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The Right to Radiance

Taking off the male straightjacket with Ciara Cremin’s Man-Made Woman

Watching Black Mirror, I kept thinking how it is nice that these heralded and celebrated futurist minds can dream up all kinds of new technologies—from robotic recreations of our dead loved ones, to networked fantasy nostalgia worlds, to complicated AI nonsense—when none of them can even imagine a new expression of gender. Men are still jealous and violent and controlling, women are still primary caregivers of children and dependents; men are still wearing shlubby messes of outfits, women are still hyper-concerned with being likable and approachable in a cute, girly kind of way.

Patriarchy can and will still exist under socialism unless men are liberated from hegemonic masculinity.

But then that is true of everyone trying to envision and lead us into a better future, from the technopathic, Soylent-fed, larva army of Silicon Valley to the bearded, flannel-swathed, “Well, what Marx actually meant by that”–chanting brocialists on the left. For all of the talk of dismantling the patriarchy and destroying capitalism and undoing traditional modes of masculinity, very few people seem to have new ideas as to what might be built in their place. Heterosexual, cisgendered leftist men might agree—because it is politically and socially advantageous to do so—that yes, yes, gender is a spectrum, while they personally cling to the hard masculine edge of that spectrum. A future world created by and for these masculine, straight men, however, is not a world I am interested in living in.

Masculinity does not only mean mustaches and musculature; masculinity is traditionally presented in opposition to femininity, and the left has long condemned women and their silly feminine ways for getting in the way of political progress. As Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace documented in her 1996 work Consuming Subjects, women have been presented as the shopping sex since the eighteenth century, and since the eighteenth century, men, mostly progressive men, have condemned women for propping up slavery with their need for sugar, supporting colonialism with their need for pretty cotton ribbons, supporting the exploitation of countless workers with their desire for the latest fashions, the highest quality teas and coffees, the finest ivory hair combs, and tortoiseshell jewelry boxes. (And yes, some women were super into slavery and colonialism and so on, but some did just want ribbons.) Surely we would have had a socialist revolution by now, if it weren’t for damned women and their shopping.

Colin Cremin was a leftist man, writing books like Capitalism’s New Clothes and Totalled: Salvaging the Future from the Wreckage of Capitalism. Then he decided to make his private life public, and he went to his job at the University of Auckland dressed as he liked, in women’s clothing, and started going by Ciara. (Cremin has written he has no established preferred pronoun.) His desire for stockings and earrings and a flattering skirt did not change his critical stance against capitalism, but it did complicate his view of what socialism or communism could be. “Will there be lipstick under communism?” Yes, Cremin writes in a new book, Man-Made Woman—but only if men are wearing it, too.

There is no logical reason for men to voluntarily assist in the true dismantling of patriarchy, and it is naive to believe any man who says this is his goal. While it is advantageous for men to work against capitalism, this is because their lives will improve under socialism, not because they are heroic martyrs. But patriarchy is different. Patriarchy is propped up by masculine hegemony and traditional modes of masculine—and anti-feminine—expression, and it does not take much work to see the anti-feminine at work in masculine culture. It is not a coincidence that with the rise of the visibility of women and queers in the public realm, leftist men have hardened their masculine expression into various forms of lumberjack chic, redneck culture, gym bods, and nostalgia bearding. Rather than learning from and being influenced by the playfulness of queer culture or the sensual pleasures of their girlfriends’ closets, men reached into patriarchal history for their style inspiration.

The feminine potential that lies within men is often spoken about in terms of caretaking and parenting, rather than with regard to exploring sensuality, beauty, and softness.

In Man-Made Woman, Cremin writes of “hegemonic masculinity” and reminds us of the power of opting-out. “Dissidents are useful . . . because their evident hostility to the regime demonstrates that people can also freely oppose it, thereby supporting the view that a choice can freely be made.” A truly progressive man, then, would be one who rejects the social and economic advantages that come from hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal conformity. A “feminine flourish,” as Cremin puts it, of perfume or lipstick or a silk blouse would undercut a man’s power immediately in both the workplace and on the sexual market. But why is that still true, other than because men are heavily invested in retaining old forms and modes of power, and are unwilling to take even the smallest step toward voluntarily relinquishing it—as well as having a disinterest in, or belittling viewpoint of, femininity and women, and a fear of being mistaken for gay? You know, small things like that. The feminine potential that lies within men is often spoken about in terms of caretaking and parenting within marriages and nuclear families—which are forms of patriarchal control, too—rather than with regard to exploring sensuality, beauty, and softness.

When we remove forms of control, we are left to act freely on our desires. A liberated economy, then, would not delete fashion, cosmetics and perfumes, and high-heeled shoes from our world. It would give men and women equal access to such pleasures. Women have long been oppressed by compulsive femininity, the injunction to present themselves as beautiful or sexy in order to advance themselves socially and economically. But the solution is not to chuck it all over for a blank uniform or a more masculine presentation. Wouldn’t it be better to remove the pressures of gender conformity so that one could freely choose whether or not to participate? To make clothing and cosmetics not about pleasing an employer or a prospective husband, but about play and creative expression? Feminism has debated this argument for decades, swinging between bra-burning and odes to the pleasure of the high heel, but the question is not an either/or, it’s more open: what would it feel like to give an enthusiastic yes to all forms? To choose a silk skirt because of the sensation of it brushing against your thigh, to choose a bright red lipstick because it makes you smile to see it in the mirror, to choose a pink scarf because the color works against the gray urban landscape. And at other times to say fuck it, and choose something ugly but comfortable because that is what you desire.

Men who are afraid of, and hostile to, femininity will not create a world of liberated, sensual men. Nor will they make a place safe for women.

But men who are afraid of, and hostile to, femininity will not create a world of liberated, sensual men. Nor will they make a place safe for women, as all of our futures still look male and masculinity-dominated, at least if we go by the dreams of the men trying to create those futures. Patriarchy can and will still exist under socialism unless men are liberated from hegemonic masculinity. The men who run revolutions are nothing if not heavily invested in their own power.

At a party, Emma Goldman was dancing. As she recounts in Living My Life, a comrade pulled her aside and admonished her that revolutionaries and anarchists do not dance. How can anyone take someone who dances seriously? Anarchism, she snapped back, is about liberation, not inventing new forms of control. Anarchism is about joy. In her 1931 book she writes, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” I, too, want this. Even for men.