A Penn professor explains why America’s “ideal manhood” is insulting to high-minded men

A Penn professor explains why America’s “ideal manhood” is insulting to high-minded men
Image: Gregory Benson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a child living in Ethiopia, Dagmawi Woubshet wanted to be like the diplomats he saw traveling on TV. 

At 13, he moved to the United States and attending boarding school in Pennsylvania. And today he is a writer and an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Though not a diplomat, he is an ambassador of sorts. Through his work, he is able to transport his readers and students to the 1980s, an era that has long captivated him and for which he will gladly serve as tour guide and translator.

Woubshet has pointed out in Penn Today that “the intersectional politics we prize today—how race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality are not discrete categories of identity but mutually reinforcing—is an idea that coalesces in the 1980s.” His first book, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDSeulogizes the men who died of AIDS before anti-viral medications stemmed the epidemic. His forthcoming book will focus on the late works of James Baldwin, produced in the 1980s. 

With Americans’ autonomy over their gender identity presently under threat, Woubshet’s examination of the recent past feels all the more vital to the current moment. 

In this interview with Quartz, Woubshet discusses what Baldwin called “the American ideal of manhood,” the dangers of inherited power, and the cost of remaining silent in the face of sexism.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

Yes, I did think about gender inequality, and moreover about sexual assault, prior to the Me Too movement. I have been fortunate to have very close friends who for many years have been working on raising awareness around issues of sexual assault, including Salamishah Tillet, who co-founded A Long Walk Home in 2003, and Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who made the film NO! The Rape Documentary in 2004. Since then, I have been acutely aware of how pervasive sexual harassment and assault are in this country and indeed around the world.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from the Me Too movement is how some of our most trusted institutions go to any length to protect powerful men, even when they have known about allegations and charges against these men for some time—and that, sadly, it has taken a mass movement to hold these institutions accountable and, moreover, to broach so publicly an issue that affects all of us.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

Yes, I do consider myself a feminist for both personal and professional reasons. I am surrounded by fierce women including my mother, aunts, and friends who don’t play; whose sense of womanhood and self-respect is sacrosanct. To see them fearlessly challenge sexism and stand up for themselves has taught me not only the values of feminism, but also the values of moral courage. And, professionally, as a student and professor of African-American literature, I have drawn wisdom from the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, to name just a handful of black women writers who often center in their works unapologetic, self-authorizing women characters.

I think of my feminism as both a principle and an act that rejects and challenges an imbalance of power based on gender difference.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

I try to keep myself informed of issues that matter to women, as a way of claiming those issues also as mine. If men were to see the question of gender as something that affects them directly, as opposed to something that has no bearing on their lives, then I believe we would make a significant progress on achieving gender equality.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

One of the biggest threats to men in America today is what James Baldwin called “the American ideal of manhood,” which fetishizes masculinity that’s so simple and simple-minded, and denies men from expressing the complexity and range of human emotions. Why can’t vulnerability, sensitivity, tenderness be ideals that men aspire to embody? A culture that glorifies hyper-masculinity is bound to produce men with a very narrow and harmful sense of manhood.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

Yes, I do. I often try to make the conversation about power; that no one by virtue of being born a man, or white, or straight should receive automatic entitlements. I try to point out the dangers of inherited power, which stymies critical self-reflection, empathy, and courage.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

As a black gay man, I am anxious about how I can become the subject of violence in a world teeming with racism and homophobia. I have tried to draw on my own sense of vulnerability to empathize with women made vulnerable because of their gender difference.

7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?

As a racial and sexual minority, I am sensitive to how gender bias works; and also, as a racial and sexual minority, I have learned to embrace and use my difference to strive to lead a more ethical life, to try to be more thoughtful, courageous, generous, and loving.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Firstly, I’d say it’s not a contest, and certainly not a popularity contest. You should raise objections to gender bias and inequality because it is the right thing to do; you should do it to satisfy your own conscience, not to seek credit from women nor show off your feminist bona fides.

Secondly, be the exception, be courageous. If the norm for a man is to be silent or indifferent to gender matters, especially in the company of other men, then buck that norm. You should not have blind allegiance to others who simply share your sex or gender; your allegiance should be to principles that enable us all to lead a meaningful life. I’m not saying this is easy or convenient or that you will always take the high ground—but try and be vigilant about trying.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

I regret the many occasions where I sat silent or even participated in the kind of misogyny that passes as normal boy-talk. I can look back and say that in those moments I was afraid to question myself and a coward for not challenging others, even when I knew that certain statements were wrong and offensive. I can look back and admit my own complicity, and in doing so I hope I can now try to remain alert to my own shortcomings.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

My advice to young men today is to be of your generation and not get mired by the harmful worldview of prior generations, including the countless forms of sexism that have been passed down from one generation to the next. Why not be remembered as the generation that put extraordinary energy and pressure to end sexism? Not only that, [but] as an individual, as a human being who has a finite amount of time on this Earth, why not cultivate a sense of self-commitment to virtues like empathy, generosity, and courage, instead of one based on self-serving moral cowardice like sexism?