Beyond Privilege: Narrating Diverse Stories of Caring Masculinities

Riikka Prattes
28 January 2024

New research on “caring masculinities” challenges traditional gender norms by examining men’s relationality, vulnerability, and nurturing qualities.

Imagine a young man pushing a pram down the street on a sunny day in a bustling inner city. We can imagine him, wearing sunglasses, an iced coffee in hand, as he tries to navigate the cobblestone pavement with his Bugaboo without spilling his drink. Many will imagine this man to be white, probably middle-class. What is at stake with these connotations of a caring man as a structurally privileged man? And why are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) men and men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds so rarely portrayed as caring?

In recent years, the concept of ‘caring masculinities’ has gained traction in scholarly circles and public discourse. However, a critical examination reveals a troubling trend: this narrative is predominantly centred around structurally privileged men, leaving the experiences of BIPOC men and working-class men largely overlooked. While my colleague Steven Roberts and I hold on to the utility of the concept (especially as outlined by Elliott), we critique what we consider common misuses in scholarship that influence and are, in turn, influenced by public opinion that sees marginalized men as less progressive in general and unfit carers in particular.

Caring masculinities’ designates masculinities that are not grounded in domination and that challenge traditional gender norms by embracing relationality, vulnerability, and nurturing qualities. Unfortunately, the current discourse tends to paint a limited picture, often featuring men from privileged backgrounds as the face of this progressive trajectory. This narrow focus not only perpetuates harmful stereotypes but also excludes the stories and innovations of marginalized communities.

The omissions or blanket character assassination of marginalized men perpetuate harmful stereotypes, reinforcing the idea that only privileged men can afford to be caring and nurturing. However, theorists such as the late bell hooks have long argued for the margin as a space of openness and change. Following this line of thinking, it is not less, but more, likely for progressive masculinities to emerge among marginalized men. Marginalized men (like all other men) can be and are involved in violence and dominating behaviour. Still, we must not preclude the margin as a space of possibility in which valuable, even revolutionary, stories can be found.

In a current research project I am conducting together with Steven Roberts and Karla Elliott, we have interviewed 41 men who work in low-paid support roles in the Australian Health Care and Social Assistance sector. In these interviews, there are plenty of examples of men who have various experiences of being marginalized (based on race, class, migration status, ability, sexuality), yet, who embody quite beautifully versions of caring masculinities. Interestingly, in some of these men’s stories, their turn to care is narrated as being connected to their own experiences of marginalization. Simon* (54), a white, queer man who grew up in Australia, says he was a good and active listener because, as a queer person, he was someone used to ‘standing outside’ in some sense, observing others. Ben (33), a Black man who grew up in between Ghana and Australia has a physical disability and says that he felt called into the disability sector ‘because, in some ways, I saw myself with them [people living with disabilities]’. These very brief snapshots from our interviews illustrate how men can come to care in their lives not despite but because of their own experiences of marginalization.

Interestingly, this (and other) research unveiling positive aspects within the practices of marginalized men is often met with skepticism at academic conferences or in review processes. This resistance may stem from entrenched preconceptions that associate marginalized communities with negative stereotypes and a context in which some scholars may harbor their own class biases. The unwillingness to acknowledge the agency and resilience within these communities inadvertently perpetuates a one-dimensional narrative.

The problem with skewed representation of caring masculinities goes beyond academic discussions – it influences public perceptions and reinforces harmful stereotypes in daily life. When caring masculinities are primarily associated with privileged men, it reinforces the belief that empathy and vulnerability are qualities reserved for the elite. This not only hinders progress in breaking down gender norms but also reinforces existing social hierarchies.

To address this issue, it is crucial to amplify the voices and experiences of men with various experiences of marginalization in research on caring masculinities. By doing so, we can create a more inclusive narrative that reflects the diversity of men’s experiences and challenges the harmful stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream discourses.

In conclusion, caring masculinities are not the exclusive terrain of privileged men. In fact, experiences of marginalization may help, not hinder, the actualization of practices of caring masculinities; practices that embrace care and reject domination.

* all participant names are pseudonyms

The study mentioned in the text has received funding from the Australian Research Council under the ‘Discovery Projects’ scheme, award number DP220103315.

Image Credit: Subiyanto from Pexels
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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