I read Male Impersonators, Mark Simpson’s first book (1994) rather late. Too late in some ways. The havoc it might have caused had I read it during my undergraduate or postgraduate studies, and my following career in gender departments in British universities did not come to pass. But it still caused some havoc. And for that I shall remain forever grateful.
To cut a long story very short, Male Impersonators and Mark Simpson’s work in general, that I devoured in its entirety over a period of about 18 months, changed the way I think, and the way I look at the world. It enabled me, along with some other factors, to finally let go of the feminist dogma that I’d been attached to for my whole life (40 years of it). From a ‘Freudian’ perspective then, it is no wonder that I have become so attached to Simpson and his oeuvre as a result. They helped transform me (for better or worse).
I conveyed my enthusiasm for Male Impersonators in my review that I sent to Simpson in September 2011. I am pretty sure it was that enthusiasm that persuaded him to release the book on Kindle, in December of that year. I also was moved to send the book to some publications, hoping it might be reviewed and mentioned by people slightly less insignificant than me.
And, finally it has been reviewed, by the founder of Bookslut website, where once Simpson was interviewed about his more tarty book, Saint Morrissey. Hilariously to me, since I’ve always been a rather unassuming (no, really!) back room girl in relation to Simpson’s work, the author focused in a note on her blog about MI, on me and my review of the book! She wrote, in an exasperated tone:
‘Okay, so this is what I want: I want, when someone changes their mind about something, for them not to go ideologically swinging to the far other side. I was reading some reviews of Mark Simpson’s Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity, and there are some of former feminists writing about it. And when I say “former” I mean “anti.” We’re talking PhDs in women’s studies who have suddenly realized men are people, too, and they are also oppressed by our patriarchal structure, and so that means we have to wipe out decades of feminist thought, because obviously the two cannot coexist.
Someone can explain to me why this is later, I have tickets to the opera tonight and I have a feeling it’s going to take a while.’
Well I’d hate to interrupt anyone’s relationship with the opera, darling, but I can answer that question in one sentence. In an email to this poor confused opera-goer I replied:
‘That is easy. It is because feminism is fuelled by misandry and a need to present men as the oppressors of women.’
But this isn’t about me (NO REALLY) this is about Male Impersonators. The review that appeared recently at The Smart Set blog was a joint review of a few books on masculinity. It reads:
‘I’ve been reading books about masculinity, the authors trying to challenge what we think of as normal. Boyhoods, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, and Mark Simpson’s Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. All three writers are queer. When I tried to find a book that challenged society’s ideas of masculinity that was written by a straight man, all I could find was a book defending men’s needs to cheat on their wives.I did find a used copy of a book called Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men, which did not meet my expectation, didn’t so much challenge traditional forms of masculinity as psychoanalyze some problems men might have with women. But I kept reading it anyway, because the person who had it before me did some heartbreaking underlining. Next to the underlined passage “Out of their rage they wound others, and out of their sorrow and shame they grow more and more distant from each other,” there are two exclamation marks. Next to “A man’s experience of the primal relationship may have been so painful that he expects all relationships can only be painful. Thus his life is a dreary cycle of fearing domination by others and seeking to exploit them instead,” there is a star. “Many men are full of rage against women, and often they act it out” is underlined twice.I wonder about the man who read this book before me. I wonder what he got out of being told, “Men’s lives are as much governed by restrictive role expectations as are the lives of women.” I wonder what he then did with that information. Because it seems like the kind of book that would be read by one of the men in the 1994 essay collection Male Impersonators. In it, Simpson sits down at one point with Alan, a man who appears in a documentary from the ’90s called Sex Hunters. He’s one of a group of young men profiled in the film who decided to spend their summers living together in a sort of boy commune. They live in a caravan, drinking and carrying on, and they have a contest for who can sleep with the most women. Each sex act is one point.
Under Saturn’s Shadow is saying something true about the expectations put on men. But the previous owner did a lot of underlining about the betrayals of mothers and the absences of fathers, and not a whole lot in the sections where the author advises men to commune with their inner femininity and give it expression. Alan, in the documentary, complains about the duties of masculinity — the providing, the sacrifice, the achieving, the marriage and fathering of children. He has decided life should be more fun, that men should have other options. If you start spending some time on the websites of men’s advocacy groups, things can quickly turn anti-women, with men calling their ex-wives bitches, railing against women’s cold hearted natures, ranting about how “the system” is stacked against them and in favor of women. Simpson says to Alan, “Many all-male communities that get together and talk about common interests, activities — whether that’s fucking or surfing — is based on a kind of exaltation, a kind of worship, of the masculine and a denigration of the feminine, whether that’s the feminine embodied in women, or whether that’s the feminine embodied in so-called ‘effeminate’ men, men who, either in terms of where they put their dicks or how they dress or cut their hair, don’t conform to that masculine ideal.”’
This passage illustrates to me exactly why feminism cannot coexist with a love for men. And it illustrates why Male Impersonators, in my grubby hands, was such a dangerous book. Because it taught me that to actually be interested in men, in how culture has produced them, and how they resist or embrace or transform their ‘masculinity’, to actually want to hear men speak with their own voices, is to ‘offend’ feminism. To threaten it so much that it has to assert its own reason for existing, in an article that is ostensibly about men and books about masculinity. These lines from the review are chilling to me:
I wonder about the man who read this book before me. I wonder what he got out of being told, “Men’s lives are as much governed by restrictive role expectations as are the lives of women.” I wonder what he then did with that information.
The author seems to be saying that men can’t be trusted to read!
In feminism the notion of consciousness raising has been prominent for decades. Based on a Marxist model of ‘false consciousness’, feminists since the 70s (probably earlier) have been encouraging women to get together and to read feminist tracts, to open their eyes and to free them from the grip of patriarchy’s lies.
But men are not supposed to raise their consciousness. Unless it involves swallowing hook line and sinker the ‘consciousness’ of feminist women. They are supposed to shut up and listen.
Male Impersonators and the work of Mark Simpson ‘raised my consciousness’ to the point that I abandoned feminism altogether.So I am not surprised that a feminist reviewer reading my take on Simpson’s work, nearly missed her date with the opera to huff and puff about my audacious cheek.
And look what I have done with my reading! Well, my dear feminist/gayist middle class liberal establishment, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.