I take a lot of pleasure in distorted/distorting reflective surfaces. The fun-house mirror is maybe the closest example of a reflective surface that distorts on purpose, but what I really enjoy is a good bit of metal encountered in the wild, which serves some more quotidian purpose, whose reflective properties seem more incidental. They catch you unawares, in unlikely places. Restaurants, airports, bus-stops. It doesn’t especially matter where you find them. You’re struck by an awareness of an image both yours and not. There’s a mouth I know, and maybe the hair too, but the eyes are stretched until they seem a foot long. I like that moving a few inches changes the image so radically, a slight shift in perspective yielding new distortions. It becomes a contemplative activity. The ability of light to reflect and refract in ways that depend on the medium doing the reflecting and refracting does a lot to give the lie to the supposed objectivity of our senses. It’s pretty easy to test for yourself. Visit your local pool or stream or fill your tub up with water and stick your arm in it. You know that your arm is straight, or maybe curved slightly, but now it seems to be going off at a rather pronounced angle.
I was prompted to reflect on reflection (and refraction) by the disconcerting revelation that Allen Frantzen has up on his website a series of essays about being a man that are summed up by three words: grab your balls. Lest anyone think I am simplifying his message about what it means to be a man, in his own words, Frantzen writes:
Like boxers, masculine men have to compete. … Or, as I put it every day, in three words: Grab your balls. Hereafter, GYB. These letters can also stand for “got your back,” but–in life–a man can have your back only if you have your balls, which is to say only if your life and your manhood are in your hands, not those of your wife or husband or girlfriend(s) or boyfriend(s).
For the most part, Frantzen’s website is virtually indistinguishable from 90% of the Men’s Rights blather that exists on the internet, even going so far as to adopt the Red Pill/Blue Pill language that is the trademark of some of the most toxic masculinity-first corners of the web. Why does this even matter? And why does it matter to me particularly? Because Frantzen is arguably the most important forerunner to the type of early medieval studies that I, and many other people of all genders, practice.
Frantzen was one of the first and most important voices to talk about same-sex desire in Anglo-Saxon England, and to talk about the importance of talking same-sex desire. He was at the forefront of a movement to bring theoretically savvy voices into a field (Anglo-Saxon studies) that was rigorously and rigidly philological and historical in scholarly practice and reactionary in politics. In Eileen Joy’s “Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies,” Frantzen’s is the voice calling for a more inclusive, more exploratory Anglo-Saxon Studies:
Who, we asked ourselves, when gathering together the table of contents, would represent the younger generation most influenced by Frantzen’s call, in Desire for Origins, to develop a Beowulf studies that would “seek” its future “outside the Department of English and outside the rigid limits of language study, literary criticism, and history that contain them.”
It is distressing for young, theory-savvy Anglo-Saxonists to see Allen Frantzen behaving like a reactionary crank because we are conscious of the fact that our field has room for us because Frantzen was one of the people who fought for our place in the field in the 90s. We’ve read his Desire for Origins and Before the Closet, and assigned chapters from them to our students. For that matter, my theory class this semester is reading a chapter from Desire for Origins. It is doubly distressing because while Frantzen has a big name in Anglo-Saxon studies, he is not necessarily well-known outside of it (unless you study same-sex desire), and so we see our late-medieval colleagues dismissing his toxicity without any awareness of how important he was/is to the field. Frantzen has also been one of the most influential trainers of Anglo-Saxonists, people who are doing/have done exciting work on gender (Mary Dockray-Miller), digital humanities (Martin Foys), and ethnicity (Stephen Harris).
Of course, this trajectory didn’t come out of nowhere, and if it has become especially toxic in recent years, there were hints of it much earlier. His 1993 essay “When Women Aren’t Enough,” which appeared in a special issue of Speculum devoted to Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, and Feminism, begins with these ruminations about his chosen title:
When I chose the title for this essay, I did not know that I was to be the volume’s only male contributor. As the token man, with no desire to speak for all men (many of whom would not choose me for the role in any case), I fear that I speak for them nevertheless. If women aren’t enough, for this volume or for feminist criticism, one essay by one man isn’t enough to explain why.
Of course, you don’t have to search very far back in the Speculum archives to see that the situation is more often reversed. The previous issue contains a grand total of no articles by women, and the issue before that only contains one.
One of the weirdest things about Frantzen’s essays about men now up is how stupid they are at times. It would be regrettable if he were only arguing for a premise I vehemently disagree with if it seemed like there was actually some argument behind it, but he seems to be inhabiting a fantasy world where women irrationally hate and want to destroy men for being men. In the essay entitled “How to Fight Your Way Out of the Feminist Fog,” he actually says the following:
Men are expected to give up safe places for women in emergencies, for example. Why? The survival rate for wealthy men on the Titanic (which sank in 1912) was 34%. The survival rate for the poorest women was 46%. Lifeboats left the ship with empty seats because men would not take them. The men who died, as Baumeister says, “were the patriarchs” (p. 163). These were the same kinds of men who would vote to extend voting rights to women (or did you think that women did that for themselves?).
That last sentence is just so bizarre. The Titanic sank on its way from Southampton to New York City in 1912. The 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified in the US until 1920. In the UK the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave some women the right to vote, but they wouldn’t get equal voting rights until 1928, and women like Emmeline Pankhurst had a hell of a lot more to do with it than the men who died on the Titanic, whose views on women’s suffrage I’m not going to speculate about. And that little parenthetical aside, so snide, insinuating as it does that suffrage was a benevolent gift from men to women. But it wasn’t. Denying the right to vote wasn’t some oversight that was swiftly corrected by the (masculine) powers that be as soon as it was pointed out to them, and equality wasn’t given to women by men.
What bothers me the most about Frantzen’s screeds is how toxic they are for any man who would take them seriously. He reads like someone who has mistaken a distorted image of masculinity in a fun-house mirror for the real thing. There’s not one way to be a man, any more than there is one way to be a woman, and oh my god why are we talking so much about my balls?! The only time I grab my balls is when I’m washing them in the shower. Frantzen has more desire to police what it means to be a man than any feminist I’ve ever met, and it’s just plain dispiriting. I have no desire to box or shoot guns or participate in any violent sport. I do enjoy violent books and movies, and my friends who most enjoy violent movies are almost all women. I was invited to watch Hobo with a Shotgun by a female former professor, and the biggest Jason Statham fan I have ever met was a quiet woman who owned two French bulldogs named Dawson and Pearl. I’m a man who would rather read H.D. than watch football, much less play football (although I do watch college basketball with a near religious fervor). The more I read Frantzen’s essays, the more I’m reminded of the Office’s hilarious parody of men teaching other men how to be manly in the form of Dwight Schrute, whose relentless policing of masculinity is parodically summed up by Jim Halpert as “bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica.” For Frantzen, the list apparently is balls, boxing, Beowulf, and the only reason early medievalists care about any of this is because of the important things Frantzen has said about the third thing in that list.