Unlocking the Gender Straitjacket

We can widen the definition of gender and masculinity, argues Peter Folan, and yet still see “men as men”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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This piece was part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/RebootGood Men ProjectThe Huffington PostHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free ZoneThe Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.

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About Peter Folan

Peter Folan works full time as an administrator in the First Year Experience Office at Boston College. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Higher Education Management at the University of Pennsylvania. Peter earned his Bachelors in English and his Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College. He is a former high school English teacher, administrator, and coach. While in college, Peter was on the varsity wrestling team. Peter is married and the father of two young children.

Comments

  1. Why the dramatic decline “be attributed to the ways that men perform masculinities in our culture, specifically stereotypical ones” if these supposed stereotypes had existed for countless decades?

    The core issue is not masculinity but rather maleness that has been under attack. Years ago, fathers and men in general were respected. However, for years now, men have been demeaned and considered to be dumber and stupider than even their children. They were never the solid, stable leader, just the idiot butt of jokes.

    If you continue to tell someone that they are dumb, stupid, and an idiot, they will begin to act that way. People live up or down to their expectations. Then, when they do, they are further demeaned for reinforcing those expectations. It’s a vicious circle that started decades ago with the attack and maleness, and it continues apace today.

    • Eric, I am not saying that you are wrong that men have sometimes been the butt of jokes, but any alleged mistreatment of men still pales in comparison to the oppression of women throughout history. Recall that the good ol’ days when “fathers and men in general were respected” also came with a heavy price tag for many, including gay men and anyone who fell out of line with societal norms — not to mention the price women paid.

      As a higher education administrator I have spoken with many students who present a version of this same argument. Your response (and that of my students) is understandable, but it reinforces the point I am making: we (men) have benefited for so long from our privilege that to call us out at all immediately illicits a defensive response. It goes something like this: “You are telling me my macho behavior makes you uncomfortable? What’s your problem? What’s wrong with me being macho? Can’t a guy be a guy anymore?”

      The answer, as best I can figure one, is not either/or, but both/and. Yes, I can be a guy’s guy, and that should be ok, as long as my “guyness” doesn’t stifle others who express their gender differently. If we let our defensiveness rule the day, the dialogue ends and it reinforces an environment where our boys have only one option of who to try and be. If, on the other hand, we are willing to reflect on our privilege and commit to openly welcoming ALL “masculinities” regardless of how they are expressed, then we are working towards a community where ALL our boys are encouraged to be themselves and men feel less pressure to perform in dangerous ways in front of their peers. The outcome is really win-win, but to get there we men have to be willing to be vulnerable — a very “unmanly” thing indeed.

      In sum, it is not really “maleness” that has been challenged, as you assert, but rather the institutionalized system of privilege and oppression that historically puts manly men on pedestals and degrades women and others (this is at the core of the “Guyland” Kimmel speaks of). It is that system that is unhealthy, dangerous, and must change for our younger boys to be able to grow beyond the stereotypes that are really the butt of the jokes.

      • “any alleged mistreatment of men still pales in comparison to the oppression of women throughout history.”

        Compared to black men, white women have been and continue to be a highly privileged class, second only to white men. A very close second.

        “we (men) have benefited for so long from our privilege”

        If you are a white man, that may apply to you but it certainly doesn’t apply to black men. We black men have never had any such privilege. White women have far more privilege than we do. Why don’t feminists make that point clear?

        I don’t know what you mean stifle others who express their gender differently. If someone wants to cross dress, that’s their choice. They don’t need my approval. If they feel that’s the right thing for them to do, they shouldn’t need anyone else’s approval.

        I was taught by my parents and teach my children to be individuals, to do what they know and believe to be right for them, NO MATTER who disagrees or disapproves. Teach them if they are willing to be taught, or ignore them. You are simply not going to convince everyone to think the same. What needs to be done is to teach young people to think for themselves, and not live for the approval of others. That’s a dangerous way to live.

        I completely disagree on what has been challenged. All you have to do is read this and other feminist blogs and websites, and watch most any sitcom. The butt of jokes is simply being male, nothing to do with being “macho.”

        • Eric,

          I agree that the presumed all-encompassing view of male privilege is problematic. It renders men of color and men of other marginalized groups voiceless and unrepresented in many discourses; however, it would be completely inaccurate to discount the privileges of men across racial lines. Instead of comparing the oppression of black men to white women, I would encourage you to compare the differences in oppression between black men and black women. There are vast differences.

          The simple fact that there are reportedly more women (cross-culturally) who identify as victims of rape than men (cross-culturally) is a privilege for men.

          As a man of color, I, too, struggle with the way in which male privilege is ascribed to all men because it varies depending on your intersecting identities (race, sexuality, class, etc.). I can speak to the many ways in which black men have been disenfranchised in this country–it’s no secret. Also, to pretend that there are no economic, social, and/or educational disparities between black and white men would be incredibly naive and ignorant. I’m just weary of saying that black men (by virtue of being men) are not privileged to some degree–even if to a very small degree.

          Additionally, it’s impossible to quantify oppression.

        • The simple fact that there are reportedly more women (cross-culturally) who identify as victims of rape than men (cross-culturally) is a privilege for men.
          Well even that is not so clear. In a lot of jurisdictions and studies and reports on rape, rape is often specifically defined to the point where “being forced to penetrate someone” is not counted as rape (usually its called “sexually assault”). And then when you talk about nonsexual but otherwise violent crimes most victims are men. Would that mean that that is a privilege for women?

          Additionally, it’s impossible to quantify oppression.
          I would like to agree with this but thats exactly what I see happen so often. On one hand supposedly its pointless to try to quantify oppressions to figure out who has it worse but on the other when who has it worse argument happens that is exactly what is done.

      • Eric, I am not saying that you are wrong that men have sometimes been the butt of jokes, but any alleged mistreatment of men still pales in comparison to the oppression of women throughout history. Recall that the good ol’ days when “fathers and men in general were respected” also came with a heavy price tag for many, including gay men and anyone who fell out of line with societal norms — not to mention the price women paid.
        You aren’t saying that Eric is wrong, you’re saying that “while thing have been a little inconvenient for men sometimes, women have it worse”.

        As a higher education administrator I have spoken with many students who present a version of this same argument. Your response (and that of my students) is understandable, but it reinforces the point I am making: we (men) have benefited for so long from our privilege that to call us out at all immediately illicits a defensive response. It goes something like this: “You are telling me my macho behavior makes you uncomfortable? What’s your problem? What’s wrong with me being macho? Can’t a guy be a guy anymore?”
        I don’t think that is what Eric is saying. But I think you are helping prove his point by saying his observations are just a knee jerk reaction to have some supposed male privilege called out. Its the classic defense. “You don’t think I’m correct? You’re just denying your male privilege.”

  2. Excellent perspectives from Mr. Folan. Very insightful and I have just shared with our Student Services Team. He brings a unique perspective; one that will likely grow as he continues to reflect his thought leadership in the area of men/masculinity in the coming years. Well done.

  3. Mary Thompson-Jones says:

    This is a finely written and very accessible article for those who are new to this issue. I was marginally aware of some of the concerns Peter Folan addresses, but reading his distillation of current thought on this topic, along with his own, very well-informed perspective, gave me needed background on a question that is important on every campus. A nice contribution to the field.

  4. I read this article and was like wow that is dead on. That totally described my college experience, then I saw that the author is from Boston College. I graduated BC in 2010 lol

  5. Just too bad the article claims repeatedly that the notion of masculinity it is build / perpetuated (only) by men, where as women have a well / much an impact on it.

  6. 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.
    I agree. Someone should set up groups and centers on college campuses in an effort to connect with these guys. Give them a place to come to for help and bonding, and unravel this wicked web.

    Well at least that sounds like a good idea but for some odd reason whenever someone tries to form one of these groups on a campus they tend to be protested on the premise (but with no direct evidence) that they are hives of anti-woman sentiment. And then you have the folks that say that if such efforts don’t reach out to women they are being irresponsible.

  7. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I think the issue is that male jobs have been shipped to Asia, so men start to seem redundant even to themselves. Women are more malleable for the administration and service job markets that remain. Men are much more likely to be points of resistance and pushback. So, ironically, feminism supports the 1% by helping rationalize the labor force.

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