Reflections on a Fishbowl Discussion of Masculinity

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Kouang Chan, J.D.

March 6, 2017

On a Thursday evening I joined about 50 students to discuss what masculinity means to them. I was excited to engage our students on their thoughts about masculinity. The discussion was put on as an effort to revive MasculinUT, a University of Texas at Austin committee focused on examining and developing healthy masculinities.

The event drew a wide range of participants. I thought it would be mostly men, but we had a good mix of women and men. Also, we had a larger than anticipated collection of international students. Our facilitators did a wonderful job of leading the discussion and engaging students. The participants were asked: When did you first learn about masculinity? What do you never want to see again? What do you want people to know?

I found the students’ thoughts and ideas insightful. I enjoyed listening to their experiences surrounding masculinity. For some participants this was their first time expressing their thoughts about masculinity. I want to recognize that it took a bit of vulnerability to share their personal stories. Some shared stories of toxic masculinity negatively impacting their family life. Others talked about how being unable to fit the masculine mold left them feeling ashamed of who they are. A few women talked about their inability to understand why men do not express their feelings and how misogyny affects their everyday lives.

The conversation was lively. The participants were open and interested. It became a bit brooding here and there, but overall the event was upbeat and reflective. At the end of the night I asked a few students what they thought of the event. They appreciated the conversation and opportunity to hear the experiences of their classmates. For some it was a conversation they wanted to have but didn’t know how to go about it. I’m glad our committee was able to provide these students the chance to have that conversation.

In keeping the conversation going I’ll share my answers to the questions posed to our students.

When did you first learn about masculinity?

I don’t recall the exact moment when I learned of masculinity, but I do remember conversations with my mom about what it means to “be a man.” One conversation stayed with me in particular. I was probably twenty at the time. It was about marriage and relationships. I mean why not, she’s always bugging me about my dating life. Asking questions like: Are you seeing anyone? What about that one girl friend? What does this girl do? What is her family background? Show me a picture of the girl. Does she have a college degree? Is she Chinese? Of course, the usual stuff.

I remember this conversation partly because of how she represented her idea, her thumb was pressed into her palm. I consider my mom an independent and strong willed woman. She basically wears the pants in the relationship between my dad and her. So when she told me told me that a man needs to dominate and control the woman, I was surprised. She went on to say the man should be the provider and that the woman should listen and follow the man. This wasn’t what I expected. What happened to the independence, the free will, the woman who kicks ass? She summed it up by pushing her right thumb into the left palm repeatedly. In essence man is to have the woman under his thumb.

I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but in the years following and many more conversations I’ve come to realize the reason why mom said what she said is because of her own expectations around gender roles. She didn’t want to be the one to make all the decisions, to be the primary breadwinner, or leader of the family. She was resentful of my dad because she had to step in and play the role of the “man.” I don’t think she necessarily wants to be under a man’s thumb but she definitely didn’t want to be the one to do the all the work to raise the family and support a husband.  

I think, in her own way she was telling me to be the caregiver and provider for the family. I hope to be able to do that while figuring out how to navigate gender roles or even do away with them and leave it as roles.

What do you never want to see again about masculinity?

The misogynistic attitude and thinking. Nothing about a woman makes her inferior to a man. It is this kind of thinking that creates a sense of entitlement over women.

Why is it that a woman doing the same work as a man is paid less? I personally don’t understand the attitude and thought behind it. If a person can make legal arguments, program a drone to spray pesticides, operate heavy machinery, teach a high school biology class, or design cars as well as the guy next to her why shouldn’t she be compensated accordingly?

We need to do away with misogyny. There is absolutely no place for it in this day and age.

What do you want people to know about masculinity?

The struggle that boys and men go through in order to fit into a narrow definition of what it means to be a man. The struggle arises when parents chastise their sons for choosing dance over football. The pain is real when your best guy friends no longer want to be friends with after you come out to them. The insecurities pile on when lose your job and your family thinks less of you for not being employed. The loneliness is palpable when you realize no one will listen to your problems because guys don’t talk about them. Instead you get the “man up” or “stop being a bitch” response.

These experiences make it difficult for men to fully express who they are. That narrow definition of stoicism, promiscuity, and high achievement is not healthy. I think we need to let go of the ridiculous expectations and pressures. There are tons of men out there who are drowning in a flood of toxic masculinity. They’re alone and afloat, struggling to find themselves without a light to guide them.

We need to redefine masculinity in a way that allows men to express their full humanity. We need to encourage boys to accept themselves, not shame them for the things they enjoy. We need to listen to men when they are suffering and struggling to escape the box society’s place on them. We need to care about men. 

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