Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Guy's Guide to Feminism

I turned 25 about three weeks ago, and so far, I've got no regrets. My birthday was fairly low-key, but I got to see my family and friends, drink some good beer, eat some good food, and get a few small gifts. Birthdays get more extravagant, I'm sure, but it's hard to see how they get better.

One of my gifts was a $100 gift card for Barnes & Noble, which is good, because I had just finished the last book on my nook wishlist. Now, I could have just bought the next ten books in the series I've been reading (more on Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in another post, I'm sure), but I decided to try something new. $100 buys roughly ten eBooks, so I opened up the floor for recommendations. I would take the first ten eBook recommendations that my friends offered me, and read them front to back, no questions asked. This way, instead of reading my usual Orwell/Hemingway/O'Brien/McCarthy/sci-fi trhillers, I could expand my horizons a bit and see what else was out there.

But, I decided, why stop there? My friends were thoughtful enough to share their recommendations with me, so I feel like the least I could do to repay the favor would be to let them know what I thought. So, without any further ado, I present the first review:

The Guy's Guide to Feminism
by Michael Kaufman & Michael Kimmel
Seal Press, 2011
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by John Funk

Speaking as someone who works in the games industry, feminism is a hot topic these days. It seems that we can't go two weeks without some new scandal cropping up about the role of women in gaming, whether as protagonists, content producers, or players. Given that it's such a big part of the discussion surrounding nerd culture lately, just what is feminism? Should men be feminists, too? Does feminism adequately address the needs of all women? How does it tie into concepts like racism and homophobia?

Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel set out to answer these and many other questions in their 2011 book The Guy's Guide to Feminism. They buoy a tough topic with engaging writing, a wide breadth of information, and a few legitimately funny jokes.

Unfortunately, that is literally all they do right.

The Guy's Guide to Feminism does so much wrong that it's actually insulting to read. For starters, the book opens up with an egregious anti-joke. The authors set up a situation where a rabbi, a minister, and an imam are having coffee. A Buddhist monk walks in. This sounds like a setup for comic gold, but instead of a corny punchline, all we get is a three-page treatise on why women feel angry about their place in the modern world, full of righteous indignation and sedate, respectful exchanges.

With all due respect to Drs. Kaufman and Kimmel, who are obviously gifted writers and smart men, their book is often incendiary and wrongheaded. Take, for example, their section on Emotion. Kaufman and Kimmel argue that the only emotion that men are "allowed" to convey in modern society is anger, and that other emotions - save for rare flashes of happiness, grief, or compassion - are bottled up behind a layer of stoicism because of outdated ideas of masculinity. Feminism, they argue, will improve the role of men, because it will allow them to be more in touch with their emotions.

This sounds like a good argument until you think about it for a moment. The whole point of feminism, as I understand it, is to point out the absurdity of many "predefined" gender roles. If that is the case, then Kimmel and Kaufman have absolutely no right to dictate how men should and shouldn't comport themselves (save for the obvious anti-violence and tolerance angles, of course). If men want to be emotional and open, that's certainly their prerogative, but it is also my prerogative to think they should be a little more restrained. Neither one of us is "right," but Kaufman and Kimmel make an impassioned argument for why my view is "wrong." That is not the way to win supporters.

The sections on Pornography and XX/XY (a short primer on male/female biology) are perhaps the most reprehensible. They both feature conversations between imaginary men and women; in both cases, the men are absolute ignoramuses who need the wise, reasoned woman to show them the light of feminism. Just once in the book, it would be nice to see a man and a woman converse when the man isn't absolutely wrong and the woman is absolutely right, but sadly, this never happens. There is, apparently, a lot men can learn from women, but nothing women can learn from men. This is an extraordinarily bleak way to look at the world.

The books failings are too numerous to list, but as a few examples, Title IX did bankrupt many successful collegiate men's sports teams, rape is often motivated by sexual desire rather than a power struggle, and there are biological differences between men and women that go beyond genitalia. If you don't believe me, look them up; the authors did not.

To be fair, some of the sections are fantastic, especially Chivalry (chivalry isn't dead!), Dads (dads should be given paid leave to take care of kids, too), and Fundamentalism (religious fundamentalism is not compatible with a modern worldview, period). It's a shame that they are short and tend to taper off just as the authors bring up interesting points.

While the author's sources are as solid as solid gets, they do not actually match specific statements to citations, opting instead to give a reference list for each chapter as a whole. This is not particularly helpful, and brings many of their conclusions into question.

There's no doubt in my mind that feminism is a useful philosophy and that the authors behind this book are stand-up guys; that much is evident in the way they try to celebrate hardworking men and women of all races and sexual orientations. It's a shame that the book does not deliver on its intriguing premise, too often falling victim to strawman arguments and the idea of shared guilt instead.

As always, if you want to learn the real deal about men, women, and the overall evolution of culture, I recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins instead. This is not even remotely a book about gender studies, and yet it still has more of substance to say about why men and women grew to occupy different places in society, and why such ideas are now outdated.

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