The ‘M-WORD’

Terrell CarverTerrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK. He has published widely on sex, gender, sexuality and masculinity/ies, and on Marx, Engels and Marxisms. His latest book is Marx in the ‘Classic Thinkers’ series for Polity Press (2018), and his current project is a short book on masculinity/ies and International Relations.


Feminism is a theory of women’s oppression. Few would disagree with that, or anyway few who can stop to think about this statement, rather than simply react to the word ‘feminism’ with a for/against binary ‘logic’. And similarly few would disagree with the corollary: feminist practices are constructed and pursued in relation to the attested facts through which oppression is understood and experienced.

I have put this proposition to a number of small, seminar-size classes, at final-year undergraduate level, and to MSc students, who are typically older ‘returners’, having had some employment and life-experiences, generally more than most undergraduates. And I have then asked the question: what causes this? who’s doing it? how does it happen?

Going round a group, one-by-one (my characteristic method of ensuring equality of participation), the answers are remarkably consistent: tradition, patriarchy, culture, religion, social forces, history, attitudes, ideologies, sexism, social structures and suchlike. Notably these are all abstractions, and notably appear gender-neutral, or as I’ve argued, ‘apparently de-gendered’ in an article of 1996 (see reference list). As such, they don’t reference human beings very clearly, just some abstracted and generalised notion of human agency, activity and continuity.

These seminar groups are female-dominated and sometimes exclusively female. I have found it really interesting that not one person has ever mentioned the word ‘MEN’ in an answer. This seems quite remarkable to me and worth reflecting on – which I have done over time with each group. And at the time – when I tactfully note my surprise – everyone else also looks surprised. No doubt the academic setting, and academic practice in other classes, encourage what seems to me a flight to abstractions, which are impersonal, de-politicising, evacuations of agency. All of which, to a political theorist who encourages political engagement – however modest and reflective – must be highly problematic.

The closest anyone has ever come to the ‘M-WORD’ in these little experiments is ‘toxic masculinity’, which is getting there, but does rather imply that the remaining masculinities are pretty ok. Another common reaction among female-identified participants is to deny much knowledge of men and things masculine. This is truly counter-intuitive, and must be counter-factual, since complete isolation from men – even in Saudi Arabia – isn’t really on the cards these days, given the very limited number of ‘closed’ nunneries and the like. I assume that hareems have vanished, and even they had eunuchs. Something interesting is going on here.

I have sometimes slightly ‘lost it’ and enquired: where does this oppression come from? outer space? alien invasions? plate-tectonics? global warming? Even that doesn’t solicit the ‘M-WORD’. What mental block is erasing the obvious? Or rather how is it that ‘MEN’ so easily disappear into clouds of abstractions, an absolution of non-appearance, a taboo-zone of the sacredly unmentionable, even a realm of the utterly unknowable? One immediate answer is of course intimidation, but even in the 100% female groups no one says this, and my guess is that some or even most would not like to own up to being intimidated quite so comprehensively as that.

Of course ‘MEN’ isn’t anything like the whole answer, or as such and in itself the most intelligent ‘go’ at one. But it would seem to be a start. Getting a bit further would involve some consideration of at least some characteristic masculinities: the late Jean Elshtain got this going with Public Man/Private Woman in 1982 (see reference list). She was working from personal observation, which is no bad thing, rather than from any great body of sociological research on the subject (which hadn’t yet got started). Her characterisations, ideal-type if you will, were: patriarchal-family, clerical-celibate, warrior-protector, and bureaucratic/rational.

Any of those would do, since they all convey, to some degree yet quite consistently, the idea that men are the important humans who ‘look after’ women, who – evidently – are a lesser breed or anyway ‘unequal’ gender. This is where the women’s movement – in some versions only, I stress – moved into an identity-politics of liberal inclusion, modelled as a politics bringing a subordinated ‘identity’ up to the level of a privileged group, whether majority or minority – a distinction often unhelpfully imported from Lockean liberalism. The more helpful concept here is patriarchy (rule of the fathers) or fratriarchy (rule of the brothers), which at least suggests the ‘M-WORD’, and foregrounds the notion of ‘rule’, through which subordination (restyled as ‘inequality’) arises in the first place.

But we’re still not there, because there is yet another elephant in the room. It isn’t the diversity of attitudes, behaviours, practices, mind-sets, morals and manners of individual men – after all, they are humans, and indeed ‘the very model of the modern individual’ (apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan). Feminists have made the very serious point that the ‘human individual’ isn’t ‘woman-shaped’ but rather masculinised and masculinising as one gender of two, or rather ‘gendering’ humans into two (as Judith Butler puts it – see reference list). But just as bodily sex as a binary is an effect of binary gender as conceptual practice (Butler again), and just as gender only makes sense within heterosexuality as a narrative of species-reproduction (more Butler), and just as heterosexuality constructs heteronormativity as the normal way to be human (the last word from Butler here), it follows that the ‘M-WORD’ we’re looking for is ‘heterosexual men’.

This is not to say that all heterosexual men are actually or violent to women and additionally rapists, or that homosexual men are necessarily nicer to women and more feminist-friendly. Some of the latter are possibly nicer and relatively more feminist-friendly, and only some of the former are violent to women and additionally rapists. Taken analytically here, ‘heterosexual men’ is a reference to heterosexuality as a practice that inscribes the gender-hierarchy of men over women, and some men over others, in practices where women are valued as tokens or possessions. Or in other words there might just be something wrong with heterosexuality as a practice through which women are not born, but ‘become’ (as Beauvoir put it so succinctly – see reference list), and men’s dominance over women fades into abstractions.

Just as my students didn’t want to utter the ‘M-WORD’, so no one (or hardly anyone) really wants to hear anything bad about heterosexuality, and in sexuality-studies it’s not the major focus of interest. Again following the politics of liberal inclusion and equality-concerns, marginalised sexualities hold the stage in research and politics. But how did they get to be marginalised? By whom and by what? And into what are they being included? What do we really think about that? Or are we again assuming that masculinising/hetero-ising practices are pretty ok as such, just needing to ‘loosen up’ and stop discriminating?

My conclusion here is not that heterosexuality should go out with the bathwater, but rather that complacency has to go, and in particular romanticisms that create and construct mythologies of male agency and female passivity, or rather agency as masculinity and passivity as femininity. And that in turn suggests that agency and passivity themselves need refiguring. After all, female super-heroes might look a bit different in the chest and hips, but in terms of what they do to make a story it’s much the same, isn’t it?

Unreconstructed heterosexuality is founded on domination, which is an obvious potential for violence. Romanticisms that make this not just all right but wonderful! Or so it would seem until feminists began detailing how wonderful it wasn’t, and how close Prince Abuser is to Prince Charming. The first step in resolving this is to name heterosexuality, consider it and men’s position within it as a problem, and make that a subject for critical reconstitution, which some have bravely done. I append a short reading list, comments and additions welcome.


Reading List

  • Jonathan Ned Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality, new edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Gayle Rubin, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Politics of Sexuality. In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance. London: Pandora. 1992, pp. 267-293.
  • Stevi Jackson, ‘Gender, Sexuality and Heterosexuality: The complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity’, Feminist Theory 7(1) (2006): 15-21.

Reference List

  • Beauvoir, S. 1997 [1949]. The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley, new edn. New York: Vintage.
  • Butler, J. 2006 [1990]. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Milton Park: Routledge.
  • Carver, T. 1996. ‘Public Man’ and the Critique of Masculinities, Political Theory 24: 4, pp. 673-686.
  • Elshtain, J. 1993 [1982]. Public Man/Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s