We can widen the definition of gender and masculinity, argues Peter Folan, and yet still see “men as men”.
This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, HyperVocal, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psycholog
I am a father, husband, son, brother, uncle, friend, former high school teacher, coach, division-one athlete, practitioner in higher education, and a doctoral student. These multiple identities live together within me. I am not defined by a standard of masculinity, but embrace a wide perspective of masculinities, like the different identities that exist within me. Unfortunately, the youth in our country are falling into rigidly defined conceptions of what it means to be a man.
As an educator and father, I am concerned by the state of boys and men in our country. Much has been written in the popular press that speaks to the crisis within our country. Newsweek, The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Change Magazine, and The Atlantic have all discussed different perspectives about the fact that men and boys are struggling.
The current data supports the fact there is an educational and performance gap emerging between men and women. In fact, men are not performing as well in all school contexts, which, I think, can be attributed to the ways that men perform masculinities in our culture, specifically stereotypical ones. The way men define and embrace stereotypical forms of masculinity is a key cause of the performance gap surrounding boys and men in our country.
Dr. William Pollock, the director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital, has described the behaviors imposed on boys as the legacy of the gender straightjacket. As men try to embrace and live up to stereotypical definitions of masculinity, they feel pressure to engage in macho-driven and narrow ways of acting. Men are, in fact, being socialized into a hegemonic definition of masculinity, which asks men to be tough and competitive while also encouraging the subordination of women and marginalization of gay men. It is this narrow focus that is adversely impacting men in our country.
A good way to frame any discussion around men and masculinities is by not focusing on the gender differences that exist between men and women. Instead, considerations should be focused on establishing an open dialogue with both men and women through which men can express how they feel and see the world. By focusing on understanding the lives of men as men, we can better understand how the male-dominated phenomenon contributes to such dismal outcomes.
For me, it’s not about stratifying sex differences or choosing a victor like the Atlantic article. No battle of the sexes that has winners and losers will improve the lives of either gender group. Discussion and attention, however, needs to focus on actual lives and stories of men and women. To truly achieve successful outcomes for both men and women means that any discourse cannot be posing agendas that establish a derisive atmosphere that is either pro-men or pro-women. While there is great merit and need for gender-specific initiatives, these programs cannot be diametrically opposed or competing for resources or attention. The goal of all programming and dialogue should be to promote health and broad conceptions of masculinities and femininities. To achieve this goal, groups need to come to the table and share openly.
In my current role as a college administrator and a doctoral student conducting research into the lives of men, I have seen first hand the “internal civil war” that rages within the lives of men on college campuses. Men have told me about the pressures they feel to live up to an exalted status of masculinity, which from my estimation, is unobtainable. This notion of how college men are supposed to behave has created a great deal of anxiety and stress on college men. Men often feel pressure to drink in excess, act irresponsible, and be promiscuous with women. While these actions are seen as stereotypically male, the men that engage in them are often left searching for more meaning in life.
It has been my experience that these forms of behaviors are often not what students truly and authentically desire. Students, in fact, engage in these behaviors because they believe this is how they ought to act. These codes of conduct for men are deeply embedded within the American culture and the traditions, especially in today’s colleges and universities.
As the American culture has evolved, the life of the male college student and men in general has evolved. Patterns of behaviors, social norms, and attitudes within the collegiate system have been established and been built over time. A “boys will be boys” viewpoint has been perpetuated within the American cultural ethos. As the higher education system has developed, it has impacted college male students and their masculinity.
Recent studies have confirmed that today’s college men are studying less, becoming victims of violent crimes, and suffering higher rates of depression and suicide (Kellom, 2004; Pollock, 1999). College men are also consuming more alcohol, engaging in higher risk behaviors, and facing more judicial infractions (Capraro, 2000; Harper, Harris & Mmeje, 2005; Luderman, 2004). While looking at the overall status of college male behavior or misbehavior, it becomes clear to me that our men are engaging college in a very different way that is having a long-standing impact on men in our country.
The modern college culture has shaped and impacted the way college men have come to understand their masculine identities. The subsequent results that these men achieve in their personal growth and their conceptions of masculinity may be keeping college men in an arrested state of development and causing them to make choices based on exterior influences rather than interior, authentically motivated ones. College men feel pressure to act in ways that are often fraudulent to their true sense of self. Often men act and behave to achieve an idealized masculine identity in order to gain acceptance in a college’s male gender norms. College men are, in reality, engaging in a way of being that is impacting both their futures, but also their sense of self; usually these young men believe that there is no other way to proceed.
A frightening reality is that this behavior exhibited in college is now extending well beyond the college years into students’ twenties. For men, this time is wrought with uncertainty and confusion. This confusion is often influenced by a stereotypically derived definition of masculinity. Michael Kimmel accurately describes this time period in his work Guyland, which he defines as “a social space …uncorrupted by the sober responsibilities of adulthood.” This socially constructed world of men that Kimmel describes has a rigidly imposed “Guy Code” that impacts behaviors and attitudes through ridicule and shame. Within “Guyland,” men act out, take risks, and rely on peers to initiate and validate their masculinities; men within this sphere also feel insecure and powerless to escape from the socially constructed gendered culture that they are complicit in perpetuating. This code of conduct embraces behaviors that allow men to drink in excess, be irresponsible, have anonymous sex, and avoid any responsibility in being a grown-up.
While I still believe in the boys and men in our country, I think that they need to be exposed to different forms of masculinities to allow each man to see the world more broadly and beyond any specific masculine code. We need to have a system in place for boys and men to help them find mentors and conversation partners to engage in authentic dialogue about their lives as men and the concept of masculinity. Without embracing a world that sees men as individuals with different passions and multiple identities, I worry that we are forming men who will be fathers, partners, brothers, boyfriends, and friends who have a very narrow view of life. It is my hope that further conversation and dialogue can occur that helps men to see a broader world in which there can be many types of masculinity that are accepted. Men in general need to pursue their deepest desires to find their truest sense of self and avoid a stereotypical way of acting and engaging life as men. Without this first step, I worry about the generation of men that we are producing. As an optimist and an informed cynic, I see great hope and promise in the lives of men; I don’t see this as the End of Men, but rather an opportunity for rebirth and growth.