The size of G.I. Joe’s biceps and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s guns in the Terminator movies is proof that the dominant form of masculinity is out of control.
That message and similar ones were conveyed recently to students during Vanderbilt University’s “Healthy Masculinities Week,” organized by the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center. Attendance for students was optional.
The Vanderbilt week kicked off with a lecture by the first man to minor in women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Jackson Katz. (His alma mater now offers a bachelor’s in women, gender and sexuality studies.)
The self-described “anti-sexist activist” and filmmaker said that sexual violence and domestic abuse are men’s issues and that men would “benefit tremendously from having this conversation.”
Katz founded a consulting firm that “provides gender violence prevention and leadership training to institutions in the public and private sectors” and has pioneered the use of bystander training in the U.S. military, according to his website.
At the event, Katz likened racism to sexism, and told students that “people interrupt other people when they make racist comments.” Therefore they should have the same mindset in response to sexist comments, Katz said.
But he backtracked during an audience question-and-answer session, admitting that sexist comments can be contextually appropriate in a humorous setting.
Hasta la vista, PC
Political correctness has value, Katz said. Supporters of presidential candidate Donald Trump say like they him for “not being politically correct,” but what they really mean is they like him “for saying racist and sexist comments,” Katz added.
Pop culture also has an insidious effect on masculinity, Katz continued, imploring the audience not to “check your brain and moral conscience when you go to the movies.”
He showed clips from his film Tough Guise, in which Katz claims “there has been a ratcheting up of what it takes to be considered menacing in the 1980s and 90s.”
As evidence, Katz noted that G.I. Joe’s biceps have gotten larger over the years and that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone use bigger guns for their iconic roles as the Terminator and Rambo than did Humphrey Bogart in his 1930s and 1940s film roles.
‘The three most destructive words’ are ‘be a man’
Athletes and fraternity members are a risk to themselves and others because of the pressure put on them to act masculine, according to other events from the week.
One event featured a screening of the limited-release documentary The Mask You Live In, which blames “America’s narrow definition of masculinity” for the deteriorating mental health of boys and men.
“The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to ‘be a man,’” former NFL player Joe Ehrmann says in the film. Now a minister, Ehrmann spoke on an all-male panel in 2013 titled “Breaking the Male Code,” which was organized by Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler.
“Whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shamed and humiliated, or feel that they would be if they didn’t prove they were real men,” psychiatrist James Gilligan, a professor at New York University, says in the The Mask You Live In.
Katz also makes an appearance in the film.
Following the screening, a Vanderbilt professor whose research focuses on race and sports told the audience “I should have hung myself or jumped out a window from my involvement in athletics.”
Gilman Whiting, who teaches a class called “Black Masculinity: Social Imagery and Public Policy,” blamed the hypermasculinized sporting culture in the U.S. for the intense pressure he faced.
Being a woman is more predictable than being a man because men constantly have to be ready to “prove it,” Whiting said.
The film isn’t without critics: A female gender-equity author said it’s “sensationaliz[ing] the issue being discussed” by taking statistics out of context and making several “alarmist” statements.
Paging Woody Allen
On the panel “Maintaining Bro Status,” Interfraternity Council Vice President Jay Reynolds told the audience they should all get therapy so they can better understand their own minds.
Reynolds added that he sees unhealthy masculinity in some form daily, but he didn’t elaborate on what that entails.
Jon Zacharias, a member of Vanderbilt’s Liaisons Educating & Advocating for Psychological Support, said students can see “unhealthy masculinities” in almost any social environment on a Friday or Saturday.
Bill Savage, IFC vice president of recruitment, said he hates the term “man up” or a phrase he claims is closely related, “don’t be a pussy.” In contrast to stereotypes, “being emotional is manly in my opinion,” Savage said.
The other two events were “Masc 4 Masc: Policing masculinity in the gay and bi communities” and “Masculinity XXL? The portrayal of manhood in ‘Magic Mike.’”
‘Thumb-sucking little beta males in skinny jeans’
This is the second consecutive year Vanderbilt has hosted a discussion about masculinity. The Center for Medicine, Health, and Society hosted “The Politics of Masculinity” last year.
Rory Dicker, the director of the Women’s Center, told The College Fix by email that it hosted the week to “further the conversations” in response to Katz’s “provocative ideas” about masculinity.
But this year’s masculinity series was roundly mocked in national news outlets in the week leading up to the observance, including by a panel of four women and one man on the Fox News show Outnumbered.
Host Andrea Tantaros claimed the organizers were trying to “demasculinize men” and turn them into “thumb-sucking little beta males in skinny jeans.”
Asked about the Fox News pundits’ criticisms, Vanderbilt’s Dicker said they “missed the fact that … there are many ways to be masculine, but American society pressures boys and men to adopt” the version that prioritizes “being competitive, stoic and aggressive, for example.”
Boys and men should also be taught that “emotional vulnerability, cooperation, and sensitivity are valuable human traits,” Dicker said.
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