Aaron W. Voyles looks at the social navigation needed to become a man.
In middle school, I wanted to fit in. In high school, I wanted to stand out. In college, I found myself needing to do both somehow. Having failed in both middle school and high school to meet those goals, college became an even tougher proposition.
To fit in, I had to do the things we were supposed to do in college. I talked about girls. I talked about booze. I walked around with people who smoked pot, even though I didn’t. I talked about how stupid our RA was. I insulted the dining room food and played golf with rotten food we had saved in the parking lot behind our hall.
I did all of these things out of a desire to appear just normal enough to not be weird. Swain (2005) tells us that appearing to be “one of the boys” is a defense mechanism that men use to protect themselves from teasing. I didn’t want to be the target, so I did things like go to Hooters with the whole floor even though I’m not really a fan of their wings.
For the most part, this worked pretty well. It helped that in college, there were fewer required sports activities for us to play together that I would no doubt have failed at laughably. It also helped that my college was large enough that even though I wasn’t really cool, the cool people weren’t always in the same vicinity as me like they were in grade school.
At the same time, I needed to stand out. I started a band. I purchased some tight pants. For a while, my thing was smoking a cigar most nights out in front of the residence hall. Those were the things that became my things. I became known as the guy who smoked cigars…or the guy who annoyingly had a drum set in his room.
Standing out became just as critical because it is what made me fit one of the preconceived notions of a quirky college guy. It gave me a place and a uniqueness from which to operate. To replace me would be to lose part of the gang. I needed to stand out just enough to not be replaceable–not so weird to be repulsive, but weird enough to be interesting.
Peer pressure is a common phenomenon most of us are familiar with, and while it is paradoxical to consider the need to both fit in and stand out, it also makes a certain amount of sense. Our interactions build our camaraderie, and they also build our sense of self. For men, the primarily homosocial peer interactions while growing up also build our understanding of masculinity (Kimmell, 1996). We define ourselves through how we interact with others.
I saw this phenomenon in many of the other guys on my hall. We had the guy who was into trying all types of drugs as a spiritual journey. We had the guy who chain smoked from morning to night (though if you watched closely you could see that he didn’t inhale). We had the guy who was really into movies and knew every fact about each director. We even had a guy whose thing was being overtly racist (and for some reason it wasn’t anybody’s thing to call him out).
When we look at where male misbehaviors come from and why men continue to exhibit hypermasculine behaviors that lead to excessive drinking or gender-based violence, it’s important to consider the paradoxical structure of the social construction of masculinities. I spend a lot of time in this column examining how childhood is related to the behaviors that men display in college, but it’s not just what happens in childhood. I learned in middle school and high school (mostly through error) how to navigate the dichotomy of fitting in and standing out and then was able to apply it when I was in college.
If you go back through the list of what I remember each of the men on my hall for, you’ll notice most of those behaviors are negative. You’ll also notice how the common factors of talking about girls and booze, while not inherently negative, could lead to negative behaviors as well. In the coming weeks, I want to spend some time discussing some of the ways to combat negative behaviors in college men, but I think it is also important to understand the variety of factors that build and support those behaviors first.
I doubt any of the men I remember from this group are defined by either the common factors I shared or the individual aspects I remember of each of them. I know I am not defined by the ones I list for myself. Yet because of the pressure to how to present ourselves, all I can remember is that masquerading rather than who they actually may have been. While there are many great things about being a man, some of the challenge of navigating manhood in a homosocial sense can lead to the negative behaviors we see in men. To approach those, we need to first recognize them.
Kimmel, M. (2009). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Swain, J. (2005). Masculinities in education. In M. Kimmel, J. Hearn & R. W. Connell (Eds.), Handbook of studies on men & masculinities (pp. 213-29). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ditching the Dunce Cap is a weekly Friday column from Aaron W. Voyles on the University of Texas-Austin. He welcomes your comments. This column is not affiliated with the university.
—Photo Steven Depolo/Flickr
—Edits by Nancy Lien
Also in Ditching the Dunce Cap:
That Time Snuggleupagus Made Me Uncool
The Space Between Lifts
Video Games as a Way to Connect with College Men
Could I Be an Expert on College Men?
Broken Lantern Blues
My “Career” as a Rock Star
Do We Just Complain About College Men?
To Ditch the Dunce Cap
Can You Manage the College Male?
“Have at it, Boys” and College Men
Becoming a Beard Mentor
College Made Me Think I Hated Beer
An Ode to My College Roommate
Examining the Axe Effect
When Will You Grab Your Saw?
If the Shoe Fits, Cheat