The Two Kimmels
Or, why I walked away from “men’s studies”
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In hindsight, nothing about the allegations of professional misconduct against prominent sociologist Michael Kimmel really surprises me.
Kimmel’s self-aggrandizing professional activities don’t exactly reflect the humility and accountability he commends to other men who seek to support women and feminism.
Despite having edited a book on “privilege,” Kimmel apparently didn’t get the memo about the need for privileged people — for straight, white, cisgender men — to de-center themselves; to vacate the center so those who’ve been historically marginalized — women, LGBTQIAs, people of color, etc. — might be seen and heard.
Hence, all the TED talks, educational videos, TV talk show appearances, and keynote speeches at global women’s conferences…
I had my own encounter with what I now think of as ‘The Two Kimmels’ after I published an open letter about my (and my students’) off-putting experience at a conference Kimmel helped organize in Minnesota in 2009.
We found the event very alienating for LGBTQIA+ people and decided to write about our experiences and offer some recommendations for how things might be changed. We hoped to affect both campus men’s anti-violence projects (the subject of the MN conference) and the climate at the promised (but never realized) follow-up conference.
After our open letter was published, Kimmel sent a private email excoriating me, even going so far as to accuse me of being his “enemy.” (His exact words: “You are my enemy.”) I was shocked at his tone and language, but more by his explosive anger that seemed so out of proportion to the very cautious and constructive critique we offered.
Interestingly, all my students declined to have their names attached to that publication out of fear of professional repercussions. I thought they were being silly; turns out, they were just prescient…
That 2009 conference occurred barely three months after starting my first tenure-track faculty job. I was, professionally speaking, very young and very vulnerable. Kimmel was (and is) a very senior figure in academic Sociology and critical men’s/masculinity/gender studies. One call from Kimmel can end your candidacy for a plum job; his lukewarm review of your book manuscript can kill its publication; his editorship of one of only a handful of academic journals on masculinities can make publishing your research virtually impossible.
I’ve now reached the point in my career where Kimmel can’t really hurt me professionally. I participate in different academic conversations now; have built alliances elsewhere. But for a while, I saved those emails as a form of insurance against any future act of retribution from a person who’s very influential in academic Women’s/Gender Studies — the kind of department in which I’m currently employed.
Those saved emails promised some small measure of protection if ‘the other Kimmel’ — the not-feminist one— ever bullied me again. Until last week, I had no idea others had experienced even worse behavior from him. And, based on my experience, I don’t doubt they’re telling the truth.
I am humbled by their clarity and courage— a hallmark of women in the #metoo movement — which inspired me to tell my story.
It was partly because of that conference and subsequent email from Kimmel that I refocused my major area of research, writing, and teaching away from men’s/masculinity studies, to focus more squarely on LGBTQIA+/sexuality studies.
After a while, the muscular, ambitious, egotistical climate of Kimmel & Co.’s “masculinity studies” didn’t seem all that different from the kinds of masculinity it purported to illuminate or critique.
When Kimmel writes or talks about “men,” he most often means white, heterosexual, biological males. When he references “masculinity,” it’s typically code for the gender identity or gender performances of those same people. Female masculinities, trans masculinities, gay men’s subversive masculine performances — all these seem to never have disturbed Kimmel & Co.’s cis-heterocentric worldview. Important and transformative developments in critical race, gender, and post-colonial studies, especially queer and transgender theory, don’t seem to have penetrated their thinking.
But when you’re center stage under the bright lights, your own words echoing in your ears, your image projected behind you at ten times life size, it must be hard to see or hear those whose genders are lived at the margins.
Kimmel once claimed on SEXNET, a listserv we both belonged to, that he’s decidedly “pre-postmodern.” I was embarrassed for him when he posted that, if only because it betrayed a profound misunderstanding of postmodernism: you don’t get to decide whether or not you’re living in a post-modern episteme.
That statement confirmed for me that Kimmel (and so many of his followers) were never going to embrace the radical potential of their own idea that male and masculinity aren’t the same thing; that they wanted to enjoy all the privileges attending straight, white men while also denouncing those privileges as patriarchal; that they wanted to critique men’s sports as rape and violence factories but command speaking fees that let them afford court-side NBA tickets. There’s a word for that: hypocrisy.
So I walked away.
I now realize the real gender radicals aren’t “profeminist” men (with rare exception). It’s those courageous enough to live their gender truth (and their gender theory): transgender and gender non-binary people, genderqueers, drag kings and queens, butch lesbians and effeminate gay men. It’s the “YaaasQueen!” queer bear cub sporting painted nails, rainbow glitter in his beard, and a midriff-baring My Little Pony t-shirt with the (parodic) term “masc4masc!” It’s folx who don’t spend a whole lot of time fretting about their “masculinity” or wondering how to be “A Good Guy” or if they’re “A Real Man.”
These are the actual gender pioneers. Those who deserve to be center stage under the bright lights and on the big screens, receiving awards, giving TED talks, writing for Slate and HuffPo, posing with celebrities, speaking at Cannes, testifying before Congress, and cashing checks for large book advances.
They’re the real gender heroes; the truly gender courageous.
If my experience is any indication of how Kimmel responds to a junior faculty member who represents little professional threat or competition, I can only imagine what he’s like to anyone else who dares question or challenge him. If he treats female graduate students and colleagues similarly, I’m not at all surprised he’s been accused of inappropriate professional behavior. And I’m also not surprised he’s not taking his own advice about how such situations should be addressed or remedied.
Not. One. Bit.
Edit: in the 24 hours after posting this story, I was contacted by several people — former students and colleagues of Kimmel’s — who echo my concerns but are too afraid to speak up out of fear of professional repercussions. And a suspiciously-new Medium user has threatened me with a lawsuit. Another claimed it was my fault Kimmel called me his “enemy” (victim blaming much?) Sigh. I’m electing not to engage responses to this story so I can focus on my real work — I don’t have time to feed the trolls.
But, to every professor, teacher, and mentor reading this: if the people around you fear retribution if they were to push back against your abuse of power or position, or you feel the need to trade in threats, you really need to reset your moral and ethical compass (because you got lost somewhere on the path to enlightenment)!
Michael J. Murphy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He lives in St. Louis with his husband.