man, now I’m a Jew, now I carry white racial identity,” Brod adds. You need to bring these different identities into play. To illustrate the concept, he suggests picturing yourself juggling as many balls in the air as you can. Even though a ball is bound to drop, you pick it back up and you keep on going.

The yearlong calendar of events on men, masculinity and identity – coordinated by the Cassandra Voss Center on campus – has included the Midwest launch of Wonder Crew (a new toy developed with boys’ needs in mind); a faculty development workshop; the presentation to St. Norbert College of Harry Brod’s scholarly archive; the Masculinity Summit; a Green Bay Film Festival screening of “Solitary” and “If l Retaliate,” with panel discussion; and the 2017 bell hooks residency – April 3-7.

March 17, 2017