Lots of people have a lot to say about the death of feminism, the demise of feminism, the failures of feminism. To my mind, the emphasis on equal rights in an unequal capitalist market place made American feminism too implicated in capitalism to realize its more radical ideals. To be sure, many others have spoken well about various exclusions in the women's movement. Some of these are accurate; some are misplaced, misproductions of a history that was more integrated and more radical than academics tend to make it out to be, a sign of the way that the academicization of feminism was necessarily and unfortunately a deradicalization. But these problems and this history are not my focus here.
No, I'm wondering about something else that might be implicated in problems with and in feminism. The amazing Ti-Grace Atkinson once expressed the matter precisely: "the war between the sexes is the only war wherein more than half of the armies on each side go on to sleep with the other half at the end of the day" (or something like that; the quotes here are misleading). This idea leads to something I've been wondering about, and will therefore impermissably distort: "what do women want?"
What if we naively answered in question in heterosexist terms: women want men. If we propose this answer, then we might think a bit about perversity--the pervert knows what the other wants and makes himself the instrument that can fufill this desire. And what if that at the core of masculinity there is perversion, an impulse to know what the other wants and to be the instrument to fulfill that desire. If the pervert, in my twisted version now the man, does not know what women want, then he would not be a man, he would not be perverse, he would not be able to make himself into an instrument to fufill the desire of the other.
Yes, this borders on nonsense (or maybe even crosses that border). No matter. I want to keep going. What if masculinity requires knowing what women want. What makes a man, a real man, is the true and certain knowledge of women's desire. His mastery, his certainty, his confidence. Constraining women's desire, keeping it limited and bracketed then ensures masculinity, more men can be real men. More can know what women want because the range of possible wants, the terrain of desire, is so terribly constrained. When Freud asks what do women want, then, he is marking two moments: one in the past where this seemed to be clear and one in the present, in the Victorian age, when sexuality is everywhere, talked about, at issue, and open.
What does this have to do with the demise of feminism? Well, is it possible that feminists have attended enough to masculinity as it intersects with women's desire? Feminists have spent a lot of time on masculinity under patriarchy, masculinity as a system of oppression, masculinity and violence, masculinity and sexual objectification. But what if the last item is more intertwined with femininity, with the real man as the one who knows the answer to what women want and who can make himself an instrument for the fulfillment of this desire?
The inimitable Dr. Gregory House might seem to suggest otherwise--women love cripples, they love wounded men, they feel sorry for them and want to care for them. I think he gets it wrong. I think women may have a soft spot for a man with a clear physical wound or an illness because this wound or illness becomes a site into which they can locate the reality of the failure of any man to realize the fantasy that is masculinity--a man is one who knows what women want.
Feminism is a problem because it has made this problem worse. Or, better, maybe it's the failure of the culture to shift properly, to register the change in women's desire and the corresponding change in masculinity. For a while there was the Alan Alda caring man image. Blech. Alda did a lot better when he started playing assholes later in life. Why? Because of the certainty, the strength. His new characters were not men who had to ask--they know what women want. Asking, that's not what men do. Feminists--for good reason--have entangled this idea with abuse and rape. But, of course, a man is not a bully. Bullies are weak. It's harder than ever to be a man, to know what women want. And to be able to make oneself an instrument that can fulfill these desires. We can be even more precise--with the unleashing of women's desire, with the proliferation and expansion and wonderful awareness of the diverse plurality of women's desires, the challenge of being man becomes unbearable. The answer to the question, what does woman want, is someone who knows who she, what this particular woman, wants. In her specificity. This is the unbearable, impossible challenge of masculinity now.
Men: Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Al Swearengen in Deadwood (not Bullock who doesn't know what he wants). Vito Mortensen's character in A History of Violence. Michael Corleone. And House.