Aaron W. Voyles looks at how even small childhood experiences influence masculinity.
When I was in elementary school, we had to bring in a picture of ourselves at some point. We were creating some sort of class scrapbook, and bringing in pictures of ourselves from outside of the classroom was to help enrich it with our different backgrounds and experiences. It would bring our family life into the classroom. Sounds great and inclusive, doesn’t it?
My mother selected an Olan Mills studio photograph of me in a cheesy sweater, holding a stuffed Snuffleupagus. As it turns out, Big Bird’s imaginary friend is “not tough” and immediately I was under attack for not being a man.
This was in like third or fourth grade, so of course I’m not a man, but here I was being attacked for being a sissy, a momma’s boy, and watching Sesame Street (though, shout out: Sesame Street is awesome).
Somehow, I also understood that it was bad to not be manly, and I immediately began to lie. Since Snuffy was only partially visible in the picture, I started to talk about how it was actually a big spider, not a, well, whatever Snuffleupagus is. As though holding a stuffed animal spider was actually going to make it better.
But they had me cornered. The boys knew it was actually Snuffleupagus. (Reflective note: how would they have known that unless they too were familiar with Sesame Street? This provides me with decades-late vindication.) After that, I was not cool and I was not manly. I was considered weak and even a crybaby, though I don’t remember crying. It was assumed.
I thought of this story this week because I wanted to return to the concept of pre-college socialization. Here we have me in early elementary school, not only already being challenged on my manliness for something stupid, but also my realization that I was “less than” these other boys. Already in my few years of life experience, I had learned about the shame of not being considered tough and void of childhood or effeminate qualities.
How does such childhood socialization affect a college male? It continues to build. From this experience, I later entered middle school where my lack of athletic ability was probably related to my need to be the class clown and disruptive in my classes.
In high school, the relative lowness of the masculine totem pole dictated many of my actions. Perhaps that was productive in putting me in some positive groups. I got involved in Advanced Placement classes, drama club, and other extracurricular activities that enhanced my education. But it also put me in some negative circles where I made undesirable choices because I felt the need to not be the weakest in the hierarchy.
For many men, this continues to build into the choices they make in college. We see it in how men enter freshman orientation and already get caught breaking policy. We see it in the amount of alcohol consumed or in the amount of sexual partners people seek. Being weak, holding onto a stuffed animal, those are not “manly” traits, so men test the ways they can counteract those throughout grade school and then apply them in college, which is part of the reason we see high conduct numbers from men in many places.
My goal is not to say that because of this experience with Snuffleupagus, I was forced into hegemonic masculinity and responded violently or angrily and really messed up my life. Obviously that didn’t happen.
My goal is to look at how even the smallest instances in our lives are steeped in social constructions of gender. The fact that I even remember this ridiculous situation says a lot about its impact on my thinking about my own gender, and it is important to know that everyone we encounter is carrying a sachet full of their experiences like these.
We must take responsibility for our own actions, and in my job on a college campus, I have those conversations with students about responsibility often. A childhood cannot be an excuse for a way of action, but these moments do provide context and perspective.
If I can spend time learning about another person’s story, I can know more about the pressures on them and why they might make the choices that they make. By knowing that context, my hope is that then we dig more into how those experiences shaped the person so that they can avoid the negative behaviors that are affecting their (or others’) studies.
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 Ian Barbour/Flickr
—Edits by Nancy Lien
Also in Ditching the Dunce Cap:
The Space Between Lifts
Video Games as a Way to Connect with College Men
Could I Be an Expert on College Men?
Commitments that Compete
Broken Lantern Blues
Speaking with the Language of Responsibility
My “Career” as a Rock Star
Do We Just Complain About College Men?
I Can’t Write About Football
To Ditch the Dunce Cap
Can You Manage the College Male?
“Have at it, Boys” and College Men
The Challenge of Male Mentorship
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?
Do You Know the Mega-Dump?
If the Shoe Fits, Cheat