Senior Yash Shah recalls going to a pub in Spain last year and committing the ultimate sin of man – ordering a half pint of cider.
“I’ll put it in a full pint, so you don’t look like a fairy,” Shah recalls the bartender saying.
But choice of beverage does not make a man, nor does walking like John Wayne or even playing sports, according to a roundtable discussion made up of three students, an administrator and two professors. The six men were brought together by The Hatchet to discuss their views of masculinity.
Scott E. Jones, assistant director of Staffing and Student Development at GW, said a man is masculine if he feels comfortable with his manhood – even in a dress.
“Dominant masculinities tend to be defined by what they are not – not being a woman, not being gay, not being, in many ways, disabled,” said Robert McRuer, associate director of human sciences and assistant professor of English.
Jones said men are taught to shun those classifications early in life. He said he vividly remembers learning what he called the “reward system.” His parents would support him when he participated in sports and dated women.
He said his father expected him to play football, basketball and baseball – so he did. But he also played volleyball, which was his true love. His father never went to a volleyball game. And when he stopped dating women and admitted he was gay, the rewards ended.
“When I stopped dating women, the questions about my personal life, other than academics or `how’s work going?’ sort of stopped,” Jones said. “I think they didn’t want to know.”
Jones said the “reward system” followed him into the schoolyard as well. He spent much of his youth doing everything to hide any feminine attributes he feared his peers might notice.
“I was making sure no one called me that three-letter word on the playground because that word hurt,” he said.
For Jonathan Owen, a GW student and member of the U.S. Marine Corps, masculinity has as much to do with society as with biology. He said physique influences his perception of masculinity.
Owen added that he grew up in a farming community where manhood was defined by competition.
“We were always testing each other to see who was the best,” he said. “Who could run the fastest? Who got the best grades? Who got the best-looking girl?”
Junior Jonathan Mann has one image of masculinity in his head. When he thinks of masculinity he pictures “characteristics based on media and culture,” Mann said.
Other members of the panel said masculinity was about reaching a level of comfort with one’s self. Mann disagreed.
“To me, it’s about being uncomfortable with yourself and pointing out all the differences between what I think of when I think of masculinity and myself,” he said.
English Professor Patrick McGann said problems arise when young men feel pressured to live up to the impossible ideals set by the rest of society.
In some communities, being a true man is associated with positions of power, Shah said.
The men agreed that fulfilling roles of power is often about performance – acting the part. Different parts of life call for different roles. When people rebel against society’s defined gender roles, people go crazy, according to the roundtable.
Jones cited the example of a woman who seizes power. He said an attractive woman “with curves” who has authority is called a “bitch.” But he said if she has “broad shoulders and is unattractive,” people will deem her evil, using words he refrained from saying.
Men face similar constraints. Men are taught to deny emotion, and that is the true crisis, McGann said.
In the wake of a string of school shootings conducted by boys, critics argued about these constraints. Some said teaching boys to live in denial leads to violence. Others argued that violence was unrelated to society’s unreal expectations. But everyone seemed to agree that America is facing a “boy crisis.”
Boys are four to five times more likely to kill themselves than girls and four times more likely to be diagnosed as “emotionally disturbed,” according to “What Are Little Boys Made Of?,” an article by Michael Kimmel that appeared in the October/November issue of Ms. magazine.
Mann said he thinks the so-called “boy-crisis” is an exaggeration.
“I grew up playing with G.I. Joe, watching action movies on TV. I turned out all right,” he said.
McRuer said he sometimes shies away from labeling situations as “crises.” But not in this instance. Unreal expectations people in society place on men and subconsciously dictated gender norms combine with economic challenges to create a real crisis, McRuer said.
Jones said the argument returns to the question of power.
“When you feel most powerless as a male, you might be most likely to assert power in other ways,” he said.
Feminists, like Susan Faludi in her recent book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, wrote that these challenges sometimes put strains on home life and, perhaps, contribute to the “battle of the sexes.”
McRuer and Jones, who are both gay, agreed that women are often allies to homosexual men, but the heterosexual participants had an entirely different perspective.
Shah said the difficulties between men and women are obvious on a college campus and certainly is visible at GW. GW women have more clearly defined roles and standards to meet, he said.
Many of the women at GW dress in a distinctly feminine way and often fulfill the roles typically associated with women, he said.
McRuer and McGann added that a disempowered group such as women have a harder time because they have to know the idiosyncrasies of both genders.
He said male behavior at local bars emphasizes the roles GW men and women play and can be compared to Hollywood scenes. The group again agreed that these instances are performances.
“You see the guy with a blond bomb on his arm,” Shah said. The man walks up to a woman with a beer in hand, shoulders back and an inauthentic bravado, he said.
McGann, the only married member of the roundtable, said the distinctions between men and women become even clearer after men and women live together. Finding common ground is an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime, he said.
Owen said he never caught the women he pursued and added that he “tripped into every woman he has ever dated.” But he had a request for women.
“Let us off the hook,” he said.
Owen made the most overt attempt to attach meaning to the phrase “be a man.”
“Sometimes being a man means saying, `screw you,’ ” he said. “I’m going to do what I want, and I don’t care what you say.”