Although the last two decades of queer theory and sexological research have challenged the gender binary of masculinity and femininity, Women’s Studies (or, as they are more commonly being renamed/reframed, Gender Studies) programs still largely focus on two genders. As Reeser (2010) noted, meaning tends to be made through opposition, and in any set of opposites, one is marked (i.e. noticed, called attention to, etc.) and the other unmarked (i.e. often invisible). Heterosexuality, for example, is unmarked because we rarely talk about it as its own separate concept. Instead, we tend only to discuss heterosexuality when we call attention to something other than it (homosexuality, bisexuality, etc.).
Masculinity is also unmarked, and this is one of the biggest challenges we face when trying to get men to examine their masculinity/ies (it should be noted here that not all men identify as masculine: for the purposes of this blog post, I am using “men” as shorthand for “men who identify, at least in part, as masculine”). Indeed, resistance comes not only from men themselves but also from gender scholars. One argument against Men’s Studies is existential: we don’t need to study men and masculinities because the entire history of academic study has been the study of men.
When Men’s Studies courses began to be proposed, Brod & Kaufman (1994) argued that while men were indisputably the focus of many courses in the humanities and social sciences, they had not been studied as men but rather as ungendered “humans.” Men’s Studies advocates concluded that what was needed was not to perpetuate the notion of men as genderless (and usually antagonistic to femininity/feminism), but rather to examine the ways in which archetypical performances of masculinity reflected a gender construction that diverged from the actual lives of men. This is the approach I advocate.
So how do we get men to study the construction of masculinity and consider the ways in which it may be harmful to themselves and others? We must start by understanding how deeply attached many men are to masculinity, even when they see its harms. All humans form their social identities via attachment to their in-groups. Roccas, Klar, & Livingston (2006) argued that these social identities could lead to group glorification, in which group members felt less group-based guilt and were less likely to acknowledge in-group responsibility in situations of inter-group conflict, or group attachment, in which members were more likely to criticize the in-group while maintaining a healthy attachment to it. Doosje et al (1995) described these groups as “high” and “low” identifiers. Amiot & Aubin (2013) found that a group member’s self-determination was the salient factor, and that comparative (non-self-determined) orientations tended to predict negative emotional outcomes (i.e. nationalism and in-group bias) while autonomous (self-determined) orientations tended to predict positive outcomes (i.e. patriotism and self esteem).
Adolescent boys tend to form their social identities through comparison to and competition with other boys, and they also tend to glorify masculinity even when they find its standards hard to live up to. As O’Neil (2013) has shown, many young men experience Gender Role Conflict when they consider the social norms around masculinity and find that they don’t measure up to them. However, men don’t reject masculinity outright because they see no in-group for themselves outside of masculinity. The box of masculinity may be restrictive, and even problematic, but for many men, it’s the only box in town. Trapped by the binary, too many young men feel that they must continue to glorify their in-group because at least it provides some sense of belonging. Better the devil you know, the proverb goes.
As educators, when we approach the topic of gender with men, we must be mindful of the likelihood that they are “high” identifiers, and we must remember that many men will perceive criticisms of masculnity (phrases like “toxic masculinity” for instance) as existential threats to their social identities. This may be difficult for us to hear, since we see the myriad ways in which men, particularly cisgender, white men, enjoy social privilege. However, men often experience the language of Gender Studies (which, historically, has been the language of feminism) as threatening. Failing to take this affective response seriously–whether we agree that it is warranted or not–means failing to meet a lot of men where they are.
This is not to say that men should not be challenged to examine their privilege and the extent to which they adhere to a non-self-determined social identity. We must also acknowledge the fact that many men are not as empathetic as we would like them to be. Men’s lack of empathy may be caused by gender expectations that leave little room for self-determination or intimacy. As Way (2011) reported, adolescent boys have deep, intimate friendships until the ages of 14-16, after which they being to engage in “more comparative, externally driven, and competitive forms of [social] identification” (Amiot & Aubin, 2013, p 580). Male friendships wither in late adolescence, but their masculine social identies remain, perhaps because they seek the sense of belonging they had in the intimate friendships of their youth. However, in-group identification doesn’t always provide that sense of belonging, especially if men’s attachment to their in-group is unhealthy.
If we want men to examine their gender, we must allay their fears that after the Emporer is seen to be naked, they won’t be able to find new, better-fitting clothes (to torture the metaphor). We must challenge them to examine their privilege, but in a way that remains male-positive. We must see men as humans who often struggle against gender expectations, even as they seem (outwardly at least) to reinforce them. We must practice the empathy we may find lacking in the men we educate. This is difficult, but necessary, work.
Amiot, C. E., & Aubin, R. M. (2013). Why and how are you attached to your social group? Investigating different forms of social identification. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52(3), 563-586. doi:10.1111/bjso.12004
Doosje, B., Ellemers, N., & Spears, R. (1995). Perceived intragroup variability as a function of group status and identification. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31, 410-436. doi:10.1006/jesp.1995.1018
O’Neil, J. M. (2013). Gender role conflict research 30 years later: An evidence-based diagnostic schema to assess boys and men in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 91(4), 490-498. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2013.00122.x
Reeser, T. (2010). Masculinities in theory: An introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.
Roccas, S., Klar, Y., & Liviatan, I. (2006). The paradox of group-based guilt: Modes of national identification, conflict vehemence, and reactions to the in-group’s moral violations. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 91(4), 698-711. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2068
Way, N. (2011). Deep secrets: Boys’ friendships and the crisis of connection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.