Post-structuralism and men’s liberation/rights

Post-structuralism is an interesting theory to consider as the academic field of men’s studies slowly emerges into coherence because it is the very theory that has provided premises for feminism to unravel into second and third waves. Only now—after feminism, queer theory, and trans studies—is men and masculinity studies (barely) a feasible academic discipline. Perhaps this progression of gender discourses says enough about the social erasure of the disenfranchisement of men in contemporary society. After all, can we really be so vain as to think that men are banal creatures unworthy of discourse?

To only scarcely begin peeling away one of the many thick layers suffocating this question, I identify the basic formation of post-structuralism as well as how it has been mis-appropriated within socio-politics. I use Michael Messner’s analysis on the formation and progression of the men’s liberation movement (“The Limits of the ‘Male Sex Role'”) because his essay provides insight into how this movement was overshadowed, partitioned, and discombobulated by feminism.

The structuralist tenet of Saussurrean signification proposes that a sign consists of two psychological parts: a sound pattern (signal) and a concept (signification). Hence, the word man can be linguistically dissected into the English sound: \’man\; and the signification of man is defined by cultural associations with what a man is or represents.

Two significant details of Saussure’s signification model are that language is both innately arbitrary and a unique social institution in that society’s “natural inertia exercises a conservative influence upon it.”1 Therefore, the main structuralist query is: How does language define and therein monitor our paradigms and the ways in which we experience the world around us?

Take, for example, the modern phenomenon of a “queer” vocabulary: agender, non-binary, trans, intersex, androgyne, pangender, gender-fluid, etc. Language is the very scope that brings these non-traditional genders into visibility. The “natural inertia” of society within the past century as well as the acute wave of (trans)gender activism in the 1990s has ultimately influenced the creation of a Wikipedia entry titled, “Gender-neutral language,”2 which accounts for some of the aforementioned words.

The undoing of society’s visible gender spectrum through a gradual evolution of language from sex to gender, from hermaphrodite to intersex, from androgynous to bi-gender (and so on), corresponds with changing notions on the signification of these words; thus, reconfiguring linguistic paradigms in order to fit the normative of social majorities. Ironically, this progression of marginalized and minority communities into the mainstream sphere innately Others what society considers to be the privileged oppressor(s) of said groups. Namely, straight white men.

Derridean deconstruction (generally referred to as post-structuralism)—drawing from, and challenging, Saussure’s theory on language—asserts that a sign is more than just its signal and signification; a sign can also be taken apart by the dualities, or binary pairs, that sustain its meaning. Language is no more than a clusterfuck of dichotomies; these dichotomies are the very mechanisms that give a word meaning, so that true meaning is elusive and in a constant state of deferment. Similar to Karl Marx’s notion of the “abstract, reflected anti-thesis,”3 each side of a binary pair reflects and gives meaning to the other—transgender/cisgender, black/white, straight/gay, queer/normative, proletarian/bourgeois, liberal/conservative, etc. Despite all of these binary pairs that our society, driven by language, can be divided into, one resounds above all, for it was perhaps the birth of the modern “gender zeitgeist:” man/woman, which feminism subverted into: woman/man.

One of the main issues with feminism—and the identity politics it has helped foster—is the faulty appropriation of post-structuralism upon civil rights issues. In establishing positions of ‘us v. them,’ these movements abstract human beings by using language to victimize/blame, resulting in the reduction of the intrinsic complexity of both language and people. Modern civil rights movements consequently Other and demonize masculinity and maleness because man has culturally evolved into signifying the inverse of any form of disenfranchisement. One need only consider (as Messner does)4 the poor white man to demystify the damnation of a universalized and privileged man.

In tracking the men’s liberation movement of the 1970s (and so forth), Messner examines the varying discourses of men’s liberation/rights and its use of male/female role ideologies to pioneer pro-feminism, anti-feminism, and the middle ground: Warren Farrell-ism. Messner provides a rather comprehensive timeline of these three overlapping—yet diverging—sects of the men’s liberation movement.

Early men’s liberation activists provided equilateral weight to the oppression of men and women, while mediating the tensions between male privilege/male victimization. As a result of feminist criticism, by the mid 1970s MLAs had begun focusing on how men are inherently oppressive. Thus, the male feminist was born.5

Messner also discusses the opposing side of the aforementioned phenomenon (i.e. anti-feminism):

“It is instructive to examine the slippage in the discourse from the symmetrical mid-1970s men’s liberation language of ‘equal oppressions’ faced by women and men to an angry anti-feminist men’s rights language of male victimization in the late 1970s and 1980s.”6

Messner implies that this “slippage” from symmetrical examinations of social gender roles into “angry” criticism of matriarchy is a result of the paradox that institutionalized patriarchy presented to men’s liberationists. He suggests that the catalyst for anti-feminism was when some MLAs realized that feminism was not the cherry-topped, pro-humanist ice-cream sundae they thought it to be; indeed, it was explicitly anti-male and critical of any suggestion that men could be victims.

Though Messner’s essay is quite dated, he manages to account for how the men’s liberation movement split into the binary: pro-feminist/anti-feminist, and how this incited the contemporary movement of men’s rights activism.

Men’s rights, as both a civil cause and an academic discipline, has perhaps undergone such deferment because of an unconscious insistence on the validity of binary models. In subverting a presumptuous patriarchal gender binary, feminism forced (and is forcing) maleness and masculinity into subaltern positions of muteness, which is reinforced by discourses such as post-colonialism and queer theory that consider hetero, white maleness as their antithetical. All the while, these academic discourses are premised by the arbitrariness of binary systems. Lacking self-awareness, it seems, academia is a playground for the active exclusion of man. How, if at all, do we begin digging maleness out of the anachronistic hole it’s been placed in?


[1] Saussure, Ferdinand de. “General Principles: Nature of the Linguistic Sign.” Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Roy Harris. Open Court, 1986. 108.

[2] “Gender-neutral language.” Wikipedia Accessed 26 Apr. 2018.

[3] Lefebvre, Henri. “What Is Modernity?” Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes, September 1959-May 1961. Translated by John Moore. Verso, 1995. 178.

[4] Messner, Michael A. “The Limits of the ‘Male Sex Role’: An Analysis of the Men’s Liberation and Men’s Rights Movements’ Discourse.” Gender & Society, 12.3 (1998): 265. Accessed 26 Apr. 2018.

[5] Ibid. 270-1.

[6] Ibid. 268.

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