I’ve been itching to write this post for a while, but I’ve been unsure how to reconcile my trusted academic approach with my still growing spiritual testimony of understanding doctrine. Today, I want to explore how the priesthood can be understood as a feminist definition of masculinity. Before I begin, I should establish a few stipulations.
First, I’m only interested in discussing the doctrine of the priesthood as it applies to men and masculinity. For discussions about women and the priesthood, please visit my friends over at FMH.
Second, I wish to clarify that this post is only one approach to understanding doctrine with which I am still becoming familiar. I do not propose that this is the “one, true” perspective and I would love to open a discussion to those approaches. Feel free to agree, disagree, or qualify my statements. I’m always interested in a conversation.
Finally, I have a testimony of the priesthood. My testimony comes from an experience that I cannot express in academic terms, a vocabulary with which I am most comfortable. I freely admit that my explanation of this testimony will likely be perceived as awkward, but for now, it’s what I’ve got.
All on board? Here we go.
Let me set the scene: this one time, I made a bold move to venture into Single’s Ward. Woof (for you, Max). I did not love it. At best, it felt like a bunch of kids playing house, pretending to live in a grown-up world. At worst, it was a room full of women designing their remarkably unrealistic dream priesthood holder. Seriously. The teacher put “Worthy Priesthood Holder” on the board, underlined it, and opened the discussion. It was like Relief Society gone wild! What the women came up with was an unattainable list of qualities that would have better been posted under the heading “Prince Charming,” or “I Live in a Dream World.”
After squirming for about 45 minutes, I raised my hand to add another trait to this list: “What about someone who will hold us to these same expectations?” Oh, did I get some dirty looks. And one thumbs up.
The teacher redirected the conversation to something actually productive. We read Doctrine and Covenants 121: 40-46. It was interesting to compare the list of qualities in this scripture with the list of achievements posted on the board. As a group, we were humbled for sure.
These verses made me think, too, about how we define masculinity. Many of the qualities listed (gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge, showing forth an outpouring of love, etc) are not exactly the boldest words in the socially constructed man-box (seriously, watch this or read the transcript). In fact, those qualities would probably land you as king of the fag box.
I used to teach an introductory sociology class at KU and discussed social issues covering race, class, gender, and sexuality. I always looked forward to our gender discussion on “Gender But” day. If nothing else, it was fun to say. On Gender But day, I asked the students to fill in the blank with their preferred gender identity: “I’m a _________, but I __________.” Responses ranged from “I’m a woman, but I like football” to “I’m a woman, but I think about sex more than my guy friends.” The man often said things like, “I’m a man, but I like to watch the Notebook” or “I’m a man, but I have feelings, too.” I put the qualities on the board as the students read them to the class, and among the giggles, we noticed some patterns. My students realized a few things: 1) gendered expectations exist (shocker!); 2) it was easier and far more acceptable for women to do “man” things than for men to dabble in the feminine; and 3) the man box was dangerous for men and women.
Let’s discuss this last point for a quick minute. What does it mean that the man box is harmful for both men and women? To start, the socially constructed definition of masculinity leaves very little room for qualities found in D&C 121. Our social world tries to convince us that men who do exhibit those qualities are queer, gay, fags, or other sexualized and homophobic insults. They aren’t real men, that’s for sure. Michael Kimmel argues that homophobia isn’t a fear of gay people, but a fear of being perceived as gay. Instead, homophobia, sexual insults and violence, are tools used to keep men from stepping outside of the man box. This is a dangerous cultural tool and leaves men with very few options to define their very straight masculinity other than having a lot of very straight sex with a lot of women. No relationships, no feelings, no love or kindness or long suffering. Just lots of sex and grunting and football.
The doctrine of the priesthood stands in direct opposition to this. I’m often the first to scoff at the notion that “men have the priesthood because they need it more than the women.” I think it’s a dumb and lame reason, but I digress. I’m not arguing that men need the priesthood; I’m arguing that, from a cultural perspective, the priesthood doctrine is good for men. In my head, there is a difference. Let me explain: we live in a social world that tells men they need to behave in this narrowly defined box of masculinity that requires them to “compete with other men and dominate women by being aggressive, worldly, sexually experienced, hard, physically imposing, ambitious, and demanding.” The doctrine of the priesthood, on the other hand, allows for a redefinition of gender that includes a broader masculine experience.
Here’s my point: I believe that the doctrine of the priesthood is a force of good for men and boys in a secular culture that defines masculinity so narrowly that it excludes an entire half of the human experience.
Now it’s your turn, dear readers. Discuss.
So much love,