The Triangle of Men’s Politics/Politics of Masculinities

Is a politics for men (as a group) even a permissible endeavor—given the sheer diversity among men, and in recognition of the fact that the field of gender studies has laid bare the social construction of the gender binary? Building a progressive men’s movement means trying to navigate the terrain opened up by this question. In doing so, the first thing we discover[1] is that we do not have to resolve the nature-versus-nurture debate in order to legitimate the political engagement of men. Recognizing that the vast majority of people consider themselves either men or women (and are classified as such by society) is sufficient. Second, we learn that, to see oneself as a man (that is, to feel like one belongs to this social group) is not necessarily tied to clearly intelligible “masculine” characteristics. To accept men as stakeholders in political developments concerning gender, we merely have to recognize that the way in which we perceive—and are perceived by others—varies based on one’s gender. “Owing to their gender, boys, men, and fathers share perspectives on the (social) world as they perceive it and as they are perceived by it. They have specific life experiences and face specific challenges; and for this reason they require a political framework tailored to their lived experience and accommodating of the various ways men can choose to live their lives” (Theunert 2012:22). Third, because progressive men’s politics/politics of masculinities is concerned with the quality of men’s lives, it can protect itself agains the danger of devolving into men’s rights activism, which typically translates gender differences into quantifiable discriminations, and claims that challenges faced by men represent disadvantages for which men bear the cost while women profit. Fourth: at this point, we should certainly enlarge our area of concern from questions of individual identity and situatedness to structural and cultural inequalities. Fifth, doing so makes it impossible to ignore the multiplicity of men’s life experiences and intersections.

The triangle of men’s politics/politics of masculinities, developed by Michael Messner (1997), puts these claims into perspective and at the same time permits a clearer definition of the structure and limitations of men’s politics/politics of masculinities. Michael Messner[2] delineates the political field by plotting three corners that more or less define what is at stake for the men’s movement:

- Institutionalized privileges encompass all “advantages” structurally tied to seeing oneself, and being seen, as a man. The term “privilege” should be used cautiously here: the concept of privilege entails that we can choose whether or not to make use of a privilege; absent this choice, we could also speak of compulsion. Connell’s[3] term “patriarchal dividend” is more fitting. This size of the dividend depends on how one participates in the system of hegemonic masculinities, but in many or even most cases it will be paid out regardless of whether a man wants the dividend or not.

- The costs of masculinity are the flipside of institutionalized privileges. In the German-speaking part of the world, these costs are mostly discussed in the context of men’s health. The problems divorced fathers face can also be interpreted as the costs of institutionalized “privileges” (i.e. the obligation to assume the role of breadwinner).

- Differences signify the diversity and intersections among boys, men, and fathers as a group.

At the center of the triangle, Messner locates the “terrain of progressive coalition-building”, “occupied by groups who attempt to strike some balance between acknowledging men’s structural power and privilege, the costs of masculinity, and the race, class and gender inequalities among men (and among women). The closer a group’s worldview is to the center of the triad, the more complex—even contradictory—its internal debates about the social structure of power, inequality, and oppression are likely to be”. (Messner 1997: 100). Michael Tunç (2012) has called this terrain “the field of intersecting approaches to men’s politics“ [4].

Progressive men’s politics/politics of masculinities demands consideration of all three dimensions of the triangle as well as commitment to finding the balance in the middle of the triangle. What region of the triangle is emphasized depends on the way political questions are posed. Those who deny or disregard the existence of one of the three dimensions are not considered party to men’s politics/politics of masculinities. Simply put: Only those organizations and coalitions situated in the center area of the triangle and concerned with all of its dimensions belong to the progressive men’s movement.


[1] vgl. Theunert, Markus (2012). Männerpolitik(en) – ein Rahmenkonzept. In: Theunert, M. (Hg.). Männerpolitik, S. 16ff.

[2] Messner, Michael (1997). Politics of Masculinities. Men in Movements. Thousand Oaks/London/New Delhi: Sage

[3] Connell, Robert. (1999). Der gemachte Mann. Konstruktion und Krise von Männlichkeiten. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag

[4] Tunç, Michael. (2012). Männerpolitiken und Diversität. In Markus Theunert (Hrsg.), Männerpolitik (S. 99–123). Wiesbaden: Springer VS.