Navigating the Masculine Maze

by Jack Boger | 11/18/10 11:00pm

On a recent Friday afternoon made precociously dark by daylight savings time, I spoke with English professor Peter Travis, who occasionally teaches a women and gender studies course called "The Masculine Mystique."

"Men in our culture carry extra baggage" due to expectations and responsibilities imposed on them by both society and themselves, he said. "We feel an imperative to police the boundaries of our masculinity 24/7."

Travis added there is a "compressed tight box of acceptable behavior called heteronormativity" that instructs the modern man's thought and action. Travis also discussed how men have been taught to suppress emotion and not display vulnerability.

I immediately thought of my past summer spent at Marine Corps Officer Candidates School where we were told to "suffer in silence" and not show weakness. While there may be an enabling factor in such stoic self-suppression, there is also a price to pay.

"Men die sooner than women while experiencing higher stress," Travis said.

This stems in part from men feeling compelled to act in compliance with a strict emotionless script written into societal norms and communicated through popular culture and the media.

One of the key arguments conveyed in Travis' course is that men are giving up much of what makes them human in becoming so "hypermasculinized." Our culture codes things like sensitivity, weakness and vulnerability as "feminine," but are they really? And if those traits are feminine, what defines masculinity?

When I posed this question to various groups on campus I was surprised at the consistency of their responses. Throughout my conversations I sought to identify general trends in campus thought rather that the specific opinions of individual students. For that reason several of those quoted were given the option to remain anonymous.

A group of Theta Delt pledges described the ideal Dartmouth man as someone who is "killing it in every way: an athletic party animal with a 3.9 and a hot girlfriend." Other pledges I talked to illustrated a "chill, social and athletic dude" who "works hard when he has to," but seems to be "laidback and down to chill all the time." During a visit to the gender-neutral floor, I heard the Dartmouth man described as "ragey, but also smart or at least smart enough to get by and land a job on Wall Street."

If we assume that these definitions are simply social constructs, what does it say about the culture that created them? Is it all the Greek system's fault? Many didn't think so, blaming instead a pervasive college culture that promotes behaviors that are "immature," such as binge drinking. And most didn't believe that Dartmouth's gender relations are any better or worse than other schools.

"I think that the minority of guys who do bad things overshadow the majority of genuinely nice guys here," Bailey Hansen '13 said.

Many students made a strong differentiation between gender relations in the classroom and in social settings. One sophomore man said that in the classroom "there is no difference" in the way men and women treat each other, but that as soon as he walks into a frat basement, "you're looking to either hook up or hang out."

College President Jim Yong Kim echoed this sentiment, saying that many women on campus have reported that satisfaction with classroom interactions, but felt there was a change that occurred when Friday or Saturday night comes.

What is it about our basements that change peoples' behavior? Some felt that it wasn't the physical space that was important but rather the rules, enumerated or not, that govern it.

One senior fraternity brother stressed the importance of self-awareness and being cognizant "of the pressures around you, the image you're projecting and how your immediate environment affects that." He waxed philosophic on the idea of binge drinking as a kind of "masculine performance," establishing oneself as a "real man" capable of crushing a quick six, booting and then rallying to play four more games of tree.

"Putting things into context is what's so difficult but also so essential," he said.

He went on to add that the Greek system normalizes a set of behaviors that aren't always the most positive while stigmatizing actions that might be perceived as "soft" or feminine. (For example, calling a brother a "pussy" when he does something that goes against the norm.)

At the same time, he notes, a fraternity's influence is what you make of it.

"It's up to you to decide who you want to be, but it's often hard to navigate through and around outside influences," the senior man said. "It's important to recognize the difference between your personal projection of masculinity and your personal values, and seeking to reconcile the two."

College is often seen as our last chance to "be ourselves" before having to surrender our lives to the neutering corporate world not just for men, but all college students. There is a sense of impending doom that ticks closer with every passing term. Raising hell in a fraternity basement is thought of as the only outlet for urges that in other times might have been expended on the battlefield or gladiator pit. Getting wasted becomes the conduit for releasing stress in a culture that promotes emotional suppression in its men. Partying is often referred to as "letting off steam" or something that has been "earned" after a hard week of work. And that release is often sexual as much as it is alcoholic.

Random hookups are as much a part of college culture as drinking, and go hand in hand. The ideal' Dartmouth man is expected to be as wanton in his sexual exploits as he is in his drinking. Here we see a strange double standard: when a man hooks up with many women he tends to be glorified as a stud, while the woman who has multiple partners is negatively labeled a slut. At the same time, this can be understood as an outdated and male-focused reading of sexual politics. Women might be just as eager for a no-strings attached hookup as men, despite what prevailing attitudes might promote. Many women I spoke to felt that men often assumed they are looking for a relationship when in fact, as the song goes, girls just want to have fun.

"I think it's unfair for people to assume that all girls are looking for a relationship," Olivia Kent '13 said. "A lot of times people just have fun going out and meeting new people."

More formal varieties of male-female interactions are uncommon on our casual campus. For example dinner dates rarely serve as introductions at Dartmouth the way that they would in the "real world". Rather, they function as the next step in a relationship, usually after a couple has already hooked up.

"I would never take a girl out on a date unless we had hooked up before," one male member of the Class of 2013 said. "I think asking a girl out on a date seems overly aggressive, like I'm really trying to have a relationship."

I personally have asked several women out on dates while I have been here, with what I considered "traditional" intentions to get to know them better in a sober setting. Every time I do, I get made fun of by my friends.

I'm not sure that the fraternity scene and system is to blame for encouraging random hookups rather than committed relationships, but it certainly perpetuates them.

Many seemed to be reflectively resigned to the situation.

"People complain about the male-dominated social scene, yet we still go to party at frats," Kent said. "Yes, we don't have many other options, but in the end, we're the ones making that choice to be a part of that space."

However, not every Dartmouth student sees gender through the lens of Greek life. When I visited the gender neutral floor, one Native American student described how women ran his tribe and that he was considered "feminine" for going to college since higher education was seen as the realm of women. He had never heard the term "bro" before coming to Dartmouth and the male-dominated social scene often troubled and confused him. The culture he had grown up in was "less rigid" compared to what he found at Dartmouth, and added that he sometimes found it "very awkward" to be in leadership positions because women in his tribe are traditionally more active leaders. As a member of a co-ed house, he also talked about how members referred to each other as "siblings," not "brothers" or "sisters" and felt that much of the debate and concerns over gender seemed somewhat foreign.

During our conversation, Kim also offered a personal anecdote about his personal experience with gender relations illustrated the potential for change.

He described how his relationship with his wife and their respective roles in the marriage challenged traditional Korean gender roles. Both spouses work and share in the raising and nurturing of their children. He lovingly described bathing his infant son every night that he is home, noting that in conventional Korean culture he would not be as involved in the life of his child.

Kim highlighted the rapidly changed nature of gender relations and urged women to expect equality in their relationships and working life while counseling men to prepare for a world of coming gender equity.

At the same time, Kim noted that the goal of true equality is far from a reality across the globe, and that Dartmouth struggles with the same issues.

"There's not a single culture in the world that I know of that has dealt effectively with the gender equity issue," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do just like everyone else."

I suggest we get going.

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