Reviewing Masculinity

Dr. Michael Kimmel, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, gave a talk in Filene Auditorium Monday July 8th entitled “Boys Will Be Boys: Deconstructing Masculinity and Manhood at Dartmouth.” Dr. Kimmel is a “Visionary in Residence” for the Center on Gender and Student Engagement and a leading academic on men’s studies.

Dr. Kimmel began by discussing the state of gender inequality in America and worked his way toward inequality on the American college campus. American college campuses are the most gender-neutral institutions, he said, but are still marked by incredible inequality, what we would call “daytime and nighttime” cultures.

The twentieth century marked the beginning of a new developmental stage between childhood and adulthood, labeled “adolescence” by G. Stanley Hall in 1902. Dr. Kimmel argues this new stage has become difficult to navigate and has changed the lives of men and women fundamentally. Dr. Kimmel used marriage as a marker of adulthood, an admittedly inaccurate but still somewhat representative statistic. Men and women were getting married at around twenty-one years old in the 1950’s and around twenty-nine today.

Kimmel discussed what he believes are the main reasons for delayed development. Firstly, simple demographics drive young adults to put off becoming “grown up.” The average age of death for a college student today is ninety-four years old, creating a lack of urgency to give up the most irresponsible years of our lives. Secondly, the economy is not as friendly to recent graduates as it was half a century ago. Part of this might be the increased emphasis on education in the last sixty years. Lastly, more overbearing parenting styles like “helicopter parenting” cause young people to shy away from making mistakes and facing the consequences. He argues that parents today are creating more timid and more risk-averse young adults that are more scared of failure than ever before.

Paralleling these trends are changes in the way women view themselves and their sexuality. Women are now more sexually aware than ever before. Kimmel cited a statistic on masturbation in 1954 and today. When asked if they had masturbated once in their lives, ninety-six percent of men answered, “yes” in 1954 and ninety-seven percent answered in the affirmative today. When asked the same question in 1954, forty-one percent of women answered, while ninety percent said they had today. Clearly, a sort-of quite revolution has occurred in women’s sexuality. In light of this, Kimmel argued that men’s lives have fundamentally changed to accommodate the “liberation” of the opposite sex, but have remained constant around an age-old standard of masculinity.

There are four basic rules of manhood: no sissy stuff—there must be a relentless repudiation of femininity; be a big wheel—bring home the bacon; be a sturdy oak—be reliable in a crisis; give ‘em hell—take risks and do what has to be done. The significance of a stagnant standard for masculinity and evolving gender roles becomes visible when, he said, men maintain a sense of entitlement toward keeping jobs that were traditionally for men.

Man’s connection to his past drives his longing to be small part of the tradition of manhood. Personally, I can think of sounds, smells, and images that define manhood. Dr. Kimmel sees this connection as detrimental to the relationship between men and women, and yet still finds a great deal of innocence in it as well. For all the stoicism associated with being a man, romanticism surrounds it. Hours of physical labor produce the smell of freshly-cut grass. A raw connection ripens with the land when we tailor it to our needs while still appreciating it for what is. The smell of cigars and pipe tobacco remind us of the end of our grandfather’s hard workday and the smell of sawdust reminds me of our father building a doghouse for the family Labrador. Likewise, I can remember chopping up mesquite wood and starting a fire with some buddies in my backyard. Experiencing these things is a great connection to my past that I sometimes feel is too distant.

Admittedly, some men apply their masculine connection in inappropriate ways, most notably when they feel an entitlement to jobs that have traditionally belonged to them. Being a provider runs parallel to manhood and, as Kimmel said, is very useful. It is a very proud way of looking at things, but also a caring one. Manhood is marked by high expectations. It takes true grit to get through hardships in life and to respond with poise.

Kimmel told a story of his research as a graduate student. During a discussion of gender equality, a white woman said when she looks in the mirror she sees a woman who, like all other women, shared struggles that bonded them into some kind of sisterhood. A black woman said when she looks in the mirror, she sees a black woman and that “privilege is invisible to those who have it.” That his entire argument was rooted in this ideology—from decades ago—delegitimizes his stance. For him, gender studies becomes a matter of educating the ignorant, with the “oppressed” teaching what is acceptable when dealing with a non-white, non-Protestant, non-male individual. If privilege cannot be seen, maybe we are missing that all of this nation’s problems are first world problems that two-thirds of the world are not lucky enough to have.

Furthermore, the over-sensitive culture we have detracts a great deal from any sort of progress that has been made. I will not be called a racist, homophobic, or misogynist and think to myself, “hey, they have a point. I’m a pretty terrible person right now.” Screaming in either direction is not “dialogue;” instead, it is immature arguing that has no place at our institution. And, if I may diverge for just a bit, the Administration’s support of such absurd, hostile attacks speaks volumes to their lack of awareness of student life combined with the desperation of not wanting any more bad press. Kimmel argued helicopter parents were hurting development, but institutionalized regulation of what people think and say polices individuals just as much as parents do. The only difference lies in society raising children in one instance and in the other parents raising children. There is not a moment of hesitation when I say I loved my childhood and would not trade it for a hypersensitive, aggressively progressive academic telling me what is right or wrong, ranging from being in a fraternity to using “he” instead of “they” or “she” in an essay.

And so, it is with this skewed view of masculinity in adulthood that Kimmel began his discussion of masculinity on the college campus. Throughout the discussion, he made reference to his book Guyland: the Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. In his discussion of college masculinity, he naturally attacked hazing in fraternities and their effect on gender equality. A fraternity “not too far from here” let Kimmel in for some of the house’s pledge activities. He read an excerpt from Guyland where pledges did an elephant walk on their Hell Night followed by the ol’ tying-a-cinder-block-to-body-parts-and-dropping-them-from-the-roof trick, rituals sometimes dubbed “gay-zing” because of the odd and “transparently homoerotic” nature of the practices. After going through the clichéd thought experiment where you’re an anthropologist from Mars, he gave what he thinks is an answer to the question, “Why put up with this?”

His answer: solidarity is developed among the brotherhood, creating a (relatively more) horizontal alignment while simultaneously creating a vertical alignment between genders. National sorority charter rules that do not allow parties at sororities amplify the vertical alignment. All parties, save a few, happen in these “male-dominated social spaces” (a phrase perpetually used this last year at Dartmouth). Furthermore, women have this choice between playing ball or “being called a bitch.” This creates an “institutionalized gender inequality…called ‘social life.’”

In a classic move, Kimmel generalizes fraternity culture by saying hazing practices akin to the elephant walk happen in every fraternity and that every campus with Greek life necessarily has gender inequality because we are all products of a homoerotic culture that is unfriendly to minorities of any sort. During hazing and as part of a brotherhood, men are performing masculine acts for the evaluation of other men. A system of hazing, said Kimmel, where eighteen year olds are proving their masculinity to nineteen year olds cannot work.

I find it hard to believe that a majority of the fraternity members on our campus are self-conscious enough to prove their manhood to fellow brothers as much as Kimmel implies. A college kid cannot fake being a hard guy or a man’s man. He can’t fake something he isn’t for three years without people noticing his true nature. As pretentious as it sounds, being a “try-hard” looks just as bad as being “soft.”

The notion that women have to change how they are to be social is just not applicable at Dartmouth. We have a very socially aware campus and sorority members (and fraternity members for that matter) come in all different shades. That is just the nature of having over half of the student body participate in Greek life. In fact, if other schools had near the same participation rate as Dartmouth has, they would have more diversity in houses and among houses, and a greater willingness to be more welcoming to people that knock on the door and indulge in beer or two with brothers.

Kimmel’s solution, like in every other social justice cause, is to have a conversation about how we lead our lives and ways to fix the problem in ourselves and in our community. We should think more ethically, he said, about our actions and ourselves. When we engage in acts that compromise our integrity, we have a more corroded self.

While sexual assault, homophobia, racism, etc. are all of our problems, the students who engage in these acts are such a select few that they are the ones should look inward to see what’s wrong and not find some arbitrary catalyst like “daytime and nighttime” culture as a scapegoat. Kimmel did mention that men are not given enough credit in this regard. Even with Kimmel’s version of the vertical and horizontal alignment fraternities create, men still have a choice to not assault women. Making the case that fraternities are inherently racist is daft at best and ludicrous at worst. There are very few people who approach any kind of minority with legitimate hate, ignorance, or privilege.

I have made sure that when I interact with people different than me here at Dartmouth, I do not judge them for experiences they have not had. You cannot hold “privilege” over somebody’s head, or risk creating true inequality where people are afraid of speaking their mind out of fear of being called racist, homophobic, misogynistic. I am not the be all and end all of matters relating to my minority status and I should not be treated that way. It is patronizing to people who wish to be taken seriously for how they think rather than judged on factors out of their control, be they positive or negative.

There exists a middle ground in what Kimmel argued. Being an ethical person is separate from being a man—it’s basic humanity. The people we hear committing true acts of intolerance are unethical, bad people, or at least people who have made unethical, bad decisions in their lives. To tie their skewed way of thinking to masculinity really is a stretch.

Manhood did not evolve to become more complicated than it was in the days of Ernest Hemingway. His observation, “the world breaks everyone, and afterword, some are strong at the broken places,” still rings true today. Life has only gotten easier and with smaller ebbs and flows of prosperity. Men are part of a larger tradition of manhood that we often think about. This rich history goes beyond two or three generations, extending all the way back to when people understood struggle and uncertainty in myriad different contexts. If men from thousands of years ago could make out with a good life to hang their hat on, we can too. But we have to do it with social changes in mind and an eye to our forefathers. Things change, but adapting an old way of thinking to a new way of living makes, in my mind, a modern man. 


— George Mendoza