- NPR: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men
- Vice: The City That Made Misogyny Illegal
- The Guardian: The Crisis in Modern Masculinity
- BBC: What Call Centers Can Tell Us About Sexism
- The Atlantic: Male Violence is Everywhere
- Vice: I Did Every Cliched Manly Activity
- CNN: Master’s in Masculinity
- The Nation: Do We Need to Redefine Masculinity?
- New Yorker: Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity
- Euronews: Iceland and Gender Equality
- CNN: Confronting Stereotypes Through Photography
- Vice: Struggles with Toxic Masculinity
- Bloomberg: A Big Concern in Norway, Male Anger
- CNN: What decent men can do in response to #MeToo
- Boston Globe: Toxic Masculinity is Killing Us
- CNN: How America has silently accepted the rage of white men
- BBC: Why so many sexual harassment cases in the US, not UK?
- Euronews: Rallies calling for equal rights for women take place in Sweden
- The Cut: The Men Taking Classes to Unlearn Toxic Masculinity
- CityLab: Street Harassment is a Public Health Problem
By David Michael Newstead.
Throughout 2017, I tried to really examine misogyny and its effect on our culture from a variety of perspectives, interviewing authors and activists and everyday women about their experiences. Now as this year draws to a close, here’s an overview of the series.
- Extras on Toxic Masculinity
- Voice of Reason: A Conversation with Rob Okun
- Revenge Porn and Domestic Violence: An Interview
- Crash Override: Book Review
- Men Run Amok: An Interview with Steven Perkins
- Economics of Misogyny
- Author Interview: NoNonsense Feminism
- NoNonsense Feminism
- Maggie Gyllenhaal On Misogyny
- The Cult of Masculinity
- Intro to the Male Emotional Funnel
- 8 Women Discuss Toxic Masculinity
- Toxic Masculinity in Focus
- Toxic Masculinity Reader
- What is Toxic Masculinity?
By David Michael Newstead.
For decades, Rob Okun has been a leading figure in the pro-feminist men’s movement through his long-running publication Voice Male. Today, Rob Okun joins me to offer some perspective on men, feminism, and the problems we’re still struggling to overcome. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: It seems like there’s a limited number of pro-feminist men. They have some good ideas, but it makes you wish more people were out there making these points.
Rob Okun: I’d agree with you. And it’s very frustrating, particularly when things happen out in the world like mass shootings. You know, there’s been some variation of the same op-ed that a handful of us have written I don’t know how many times over the last 20 plus years. So, that definitely is frustrating. However, I think that this moment that we’re in right now is a real opportunity for men’s voices to be in this conversation about sexual assault and overall attitudes.
I was listening to the New Yorker Radio Hour and David Remnick was interviewing author bell hooks. She wrote a book in 2004 called Masculinity and the Will to Change in which she’s positing it’s really not individual men that we have to be thinking about, but the whole system of patriarchy that warps how men think about how they get to be in the world. So, being a class-half-full person, I’m hopeful this is going to be one of those moments where our voices are finally going to get some traction. I’m hopeful.
David Newstead: You’ve been working in this space for a long time. 30 plus years. So because you’re hopeful, would you say that even though we’re grappling with a lot of difficult issues right now that things are getting better than they once were?
Rob Okun: That’s a complicated question. I mean, I guess overall I would say yes, because there are certainly a number of younger men who have become involved in this work. There’s a whole generation of guys in their 20s and 30s that are stepping up, while those of us who have been doing this for a long time are getting older and some are changing their orientations. So, that’s definitely a positive. There’s been this uptick, small though it might be, of new men coming into the field who are doing this more professionally. That’s one aspect.
But I think the other side of that is the number of men who are awakening through the portal of fathering. There are a lot of more involved fathers than there were. You know just picking a point in time… When I first became a father 30 something years ago, there were not a lot of dads at the playground. There certainly weren’t changing tables in men’s rooms. So, there are all of those kinds of shifts where men are taking space as involved fathers. Fatherhood has been a place where many men have found a way to wake up to their responsibilities and how they want to live their lives. And some of the research that has been on expectations of men in their 20s who might be thinking about marriage and family show that the expectation now is that “Of course, we’ll both be working. And of course, I will be a fully involved part of the caregiving and domestic chore responsibility in my family.” Those are shifts that weren’t there when I first started doing this work.
David Newstead: Do you recall when you started identifying as a feminist or a pro-feminist? Or if there was a specific incident that motivated that when you were younger?
Rob Okun: There’s a couple of ways I can answer a question like that. One is that in the early 1980s, I became interested in feminist art. My partner at that time was identifying as a feminist artist. And I used to look at a lot of art that women were making that, if not overtly feminist, had women’s empowerment themes. The whole notion of what was happening in the women’s movement like the level of support women were providing to each other, understanding of their plight having been an opposed group for so long – all of those things and how they were addressing them were very appealing to me. So, I was like “Oh, this is interesting what they’re doing. This is exciting!” Then, seeing that through the lens of feminist art in the 1980s like Miriam Schapiro and Cheri Gaulke… There was just something about what was happening that felt resonant to me.
And then, I wasn’t aware of this until I got more into my work, but my own father was kind of unusual as I see it now. He was gentle, soft-spoken, very relational, and just passed on a legacy of being more available in the family than I subsequently learned of others’ experiences. You know, your dad is just your dad. So, you don’t really know what other people consider to be normal. You just know what you know. He was an older dad. He was 43 when I was born, which is these days more common. But back then, he was way older than a lot of the other dads.
So, I think that kind of prepared me to think about redefining manhood and masculinity and those issues. It kind of prepared me for that orientation. Years later, I ran groups for men acting abusively in their primary relationships. Batterer intervention groups. It was only after listening to man after man after man in these groups talking about how hard their relationships were with their fathers and how distant they were and in many cases how abusive they were that I got more than a glimmer as to what a gift I had be given with my dad. And you know I realize that’s not the kind of thing that I could easily talk about with them, because it was just so foreign to their experience.
David Newstead: Did a lot of these experiences inspire the launch of Voice Male? I know it was originally created through an organization at the time, but you’ve been doing this for 30 years now. So, there’s a lot of personal initiative that goes into that I would imagine.
Rob Okun: When I decided I wanted to be more intentional about my involvement with “men’s work”, that orientation towards feminist art and towards being an involved father that was just part of the thread of my daily life. But it wasn’t my work at that point. You know, I was maybe doing some radio commentaries about dads. But it really wasn’t until I became actively involved with the Men’s Resource Connection (MRC), which we renamed a couple times. It wasn’t until I became really involved with the MRC that I looked at the funky little organizational newsletter and having started my work life as a journalist, I saw the potential for this to play a larger role than just being a publication of a center with mostly activities of and around what was going on locally. I saw the potential for it to be more of a voice.
There were a couple of years where I was involved peripherally and then closer and closer. And then, 20 something years ago, I started editing it. And then, it’ll be 10 years in 2018 since I began publishing it independently.
David Newstead: Over the years, what kind of reactions have you gotten to the publication since it takes a pro-feminist stance?
Rob Okun: You know, a lot of people when they discover Voice Male are happy to see it like women who are involved in women’s activism. A lot of my colleagues would say that there’s always a happy surprise when women discover what some men have been doing for a really long time. Then, there are men who range from skeptical to positive. Occasionally, there’s some strong negative reaction. The term manginas gets thrown around as a slur to describe men who are promoting the feminist agenda and are able to articulate the benefits of feminism for men. Of the people who find us and read us and are involved, there’s more of a positive response. But there’s certainly are those members of the men’s rights movement or any of that aggrieved part of the white male population that has become so much of a discussion point since 2016 who are pretty angry and upset at feminist men. I just got something this past week in response to an op-ed I wrote about mass shooters that just talks about how we keep missing the most obvious common denominator among all the shooters and this guy just really laid into me. It’s pretty nasty, saying that you’re anti-male basically. And it so misses the point of what the work is.
We’re really pro-male. We don’t hate men. We value men. We appreciate men. The reason we’re doing this work is for our sons and our grandsons and our brothers and fathers. And it’s for our mothers and sisters and daughters. This movement has been unfolding since the late 1970s. And it’s a pretty substantial body of work if we look at the number of books and some of the films that have been made and some of the activist projects that have been engaged in. But on the back of my book says “One of the most important social justice movements you may never have heard of.”
David Newstead: With the anthology and Voice Male in general, you’re providing this platform for different men’s voices. You’re seeing this cross-section of different experiences. Since you’ve been involved in this for a while, what do you think the future of masculinity is?
Rob Okun: Being a glass-half-full person, I’d like to say that what’s happening now will be looked back on as the beginning of this shift of men redefining what masculinity is. I don’t know how long that’s going to take. And I don’t know how many men who are in positions of power are going to see the value of relinquishing that power or sharing that power in such a way that it makes it clear that the old definitions of what it is to “be a man” are suddenly going to change. But I think that there’s a portal that this moment has opened that any man who actually is brave enough to walk through can see what their life will look like that doesn’t presume their privilege and doesn’t presume their entitlement. You know, some men are naturally fearful of what any of these new developments could mean. For a lot of us who have been doing this work, it’s not surprising what’s been played out here. What’s surprising is how surprised the media and the pundits are about women’s experiences. If anyone would be willing to listen and take them seriously, then they would have said “Of course, this is what’s happening.”
So, we’re in a moment. We’re in a moment and it won’t really completely open up as this transformative moment until (or unless) more men are willing to give up the privilege and the entitlement that they have simply by the luck of the draw by arriving on the planet in a male identified body that gave them extra privilege and extra entitlement and created a very slanted and unleveled playing field. If they’re willing to give that up and risk what their life might look like if they redefine their ideas about power and equality, then this glimpse into a more egalitarian future offers some very optimistic scenarios. But I don’t know if we can get there. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there. Ironically, the most powerful men can afford to give up privilege and power, because they can still keep some of their privilege and some of their power and a lot of their money and still create change. They can still be change makers. So, we’re not even in the first chapter. We’re in the prologue of this story. But the fact that women are being believed, that’s a totally different cultural moment than when Anita Hill was speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.
The majority of men are not behaving in a toxic way. I mean, that’s a powerful word meaning poisonous. There’s a lot of men who are confused. The landscape has shifted. The rise of women does not mean the fall of men. The rise of women means that there’s an opportunity for there to be a rise of men. And I think that whatever the portal that we walk through as men whether it’s being a coach or a father or a mentor, all of that is up for reevaluation. Seeing men with lots of power and lots of influence out in the world being brought down in this moment is not in my mind a sign of toxic masculinity as much as it is a sign of a hopeful moment for men with the will to change. We’ve all been socialized to be men with a message that undermines and compromises the full expression of our humanity. We can do better. The ways that a lot of men have been acting out in our culture have shown some of the worst of what we can be. We don’t hear about the coaches and the mentors and younger activists working on campuses. We need to be looking for those examples as we go forward and they’re there! There’s been a movement that’s been articulating these messages for over 40 years. And it’s time that we come out of the desert and into the communities that we’re living in and saying that this is the moment for men to change.
David Newstead: If you could give advice to younger men about how to be a better man and how to improve themselves, what would you tell them?
Rob Okun: I’ll paraphrase my father. You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen more than you talk. So, you should listen more and speak less. You should not physically invade space. That would be one thing. And another would be to look for opportunities to have conversations with other men that are deeper and more meaningful than talking about sports or politics. Look for opportunities to connect and go deeper in your emotional life. And for those who identify as straight, don’t look just look to your female partner as your source of emotional support. See what it would look like to have men in your life who you could turn to.
In the latest issue of Voice Male, there’s an interview with an older and a younger men’s group. And the older men’s group has been meeting for like over 30 years once a month for the whole day on a Sunday, which is kind of extraordinary when you think about it. But those men have been facing each other through all kinds of life changes: deaths, divorces. They’ve been there for each other. So, having the courage to find your emotional center and to plumb it and to go there. I think that some of our language is gendered and that while the word courage might be gendered male and nurture would be gendered female. I think that some of the most courageous things that a man can do would be opening up to his own vulnerability and thinking about it and looking at those places in his personal life where he’s shutdown.
You know, we all arrive on the planet with the same potential to be nurturing and loving and compassionate. And those words are not female words. They’re human words. And that’s where I think we’re going. The bridge for expressing our full humanity has to start with those of us who male identify going deeper and not being afraid of that. When you see this epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assaults, you have to ask yourself what is the need, what is the insecurity, what is the problem that is going on with these men? What would it mean to challenge those negative behaviors and to hold each other accountable? I think some of the richest and most important conversations could be entered be into by men. We can’t say to women “You organize these workshops and you organize these panels and we’ll just show up.” Doesn’t work like that. We’re going to have to find within our own community of men enough leadership and enough risk-taking to address these issues at the gym. At weekly pickup basketball. Over beers. We need to check in with each other. It may require college administrators to get involved or faith communities. And it may require creative and innovative managers or Human Resource people. And it may just require some of us to say if no one else is doing it, I have to step up.
By David Michael Newstead.
Revenge Porn and other forms of harassment online illustrate the disturbing gap between our laws and an increasingly digital world. And while people sometimes shift the blame to victims of Revenge Porn themselves, this obscures the fact that anyone can become a target via photo-shopped pictures, a hijacked webcam, or a romantic relationship gone wrong. Recently, I spoke with a woman whose abusive ex-husband continued his attacks on her years after their relationship ended through Revenge Porn. In the aftermath, she was forced to navigate an outdated legal system that seemed poorly equipped to protect either her privacy or her safety online. My conversation with “Gladys” is below.
David Newstead: How did you first learn about these posts?
Gladys: I got a random email from an anonymous account that had the title ‘you know these are out there right’ and the body of the email was the link. I also got an email from a prior business client saying someone sent them the same link. I was completely embarrassed.
David Newstead: What did you do next? Like what were the initial steps you took?
Gladys: I was in complete shock. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I called up one of my friends was visiting me and told her the situation. I called up a couple of other close friends and I really just was clueless. No one had any advice for me. They just felt bad for me.
I was really hurting. I spent most of the day in bed, crying. I was afraid to leave my house. I was even feeling suicidal. Men were finding me all over the world to message me about my photos: showing interest, giving warning, just ‘wanting to chat.’ They found me on Skype, my business website, Facebook, email, you name it. Along with the photos, it even says the town you live in. So, this was no longer just embarrassing. It was dangerous. I had no idea where these photos could end up or what sicko might take this information to his next level.
David Newstead: Do you know who was responsible?
Gladys: The person who put up the photos was somebody I knew. It was my ex-husband from eight years prior. He was extremely abusive. The marriage only lasted ten months because of the intense amount of abuse. I had folders of photos, police records, restraining orders. He even went to jail. I did everything I could legally. And that day, eight years later, it felt like the abuse was never going to end and I couldn’t fathom putting up with his abuse for the rest of my life. It was terrifying.
Up until that year, I had made myself invisible. I changed my number several times. I change my address several times. And no information could be found on me online at all. What changed that year was I started a business. I had to get myself online and visible to grow my business. I thought eight years later he had moved on with his life. I figured I was safe. But he had proven once more, it wasn’t.
David Newstead: What happened next?
Gladys: I cried for about a day. Then I decided it was time to face this. I couldn’t hide forever. This is when I started the research. I googled everything I could about this. This is the first time I had ever heard about Revenge Porn. I couldn’t believe it was legal, of all things.
The website will allow you to ‘buy your photo back’ for $800. But they cannot guarantee that they won’t put it back up once I’ve done this. Blackmail was all I could think of. Followed up with a ‘fuck you, you won’t get my money.’
After more online research, I found a legal team that specifically deals with this situation. I can’t remember the lady’s name, but she literally saved my life. They could take my case for $600. We traced the person that sent the link by finding a fake Facebook account. She said ‘copy and paste this link and don’t say a word’ the link was to an address or something. It was supposed to scare him. She said that will shut him up. I sent it and it worked. He deleted his fake profile and I never heard from him again. I didn’t ask questions. I was just relieved!
Next, she said she would get the photo down within 24 hours. She also said not to read the comments section under the photo. People can be mean. I confided in her I felt suicidal over all of this. She replied ‘People kill themselves over this. This is why our firm exists. We will stop them, but you have to be strong okay?’ I felt empowered. For the first time.
She also explained how the legal structure currently works we have no rights to take any actions against my ex-husband. But what I can do is talk to my local government about passing a law as it was coming up for vote in my state. I had a lobbyist friend who connected me to all the most powerful people. I posted a petition on Facebook. I wrote all the people I could, the ones who wouldn’t take my calls. I didn’t have to share my story publicly, no one took me up on that offer. At the time, I felt relief. Now, I think I have a different view. These stories need to be acknowledged.
A few months later, the bill was passed. Revenge Porn is now illegal in that state. But remember it’s state-to-state. It should be illegal everywhere.
David Newstead: Were the people you spoke to sympathetic? And did they understand the extent of the problem?
Gladys: The one guy who spoke to me was. The rest, I left messages with their secretaries.
David Newstead: Earlier you said it was your ex-husband. How were you able to determine that and were there literally any repercussions for him at all?
Gladys: I knew, because that photo was a photo I sent him while we were still married. Also, where the photo was taken and the fact that I dyed my hair blonde and kept it short back then.
To your second question: Nothing. We legally could do nothing. Since he was in one state and I was in a different state, that fact alone. But also, it’s completely legal to take any photo you want that someone gave you and use it in any way you please. There is no expiration date nor are there restrictions. It boggles my mind.
When I first saw the photo online, I didn’t even recognize myself. It was that old. I recall saying ‘That’s not me, but damn that’s embarrassing.’ And slowly it all came back to me. The conversation I had had with him right before, the room I was staying in, who I was back then. Everything.
It’s a state-to-state law. So, anything done by someone else in another state is untouchable. Because it was still legal in the state he lived in, at least when I checked four years ago during research. Also, nothing can be done to the company that hosts the photos. Because they have an IP address in China and it’s hosted overseas or somewhere else. Also, the company isn’t putting up the content, so they aren’t liable. The site is called ‘myex.com’. They can shut it down, which I believe they did, and someone will start a new one.
David Newstead: So for more substantial legal responses in the future, the Feds basically have to get involved and figure out what to do?
Gladys: Yup. It has to become federal law, not state-to-state. And there isn’t enough concern.
David Newstead: What do you mean?
Gladys: This is why it happens to celebrities too. Because it’s legal. The federal government doesn’t care enough to pursue it.
David Newstead: So, you don’t think the Feds view this as a priority or as a problem?
Gladys: I don’t think they even bother one way or another. There was a case where someone’s computer was hacked into and the naked photos were collected and distributed. It’s legal. There was this one gross guy who did it to all the time to celebrities. I forgot his name. He was all over the news. This guy!! I think this was him. I haven’t done any research or given it any thought in four years. I think I wanted to put it all behind me. I’m feeling accomplished that I helped at least one state.
David Newstead: Without many legal options, how do you think someone can safeguard against this? Or is it even possible to safeguard against this kind of thing?
Gladys: I’m not sure what the new info is on it. There has to be a federal law. That’s about it, because at this rate you can take my public photos off Facebook and use them for whatever you want.
David Newstead: Or hypothetically hack someone’s camera or just superimpose their faces onto other photos. I’m confused why peeping tom laws and things like that wouldn’t be applicable. Did you ever talk to police about this?
Gladys: They can’t do anything. I didn’t even try. I can’t imagine calling them up and say ‘Hey for personal safety of a threat that may or may not come to fruition of an online threat made by my ex-husband of eight years that lives in another state. Can you keep an eye out for me?’ Cops need hard evidence and an immediate threat.
David Newstead: How did your friends, family, and business contacts react to everything?
Gladys: I didn’t tell my family. I was too ashamed. Lots of shame in this process.
Everyone else… they just felt really bad for me. One friend went through Google to make sure my photos weren’t public and she shared the petition to end Revenge Porn. I only told four people at the time. Then, a couple of dudes who asked for nude photos in my relationships, including my now husband. I still won’t do it.
There are a lot of men and women who shame people who share nude photos. They say it serves us right. I can’t say I disagree. But I also can’t fully support that way of thought. It’s important to not judge people, until it’s you. I work on this daily.
David Newstead: Well, it could be done to anyone even those who don’t take nude photos of themselves. So, I think it’s important for people not to blame the victims.
David Newstead: Also, your ex-husband sounds like an extremely toxic person.
Gladys: Evil. Really. But I chose him! I had to do a lot of soul searching at twenty-two years old: how in the hell I got there and how to never choose that again.
David Newstead: Do you see this incident as an extension of the abuse you went through during your marriage to your ex-husband?
Gladys: Absolutely! Actually, it was kind of nice. Keeping invisible in fear of him for eight years was another form of abuse. To have my fears realized and then finding the strength to stand my ground and make a positive social impact, I think that’s when I finally began to truly heal.
David Newstead: Is there any advice you’d give to others based on your experience?
Gladys: You can take your power back! Don’t give up and let them bully you. It’s not your fault, you are not a bad person.
By David Michael Newstead.
Crash Override recounts author Zoe Quinn’s experience at the center of GamerGate in 2014. Yet you don’t have to care anything about video games to recognize her ordeal as a case study on gender and technology’s dark side. So if the underbelly of the internet ever decides to make your life hell, Quinn outlines the weapons at their disposal. These include:
- False and abusive comments online
- Threatening phone calls
- Posting your address, social security number, and other personal information online
- Detailed threats of rape and murder
- Revenge Porn
- Stalking and cyberstalking
- Hacking your accounts
- Setting up fake accounts in your name
- Tricking police SWAT teams into raiding your house in the middle of the night
- And targeting your friends, loved ones, and contacts with all the abuse listed above
This opens the door to discussions about a whole range of important things from lack of responsiveness on the part of government authorities to tech giants not enforcing their own terms of service that would help to address these problems. Another aspect to this abuse is how it can mirror and exacerbate issues surrounding violence against women and discrimination faced by people of color and the LGBTQ community who are the most frequent targets of online abuse.
For me, two facts standout when thinking about this and they’re interrelated. First, that there is a well-documented lack of diversity in the tech industry. And second, that the internet has become central to our lives in ways that public policy hasn’t caught up to yet. Because of that, just telling someone to quit social media in response to attacks like this isn’t a real solution (and wouldn’t stop the abuse anyway). Access to and participation in all the positive things that the internet has to offer is no longer optional in our society. So then, the ability for everyone to enjoy what is essentially a public good takes on real significance. In the book, Quinn writes:
GamerGate wasn’t really about video games at all so much as it was a flash point for radicalized online hatred that had a long list of targets before, and after, my name was added to it. The movement helped solidify the growing connections between online white supremacist movements, misogynist nerds, conspiracy theorists, and dispassionate hoaxers who derive a sense of power from disseminating disinformation. This patchwork of Thanksgiving-ruining racist uncles might look and sound like a bad joke, but they became a real force behind giving Donald Trump the keys to the White House. Online abuse is by no means uncommon and can affect just about anyone for any reason, including totally normal people minding their own business. However, just because it can happen to anyone doesn’t mean that it strikes totally at random. The less you look and sound like a 1950s sitcom dad, the more likely it is that you’ll find yourself where I did – having your life torn apart by neo-Nazis.
In vivid and horrifying detail, Quinn describes everything that happened during GamerGate. The most admirable thing about the book though is that the author explains the tangible steps she’s taken since then to help other victims of online abuse (including former perpetrators of it) through her organization Crash Override. And even when discussing possible policy solutions, her measured and thoughtful perspective illustrates that she really does value the integrity of these online platforms. Whether these platforms value their own integrity seems to be an open question.
By David Michael Newstead.
Steven Perkins is an artist and playwright based in Oregon. Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with him about his latest play delving into issues of masculinity aptly entitled Men Run Amok. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: What experiences help to influence your current work?
Steven Perkins: We make snap judgments of people all of the time. To a casual observer, I am a fat, old, white guy. Folded into that description is a helluva lot of unearned privilege, fairly or unfairly, and with that comes responsibility as well as opportunities to make change. Let’s break that down: Fat as in comfortable. I have food on my table. Good—often great—food on my table. A roof over my head. A happy, healthy family. I have the freedom to do work that I love rather than work that I must do to survive. I’m fat in all those regards, and many more that I try to acknowledge every day.
Old as in I get unsolicited mail from AARP. I get senior prices at movie theaters. The bulk of my life experiences are behind me—my death is closer than my birth. White, genetics of skin color, also white hair, what’s left of it. Guy. Man by birth. Mine by passive acceptance of that birthright in a paternalistic society. Also masculinity thrust upon me with an entire value system whether I accept or challenge it.
I’m sure that’s the profile that I present, but as with most everything, what is truly interesting is under the surface, and between the lines. Life experiences that influence my work would be all of them but I’m clearly shaped by: Nomadic, working class parents who inched their way into lower middle class, first with the military, then university study for my dad, and teaching jobs which sent us moving all the time. Seemed I was always the new kid in class because I was. By the time I was twenty years old, I’d lived in 22 places.
I was sexually abused by an uncle. It took my mother’s death for me to find the strength to step away and separate once and for all from my uncle. My mom died of cancer when I was 16 years old. Watching her wilt and die, as well as the reactions of others around—with sincerity and insincerity—would clearly be one of the most influential experiences of my life. Whatever carpe diem that I had before then, suddenly went into overdrive.
My father was devastated by the death of his life partner, my mother. He was suddenly a 35 year old single parent with four children between 16 and 4 years old. His consuming grief didn’t allow for the grief of others including his children. At eighteen, disowned by my father, with no financial support for school, I joined the military (follow in Daddy’s footsteps?), serving three years as a criminal paralegal including assignment in (West) Germany. My assignments included a half dozen murders, many rapes, and even more domestic abuse and drug cases. It was full-immersion in race, class, and the deadly game that passes for justice.
I married young, had a daughter, and then got divorced while in the Army. The acrimonious divorce allowed my ex-wife to keep my daughter and I apart (rights of fathers, anyone?). I was to reunite with my daughter some 19 years later. During undergraduate studies, I became actively involved with the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. I marched for the Equal Rights Amendment on the DC Mall in 1978.
After a life that included construction work with redneck Kentucky hillbillies, farm labor with migrant workers from Latin America, retail sales, and military service, stretches where I was on food stamps and unemployment, when I couldn’t make a withdrawal because my balance was below the minimum denomination of bills the ATM machine dispensed, I completed an Ivy League graduate degree.
As a working professional artist/director/teacher, I’ve designed Wall Street web sites, produced corporate and educational videos, taught at universities and high schools, and had commissioned work in Thailand, China, Taiwan, India, and Turkey. Now happily married for almost 30 years, with two teenage daughters, and recently re-located to Portland, Oregon. That’s the thing about reducing anyone to a simple line like a fat, old, white guy: there’s always something more to it if you dig deeper.
Threads are woven throughout this biography that point to recurrent themes in my work: willfully righteous anti-authoritarian rebellion, particularly against men in power positions; distrust of establishments making arbitrary decisions that are justified in the name of precedent; identification with the “unseen” manual labor workforce; mentoring creative young minds; and finding beauty in the everyday. This long-winded answer to a seemingly simple question hints at the depth of my passion for the topics that I develop as an artist. Experience colors everything. Without it, you’re simply blowing smoke.
David Newstead: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being a man?
Steven Perkins: Listen. Listen more than you talk. Even this format, of me expounding on a question, seems uncharacteristic for me. I much prefer to engage others through their interests, rather than elaborating on my own. I learned by the example of my mother who was a great listener. She was a 1950’s housewife mother of four kids, with me the oldest. I recall spewing long, rambling re-countings of whatever I was reading at the time while my mother patiently listened. Hers was not passive, but rather an active listening, attentive, encouraging of my passions, no matter how fleeting or inane.
The other thing I’ve learned is to be particularly wary each time I think I’ve got someone or something figured out. It’s at those moments that I unconsciously shut down, stop working as hard, or think I can somehow be on autopilot. Wrong! I tell myself that if I have it ‘sussed out, things could change on a dime. Don’t get too comfy or you’re going to miss the next signal to change because those signals are fast and furious.
David Newstead: How do you think toxic masculinity can be addressed?
Steven Perkins: My focus is on the ways that younger men relate with one another—and with others who are not like them. I think our only hope is to look carefully at how boys communicate, verbally and nonverbally. It’s the only way to break the cycle.
David Newstead: What kind of responses has Men Run Amok gotten?
Steven Perkins: Responses to Men Run Amok have been overwhelmingly positive. In Portland, I believe it was largely preaching to the choir, yet at the same time I did meet a few people who were clearly moved. Over the past 35 years, I’ve had lots of different reactions to my work—mostly laughter to comic bits, or melancholy to the more melodramatic—but not like this. A couple people told me that they cried through the whole show. Now putting aside that those individuals may have been otherwise emotionally troubled, they were vulnerable and responsive, especially to FAIRY/TALE, which was subsequently produced in Madison, Wisconsin. The Madison production was by a queer theatre group, so again, a self-selecting audience predisposed to be favorable to my liberal ideas.
There was one Portland reviewer who didn’t like the show at all, but then, I don’t think she liked the seating plan, which required the audience to shift seats between short plays. I hope to have an opportunity to work with a more balanced demographic especially with FAIRY/TALE. It is written as a construct. I’d love to do a series of workshops with teens to develop it, maybe even in a high school gym instead of a theatre.
David Newstead: What do you hope your work accomplishes?
Steven Perkins: Hmmmm. Is there really a cause-effect relationship with art? I think it’s much more subtle than that. It’s arrogant as hell to talk about accomplishing anything via art. I mean, as an artist, I can put it out there—“it” being an idea, a protest, an appreciation, etc.—but that doesn’t necessarily mean the receiver-audience gets “it” because they very well may get it-x or it+x, or maybe not it at all, instead all they get is cat.
I don’t see that as binary: I’ve either succeeded or failed as an artist because “it” was or wasn’t accomplished respectively. I talk with my kids about how one presents one’s self as being the only part of the equation that we can control; how we are perceived, or what others do with that, is beyond our control. I guess that the only way I can answer your question is that I hope my work accomplishes a truly genuine, honest, direct, and immediate expression of my feelings when I make it.
Sure, I hope my efforts speak to others, maybe even spurs them into action, at the same time, after 35 years of making art, I realize that an audience is something never to take for granted. Long gone are my days of thinking I’d have a massive effect on an oversized portion of the world population in one fell swoop. It’s not how I think. It’s not how I create. It’s not why I create. To connect with one person, to build an audience one-by-one seems a realistic goal.
David Newstead: What’s your next project?
Steven Perkins: Typically, I work in parallel rather than in series. As an interdisciplinary artist, I bounce around mediums depending on the best approach to the subject matter. It’s not uncommon for me to have numerous works of writing in-progress, at the same time shooting video or photographs, and research planning for The Next Big Thing. By that I mean the next thing that will consume my time to the exclusion of others temporarily until completion.
I’m writing a TV pilot for a series about my experiences in military law, a sort of cross between M.A.S.H. and A Few Good Men. There are several directing (theatre/video) projects being floated such as a piece about Artificial Intelligence with the main character being a 70-ish retiree who has lived abroad for 30+ years only to find out he’s completely out of touch, unable to log into anything, and can’t collect any of his social security entitlements. A new series of visual art is titled Polyglot Enso, using language to connect via the Buddhist enso as a symbol for the unity of the human race. And I’ve begun collecting writings and images for a book on the theme of men and masculinity for a publisher in Taiwan.