Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Understanding Masculinity with Rachel Giese and Daemon Fairless

It is an interesting time to be a man in our culture. While many ideas about masculinity have been challenged and undermined, too little effort has been invested (by men, first and foremost) in fostering healthy aspects of maleness and reimagining unhealthy ones. The contemporary understanding of gender has generated a great deal of angst and a host of questions for men and boys. It was, therefore, with a mixture of keen interest and mild trepidation that I attended the event Man Up: Understanding  Masculinity on Sunday afternoon at Christ Church Cathedral. What would be said, and in what tone?

 

Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa hosted the event and opened by speaking of a contemporary reckoning for negative aspects of masculinity via his own past admiration for Bill Cosby, then invited his guests to read from their respective books. Rachel Giese spoke of the so-called “man box,” shorthand for masculinity defined in terms of seven commonly-accepted characteristics, and how many men are reclaiming such “masculine markers” as a response to an uncertain cultural landscape around maleness. Daemon Fairless read a beautiful description of a close friend who had helped him to learn how to express love to male friends. Harewood then facilitated a conversation about the ideas raised in Fairless’ Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men and Giese’s Boys: What It Means to Become a Man. Fairless spoke about his own experience of aggression and its attraction for men, his interactions with serial killers and rapists and the role of testosterone from a neuroscientist’s perspective. Giese spoke about the limitations placed on both men and women by some male narratives; how feminism is good for men as well as women; and the gendered aspects of educational crisis in non-white communities. Both authors spoke about sexual violence perpetrated by men and its motivations. Significantly, both expressed hope about what might define the “man box” of the twenty-first century, for example a desire to become fully-developed persons, more openness and comfort speaking about their emotions, and an increased willingness to embrace broader definitions of maleness.

 

There were a few points made that some would find contentious. For example, Fairless challenged the idea that rape is about domination, claiming that sexual pleasure is also a prime motivator for rapists. Giese’s assertion that feminism is positive for men also warrants some unpacking, especially in terms of which vision of feminism, a clearer understanding of what ‘good’ means. But these are small drawbacks in a conversation that was engaging, interesting, and timely. All the speakers were thoughtful, nuanced, and took great care to appropriately explain and qualify their statements. Moreover, they genuinely wishing to avoid ‘us-them’ language or the assumption that addressing masculinity involved any sort of zero-sum game with femininity, as if the interests of women and men were automatically opposed. So, my trepidation had been unfounded; I left Man Up in possession of two new books which each contribute to a good and necessary conversation.