Rebecca Walker



By Tara Lombardo © Venus Zine, Summer 2004 issue


Rebecca Walker
The multi-talented writer sits down and has a good, frank talk about men

Named one of Time magazine's "50 Future Leaders Of America," Rebecca Walker is an activist, writer, editor, and entrepreneur. After graduating Yale in 1992, she founded Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, a non-profit organization devoted to cultivating young women's leadership and activism. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Alice Walker, Rebecca Walker is the author of To Be Real and Black, White and Jewish. In her latest book, What Makes a Man, Walker compiles 22 essays by various writers (including Michael Datcher, Ruth Bettelheim, and Michael Moore) on the topic of being male in the 21st century.

In addition to your book What Makes a Man there are other prominent writers such as bell hooks (We Real Cool) who are covering the topic of masculinity in their work. Can you explain why this topic was of interest to you?

I decided to do this book when my son came home from school sullen and withdrawn. I kept asking what was going on and he wouldn’t tell me. Finally after he had calmed down, he casually said to me, “Do you think I should play sports so that girls will like me?” I was really shocked by that. To me, it was like if I had a daughter and she came home and said, “Do you think I should pretend I’m dumb so that boys will like me?” The more I talked to him, the more I learned that in his seventh-grade social scene, in terms of having social currency, he had to either play violent video games — which we didn’t allow — or be an athlete. It occurred to me that if you make boys feel like who they are is not good enough, if you make them feel that they are not valuable unless they are fighting or competing, then it wouldn’t be hard to convince them to pick up a gun if that was a way that they could get, not just sexual affirmation, but also societal validation. I did this book to give something to my son to show him that who he is, separate from this impetus to fight and win and compete and dominate, is valid and beautiful and important.

In your new book, you also talk about how women will say that they want a sensitive man but then they go right to the provider …

They run off with the construction worker (laughs). It’s a very mixed message. Which is not so unlike the mixed messages that women are getting which is about be strong and tough but also be able to work a stripping pole. I think that we’re all trying to break out of this one-dimensionality of our identity. This is an evolutionary process. If we could just move those boys along (laughs) and help them, hopefully we can get to them before the planet is destroyed by the men who have not deconstructed their masculinity, like our president. Though I think that those men are just basically victims of this, as bell hooks would say, “white hyper-capitalist patriarchy.” I’m sure George Jr. is easily replaceable and is desperate for the love and affirmation from his father. I just wish he would stop doing what he's doing!

In What Makes a Man, you say, “What many men today are missing is themselves, the complex and unique experience of self that has been rerouted and suppressed in the name of work, war, and the arduous task of ‘being a man.’” What would our country look like if it was run by a man who has found himself?

I think we wouldn’t have leaders who need to define who they are through the subordination of other countries and leaders. We would have leaders who were more able to negotiate complex psycho-social dynamics. We are in need of deep vision. I think in the past, deep vision has come from individuals who have transcended and punctured the bubble of politics, like Gandhi or Dr. King, people who managed to find the language to elevate the discussion to our deeper humanity and to call on every individual to change. I’d like to see someone who could hear and respond and integrate those kinds of ideas. I think what we are seeing now is not an attempt to deeply address human suffering because there is a real resistance to even feeling it.

What kind of effect do you think television shows like The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire have on men’s psyches?

I think that one of the tropes of contemporary masculinity is this idea of turning everything into a competition — it’s all about winning. Because it’s about ratings, those shows exploit our deepest fears … that we won’t be chosen, that we won’t win.

Back to the quote from your book, you talk about masculinity and war. In relation to our status in Iraq, can you talk about how masculinity and war are related?

First of all, how you get a man to believe that he needs to kill has to do with an annihilation of self. It’s the process they put those guys through to turn them from the boys their mothers raise into the men on the field with guns. The humiliation, the breaking down of their innate sense of self-dignity and self-worth, and the peer pressure they endure. I interviewed Tony Swafford, who wrote Jarhead, a memoir about being a Marine in the Gulf War, and one of the things he said was that a friend of his spent the entire time in the Marines afraid that he was going to fuck up in some way. They are beaten down so intensely that they basically spend the entire time in a state of high anxiety that they may not be doing something right and that they may be punished. As the mother of a son, I understand what they are tapping into there because there is a strong desire to please in all of us, and that beautiful, human instinct can be exploited and abused, especially when you are dealing with young men struggling for the acceptance of their peers and so- called superiors.

In the case of Jessica Lynch, she told Diane Sawyer that the way the military publicized her rescue really bothers her, including the filming of it. “It does bother me that they use me in a way to symbolize all this stuff,” she said in the Dateline interview. “It’s wrong.” What do you think about Jessica Lynch’s response to what happened to her in Iraq?

This is the problem, it’s a pathological need to dichotomize life, to make everything black or white — the heroes and the victims. I am proud of Jessica, that she had the courage to challenge the way she was used, that she had the self-confidence to say, "Hey, way it a minute, the whole thing is more complex than that." It isn’t just a matter of good and bad, right and wrong. Do you know anyone who is all bad or all good? Until we become more adroit at negotiating complexity, we will always be projecting the idea of enemy onto a group of people and wanting to kill them. We must move toward a more evolved and skillful view. I mean, if we are so advanced, why haven’t we figured out a way to make war obsolete?

How do you think a male’s response would differ?

I think a man would not have come forward because the price would be too high. He would be humiliated by his peers for acknowledging that it was a much more complex situation because the masculinity code is based in not talking about vulnerability, not acknowledging that you are not the superhero. It’s about keeping that silence, especially in the military. Whereas, the feminine code is about relationships, so Jessica is being a classic woman in that she is trying to build bridges where there are none. She gets a certain validation for that because she is a woman, because we expect women to do that.

If you could create a new law, what would it be?

Every citizen should be guaranteed access to health care, including homeopathy, acupuncture, massage, and all the other non-traditional healing arts — also including birth control and abortion on request.

If you were running for President, who would you pick as your running mate?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

If you could create a bumper sticker that reflects how you feel about our current president, what would it say?

"The only bush I trust is my own."

In your new book, What Makes A Man, you talk about how a re-education within the feminist movement has been really good for women and that there should be something parallel like that happening for men. Do you think that the feminist movement should include men in the struggle, and if so, how?

The women’s movement has always included men in the struggle. Part of it is doing the work to remind people that that’s true. It’s like we need white people to deal with their own racism, we need straight people to deal with their heterosexism, and we need men to deal with their sexism. We need for us to not be the only ones deconstructing these limiting identities. People are deeply unhappy because of the expectations put on them in terms of who they are supposed to be. We all need to figure out how to put a little more space between our own minds and the demands that are being constantly projected onto us.

I think men have to do their part. The more that men understand that the repression of their emotions and the way they were taught that the only way to express themselves is through violence and rage and the more they connect with their desire for peace and their connectivity with other human beings that they love….the happier we will all be (laughs). One has to be strategic about the bringing together of people whose awareness has not been raised to point where they can peacefully exist with people that their behavior can hurt. I’m not against women-only spaces or women only groups; I don’t think that men being involved in this work means that men should be everywhere up in the movement (laughs). The door is open for men to find creative and authentic ways of helping us to get out of this.

The current struggle surrounding gay marriage seems to include a redefinition of what marriage is. What are some of your thoughts on this?

I remember when we were all saying that we shouldn’t be fighting for gay marriage. There was a lot of discussion around “why are we fighting for marriage, it’s just re-inscribing the same old problematic paradigm of the nuclear family.” People felt so strongly about it that that’s just where it went. What I like is that it’s pushing our consciousness about love and I’m all about love (laughs). It is really asserting that love is the primary force here and it cannot be restrained, it cannot be denied and we are going to love each other in all of our different configurations no matter what anyone says about it. I think the people who resist it find themselves to be enemies of love. It’s such a self-defeating position. It’s akin to the civil rights movement in that it’s coming, you know? It’s unstoppable. They can try, but we are not going back to a colored water fountain. It’s the same tide of that unstoppable force towards true liberation. I’m all for it. We are in a very interesting cultural moment and whether it’s a reaction to the coming of age of all of these sons of the movement or all these sons of single moms or lesbian moms … but it’s happening and I’m really glad. It gives me hope.

That’s what we are going to call this piece, “IT’S HAPPENING…” (both laugh)



Rebecca Walker - All Rights Reserved 2007. - Rebecca @ MySpace