Finding Common Purpose in the Discussion on Authentic Masculinity

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Joseph Boehman, Ed.D.

March 4, 2016

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Professional Competency Areas: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Personal Foundations

Few would argue that the dominant narrative of masculinity in the United States today is problematic. On college campuses, men are less likely to engage academically (Sax, 2008). They are less likely to persist beyond the first year, and if they persist, are less likely to graduate (Ross et al., 2012). Additionally, men are overrepresented in the campus conduct system (Harper, Harris, & Mmjeje, 2010).

The dominant narrative of masculinity on college campuses emphasizes restricted emotional display, fear of femininity, and competitive behavior to prove one’s worth relative to other men. This narrative is hegemonic, as it is “a system of beliefs and practices that essentially harm [men], while working to uphold the interests of others who have power over [other men]” (Kimmel & Davis, 2011, p. 9). Edwards (2012) described hegemonic masculinity as the Man Box, as it restricts the behaviors, emotions, and expressions of a man’s full self. The Man Box manifests itself on campus in destructive behavior, fighting, binge drinking, homophobia, misogyny, and racism, among other negative consequences.

It is important to recognize that that the Man Box benefits far fewer men than it damages. Hegemonic masculinity is a social construct, and it is reinforced through a very strict code of behavior that is “taught by peers, media, parents, teachers, coaches—just about everywhere and from everyone” (Kimmel & Davis, 2011, p. 7). If a member of the group is acting in a way that is deemed as not “manly” enough, such as expressing emotions beyond what is considered appropriate, he will be either policed to conform or ostracized from the group.  As Edwards and Jones (2009) described it, hegemonic masculinity “serves to oppress women, marginalize some men, and limit all men” (p. 211).

If all men are limited by hegemonic masculinity, then why is there not a revolution to break out of the Man Box? The answer is found in the construction of the box itself. It would stand to reason that if a man examines how hegemonic masculinity harms those around him, inhibits his ability to build meaningful relationships with other men, and damages his own humanity, then he would demand a different masculine narrative for himself and his fellow men. Unfortunately, that type of examination requires a man to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable is a primary violation of the Man Box. Davis (2002) found that college men generally did not examine their own identity as men.

To combat the narrative of hegemonic masculinity, we need to explore alternate narratives. Several authors (see, e.g., Harper & Harris, 2010; Edwards & Jones, 2009; Davis & Laker, 2011) have illustrated that, until recently, studies of college men did not view them as gendered beings but as students, inadvertently reinforcing male privilege. The struggle to engage straight White college men is particularly problematic. Educators lament that they are not engaged in diversity and social justice issues, while these men often indicate that they feel excluded and demonized in the conversation (Svoboda & Vianden, 2015).

When there is a discussion on most college campuses about gender identity and expression, masculinity is rarely mentioned in a positive light. When men are mentioned, it is generally as the perpetrators of homophobic and misogynistic acts, both subtle and violent. In essence, men—particularly, straight White college men—are seen as the problem. Little time and space is given to how men are also harmed by traditional expressions of masculinity or how men are not encouraged or welcomed when they do attempt to enter social justice work (McCarroll, 2014), and even less attention is given to how to change the narrative.

Given this context, it may be to the common benefit of all to acknowledge masculinity as a gender identity rather than to ignore masculinity and reinforce its privilege. The dominant narrative cannot change unless and until a compelling and authentic narrative of positive masculinity is championed, one that embraces all of its intersectionalities, including the straight White male. If college men are encouraged to participate in social justice work rather than be shamed, they may recognize and use their privilege as a catalyst for changing the narrative.

As student affairs professionals, we have the ability, and the responsibility, to provide an alternative narrative to hegemonic masculinity. Kimmel and Davis (2011) suggested four practical interventions, including discussion and activism against the cultural messages of the Man Box, mentoring and peer discussion groups that allow young men to be vulnerable in order to examine authentic masculinity, creating new rituals to promote a rite of passage into positive masculinity, and encouraging individual transformation. Svoboda and Vianden (2015) suggested that straight White college men are beginning to show an interest in engaging in this work, but face challenges due to their lack of exposure to diversity and reflection of their privilege.   They posited that student affairs professionals should challenge college men from majority groups in a manner that is compassionate, respectful, and educational (Svoboda & Vianden, 2015).

College men are not simply men, but they can identify in myriad ways. Race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, academic field of interest, and cocurricular involvements are just a few of the many ways that men identify themselves on campus. Within those intersectionalities, there are many ways to express masculinity. As a profession, we must support and reinforce the narrative that each of these masculine identities is valid as long as it respects the humanity, dignity, and worth of other identities. We should strive to promote a tapestry of authentic and positive masculinities as the dominant narrative.


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