CHRIS BULFINCH ’18
Issues of gender have become a major talking point of late, both in a college setting and in a broader socio-cultural context. The struggle for gender equity has precipitated much study of the roles that women play in society, ranging from their portrayal in the media to the amount that they are paid relative to their male counterparts. An interesting and oft-misunderstood side of studying gender is the role of men; so often seen as the monolithic evil of today’s misogynist culture, it is easy to forget the pressures that men face in society, pressures that can in fact cause and perpetuate the destructive behaviors that can cast them in so damning a light. Over the past year, a group has been meeting to address these kinds of issues. The “Masculinity Group” as it has become colloquially known, was created by Abdul Staten, the Training and Program Coordinator for the Women and Gender Resource Action Center (WGRAC). Under the auspices of WGRAC, Staten has convened a group of Trinity men to discuss issues relating to men and masculinity, a group that hopes to create programming engaging with issues of masculinity in contemporary culture, and to disseminate information regarding the issues that men face in modern life. Further, the group strives to promote healthy images and ideals of masculinity.
The Masculinity Group was conceived in the fall of 2015, when Staten sent an email out to 75 males students, based on the recommendations of faculty members, to invite them to participate. The Masculinity Group is not the first group of its kind on Trinity’s campus, however. Several years ago, there existed a group that engaged with educating the male populace about matters of sexual assault and other forms of physical and emotional violence that often take place along gender lines. Though they do not have a full mission statement at this time, the Masculinity Group does not want to confine itself to issues of sexual violence, instead confronting a broad variety of issues that men deal with today, and the intersections between a plethora of social issues. The Masculinity Group, which consists of Staten and four students who convene weekly, now hopes to discuss the ideas that they have been discussing over the past months in a broader context, involving the entire Trinity campus. One of the most significant talking points that the Masculinity Group has been considering is what is known as “toxic masculinity.”
“Toxic masculinity” is a broadly defined set of unrealistic and unhealthy expectations and ideations associated with masculinity that, however impossible and impractical they may seem, are profoundly salient to men. To get a sense of precisely what these images of being a man entail, the Masculinity Group conducted an anonymous survey asking male students to list words and phrases “that you feel describe masculinity OR what it means to be a man.” The responses were compiled into a “word cloud” (a tool for visually representing which answers occurred the most frequently – the larger the word, the more often it came up) and the result was very telling: “strong,” “tough,” “independence,” “responsible,” and “muscles” were the largest words by a considerable margin. Other responses ranged from literal interpretations of the question – “have a penis,” “testicles,” “beards,” and “mustache” were only somewhat less frequent than “strong” – to more personality-oriented answers such as “clever,” “smart,” “strong values,” “leadership,” and “power.” “Sleeps with a lot of women” and “don’t show emotion” were also revealing in their own right.
With a fairly robust sense of how at least some Trinity men perceive masculinity, the Masculinity Group created another word cloud based on impressions of masculine traits. The answers echoed the first word cloud: “elite,” “materialistic,” “selfish,” “promiscuous,” and “aggression,” were common responses. On the margins of this second word cloud were words that function as antonyms for conventional masculinity – “loser,” “weak,” “pussy,” “emotional,” “faggot,” and “bitch” – and the according social consequences to being associated with such traits; “left alone,” “rejected,” “abused,” and “used.” The two word clouds paint an evocative and disheartening image of how men view themselves and their role in a social context, notwithstanding the less-than-subtle misogyny and homophobia of some of the responses.
To expound upon the enlightening data that they collected, the Masculinity Group has endeavored in their meetings and discussions to understand toxic masculinity, see its broader social and cultural connections and implications, and suggest healthier alternatives for masculinity than those currently posited by the culture in which we live. The Masculinity Group’s discussions have identified a salient trend in modern conceptions of masculinity: dominance and entitlement. A consistent refrain among the answers to the Masculinity Group’s survey was that men should display strength and self-possession. Implicit in this is the desire for dominance and control, typified by the image of the “alpha male.” The desire for a sense of power and autonomy can lead many men to internalize a sense of entitlement, which in turn can manifest itself as violence of many kinds. The alarmingly high rates of sexual assault on campus could be seen as a symptom of this problem, as men try very assiduously to uphold the playboy ideal that has been foisted upon them. Horrific and inexcusable though any act of sexual violence is, it is not impossible to understand such violence through the lens of toxic masculinity. Many ills arise as men try to balance the pressures they feel to be cocksure and promiscuous while trying to conduct themselves in a reasonable and moral manner. Issues of sexual violence are only a few of the many issues that can be understood by confronting the realities of toxic masculinity, such as race and class. The Masculinity Group’s ongoing efforts will try to identify other issues impacted by toxic masculinity.
Looking forward into the coming weeks and months, the Masculinity Group has several goals. Firstly, they hope to increase membership. Though a small group setting can be a great boon as far as intimate discussions are concerned, greater membership would raise the profile of the issues discussed and help to bring the Masculinity Group’s message to a broader audience. To help with this, Staten and other Masculinity Group members will be reaching out to faculty and staff to try to find interested students, as well as networking through WGRAC and other campus organizations to find new members. The Masculinity Group’s next goal is to create more programming on Trinity’s campus engaging with issues of gender; one event that they hope to bring is “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” wherein men wear high heels and try to walk a mile as a sign of solidarity with the myriad of issues that women confront. The final goal of the Masculinity Group is to disseminate the information and perspective that they gather as widely as possible. To this end, the word clouds and other information that the Masculinity Group has collected will soon be published and distributed to students, faculty, and staff as a way of raising awareness. As more students join the group and more programming is organized, publication of information and ruminations from the Masculinity will hopefully become more frequent.
Fraught though issues of gender so often are, Trinity’s Masculinity Group is making strides to demystify the motivations and behavior of men, trying to shed light on the pressures that men face, socially and otherwise. Though the group is still in its relative infancy, its discussions and ruminations have already lent interesting new viewpoints, and as the discourse expands, so too will the scope of the insight. It remains to be seen what effect the Masculinity Group will have on the culture and dialogue about gender on Trinity’s campus, but the group is representative of an interesting exploration of underlying assumptions of gender and what it means to be a man. Given Trinity’s history as an all-male college, contemplating what being a man means is a fascinating endeavor, one that could create a new sense of identity for the college.