Monday, October 7, 2013
Ahmed Naguib is a Conduct Coordinator at UC Davis & is the author of this blog entry. You can engage Ahmed on Twitter @ahmedanaguib.
This blog post aims to unpack the understanding of manhood and masculinity that exists within the binary. The reason I am unpacking this is that I believe that we cannot create a space in which all individuals are respected and safe without understanding the thick lenses of socialization dictated by the systemic privilege offered to men and the lack of development in understanding this experience. In unpacking these lenses we can work to affect systemic structures.
What’s it mean to be a man? What about a good man? These are the questions I grew up hearing when it came to my male identity. While these questions were important, they did not ask the important question; how does a man define themselves? Manhood is not defined by an individual man, but largely by society and the dominant social system. Years of historical and cultural factors have led to an expected image of a man that is both unattainable and contradictory.
How many different imaginary lines do we bind ourselves with? For years, society’s initial definition of masculinity has shifted, shrunk, expanded, and been distorted. We have confused a spectrum of emotions that each individual feels as identifiers of a specific gender, which has established a binary over time. In American society a plurality of intersections have formed that have led to a diverse and at many times confusing masculine experience. This has created different challenges for men of different races, specifically men of color, based on societal structures in place that benefit some and harm others (i.e. higher incarceration rates, etc.) This is by no means a final sentence on all men of color, nor is it an accusation of a flaw. It is the acknowledgement that this intersection for men of color is one that is at high risk. Take for example the definition of masculinity often attributed to young urban men of color within our society and by our media. An intersection of a socioeconomic situation with a racial and cultural environment, which is sometimes portrayed to be enhanced by hyper masculine behavior establishes an environment in which the young men of color are not setup to succeed to the same extent that a wealthy suburban White male is expected to develop, grow, live, and thrive in society. I talk about the issue of men of color to illustrate the current issues with the mainstream definition of manhood and to suggest some ways to challenge it, which leads me to the gender box.
From my days as an RA at University of California SantaBarbara, the gender fishbowl exercise is where my interest in masculinities began. In this activity I discovered the idea of the box. Our society sets expectations for each gender on the binary and by using this box students engage in an exercise of naming the expectations and ramifications of not being within the expected boundaries. What struck me then and still strikes me till this day is the wide spectrum, and sometimes contradicting expectations that have repeatedly appeared on that sheet. Over time I have begun to see these words describing two different definitions of a man provided for our young boys. Each has their place in the historical context of our society. Our society frequently perpetuates the box through the images of masculinity that populate our media.
Prince Charming. Maximus. Ryan Gosling’s role in 90% of the movies he plays. All provoke images of men who are described by many of the adjectives in the box. Tender, loving, sensitivearound women, yet still manly and rough in gaining the respect of his fellow men. Heroic and adventurous but also charming and witty. This character is of a man who is sophisticated and loving yet still dominant and protective. Women love him despite a character flaw or two. This guy worked to do good.The description can go on, but we all know them as the “nice guys”. Rooted in the stories of noble and honorable men who served their fellow humans this image is one we see often in history, both in culture and reality.
Another set of images is provoked by rest of and some of the same adjectives in the box. The things that come to mind are drastically different. Ruthless men who in some way or form do what they must to protect those they love, or to attain rich and fame. This image is also the same one used in a huge sector of the hip hop and pop industries. Artists like Little Wayne, RobinThicke, and Tyga provoke the image of men who have no regard for others except themselves and a few loved ones with their music. The accusation of wealth and stature is the top priority. Women still love them, but most of the time it is about sex. History provides us with countless examples of ruthless alpha males who attained glory. Culture and history has further glorified them. Men like Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great,and Julius Caesar are glorious for their achievements of status and success.
Two sets of sometimes contradicting expectations are provided to young men. Today’s boys are faced with defining their own manhood in a climate that limits their options. These definitions of manhood one can see that the perception of other individuals, particularly other men, plays a major role. The idea of manhood has been tied in today’s society to how we are seen, not how we define ourselves. We see men choose to be individuals that others will think of as manly. It has restricted the emotional range in which manhood is defined amongst other men. Combining all the expectations gives young boys the image that a man, if he so chooses, may be sensitive, kind, and gentle around women and children but not around other men. A powerful example that is often depicted in the media and at times perpetuated on our campuses is the “frat guy” stereotype,This stereotypical man is a womanizer, who is not afraid to put down others. This stereotype often sees sexual interaction is a public competition and not a consensual choice between two adults. This hyper masculine image does not define all men within the fraternity system, nor does it define all males in American society, yet they cannot escape the same expectations of womanizing and dominance. It layers its effects in male self-image and self-esteem.
These images we give our youth about manhood grow much more severe when they are placed in an environment that influences or forces them to survive illegally. The hyper masculine traits of dominance and womanizing become severely inflated in everyday interactions and are much more attractive.For urban young males exposed to violence and drug abuse survival, and in turn manhood is tied to being the biggest andbaddest on the street. It is no surprise that we are losing young urban men of color to prisons. Hyper masculine behavior has devastating consequences for young men who are exposed to violence and drug use without proper role models of manhood to model an understanding of their privilege.
The points I make are not new or ground breaking. I am merely combining the information and frameworks we have. Going forward it may seem that these issues are too big for one individual to change and effect on their own. This is true in terms of the social paradigm, but shifting existing paradigms doesn’t occur with one major event but with a stream of individuals taking action. I have a few suggestions in ways men can have a positive effect on society and freeing themselves from the boundaries of the box.
1) Be authentic with yourself and emotions. Be an example of someone who does not allow themselves to be restricted in the emotions they are feeling.
2) Advocate for equal treatment of all individuals regardless of gender.
3) Create a space in which men can show affection without fear of being put down.
These three things can create an affinity space for men in which they can reclaim the definition of manhood. Allow our young men to define their own manhood and break free of the box.