RECENTLY, I shared on my Facebook page that I’ve been working on an essay exploring the themes myth, sexuality, and initiation.

In particular, I speak about men’s relationship to their sexuality and the feminine, using the lens of the classic tale Iron John. Written by Robert Bly, this book is a key source for the mythopoetic men’s movement – which has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as it’s discovered by a new generation of men… like myself.

In response to my post, my friend Erin Innes reached out, and shared her critique of the movement from the perspective of a queer feminist activist. Her article titled “Meet the New Masculinity, Same As the Old Masculinity” brought up some important considerations.

She writes:

“By continuing to imagine masculinity as universal, unchanging, and only definable in opposition to femininity doesn’t make women safer. It just gives us a different set of rules to follow, a different script to read from and from which we mustn’t deviate or we’ll face the consequences. Queer people too, of all genders, will always be marginalized in any conversation that can’t talk and think about gender independent of the dynamics of straight relationships. What the mythopoetics are missing is an analysis of power, a critical framework for assessing how gender creates and is created by dynamics of domination and exclusion in the larger culture — in a word, feminism.”

Sensing the value of a longer conversation, I invited her to an interview and she graciously accepted. Please enjoy our conversation, where we touch upon topics like: understanding gender as a cultural artifact, the problem with essentializing the qualities of masculine and feminine, and the possible way forward toward a society of true solidarity and diversity.

Podcast song credit: Crusade by Kyrystyn Pixton

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About Erin Innes

Photo: Erin Innes

Erin Innes is a writer, activist, and full-time organic farmer. Based in the territory of the Tla’Amin Nation, her work is informed by the landscape and lifestyle of her rural home on the shores of the Salish Sea. Erin is also a volunteer programmer with CJMP Community Radio, 90.1 in Powell River and online at cjmp.ca Check out her podcasts at Bushwack.

The Transcript

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:00:13] Welcome to today’s podcast. My name is Ian Mackenzie, a filmmaker and media activist from Vancouver Canada. Recently I shared on my Facebook page that I’ve been working on an essay exploring the themes of myth sexuality and initiation. In particular I speak about men’s relationship to their sexuality and the feminine using the lens of the classic tale Iron John written by Robert Bly. This book is a key source for the mythopoetic men’s movement, which has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as it’s discovered by a new generation of men like myself.

[00:00:49] In response to my post my friend Erin Innes reached out and shared her critique of the movement from the perspective of a queer feminist activist. Her article titled “Meet the new masculinity, Same as the old Masculinity” brought up some important considerations that I believe are worthy of grappling with out loud. And she accepted my invitation to this conversation. Before listening it would be useful to read her article which I posted below. Regardless please enjoy our conversation. We touch upon topics like: understanding gender as a cultural artifact, the problem with the centralizing the qualities of masculine and feminine, and the possible way forward toward a society of true solidarity and diversity. Enjoy.

[00:01:40] So welcome to the conversation today. I’m here with Erin Innes, a friend of mine who we actually met back in 2011 at the Occupy movement in Vancouver. I myself at the time was in the process of filming a movie called ‘Occupy Love’ with that other director named Velcrow Ripper and we’d been tracking the emergence of different social movements around the world for the last few years and in particular in September 2011.

[00:02:14] Velcrow who was actually in Brooklyn at the time I got the call to come down to Wall Street. There was this sense that there is something going to happen and nobody really knew exactly what would transpire there, down at Zuccotti Park but he headed down there and just sort of began filming and observing what was going on.

[00:02:33] It was pretty quick that he recognized that there was something special at the time there was something that may have been different then certainly he had seen being in a lot of different protests and social activist movements. As many who have been following that story realize that it did spread within a few weeks actually to I think at a time as he wrote 100 cities around the world. And one of those was in fact Vancouver where the Occupy Vancouver encampment sprang up at the Vancouver Public Library of which Erin was there and I’m not actually sure at what point you were there maybe initially from the outset or afterwards but I’d love to first Erin maybe hear a little bit about what drew you to that movement, and you know how we happened to find each other there.

ERIN INNES: [00:03:22] Well I mean as a radical and as an activist any place where I see people coming together to claim public space for something other than the congress of power and capitalism that’s a place where I would be. So I felt like there were so many different people and so many different sort of inroads of activist philosophy that were going on there and we had such a great microcosm of the larger society with all of the problems that that entails. I feel like a lot of people who have a more radical anti-authoritarian anti-capitalist analysis were really frustrated with Occupy in terms of feeling like it was very easily and quickly recuperated into you know things like democratic representation and you know reform of capitalism.

[00:04:29] And you know I felt like it was really important to be present to kind of keep poking that beast with some more radical kind of analysis and keep encouraging it to kind of shove its way toward the edges of what we think of as being how our society functions. So I felt it to be a really inspiring place even though a lot of the things that were done there and a lot of the positions that were kind of the majority positions weren’t necessarily positions that I agreed with. And you know I think that we’ll still be seeing the value of that moment for a long time. And I think that we still have not even seen all of the important things that came out of that movement.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:05:27] Yes it does. And one of the things that I’ve recognized or at least I think became part of the discourse and the reality I think for many participants particularly in the encampments was the role and perhaps inclusivity and safety for women to be in that movement. And I’m curious to know your experience or your understanding of the challenges and the discourse that happened around those very themes.

ERIN INNES: [00:05:54] Yeah absolutely. I mean like I said all of the challenges that are in the larger society of course came with us to that space. Right. So all of the conversations around rape culture and all of the conversations around you know how do existing power dynamics play out when we come together to try to change them and gender is only one of those power dynamics. I mean there were a lot of issues that some of us tried to address in terms of safety for women and in terms of conversations around keeping out people who had patterns of continually perpetrating gender violence in that space.

[00:06:38] And you know all of the larger conversations that are going on in society about how we deal with people who are repeatedly carrying out gendered violence were happening in that space as well.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:06:51] Through my experiences in the Occupy movement, but even broader understanding about you know what does it mean to really begin to deconstruct the structure and culture of oppression of women, was the recognition that it’s not enough to essentially be “the nice guy.

[00:07:10] For many years I disassociated myself actually from the realm of men and really internalized a lot of that mistrust and judgment of other men. You know I would have you know good friends that were men. But as a whole I didn’t trust the culture of men. And really through understanding and meeting other men who are doing important work in this area and finding really what has come to be known as the New Masculine or Mythopoetic Men’s Movement I recognized the deep necessity of the involvement of men actively ending this culture of oppression. As far as an answer, I think there was something intriguing certainly about coming back and really relearning the threads of this movement that seems to have peaked I think in the early 90s with there’s one book in particular that’s become the go to text of ‘Iron John’ by a well-known poet and author Robert Bly as well as other teachers: people like Michael Meade and many others who began to really draw out this terrain of offering an answer to the sort of cultural shifts that have been going on.

[00:08:40] Most clearly since the post-war era in the 50s and what it meant to be a man and then the shift into the 70s when many men coming out of a sort of era of the stoic breadwinner of the 50s it became about getting more in touch with the feminine side. And for many women as well they were told to be able to access more of their masculine power and to demand equality and to really rise up and that left at least according to this narrative that left a bit of a vacuum that has not necessarily been fully answered yet or fully grappled with which is that as the changing roles of what it means to be a man now and therefore that’s what it means to be a woman are still very much in conversation.

[00:09:32] For myself you know I found by re-finding the threads of the mythopoetic men’s movement and actually a resurgence which seems to have been dormant actually for most of the 90s and 2000s. It seems to be coming back to the forefront but also potentially with others that have sort of bringing a different lens to that conversation. When I posted something on my Facebook page recently about a new piece I was working on I actually called them Stealing the Key. Myth, Sexuality and Initiation, and the Wild Man.

[00:10:08] Erin reached out and said you know I’m really intrigued by this piece you’re working on but I also want to point out that there are some challenges that you’ve found in this movement and that you’ve written a piece on it which you shared and I found quite excellent actually. That was really why I felt called to begin this conversation that we could wrangle it out publicly about these challenges and potentially is there a way through is there some kind of synthesis that in fact is more inclusive or in fact allows a path forward that doesn’t just reassert but in a different way the same very structures of gender expression.

[00:10:52] Therefore I would love to turn it over to you as well and to hear your own experiences of encountering this men’s movement through your experiences and then what drew you to bring that critical lens towards it.

ERIN INNES: [00:11:09] Yeah I definitely think you’re right that there is a resurgence of this in the last you know maybe since I would say the decade that we’re in right now. Since 2010 I would say I think there there I would agree that there is a resurgence of this movement and its and its rhetoric. I’ve been seeing a lot more of it. And yeah I find myself in the position of wanting to offer I guess what I would call a supportive critique.

[00:11:49] Supportive in that as someone who has been involved in feminist activism most of my life it’s really great to see men wanting to talk about gender – feminists have been trying to you know women feminists have been trying to get men to talk about gender and masculinity forever. And it’s great that it’s happening.

[00:12:16] And at the same time I think that the way that it’s happening within this movement is really making it impossible for it to accomplish its stated goals because there are some foundational assumptions that are sexist, are gender essentialist and are hetero-normative about how this work is playing out. And so I feel like it’s kind of putting itself in this “can’t get there from here” kind of position where you know some of the unexamined assumptions that this movement sits on make it impossible for it to get to where it’s trying to go.

[00:12:56] So I’m you know wanting to offer I guess for me you know as a feminist as someone who lives in a body that’s been socialized female and as a queer person there is nothing in this for me but I see that it seems to resonate a lot with straight folks with straight men in particular. And if it’s leading people to have conversations about gender then that’s really important.

[00:13:28] So how can we extract what’s valuable and leave behind what’s harmful is kind of the approach that I come to this conversation with and that’s why I reached out to you because I appreciate so much that that you know straight cis-men want to take on this work rather than expecting women and queer folk to do all the work on these issues. But I worry when I see it being done in a way that I think makes accomplishing the goals impossible.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:13:59] I really appreciate that willingness as well to bring that critical lens, but with the willingness to try to see if there’s something you know that can be salvaged that can be worthwhile to carry forward. And I love to start with you know I think part of getting on on firm ground in this types of discussion is also to come to a shared understanding of some of the terms.

[00:14:25] And I’d love to first hear your understanding of what gender is that may actually be different from say what the mainstream understanding of gender is and why it’s actually really necessary to make a distinction.

ERIN INNES: [00:14:43] Well I mean you said something a minute ago that I think really picks up for me the kernel of the the critique that I have of this movement and it relates to questions around what does gender mean. And you said very rightly that the crux of Iron John the book is this question “What does it mean to be a man?” And I would say that that’s the wrong question. Because there is no one thing that you know there is no universal man. And I think that you know in the context of this work the assumption is that gender is first of all biologically determined if you have a penis you’re a man.

[00:15:32] And second of all that there are characteristics of personality, skill sets kinds of behaviors, and a narrative arc of an individual’s life which are tied to that gender. And I think that that’s a completely false assumption.

[00:15:56] I think that when we talk about gender as being something that is universal and biological then we erase the reality that gender is socially constructed. Gender is a cultural signifier and it means different things in different cultures, first of all. So there is no one masculine gender there is no one feminine gender because in every culture it’s going to be different. And then even within a culture you know that is intersected by race. It’s intersected by class. It’s intersected by ability and gender expression. It’s intersected by sexuality it’s intersected by so many other things that you know in seeking to outline what does it mean to be a man. Robert Bly has already limited what kind of conversation we can have about gender by assuming that there is one universal masculinity that can be discovered.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:17:05] I appreciate that. And you know I study with another fellow named Steven Jenkinson who spends a lot of time speaking about what “the calls the spells of modernity” or :the spells of the West.” And one of the ones that he points to again and again is the spell of universalism that in fact there is such a thing as universals. And often I think when studying things like structures of oppression and settler culture and things like that that it’s often the lens of the oppressor that is the one saying that there is a universal which is itself a product of the very fact that in a way they don’t have to confront the consequence of the erasing of diversity.

[00:17:49] And so I think this question of universalism I think is really important. And I’m actually really curious about this idea then that “is there is there something still that can be named the let’s say the masculine experience or the feminine experience within a particular culture?” Like is it possible or if so how can it be approached you know and that that is something that say that you know I can I can say to say a man in this culture I can maybe bring up some certain themes or aspects of that I’ve noticed let’s say or that I’ve recognized myself and there can be a sense of hey that’s been my experience too. You know which has happened again and again with men. And so again I wonder where’s the ability to be able to draw that distinction still even without adhering to some kind of universalist principle.

ERIN INNES: [00:18:43] Well I mean absolutely genders are categories that exist within the culture because you know the culture wants to organize itself that way we are all socialised into a gender. We live in a culture that because it sits on the belief that gender is monolithic and universal, then as soon as you’re born often before you’re even born people are gendering you, right. So I see gender as a power dynamic.

[00:19:15] You know it’s a way of disciplining individuals to behave in certain ways. It is a way of encouraging people to learn particular skill sets and discouraging them from learning other skill sets based on agender which is assumed to correspond to particular biological things about their body and you know we can’t say that gender doesn’t exist because certainly in the culture it does it is a whole set of power relations which is enforced on all of us all the time. But what we can say is that it doesn’t exist a priori of that socialization.

[00:20:00] We aren’t socialized into a gender because gender is a universal fact of you know the foundation of the universe. We are socialized into gender because that’s one of the power relations that keeps the culture in place.

[00:20:16] So I think it’s a question of recognizing that yes there are gendered ways in which we have all been socialized because we live in a culture that believes in the reality of gender but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change that if we recognize that gender is something that’s been created by humans been created by the culture then humans can recreate or uncreate it.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:20:55] You brought up something that I think is or maybe you know speaking to that in my own exploration of feminism and maybe radical feminist aims that it seems to be ‘the dissolution of gender’ seems to be the one of the main the key aims of radical feminism.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:21:18] I’m curious to know did I get that correct like is that in fact an aim basically to move to a world where there actually is no gender. Or is it possible that you know like my limited understanding of many indigenous cultures where they do have a kind of they still have a gendered conditioning that happens and yet seem to be able to carry it, let’s say in a much different way that in places like ceremony you know places like functions in a village that you know without me resorting to romanticism about what that might have been like there just seems to be a way that different peoples have actually carried the gendered roles differently than modernity.

[00:22:03] And I guess my question to you is does the response of throwing out gender entirely come from a place in a time in a culture itself that has been so deeply wounded in these areas that throwing out gender entirely seems like the only answer.

ERIN INNES: [00:22:21] I mean first of all the term radical feminism is kind of tricky because I don’t consider myself a no capital letter radical feminist because a lot of people who call themselves radical feminists do so in a way which is about denying the existence of trans people and excluding trans women from women only space is and you know I don’t identify myself as a radical feminist you know capital R captical F.

ERIN INNES: [00:22:48] In terms of you know throwing out gender or not I can only speak for myself and in my life gender has always been a source of violence for me. Gender has always been a box that people have tried to stuff me into. And every time any part of me reaches out of that box they try to cut that part off you know. So for me as someone who doesn’t identify strongly with a particular gender yeah I would feel safer in a world where people didn’t need to hang their identity on a gender and didn’t need to enforce a gender on other people in order to understand them or relate to them.

[00:23:37] I don’t think that that necessarily means getting rid of gender it just means not making gender you know the foundational thing upon which we hang our identities, and the main way that we organize our culture.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:23:56] Speaking again now to the you know the mythopoetic movements and you know people like Bly and stories like Iron John. I mean I can speak as well for myself and say that the draw of those when I when I came across them was the story of Iron John itself which is set in this kind of you know mythic kingdom which speaks about this hunter coming across this wild man at the bottom of a swamp and excavate the wild man bring him into the castle courtyard of which he’s locked in a cage until the young prince the boy is able to steal the key under his mother’s pillow and let him out.

[00:24:35] At this point the wild man takes the boy on the shoulder and then head off into the forest. And the story continues from there. And what you know Bly’s offered and what I found actually so compelling though is that in a way it was like for the first time I was offered a map into my understanding of masculinity in myself that prior to that there was all these different ways and subtle cues or not aggressive cues of you know how to be a man – not to show emotion, not to pretend that you can’t do everything, like that. There’s many ways in which I was sort of not really shown a path at all. And then in the absence coming across something like this map was really … On one hand it was like there’s so much that corresponded actually to my experience and in this way maybe it does speak to your sense that this particular map in a way may correspond more to a heterosexual cis-men in this culture. And at the same time it is not necessarily helpful for people with other orientations and experiences. And in fact other cultures.

[00:25:51] I guess what I’m I’m trying to maybe sense is that is Bly though speaking from these terms of you know men or this or this is the journey all men must take in all that – but it is absolutely still a product of the very culture that he speaks to and isn’t necessarily trying to universalize beyond that. I guess I’m saying that the longing to create a model that in fact is fully inclusive that is applicable to every culture at all time as a response to the oppressive structures and experience of so many – is that also coming from a place of wanting to universalize?

ERIN INNES: [00:26:35] There’s a lot in that. I think that there is value in talking about what male socialization looks like in this culture just like there’s value in talking about what female socialization looks like in this culture. A huge part of the second wave of the feminist movement you know with all of its flaws was about analyzing what does female socialization look like in this culture. What do this culture’s assumptions about what women are supposed to be – what do those assumptions do to us as people who are raised as women? And then through the process of doing that, you know people like Audre Lord people like bell hooks were able to offer critiques that interrupted the white supremacy and the middle class hegemony of that conversation and say look your version of feminine is very different from mine.

[00:27:35] So let’s complicate things a little bit. And so I think that yeah talking about what the male experience of socialization is like in this culture is really important. I think you can do that without needing to universalize it. And that’s my critique of Bly and the men’s mythic poetic movement is you know that they need to universalize a particular masculinity that’s familiar to them in order to talk about it. And I just don’t think that that’s necessary. You know you said something that is really interesting to me because this is the thing that has always been kind of what am I’m trying to say. What I have always been curious about with this mythopoetic philosophy is what’s in it for people because like I said there’s nothing in it for me. It erases me.

[00:28:30] What you said about you know having not been shown a path and that this book for the first time showed you a path it gave you a narrative that you could relate to in terms of how you been social in this culture.

[00:28:47] I think that that sense of not having been shown a path is a result of the assumption of monolithic and universal gender roles because nobody talks about what it means to be a man because they think that it’s just a given right. And so it’s a lack of excavating that socialization. And it’s the assumption of the universality and monolithic nature of that gender that creates that sense of not having a path. Right. So I think that’s just a really good example of how you know Bly recreates the very traps that he’s trying to let people out of him.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:29:37] I wonder as well then given the time we’re in with sort of being in this place of both you know so deeply in many ways embedded in structures of violence and even having some responses that in a way because they don’t necessarily go as deep or are willing to critique the very structures of power which is another point that you brought up about the mythic movement that we’re at this time then like what does it mean to begin to approach these things in a way that perhaps has steps along the way. That maybe doesn’t go immediately for the radical feminist stance of you know erasing gender entirely but in fact has a time needed in a way to polarize to actually begin to you know it was have that discussion.

[00:30:35] I’m speaking now to the sense of sort of relief and safety in a way that I get from being in spaces with ‘only men’ that you know over the last few years having experienced it actually at one particular ecovillage in southern Portugal for basically the first time in my life and to this point I was like 31. It was the first time in my life that I had actually been for longer than a very short period of time (in this case was about 48 hours) in a space with only men. And it was fascinating to me because on the one hand and I think a lot of men who aren’t used to this will actually they’ll have a lot of kind of hesitation to do so. There’s this kind of cliche that you know men get together and you know what would they do? Like I mean if it wasn’t drinking beer and watching football or something that there would be a kind of there would be kind of a boredom like that. You know what are we going to talk about?

[00:31:30] After being that experience with other men in particular actually intergenerationally with men around my age and older men there was something deep within me that only I can only say that like relaxed like there was some deep sense of relief in me of being able to be in a space and all of the places that maybe I was because of conditioning or because of you know the lack of experience in those spaces that there’s all these other places in me that jostled for let’s say female attention or you know desire or all of these things that you know I was unconscious of prior .. .I was able to finally see you when I went into a space that was all men.

[00:32:09] And since that experience I’ve actually been much more in those spaces and in fact called them you know in smaller men’s groups or larger men’s groups. And you know again and again I get like a real sense of that that same reflection that men say ” wow I just feel so different here. You know I can talk about things that I wasn’t able to talk about before. You know I stopped relying on women as my primary emotional support” like all of these things have started to come up. I just wonder now as we are you know beginning to re-approach these these ways of deconstructing gender repression that you know what are the steps to get there. Like are we able to polarize in a way to speak to the conditioning and to deconstruct it therefore to potentially come back together in a place where you know we can really begin from this culture of partnership to create more inclusive and diversity.

ERIN INNES: [00:33:05] I mean I have been involved in lots of times in my life in women only spaces and those have been really important to me in terms of a lot of the things that you said. I mean obviously it plays out differently because you know women experience different kinds of violence and oppression based on our gender. And you know a lot of the time those spaces are in a sense refuges from things like street harassment and you know so you know single gender spaces play out differently.

[00:33:42] I think for women and I think that they’re really important. I think that it’s really really important also in terms of women only spaces that we make those trans inclusive and we make it about all of the different ways that people can carry female identities. And so I would say that it’s really I mean you know women as feminists have been asking men to do this work for a really long time. And I really like what you said about not relying on women to be your primary emotional support. Right. Because you know having to do men’s emotional work as well as our own is you know one of the big barriers that women have been trying to break down about the gendered construction of our society. Right.

[00:34:48] I guess when I come back to my critique of the missing poetic movement is that it takes the potential of those spaces. And in terms of you know men only spaces and mixes up into that space a whole bunch of things that are not necessarily about masculinity or that at the very least are only about a particular kind of masculinity you know.

[00:35:16] And so my critique of the movement is not so much that there are men only spaces where men can talk about gender. I think that’s absolutely vital but it needs to happen in ways that don’t reproduce exactly the source of all of these problems which is you know a sense that there are monolithic gender roles that people have to fit into. Right.

[00:35:42] So I would say that you know in terms of talking about masculinity in ways that don’t reproduce those problems, I think first of all talking about it as a social construction as as you know a cultural signifier you know Judith Butler’s ideas around gender being performance I think are really important there. Not everyone is going to read gender trouble because it’s really academic. But you know that idea that gender is not a biological fact it’s a culturally constructed role that we perform to greater or lesser extent. Right. You know so the sense of first of all recognizing that gender while it exists and plays a function in the culture it’s not constituted within the culture based on some kind of you know biological universal. It’s it’s a cultural artifact.

[00:36:41] And then I would say also talking about masculinity giving masculinity a definition that stands on its own instead of being in opposition to femininity. And this is you know kind of the real substance of my beef with Robert Bly with more and Gillette with me you know with so many of the people that are part of this movement or that subscribe to that philosophy is that in order for their definition of masculinity to function you know people that they identify as feminine have to play the role of femininity that they have defined. Right it’s this kind of this definition of masculinity that needs feminine people to perform certain kinds of femininity in order for their definition of masculinity to function.

[00:37:39] And this is where it strays into the realm of violence. Because what happens when someone that you identify as feminine doesn’t do that. And this has been my you know…I can’t speak to this movement in terms of being inside of it because I’m not a man.

[00:38:00] My experiences with this movement have primarily been through being on the receiving end of shitty sexist homophobic gender policing behavior from people who subscribe to this philosophy and who expressly and explicitly used that philosophy as the reasons why they are abusing me in policing my gender. So you know my not performing femininity to their satisfaction as a queer person means that their whole world falls apart. And then they act out against me in response.

[00:38:35] And so I feel like you know being able to talk about like you said something earlier about how you know men often feel that if they were to get together with other men what would they have to talk about. You know this sense that masculinity only exists as a foil to femininity that these two things that there can’t be a definition of either one without the other. And I think that that’s really dangerous.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:39:03] You bring up another good point reminded me recently about a month ago I was tasked with actually crafting what most would recognize as a stag party for friends who was getting a friend who’s getting married and was basically you know we knew we didn’t want to do what is often called upon: Las Vegas and strippers or whatever it is you know is that kind of typical cliche. And when we gathered in a mental space we spent the weekend together and went into places of conversation of reflection on these very questions. What does it mean to be a man. What does it mean to enter into a marriage in this case with a woman.

[00:39:49] And actually nearing the end of the weekend one of the fellows who was there actually said he’s like you know it’s almost the end of the weekend and not once did we actually talk about the problems with women. Like not once did it come up as the kind of go to topic which is so often the case actually that in my experience and in a typical men only space which is either you know boasting of conquests sexual conquests or otherwise or problems they’re having challenges and “isn’t that you know just like women” or whatever it is. And it was actually fascinating to recognize that not only did we not consciously try to avoid it, it just didn’t even happen that because we were so I think willing in a way to speak to each other and to wonder about you know these two themes (of masculinity) that it provided ample fuel to really occupy that space instead.

[00:40:48] And I think that’s telling that with the right invitation in the right frame that defining oneself in opposition actually it may not emerge. And I think you’re right it’s absolutely vital to be able to have these conversations without referring to that.

[00:41:05] Now my other question though to you is, one of the other projects I’m actually just in the process of completing or last four years is a film which looks at women in electronic music. So DJs and producers and one of the themes that I recognize working on the film and working closely with my producer who’s now become co-director actually who’s a woman, as well as my executive producer in the project who’s a woman. Working with them I’ve come to understand that what I’ve or what I see I guess in in the current conversation around feminism is seems to be is that you know much of the push for equality and push for basically access for women into the realms of power that were traditionally you know occupied by men. What has happened is it’s kind of opening the gates to be in those spaces for women. But in fact the structures of power and the orientation and the consequence of that – different political systems or industrial systems – has been that you know their oppression and destruction continues. That in fact simply by letting women in those spaces doesn’t seem to have really disrupted you know those structures of oppression and power. And it seems to be like the cusp of the conversation is now and this is something we really try to look at in the film is basically sort of the same question posed that women is “how do you define in its diversity, how do you define what is feminine or the source of feminine experience or feminine power in a way that is not asking or defining itself in the oppression of men in masculine spaces.” And that’s my question to you is that how do we talk about this and how do women begin to to speak to these things.

ERIN INNES: [00:43:04] Well I’m not a very good person to ask because I don’t really identify as strongly feminine. You know I really identify as kind of outside of that dynamic as men of masculine and feminine. I don’t strongly identify myself with either of those things so I don’t feel like I’m a person that can really answer that. And I think that if you went to people who identify as feminine probably you would get as many different answers as there are people that you’re asking.

[00:43:31] And I think that that’s actually the point. You know coming from an anti-authoritarian background myself, yeah of course just inserting women into a shitty dominating power structure is not going to magically make that power structure less shitty and dominating. I mean some of the worst homophobic abuse I have ever had in my life has been at the hands of women’s rights some of the most sexist situations I’ve been in were women that were doing it. You know if you define sexism as you know assuming that someone is supposed to behave a certain way because of what you assume about their gender and then enforcing consequences on them when they don’t conform to that women are just as guilty of that as men. Right.

[00:44:22] So for me again that comes back to getting rid of this idea that there is a monolithic gender that we can talk about you know and in terms of you know as a musician I have definitely experienced being manned out of lots of spaces and lots of you know there’s a reason why there is a women’s music scene because we can’t get in the door anywhere else.

[00:44:43] So much of the time you know. And so yeah I think that we can talk about things like how does discrimination against women based on our gender function to keep women out of being able to work in the music world. That’s a really important question to ask. And yeah when you know the person who set up the gig and runs the venue tries to sleep with you and you’re worried you’re not going to get paid for your show if you don’t go along.

[00:45:16] That’s a really concrete thing that we can talk about that keeps women out of music.

[00:45:21] So I think we can talk about the concrete ways that those power structures function without needing to create these you know abstract monolithic categories of masculine and feminine. You know we can talk about how it plays out in a real way on the ground and disrupt those power dynamics by analyzing the power dynamics instead of making it about gender more at least without making it about the sort of like large scale abstract kind of you know I don’t know for me at that what that makes me think of is this kind of it’s a bit of a magician’s handkerchief when you start talking about this right. You pull one thing and then a whole bunch of other stuff comes attached to it.

[00:46:06] And I feel like one of the things that I encounter a lot and when at the beginning of this conversation we were talking about you know the kind of resurgence of the mythopoetic men’s movements in the public conversation. I think that one of the places where I see that emerging a lot is in this kind of – I don’t know I guess what I’ll call the New Age culture where people use the words Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine a lot. And what they mean is you know it’s almost always white middle class cis-gendered straight people that use these things and what they’re doing is kind of deifying their own experiences of gender and relationship and then turning that into you know this monolithic universal abstract thing that they see as the fundamental structure of the universe.

[00:47:03] And I think that when we talk about you know how do we get women into power structures what happens when women get into power structures how do we dismantle power structures in ways that don’t reproduce oppression all of the questions that you just asked.

[00:47:19] It’s linked I think very closely to that idea that there is some sort of you know gigantic grand magical category of feminine and a corresponding one of masculine that are somehow built in the structure of the universe that we can draw upon. And I just think that that’s false and we need to reject that. And talk about real actual power dynamics and real actual people’s lives in order to disrupt them.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:47:51] Beautiful. I’m feeling like that actually a friend who’s recently on another podcast, and he invoked a phrase that I feel maybe it helps to bring a sense of what you’re calling for and I think what actually is necessary.

[00:48:11] He said “the antidote to monoculture is polyculture” and the sense that really as I also begin to really learn the deeper aim of a lot of feminist critique and in fact vision of I think what’s possible is that it’s really to honor and to cultivate diversity. It sounds like that that could be you know one of the kind of foundational understandings that in a way also seems to mimic you know by being able to release the lense of the binary opposition or thinking that we are those in the dominant culture often subject people and our understanding of nature begin to see that in fact diversity itself is actually seems to be stitched into life and that itself is actually a model for resilience for beauty and beyond.

ERIN INNES: [00:49:13] Yeah I mean that’s I think where I kind of you know throw down the challenge to people like yourself that are you know straight guys that want to pick up where Robert Bly left off. You know my challenge to you is to do that to go further to look at how you know Bly seems to only be able to think about there being a single kind of masculinity that he is looking for you know a universal masculinity you know to set that aside as a goal and recognise that actually there are as many different masculinities as there are people who identify as masculine in the world and that there is no need to create a universal that applies to everyone.

[00:50:02] You know and I think a really important link to that project and a particular beef that I have with Bly and something I think that people need to keep in mind when they are you know approaching Bly and others in the mythopoetic movement is that they you know there I have yet to see anyone who subscribes to that philosophy who can successfully decouple masculinity from straightness and that I think is incredibly important. You know so much of what Bly talks about in Iron John is actually not about masculinity at all. It’s about the dynamics of straight relationships.

[00:50:48] You know and that the fundamental assumption there is and you know all of the mythologies that he draws on to sort of form his picture of you know the universal masculine are stories that are about you know the assumption is that you know men’s relationships to women and within the dynamics of straight relationships are kind of the fundamental structure of the universe.

[00:51:26] You know and that makes first of all talking about a diversity of masculinity is impossible because every non-straight man is then automatically excluded you know. And second of all what that does is you know set up straight relationships as normal as natural as divinely ordained which is exactly you know I talked a minute ago about this idea of the divine feminine and the divine masculine which I find to be really oppressive concepts because again it sets up the idea of straightness and binary gender as the divinely ordained structure of how the universe functions and that puts any of us who are not straight who don’t identify with those binary gender roles in the position of being outside of nature as being unnatural as being outsiders and others and that is the foundation of all of the violence against us.

[00:52:31] You know so as a queer person I am immediately unsafe in a situation where people are talking about you know the fundamental structure of the universe as a straight relationship. And you know it also makes straight people I’m safe because you know every straight woman who wants to be a carpenter or an engineer or an astronaut you know every straight cis man who doesn’t you know perform hegemonic masculinity and is beat up in a locker room for it. You know everyone who experiences gender policing is at risk when we see that as the structure of the universe right.

[00:53:17] So being able to talk about masculinity and straight relationships as different things and yes talk about how they relate to each other. Absolutely. But you know make a distinction between them and when you’re talking about masculinity you’re talking about masculinity you’re talking about straightness and straight relationships. That’s a different thing. That’s something that Bly doesn’t do. And I haven’t seen any of his kind of followers do either. So that I think is a really important piece of this.

IAN MACKENZIE: [00:53:49] Thank you. I have a couple responses that aren’t necessarily like antidotes per se but just some observations I’ve had. One is that I recently participated recently being October in the initial weekend.

[00:54:07] I was offered by a group called The Mankind Project which you might be familiar with and that group really I think started as a response sort of a kind of structural response to how to shift at least the existing culture of masculinity based on a lot of the ideas put forth by Bly and others from the mythopoetic men’s movement.

[00:54:30] And one of the things I’ll say about that is one of the key teachers actually from the weekend was in fact a gay man and not to say that again that that somehow you know means oh it’s great but it just is at least for him, there didn’t seem to be any no discrepancy between his own you know sexual orientation and his role and his ability to work with this map of masculinity. That’s just one example.

[00:54:58] Another one is that one of the things that I think is so missing from these existing modern culture of men or old Western culture is touch among men that is sort of non sexual or non confused in a way that the touch of companionship of affection among men that isn’t necessarily sexual that you in other cultures, I think particularly eastern cultures like places like India where it’s a lot more common in men walked on the street holding hands and you know that they’ll be friends whereas some are like over here in modern western culture that is often the source of you know being called names or getting beat up or whatever it is.

[00:55:42] So there’s a real phobia against sexual affectionate touch among men that I found actually the more that I work with men in men-only spaces and they actually come to a deeper trust of men because I think I think in this culture of aggressive toxic masculinity there’s actually a certain undercurrent of foundational mistrust of men even as they know a lot of friends that watch football things like that may not have at all a trust in each other – which is why there’s such a regressive response to you know the possibility the hint or even the slur of being homosexual is often brought up because of that very fear.

[00:56:25] And so I guess what I’ve found is that the more work with men in these spaces the more they come to this relaxed place of trust and the more it seems like diversity is actually allowed to flourish. That in fact you know the inclusion of the diversity of men is actually did it sort of falls away as being a challenge or a problem for other another man who maybe is performative you know a little more quote “masculine” and another man who say maybe a little more quote “feminine” but there seems to be less of a discrepancy when there’s a kind of a held space like that.

[00:56:55] So I guess I see this as examples not to invalidate your critique because I think it’s absolutely true that in general what happens is people misunderstand or men will misinterpret and in a way like fold in these understanding’s into their existing foundations of wanting it to be binary and wanting it to be a certain you know hetero sexual orientation just like you know I think we’ve learned and heard from other people like NVC practitioners…you know often NVC practitioners (Non Violent communication) can be even more malicious in their intent to take somebody down or make them small or oppress them with these very techniques.

[00:57:36] And I don’t believe that you know Marshall Rosenberg ever intended that to be the case but that often because you know it’s not imparted these techniques are these maps that say they’re not imparted within a deeper cultural framework of inclusion of diversity that they end up being wielded in the very same way.

ERIN INNES: [00:57:58] Yeah I think that’s very true. I have definitely experienced that with you know practitioners of you know so-called nonviolent communication of which I have lots of critiques as well.

[00:58:07] Let me get back to their whole conversation that I read from you what this all comes down to is including an analysis of power. Whether it’s conversations about gender or whether it’s non violent communication you know whatever spaces were in having an acknowledgement that our individual experiences and actions are attached to larger social forces and that there are power dynamics that are implicit in that. And you know that we need to walk that line between on the one hand having an analysis of power around our you know those connections between our individual actions and the larger social forces and doing so without universalizing our individual experiences. Right so we kind of have to hold those two things which sometimes can seem contradictory at the same time.

[00:59:13] And you know I’ve never been in a men-only space that’s discussing these things so I don’t know what goes on there and it makes me really happy to hear you telling stories that talk about you know trust and diversity and other things coming out in these spaces. And you know that similar kinds of experiences are why I have always felt that women only spaces are really important but women only spaces can be really oppressive if they are based on a narrow definition of femininity and I would imagine that you know men only spaces could be the same.

[00:59:50] My main experience of this movement and what leads me to you know the reason I read Iron John was not because I was interested in what he had to say but because I was sick of sexist homophobic men hitting me over the head with it. And this being the basis the explicit basis for their sexist and homophobic behavior towards me. So I went to it in self-defense. And so I guess I want to say to men who are a part of this to call in your people you know in the same way that indigenous folks and people of color have said to white settler people to call in our people to deal with one another you know to and and you know to just have that analysis of power and the existing social power dynamics that we are embedded in when we come to this work well I’m willing to take up your challenge in my in my small way.

IAN MACKENZIE: [01:00:59] I would absolutely give myself to finding what can be salvaged what needs to be composted and I’m really appreciative for your willingness to offer this mirror and this critique and in service I think too I think the same outcome: the celebration of diversity inclusively and safety you know for every type of orientation gender expression and beyond.

ERIN INNES: [01:01:27] Well it’s nice to hash this out with you.

IAN MACKENZIE: [01:01:31] Erin also runs her own podcast which she will tell you about right now.

ERIN INNES: [01:01:37] I’m a volunteer programmer with the community radio station in the very small town where I live which is CJMP 90.1 in Powell River in the territory of the Tla’Amin Nation. And my show is called Bushwhack. It’s the show for country punks and rural radicals and it’s Thursdays from 7-8pm. And CJMP.ca is the Web site where folks can listen live and also download the podcast of the show.

IAN MACKENZIE: [01:02:09] Thank you for listening to our conversation today. To learn more about my work including further explorations into the realms of emergent culture visit my website ianmack.com which includes over a decade of films and essays available freely as a gift.

[01:02:29] I’m also giving my first talk on the subject of men, myth and sexuality in Vancouver April 7th is part of the Converge Conference.See the details below to register and attend.

[01:02:40] And finally we’d like to hear more podcasts you can offer me ongoing support via my Patreon page. Even a few dollars a month helps a lot. Thank you.

2 Comments

  1. My dear Ian!
    This was 1 BIG disapointment 4 me.
    Nothing has been said. This was 1 talk, I could have in the 70s, where I lived in Amsterdam and the womanliberationmovement “dolle mina” and the manmovement, who supported this.
    Now, here in NL and Germany we have had these times. We grew 2gether. Men, like me, found their masculinity and their feminin sides. And the women vice versa. Where I´m now: I am 1 human being in peace with my (fe)male sides, knowing them and respecting them. Able 2 live with other human beings, who went through this proces. Finding new ways 2 live 2gether. Specially on the sexual level: peace and trust in finding these new ways. <3 <3 :O Wim.

  2. Hi Wim & Ian,

    For thousands of years most societies have been essentially defined by the need for fertility, so by definition it’s not really surprising that non-binary relationships have been considered outside of the norm. I can certainly sympathise with Erin about the problems caused by men, but at the same time, we have now arrived at a cultural impasse where the oppression of straight men by women in the developed world in particular is generally far, far greater than that of women by men. This, then – is going to only inflame the situation 100 fold. Two wrongs never made a right.

    It seems to me from my engagement with feminists that they do not believe in the possibility of equality at all. It is either that the men will dominate – or they will. That there is no middle ground to be found, would seem to be their most profound position.

    I am sure that we are at a point where non-binary relationships can have more of a role, but as long as we want human civilisation on earth to continue, the raising of children by people in heterosexual relationships will be the central concern to somehow get right.

    I would like to see us all coming together to concentrate on this most essential of tasks. Whatever our orientation is, we will have something to offer in this regard.

    The children simply won’t mind the way that people love each other – as long as they themselves are being properly regarded and supported. It’s that simple, really. It’s not binary or non binary that is the issue at all – it’s about what environment children and adults need to best fulfil their potential…and that is going to be some kind of community arrangement which is fluid and dynamic enough to cope with everyone’s needs – but which have to include permanence…stability and security in terms of relationships.

    As the father of three children I can promise there is nothing more important to consider – even though currently Family Services in the developed world have been doing everything they can to undermine the male role in the family. Men certainly need a lot of help to be better men in certain ways, for sure…more sensitive to ecological issues, for example, as it would have been good for Erin’s father to have been – but it helps nobody for them to be destroyed in the way we are currently being attacked. “The Red Pill” is just a beginning, Ian – we need to highlight even further, the outright war on men by women – and the damage it is doing to our children in particular.

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