Raising Feminist Sons: A Conversation With Michael And Zachary Kimmel

Hugo Schwyzer spoke with legendary sociologist and author of the Guy’s Guide To Feminism, Michael Kimmel, and his son, Zachary, about being a male feminist, and how parents today can raise their sons to not fall victim to outdated gender stereotypes.

It’s a scary time to raise a son. Even if one suspects (as I do) that the End of Men trope is heavily oversold, there’s no question that at least academically, boys today are falling behind relative to their female peers. Even as they struggle to keep up in school, guys are both more likely to be both the victims and perpetrators of most violent crimes. For those dads who remember our own troubled youths, the thought that our boys will go through what we went through makes us shudder. As I wrote this spring following the birth of my son, my great fear is that my “sweet little David will grow up to repeat his father’s cruelest—and most gendered—mistakes.”

A few weeks after I wrote that column, I read this striking piece at Spark Summit by 13-year-old Zachary Kimmel. His was a name I instantly recognized. Zach’s father is Michael Kimmel, the legendary sociologist largely responsibility for developing the field of masculinity studies. Kimmel’s many books (his recent publications include the indispensable Guyland and the Guy’s Guide to Feminism) have influenced two generations of scholars and activists; I’ve often assigned his work in my own classes. Over the years, Michael has become a mentor to me as well, someone I’ve often turned to for professional advice.

Zach’s article at Spark Summit was a powerful, honest look at the impact that images of sexualized perfection have had upon him and his peers. I was struck by the younger Kimmel’s articulate passion—and by his evident egalitarian commitments. As a feminist father newly faced with the overwhelming responsibility of raising a son, I wanted to hear from Michael about how he raised this remarkable young man. I also wanted to hear from Zach about what it was like to grow up as the son of one of America’s best-known male feminist activists.

Given three hectic schedules, it took some time to arrange an interview. This past Sunday afternoon, I at last spoke to both Kimmels over Skype. I started by asking Michael about how he’d felt when he’d learned that he was going to have a son. The senior Kimmel noted that before he and his wife had learned that she was carrying a boy, they both hoped they’d have a girl. “In this culture, it’s a lot easier to raise a girl to be strong and confident than to raise a boy to be generous and loving,” he noted. Once they knew they were having a son, of course, they embraced the challenge with love and without regret.

When Zach was born, Michael had the same experience I’ve had with the birth of each of my children. Friends and family, knowing our views and what we do for a living, repeatedly told us both that “now you’ll see that biology really is destiny.” Kimmel noted that people tend to presume expertise resting solely on their own experience, issuing sweeping generalizations about gender roles “based on a sample size of one or two.”

Though the Kimmels never foisted feminist activism onto their son, since hitting his teens, Zach has increasingly embraced gender justice as part of his calling. Though he admitted that a lot of his eighth-grade peers don’t really understand feminism, Zach said they do mostly understand the problems of sexualization and perfectionism he wrote about in his Spark Summit piece. Michael pointed out that Zach also lives out his feminism in a less obvious way. Since he first started school, he’s had friends of both sexes. Even now, well into puberty, Zach maintains close friendships with girls as well as boys. “It’s difficult to dehumanize or objectify someone you know and like,” Michael argues, a point with which his son vigorously agrees. By consciously pushing back against the socialized mystification of the opposite sex, Zach is bridging the artificial but rigid gender divide. “It’s a lot easier for me to be friends with girls than it is for most of my friends,” the younger Kimmel says, lamenting the unnecessary “drama” and “misunderstanding” that characterizes too many cross-sex friendships in his middle school.

When I asked about how things had changed for teen guys since Michael was his son’s age, the elder Kimmel brought up his son’s yearbook. In addition to several good female friends, Zach also has several wonderful male buddies. Last spring, one of the best of these signed Zach’s yearbook with an entirely un-ironic “I love you.” Michael and I laughed ruefully about how dangerous it would have been for any boy to have written that in another guy’s yearbook when we were 13; Zach averred that these displays of masculine devotion are “normal and accepted” in his school. As his father put it (echoing the recent excellent work of C.J. Pascoe), male homophobia has “disappeared so fast, it’s like it’s fallen off a cliff” within just the past decade.

Zach pointed out that while boys his age have more freedom to show affection than his father and I did when we were young, guys today face pressures that were utterly foreign to those of us who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s. As he wrote in his piece for Spark Summit, Zach and his peers are deeply impacted by our increasingly unrealistic beauty standards. It’s not just that young guys want girls who look like models, he says, it’s that girls expect guys to be dissatisfied with anything less than a physically perfect girlfriend. That breeds misunderstanding between the sexes, making the kind of cross-sex friendships that Zach considers so precious all the more challenging to maintain.

We chatted too about the rapid drop in young men’s body image. When Michael and I were boys, the teenage male body was valued for its strength and its athletic ability. What mattered was how well you could throw a baseball or how fast you could run; whether you had a six-pack was utterly irrelevant. We envied jocks for what they could do rather than for their appearance. By contrast, Zach talked about his anxiety after seeing Taylor Lautner’s ripped torso in Twilight; the evening he came home from seeing the film, he did 100 rapid sit-ups. “My stomach hurt a lot the next day,” he admitted.

When I asked Michael what made him proudest about Zach, he named his compassion, his happiness, and his strong conscience. He pointed out that he and his wife hadn’t raised their son to be a feminist advocate. “We wanted him to find his own interests,” Michael says, “but we also wanted him to have a strong moral compass.” The Kimmels are secular Jews; “we don’t have the religious faith that serves as a quick shorthand to determine right and wrong.” But feminism has served as part of that moral compass for Michael, and it increasingly informs how his son sees the world. “That wasn’t something we foisted on him,” Michael notes, “he’s chosen this for himself.”

When I reversed the question, Zach volunteered that he admires his father’s ability to stand up to relentless criticism. “Hate mail motivates him…it’s amazing how he stands up it. It actually makes him work harder.”  Michael and I both chuckled when we heard this. In January, facing my own onslaught of hate mail in the midst of a controversy that promised to transform my career, I reached out to Michael for advice. (Not for the first time.) We’ve both been on the receiving end of criticism from men’s rights activists and, less often, from women in the feminist movement who worry that we’re “hogging the spotlight.” During the interview, Michael told Zach what he’d told me earlier: the kind of hate that gets directed at men like us is “the equivalent of a hangnail” compared to what women in the movement get on a far more consistent basis.

As we wrapped up the interview, I took the opportunity to tell Zach how much his father’s support had meant to me recently. With Zach listening, Michael reiterated what he’d said to me in January about the role of feminism in men’s lives. While urging me to continue to teach women’s studies, he pointed out one of the many benefits that feminism provides to men is, as he put it, “a lens through which to look at past behavior.” Feminism, the elder Kimmel explains, offers men a unique opportunity to “re-theorize their past behavior,” seeing (often for the first time) how they’ve taken advantage of privilege in ways that were both sexist and abusive.  Returning to his theme of feminism as a secular moral system, Kimmel reminded both Zach and me that “forgiveness and redemption have to be part of the feminist process.” When it comes to dealing with the issue of troubled pasts, feminists should be “wary but ultimately accepting” of men who are doing this work.

As fathers to sons, Michael and I are at least as concerned with prevention as with redemption. By encouraging our boys to understand that they are as capable of emotional depth and kindness as girls, by showing them by our actions that their male biology is not an impediment to empathy, we can raise up a generation of young men who won’t make the same kind of sexist and destructive mistakes for which so many in their fathers’ generation need to atone. That’s not just wishful thinking; it’s what Michael and Zach Kimmel are living out. As a dad to my beautiful four-month-old David, their example fills me with tremendous hope.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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