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Understanding 'real men' is a valuable part of gender studies, too

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Thursday, 20 November 2003

If you’ve been in Sydney lately, you might have noticed some strange-looking posters. They’re not exactly glossy – a graphic of what could be a male skateboarder or a fugitive. Then there’s the text: "Hangin with the boys: an evening talking men." Is it some new secret men’s society? Bettina Arndt’s fan club? Read on:

NO tree hugging, weekend camps, baby-boomer academics, snags, metrosexuals, cavemen etc. But a crew of likely young lads who think feminisms rock. What really goes on under cars, at clubs, on beaches, and in footy stands? Come along, have a schooner, and help us debunk some of the myths about being a young bloke.

Sound intriguing? Well I think so, though I’d better fess up that I know these likely lads. The night of boy talk is organised by two of our PhD students in gender studies, Clifton Evers and Will Tregonin. They’re an unlikely duo. One’s a surfer from childhood, the other looks like he grew up in a nightclub. They’re both straight guys in their 20s. They’ll be joined by Dr. Michael Moller, who did his doctoral thesis on South Sydney Leagues club and Glen Fuller who’s doing his PhD at the University of Western Sydney on men and cars.


It’s the sort of thing that would make Dr. Nelson choke on his cappuccino: "What! You can do a thesis on surfing at the University of Sydney?" From a different ideological corner, some feminists might also tut-tut: "See that’s what happens when you allow men into Women’s Studies."

It’s tough being a guy in gender studies. It’s no cake walk for girls either but for the boys and especially the straight ones it’s a real test of their masculinity.

To make matters worse for the guys in gender, the media constantly portray feminism as the cause of all men’s woes. Pick up any daily newspaper and you’ll regularly hear outrage from lady columnists. Metrosexual men - the latest trend in masculinity - sent Janet Albrechtsen into hysterics: "Metrosexual Man thinks he makes girls swoon because he offers the best of both worlds. But what would liberated, assertive, independent women find attractive about girly-boys who hog the mirror?" Men who look after themselves are said to be "feminism’s freak". Feminists are to blame for "tampering with the male" (The Australian, August 6).

Albrechtsen thinks that biology will save the day – and the male. Drawing on a study into autism by Simon Baron-Cohen, she interprets his research to contend that "science says that feminism’s freak is just a fad". She triumphantly states that this research proves that "the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy and the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems". For Albrechtsen this definitively demonstrates that "the gender cognoscenti" are wrong. She thinks she’s put the stake into feminism by discovering that there are biological differences between men and women.

Shock! Horror! Men and women are different! Well d’uh – of course we are. If Albrechtsen ever took time off from attacking feminists and actually spent time reading recent work in gender studies she’d know that many of us are interested in both the differences and similarities between the male and the female, and what that means socially and culturally for men and women. Elizabeth Grosz, a well-known Australian feminist philosopher, has a recent collection on Charles Darwin’s writings which draws on recent feminist research on biology and neuroscience to rethink the importance of his work. A couple of years ago Elizabeth Wilson edited an issue of Australian Feminist Studies on feminism and science, arguing that we need to take seriously the biological basis of humankind. Vicki Kirby, Helen Keane, Anna Munster, Moira Gatens, Anna Gibbs, Marsha Rosengarten, Zoe Sofoulis – just to name a few Australian feminists – all draw on current advances in different scientific branches in their analyses of gender.

It’s just plain wrong to say that gender studies ignores biology, physiology, neuroscience and experimental psychology. And to get back to our guys in gender, some of them are working with this research to try to understand different aspects of male culture. Albrechtsen would probably see them as emasculated apologists for the feminist cause.


She should meet Clif, the surfer. Clif is studying surf culture and what it says about what it means to be a guy. Steeped in surfing since his childhood on the Gold Coast, Clif knows better than most that it can be a rough life. And it take guts to question the Bra Boys about their masculinity (they’re the infamous gang from Maroubra in Sydney’s south). Quite often Clif comes back from his research in the surf with a couple scars or a black eye. It’s worth it because he’s drawing out information on the elaborate rules of respect, care and honour that underpin surf culture. It turns out that surfies are a pretty reflective lot – if you’re the right type of guy and you know how to ask the right questions.

It’s not the type of research that a girl in gender studies could do. It requires respect for and from the culture, as well as an intimate knowledge of what it means to be a guy. From this basis, and with the help of different feminist ideas about power, bodies and discipline, these guys in gender are neither apologists, nor SNAGs. They’re interested in "feminisms that rock". They’re also committed to translating these ideas into a language that other blokes can understand. They’re taking their ideas to the streets, or in this case to the clubs.

So what’s a guy do in gender studies? Well the same as the girls. Drawing on ideas from a number of disciplines, they’re trying to figure out what makes us tick as men and women – in short as human.

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This article was first published in The Australian's Higher Education Supplement.

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Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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