Interview: Shira Tarrant

Shira TarrantShira Tarrant is an American writer on gender politics, feminism, sexuality, pop culture, and masculinity. She is an associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Tarrant’s books include When Sex Became Gender, Men and Feminism, Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power, and Fashion Speaks: Undressing the Power of Style. She has a PhD in Political Science from UCLA. While she is not redefining gender rights through her books and classes, Dr. Tarrant enjoys swimming, reading, and watching comical movies.

TCJWW: Being a professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies, as well as the author of various books such as When Sex Became Gender and Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power, you are seen as an expert in the field. What caused you to have a deep interest in masculinities that led you to write Men and Feminism?

Tarrant: One of the things that led me to write this book—which is something I write about in Men Speak Out—is that when teaching courses in Women Studies, I was getting more and more men in my classes. More men from sports teams, because one guy would tell his buddy on the team and then they would start taking my class. I realized I didn’t have books I could assign them that spoke to the gendered experience of masculinity. There was so little out there; it wasn’t like there was nothing since there is actually a long history of people doing things, but I didn’t have a book that would address (in a first person accessible way) how a college-age guy might see himself and relate to. I met with my male students during the semester and we sat out in the lawn and I said I don’t have a book to give you that is a first person perspective, what would you want to see in that book? They told me what they really wanted and they were really thirsty for it and that told me there was a real need. Another thing was conversations in class. We talked about sexual assault, for instance, when I did have primarily female students in class, which meant we were having really important conversations about sexual violence, but it also meant there was a whole group of people that were not involved. We kept having these conversations within single-sex circles and men really need to be involved in the conversation. I wanted to contribute in some way to encourage those types of conversations and invite men into the conversation to help establish the idea of men in feminism and masculinity issues as legitimate, important, and valuable, which is something we ought to talk about. The third reason was because with sexism—and other intersecting problems such as racism and homophobia—it seems that the people doing the work are mostly deeply impacted. My thought about that is it is deeply uncool to expect the people who are heavily impacted in sexism also to have to do the work in solving the issue. We need more people involved. There are many men who want to be involved so there needs to be promotion of that.

TCJWW: Men and Feminism brings a great light to the importance of men’s involvement and interest in feminism. At any point did you feel men would see you as an intruder, entering a realm in which you did not belong regardless of your background simply because you are a woman?

Tarrant: I felt that more with Men Speak Out because those are first person perspectives so the question was, how was I—as a woman—having a conversation about men’s conversations? I saw myself as a facilitator that could bring the theoretical, academic information and data to support and provide foundations. With Men and Feminism I wasn’t concerned about that because I wrote it from the perspective of a scholar who is immersed in feminist theory and in speaking from that perspective, I am not speaking on behalf of men.

TCJWW: By framing feminism as a human issue rather than a women’s issue, do you feel it has caused more men to join the movement without particularly taking on the “feminist” label?

Tarrant: It is hard to know quantity so I don’t know, but anecdotally I hear more conversations around feminist issues whether or not people are calling them feminist. In one of the sections in Men and Feminism, I talk about men identifying as feminist. Some don’t because they reject the concept and some never thought they were invited or they feel excluded. Some men say that feminism is a title for women to use and that they can only be allies. There are a variety of approaches people take and what I offer in the section are the approaches people take and the way they describe themselves. Bottom line, I personally don’t have a heavy investment in what people call themselves because what I am more concerned about is doing the gender justice work. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the word feminism and I invite anybody to feel comfortable with it but if people are getting stuck on it, set it aside for the moment and go back to it later but do the work now.

TCJWW: Men and Feminism was published in 2009. Have you seen a change in the involvement men have had since then? If so, can you give an example?

Tarrant: Yes, I have seen a change and it is very interesting. In 2009, when the book came out, there were no Tumblr devotees to feminism, such as Ryan Gosling is now. I saw more conversations on Facebook. For example, random dudes on Twitter would tag me and want to engage. Those are personal stories, but that wasn’t even happening as much. I now get media calls from national media organizations about what I think in regards to men and feminism… that wasn’t happening before. I had a male journalism student ask me about men and sexual violence because he was writing a story. The conversation I would have been having years ago would have been different because people would be presuming that we are talking about women and I’d be saying it is also really important to include men in this.

TCJWW: In your book, you define feminism as a social movement that seeks equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of gender. When there isn’t equality of outcome, feminism wants to know why. Why do you feel men are still very reluctant to get involved in the movement when they have so many women in their lives, whether it be mothers, sisters, cousins, girlfriends, or wives?

Tarrant: I think there are several reasons and I think people are generally reluctant to get involved in politics. People get busy in their own lives so just the practical aspect—having to make a living, have a family, go to school—takes time from being involved. On top of it, feminism is not only politics but it’s politics that are deeply personal. There is a huge risk for men who get involved with feminist politics. In an organic campaign, no one is going to ask them if they are a homosexual. With feminist politics, they risk questions about their own masculinity. In a sexist culture, it makes it really hard sometimes. I think a lot of the time it just doesn’t occur to men that they can—and ought to—be involved not because they are bad people or because they are sexist, it just doesn’t cross their mind because it hasn’t occurred to them that this is something that affects all people.

TCJWW: Your work on gender issues, masculinity, pop culture, and sexual politics have been featured on various global media outlets. Where do you see yourself next?

Tarrant: Well, I can tell you what is happening next. I have a book coming out in January 2015. It includes some of the most current research in pornography because there are a lot of freak outs about it but not a lot of data. This is intended to contribute and improve conversation. I have another book about sexual politics coming out August 2015 and that is really geared towards college students. There are some really provocative ideas about sexual assault, sex in social media, Tinder as being good or bad—you know, all kinds of stuff. I am also working on a third book that will be out later, which is also about pornography, under contract with Oxford University. Those are the three things I know are happening and of course I see myself continuing to teach and working with other things I am involved in such as I will also continue talking to media and students.


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