You can’t get a degree in masculinity

Roze Brooks

A survey of masculine gender expression in higher education

The way we talk, walk, dress, interact with others and how we present ourselves derives from behavior we learn through gender socialization.  From the moment we’re born, society expects us to behave a certain way based on our assigned sex at birth.  A dichotomy is created that has males on one end of a gender spectrum and females on the other.

Gender norms are projected through many forums including media and fashion, but educational institutions are a cesspool of gender separation.  Ideas of how males and females are supposed to act are taught during developmental years of K-12 education.   However, for students in post-secondary universities and colleges, these messages can either be challenged or perpetuated.

In an androcentric society, taking a deliberate look at the gender socialization of men within their roles as students can reveal ties to homophobia, sexism and patriarchy. Focusing on the experiences of men in educational institutions can also unveil issues among men’s perception of their own power as individuals in a society where they are automatically assumed to have power.


What is masculinity?

Contriving a lucid, functioning definition of masculinity is an arduous task.  In a workshop titled “[Mask]ulinity and Homophobia,” held on April 10 in the Student Union, participants were asked to write down their own definition of masculinity before the session began.

Common terms in the responses were “manly,” “manliness,” “not showing emotion” and other buzzwords that indicated that those in attendance believed masculinity was reserved only for male-identified individuals.

From a feminist perspective, definitions of masculinity often include mentions of the power that men inherit through male-dominated institutions.  Even the Oxford English Dictionary denotes masculinity as being characteristic of men. These colloquial definitions do not acknowledge the systemic teaching of gendered behaviors or how people of any gender perform masculinity.

For male-identified individuals specifically, learning and performing masculinity is rooted in the gender codes they are taught in their youth.  From playground antics to organized sports, males tend to participate in activities during their school years that require proving their own masculinity.

For political science major Jide Ajisafe, he feels a lot of gender roles were stratified in early education.

“The girls played double dutch, the boys played basketball,” he said. “The girls would do their hair, the boys would fight. That was one way it was a learned pattern of behavior, through these gender divisions.”

This peer affirmation translates into different male homosocial experiences, or platonic interactions among same-gender individuals, in higher education including fraternity life and competitive sports recognized on a national scale.

“This whole idea of male-centrism or androcentrism is so valid with the fraternity culture here because, if on face value you look at what organizations are deemed as valid it’s one of the kneejerk responses: fraternity life,” Ajisafe said. “Not only that, but the kind of power they wield on campus and validating other organizations. That’s one area where we see the sort of playground culture play out.”

Associate professor of sociology Jessica Hardie also feels that fraternities can possess a heightened amount of power on their campuses.

“Any sort of group setting has the power to pull others into the fold,” she said. “Even if you have men who start out not being into the sort of ‘dude, you’re a fag’ kind of language, it becomes normalized within the group and suddenly becomes not so weird.”

In Hardie’s Sociology of Gender course, one of the primary textbooks is “Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School” by C.J. Pascoe.  One of Hardie’s interests is the concept that boys are statistically underperforming girls in school.

“I think one of the problems is the idea of masculinity inhibits their inclination in high school to really adhere to traditions of academia, so like listening to teachers and being okay with looking like a nerd,” Hardie said.


‘Who here is the sissy?’

In Michael Kimmel’s essay “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity,” he discusses how American men express an incessant need to be affirmed in their masculinity by other men. He highlights several types of homosocial interactions among men and how being validated by peers is prevalent in many ways over the course of a man’s life.

“On face value, I think that is totally true,” Ajisafe said. “Literally my brothers and I would fight almost every day at school over the littlest stuff, but we would fight.”

Ajisafe said that not only would they fight in school, but they would get in trouble by the dean and at home, creating a perpetual zone of violence.

“What I realized was that if I play with the girls, we don’t have to fight anymore and it was safer,” Ajisafe said. “So sometimes I would play double dutch or escape that kind of violence where masculinity was always looking to reaffirm itself.”

Through these homosocial encounters, oftentimes males are found in situations where they are prompted to prove their masculinity through violent or aggressive behavior.  A term that seems to represent the ultimate emasculating insult is the word “sissy.”  Kimmel introduced a scenario of several 6-year-old boys playing on a playground.  He hypothesized that if he were to approach this group of young boys and ask “Who here is the sissy?” that one of two things would likely result.

“Either one boy will accuse another of being a sissy, to which that boy will respond that he is not a sissy, that the first boy is.” Kimmel said.”Or a whole group of boys will surround one boy. That boy will either burst into tears and run home crying, disgraced, or he will have to take on several boys at once, to prove that he’s not a sissy.”

Were Kimmel to act out this scenario, Hardie believes there are some problematic overtones with approaching a group of boys prodding for an answer to who is the sissy.
“It introduces the message that someone there is the sissy and that they have to name that,” she said.

In the “[Mask]ulinity and Homophobia” workshop, participants were asked, based on Kimmel’s scenario, if they believed the same response could be evoked from a group of adult men.  The general consensus was that when with a group of peers, men will likely partake in isolating one member of the group or attempt to emasculate one another.  Specifically in the gay and bisexual male community, participants of the discussion said the scenario was plausible for men of any age but that terms like “queen” would more likely be used than “sissy.”

“He Defies You Still: The Memoirs of a Sissy” by Tommi Avicolli illustrates the plight of male youth encountering continual bullying for being perceived unmanly by their peers. He explained how the word “faggot” was the most powerful word boys used to degrade each other.

“The word had power,” Avicolli said. “It toppled the male ego, shattered his delicate façade, violated the image he projected.”


Shoving gender into a box, a field or a frat house

In Tony Porter’s TedTalk “A Call to Man,” he talks about how if men are seen crying in front of other people, it could threaten their “man box.” This figurative chart Porter uses to explain the list of things men avoid in order to maintain their perceived masculinity includes the stigma that men are unable to express emotion for risk of being emasculated.  He talks about the pressure of being a young male in regards to sexual behavior, stating that men walk around acting like they’ve had sex since age two.

In Suzanne Pharr’s book “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism,” she echoes both Kimmel and Porter’s insistence that bouts of sexism stem from men as a collective.

“Forced economic dependency puts women under male control and severely limits women’s options for self-determination and self-sufficiency,” Pharr said.

Kimmel explains that men tend to exaggerate their interactions with women to ensure that there is no conceivable way they could be perceived as anything other than heterosexual.

“Women become a kind of currency that men use to improve their ranking on the masculine social scale,” Kimmel said.

With men seemingly perpetuating sexist acts against women, there then becomes a continual circuit of violence and degradation of women.

“Patriarchy is not only damaging to women who experience it. It’s also the men who are compromised by this ethic,” Ajisafe said. “What we’ve learned through studying rape culture is that no one enjoys it, but we continue to do it.”

However, when considering this in the context of the gay and bisexual male community, it’s harder to make the claim that women are considered subordinate sex objects by this group of men.

“Gay men are perceived also as a threat to male dominance and control, and the homophobia expressed against them has the same roots in sexism as does homophobia against lesbians” Pharr said.

Porter’s “man box” includes a bullet-point that men are supposed to be tough and athletic as well as to not act like a gay man.  According to Pharr, the only exceptions to the steadfast rule of concealing affection for other men are in cases of war, and in competitive sports.

Porter also mentions an encounter he had with a young athlete. He asked him what he would do if his coach told him he played the sport like a girl.  Porter was surprised at the severity of the answer.

“He said it would destroy him,” Porter said.

Organized sports offer a platform for men to create homosocial relationships and indulge in demonstrations of physical skill, seeking approval from their peers and their male role models.

“Fraternities and athletics are not inherently bad,” Hardie said, “but they can evolve into something negative which we’ve seen at least at other universities because they’re operating so independently and can become this sort of closed circuit institution in which men are just ping-ponging back and forth proving their masculinity to one another and they use women to do it.”


Who owns masculinity?

In a portraiture project called BUTCH, San Francisco photographer Meg Allen depicts dozens of female-identified individuals who present a more masculine gender.

“BUTCH is an homage to the bull-daggers, dykes, manly women, and female husbands before me,” Allen said. “BUTCH is acceptance to the baby butches, young studs, gender queers, and dykes that continue to bloom in the face of societal norms.”

The project sends a message that masculinity is a trait, not a gender.  In the facilitated discussion, attendees questioned the efficiency of using “female” or “male” as a response to what preferred pronouns one uses. One attendee asked “What if my definition of female pronouns isn’t the same as someone else’s? Who owns those pronouns?”

Speculations were made that female-identified individuals who are raised in households with males are susceptible to learning some of the masculinized tropes of being a “real man”.  This drew some reasoning as to why girls who are raised as the only female child tend to be tomboys.

At the conclusion of the session, attendees were asked again to write their definition of “masculinity.” Nearly all of the retrospective definitions eliminated the words “man” or “male” from their verbiage.


Teaching gender in higher education—literally

“Taking our bodies here to this point in higher education means that we can break some of those rules,” Ajisafe said. “So you can play double dutch too and that’s okay.”

Obtaining a post-secondary degree is often considered a privilege.

“I have issues with that word sometimes because I worked to be here, it’s something that I earned, and I earned my spot in the University just as much as anyone else,” Ajisafe said, “but I still think privilege is important, because dealing with one’s privilege is a continual process. For me, it’s always a recognition that this is not it, that the work we do here is always unfinished business.”

Those who attend more liberal institutions are often presented with opportunities to expand and challenge their preconceived notions of many worldviews.  However, whether students choose to participate in these experiences depends on the student, and the institution.

“A commuter college population makes it even harder to bring certain topics to people’s attention,” Hardie said. “You also have more kids who are going into college with this set plan to learn a skill or trade, and that can narrow their perspective in terms of how open they are to different things.  It’s unfortunate that some students go through here with those blinders because you could very well be a better doctor if you knew something about gender.”

It was one of the many diverse opportunities on UMKC’s campus that created an ah-ha moment for Ajisafe.  During his freshman year, he attended an event put on by the Women’s Center featuring Nedra Bonds, an African American artist who demonstrates stories through quilt making.  Ajisafe was surprised to find that he was one of only two or three men in attendance at the event.

“It was really weird to me because here’s this profound scholarship about quilts and its ability to craft story that is liberating, and didn’t seem like something that could be exclusive to females,” he said,” so here I was a minority in this space and it was apparent. They expected it but I didn’t.”

Within the Women and Gender Studies Department, UMKC students can opt into varying discourses about gender issues. Most of the courses offered are interdisciplinary and cross-listed under numerous major fields.  Some of the gender-specific courses include WGS 201 Introduction to Women and Gender Studies, SOC 300GF Sociology of Gender and CJC 450 Women, Crime and Criminal Justice.

By focusing on the androcentric interactions available to men in their youth and how these messages are either enforced or challenged in post-secondary educational institutions, reclamation or redefining of masculinity can occur.