Discussion of “Malestrom” by Carolyn Custis James (Part Five)

Discussion of “Malestrom” by Carolyn Custis James (Part Five) September 1, 2015

Discussion of Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James (Part Five)

Here I will be responding to Chapters 6 and 7 of Malestrom: “The Marginalized Man” and “Gender Role Reversal” respectively. Some of what I say here may be confusing if you are not reading the book and have not read my previous discussions of the book here.

I suppose it might be worth asking and answering why I am spending so much time on this book here? I get many books from authors and publishers who hope I will review them on my blog. Some I do; some I don’t. I am especially interested in issues of society and gender, religion and gender because I think I have some insights and perspectives most others who take up the subject do not. Many disagree with me and think my alleged insights and perspectives are flawed if not simply false. That’s okay; what I want to do is add a dimension to the discussion rarely heard—a man’s perspective on what it means to be male. I want to raise consciousness about the unfair disadvantages of being male in contemporary Western societies.

James’ book is one of the first ones, perhaps one of the only ones, that joins me in this. And it is by a woman—an added point of interest in it. James clearly agrees with me (or I agree with her) that there are distinct disadvantages as well as distinct advantages to being male in contemporary Western societies. She shines a much needed spotlight on the problems many men face.

In Chapter 6, “The Marginalized Man,” James discusses how patriarchy disadvantages many, perhaps most, men—not compared with women but compared with what they could be themselves. “Patriarchy at its core is an unjust system that advantages and empowers some men and disadvantages and disempowers others.” (135) I agree, even as I cringe a bit at identifying the world’s fallen systems of domination and power-over “patriarchy.” But then James says “Jesus undoes the world’s value system that exalts one man over another. He completely dismantles all of the criteria that make men culturally important.” (151) I would agree with that statement if she had worded it slightly differently. As it is written it implies that men are not culturally important—that being a man is of no particular value to anyone. What about fatherhood? Earlier in the book she seemed to express the idea that boys need fathers. This statement seems to contradict that. Here is how I wish she had expressed her idea: “Jesus undoes the world’s value system that exalts one person over another. He completely dismantles all of the criteria that make one kind of person more culturally important than other kinds.”

Another statement with which I have problems comes near the end of this otherwise very good, insightful, helpful chapter. James talks about Christian men she has met who “broke the cycle of violence and injustice the malestrom perpetuates. They forgave their enemies and lived out that forgiveness in tangible ways…. The world doesn’t have categories for this kind of manhood.” (152) Really? The clear implication is that outside of Christianity “manhood” is violent, unjust and unforgiving. Surely in Christ both men and women find fulfillment of their manhood and womanhood, but is it true that outside of Christ, apart from being truly Christian, all “manhood” is evil? Are there no examples or categories of true manhood that are good “in the world?” James seems to believe that manhood itself is a fallen category and that it is only of value if redeemed. Would she say the same about womanhood?

Again, I agree with most of what James says in Chapter 7 “Gender Role Reversal.” She decries double standards that work against men. “Women aren’t the only ones who are objectified” in popular culture. (155) She talks about changing gender roles and how they can be both helpful and good, on the one hand, and a challenge for both men and women on the other hand. Today many women, a steadily increasing portion, are the main “breadwinners” in the family and many husbands are staying home to take care of the children. But there’s still a social stigma attached to that. Many men are made to feel less than masculine just because they spend time with their children and do housework while their more highly educated wives earn the family’s “bread and butter.” James celebrates changing gender roles; so do I. I travel a lot and often to cities more amenable to these changes than others. I have taken my granddaughter to parks and malls and amusement parks and have seen many men alone with their children or grandchildren—during the “work day” when their wives or daughters are probably working. This is a trend with which popular culture has not caught up. I do not see it reflected very often on television, for example, in positive ways that portray the men in a good light. The implication still is that there’s something wrong with them as men for doing housework, taking care of the children, etc.

But here is a paragraph in this chapter that really confused me:


“In the twenty-first century West, seismic cultural and economic changes raise new challenges for gender identity. Manhood initiation rites are missing, manhood has morphed into superficial and temporary rather than substantive qualities that have enduring significance, and gender roles are in flux. Women may be crossing gender barriers for education and careers. But men are transitioning too. Gender roles clearly delineated in previous generations (and still in many regions of the world) are up for grabs in the West. The world seems swallowed up in ambiguity. What is happening?” (158) (italics added)


On the one hand, in this chapter as throughout the book, James seems to celebrate these changes and regard them as beneficial for both genders and society as a whole. What disturbs me is the inclusion of the italicized portion of the second sentence in that paragraph. Is it good that manhood rites are missing, that manhood has morphed into superficial and temporary rather than substantive qualities that have enduring significance? What if we reversed the gender and said that “Womanhood rites of initiation are missing, womanhood has morphed into superficial and temporary rather than substantive qualities that have enduring significance?”

The problem, as I see it, is not that women are now doing what has traditionally been considered “men’s work” and achieving full equality with men in terms of opportunity and privilege everywhere. Nor is it that men are now often doing what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” and making room for full equality of women with men. The changing of roles is good—except that I still believe only a female can be a good mother and only a male can be a good father. Those, I believe, are perhaps the only roles assigned permanently by God to males and females. (Which implies something more about sex-gender differences than only physiology and social assignment.) The problem I have is with the implication that “manhood” itself is only “superficial and temporary” with no “substantive quality that has enduring significance.” If that were the case….

Imagine a world without men. Imagine a world in which some strange genetic disease (for example) has wiped out all the males. This imaginary world contains only female human beings. And, in this futuristic utopia or dystopia (depending on your perspective), a way has been found for women to reproduce without males. What “substantive qualities” would be missing? Any? Or, scale that down to a society without males. Imagine a “women’s church” where men are not welcome. Would any substantive quality be missing? (All of this imagining is not ridiculous; a serious discussion about the obsolescence of males is taking place in the higher echalons of academia and there are churches only for women.)

Once again, I am raising a question James seems to ignore. I asked it earlier; I’ll ask it again. Are there any good and valuable masculine traits that themselves contribute something valuable to the world? Put another way in light of the above troubling paragraph: “Are there any substantive qualities of ‘manhood’ that have enduring significance apart from physiology and socially-assigned, temporary roles?” If so, what are they? Why hasn’t she (James) identified them? If not, are there any “substantive qualities of ‘womanhood’ that have enduring significance apart from physiology and socially-assigned, temporary roles?”

These are my questions that arise, admittedly, primarily from living in my world—education. I am surrounded in the larger academy (but also in my own institution) by calls for girls and women to be included more equally in certain disciplines, professions and careers because those disciplines, professions and careers will be better with more females in them. Obviously that implies that females do have certain “substantive qualities” with “enduring significance” apart from socially-assigned, temporary roles. But what about males? I hear no calls for greater efforts to include more males in disciplines, professions and careers where they are underrepresented because those disciplines, professions and careers will be “better” with more males in them. To me this implies a double standard of belief about males and females. The neglect implies that either males have no “substantive qualities” with “enduring significance” to offer those disciplines, professions or careers or that all of them are negative (so keeping males out of them is beneficial to them).

Where, if at all, does this touch the wider world—outside the academy? I frequently read and hear very negative things said about boys and men—males—with no shame or pushback. A recent column in Time was by a woman about her three teenage sons and her struggles with them during “summer” (out of school time). In the middle of the column she talks about the “teenage male brain” in extremely negative ways. If you pay attention to popular culture at all, you cannot miss the negative message in it about males. Sure, it’s still a “man’s world” in terms of “men hold most of the top positions of power and influence.” I’m not challenging that; it is the case. I think it should change. I would like to see equality of women with men at the top of all institutions, organizations and even government. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about social attitudes. At present, and for a long time now, it is perfectly acceptable for women especially to verbally “bash” males without fear of pushback. A few years ago I was watching one of the major network morning talk shows (half news, half human interest stories and a lot of chit-chat among the talking heads). It was the day before Mothers Day and the talking heads were discussing research showing that mothers who stay at home and take care of the house and the family ought to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in the twenty-or-so years they are in that role (raising kids). One of the male talking heads asked “I wonder what a father is worth?” The female talking head (a well-known journalists and anchorwoman) immediately responded very disdainfully “About seventy-five cents.” Everyone laughed. I disagree with anyone who claims these are rare examples; exceptions that do not matter. Boys are growing up today in a social environment that sends them messages that girls and women are more valuable than they.

So far I don’t see how James’ book is helping matters much. I wish she had more positive things to say about men and manhood in general. The overall message is that men who become more Christlike in character are good. Of course that’s the case. So are women. But a problem is the value of manhood itself—in and of itself. I am not seeing that mentioned or discussed. And in our present social climate that needs to be heard and discussed.

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