Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Different Kind of Superhero

What types of roles do men feel that they must take in our society today? If they are anything like what society expects a “normal” man to be, men will try to strive for being a “superhero” type figure, a Marvel character sketched into a 20-page comic book. Take a look at the strips above and take a moment to think of what this representation may indicate for men.
The way in which you may view these images in comparison to others may vary. I am assuming, however, they might all be along the same lines of what a typical Superhero stands for: a strong man.
The Gender Role Conflict (GRC) is a “psychological state where gender roles have negative consequences or impact on a person or others” (O’Neil, Helms, Gable, David & Wrightsman, 2010 p.32).  The GRC model can be identified in six patterns that relate to societal gender role norms and the fear of men being seen as less masculine. The six patterns are identified as being restrictive emotionality, homophobia, socialized control, power and competition, restrictive sexual and affectional behavior, obsession with achievement and success and health care problems (O’Neil et al., 2010, p.34). This model is important to identify because of the significance in understanding that social expectations of gender behaviors have an effect on both men and women. Specifically within our focus here is the effect that it may have on college men and their willingness to ask for help when they need it. From the six patterns above we conclude that the fear of appearing less masculine is related to the vocalization, or lack thereof, of feelings and the display of emotions in men. In other words, college men are socialized to believe that they should be strong enough to handle everything on their own.
Being reluctant to show or express feelings may be related to whether or not services for all students in higher education are being used. I propose that there are disparities in men seeking help among academic and psychological services due to the desire to conform to societal gender normal behaviors. Taking into consideration the roles of being “masculine” in society today, men may feel that they are capable of handling issues on their own. Therefore, they do not seek the help available to them on college campuses. As higher education professionals, we should keep in mind that young men are socialized to feel as though they cannot reach out for help; this is also deeply connected to the programming opportunities we create for our students on campus.
We must begin this movement by taking a look at the services offered in higher education and how students are utilizing them based on this gender role ideology.  Due in part to societal norms, Harper and Harris III (2010) offer that the focus on “gender” issues in the higher education setting is seen as disproportionate between genders (p.5), and typically we observe that services on campus are geared toward only one gender: Female. How does this affect our male students? Are we paying attention to their needs adequately?
A number of scholars have completed research investigating the issue of men utilizing services in the higher education setting. Glenn Good and Philip Wood (1995) and David Wimer and Ronald Levant’s  (2011) provide two research perspectives that help to reinforce the disparity among undergraduate men today. In their study, Wimer and Levant (2011) found that undergraduate men largely avoided help-seeking behaviors in relation to academic services (p. 256). Similarly, Good and Wood (1995) found that male gender role conflict has a direct relation to help seeking attitudes and its relationship to depression (p. 72).
It is evident from the research mentioned above that there is a variance in the likelihood of men utilizing on campus resources to assist with emotional, psychological or academic issues. However, it is important to know that we cannot generalize this for all male students due to the individuality of each student and how they view these services. It is also important to note that some schools or universities may not offer such programs at all to assist with needs of their entire student population. Something that I have observed being a graduate of a large public university and a community college, is that the smaller institutions or primarily commuter-driven schools may not offer the same services that their larger counterparts do. Large institutions that may require certain populations to live on campus may have to accommodate for these additional services to aid in their development.
Despite the fact that all male students are not the same, we are not hindered in acknowledging the social expectations of men that are visible in society every day. In our College Men and Masculinities class at the University of Maine, we conducted an in-class project on our very first day. We were instructed to identify expectations of men in our society today. You may be familiar with this project as it is commonly called “The Man Box” activity. From our class discussion, we identified ways that society thinks a man should act. Our answers were centered around men being viewed as having to be a provider, not showing or expressing feelings, not acting feminine, not showing weakness and always having to be strong to name a few. I think the last point is important to look at. What does being strong mean for a man?
For some, the image of a strong man may point straight to those superhero figures: The Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man etc. Notice that all of the names include the word man…? For others, it may mean that they must go to the gym and have big muscles so that they can get lots of attention and be seen as attractive to others. On another hand, this idea of being “strong” may mean something totally different. Could that internal definition of “strong” mean that they have to be brave enough to fight their battles alone? That they have to be strong enough to deal with their issues and not let others in to help? This is important to take into consideration, because of the possibility that internal battles may end up affecting the health and well being of the individual. Will the choice then be to seek help because of no other available options?
I believe the notion to be a strong man is something that higher educations professionals can witness in our own lives, especially within our interactions with the student body. Personally, I see this in reference to men in my own life when men are dealing with an illness, be it physical or mental. They don’t want to seem weak and rarely seek help by professionals to heal them. However, I also have seen this in relation to academics in my undergraduate setting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Working as a peer mentor with students who were on academic probation, I was assigned four mentees, all of whom were first year men. Often times during our weekly mentee meetings, they would sit quietly in the corner as I tried to get them to talk about issues they were having with their classes and what we could do to fix those issues. Even though they were on academic probation and a semester away from being kicked out of the university, most were not receptive to the help. I would always ask myself, “Why are they so hesitant to utilize their resources on campus?” They made it seem as though they weren't struggling even though I knew they were.
I think that the above question should be looked at more frequently in higher education and then addressed accordingly. Thoughts about men in relation to help-seeking can be witnessed in many of our own lives, whether it be through the students, our fathers, friends, or even significant others. Because society holds men to such high standards, we think that they aren’t struggling and in turn don’t need the help. What if they are struggling and do need help?
The importance of services being available is valuable to discuss because of the growing need for these types of programs to assist the individuals. While certain societal expectations of men are to be strong, sometimes that is not always the case. Programs should be readily available and encouraged for men, but also to all students so that there are not negative attitudes toward gender, race, sexual orientation or any other identity in college students today. As higher education professionals, we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of their identifications and help them seek out the services that they need.
We should also encourage and educate students to be aware of socially generated expectations when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., and encourage them to think outside of the “box.” Not all men are “superheroes” or conform to the “man box” expectations of how they should think and act. That is okay. Likewise, it is also okay for them to ask for help. It is time that we teach our students that there are social role implications that play out for everyone, but each one of us can be a different kind of superhero when it comes to breaking these stereotypes. Through encouragement and availability, we can help students get to where they need to be whether they are asking for it or not.
Good, G.E., & Wood, P.K. (1995). Male gender role conflict, depression, and help seeking: Do
            college men face double jeopardy?. Journal of Counseling & Development. 74(1). 70-75.
Harper, S. R. & Harris, F., III (2010).  College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and
            implications for practice.
  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
O’Neil, J.M., Helms, B.J., Gable, R.K., David, L. & Wrightsman, L.S., Gender role conflict
            scale: College men’s fear of femininity
as cited in Harper, S. R. & Harris, F., III (2010). 
            College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice.  San
            Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wimer, D. J., & Levant, R. F. (2011). The relation of masculinity and help-seeking style with the
            academic help-seeking behavior of college men. Journal of Men's Studies, 19(3), 256-
Leana Zona is currently a first-year graduate student in the University of Maine’s Student Development in Higher Education program.  She graduated from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.  She serves as the GA for the Campus Activities Board in the Office of Campus Activities and Student Engagement at UMaine.

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