I will readily confess that Week 5 is the one I was most looking forward to. Our fifth module looks explicitly at societally-defined and reinforced images/definitions of masculinity. For someone with my particular set of interests, this module was a big part of the reason I wanted to get involved in the program in the first place. I think that, short of protecting and encouraging women, recognizing the arbitrariness of the boundaries around ‘manliness’ is a practicable and meaningful step toward reducing gender inequality. Because the most common contemporary version of masculinity is also tied up in femmephobia, homophobia, and manifest destiny ideation, tearing down that particular edifice helps open a path to a number of other pro-equality ideas.
The first activity associated with the module asked the guys to critique some images: a UFC trailer, a scene from Casino Royale, and two pictures of infants. For the infants, they were asked to identify the gender of the child pictured, and it was funny to watch them scrutinize every detail of the photos for hints about gender, and instead of immediately concluding ‘you can’t tell’, finding and sticking to arbitrary justifications: “look at the hair”, “you can tell by the eyes”, “the way the diaper is fitting…” We talked a bit about how gendered expectations get put on us at a young age, and what kinds of things are “for boys” vs. “for girls”.
During this discussion and the ones that followed, I felt torn between the usefulness of the binary gender model and the fact that I don’t agree with it. Even the program itself is set up in terms of binary gender, and the discussion that is required to tear down the idea of binary gender would take much longer than the allotted time, and would bring the central function of the program itself into question. I think it must be questioned, but I didn’t think we could do a good enough job in the little time we had, and I didn’t want to do it half-assed.
The next thing we asked the guys to do was complete the phrase “a real man is ______” using one word. Again, the idea behind this was to elicit responses rather than explicitly telling them “this is what you should think about masculinity”. I was expecting (as was the prep material) mostly stereotypical stuff: a real man is strong, tough, suave, rugged, whatever. Instead, the majority of the guys chose things like “kind”, “respectful”, “genuine”, “himself”, and other things that were far more positive and far less gendered. The one that really impressed me was the guy who said “manly”, but then defined it circularly saying essentially that if a man does it, that’s manly, and there is no ‘wrong’ way to be masculine. I definitely wasn’t that insightful at age 12.
Because we had a bit of extra time, I went a bit ‘off book’ and tried to get the guys to contrast the idea of a “real man” with its implied opposite: a “fake man”. What followed was a quick chat about trans gender (again, within the confines of a gender binary, which wasn’t my preference). The guys suggested that if you’re born with female genitalia, you’re a woman, and that trans men are not ‘real’ men. I pushed back on that, saying that the trans* people in my life would definitely disagree with that idea; they would say that there is only an incidental relationship between gender and genitalia, and that inasmuch as the specific countours of a gender are defined socially, so too is the idea of gender itself. I said that based on that idea, I didn’t accept the idea that genitals determine gender. There was surprisingly little confusion or pushback. I’m not sure if they ‘got it’, but they definitely seemed willing to consider the idea seriously. I owe a debt of gratitude to the trans voices in my life for giving me the language and conceptual grounding to feel comfortable having a conversation like that, particularly Natalie Reed, whose writing and thinking have informed my own monumentally.
I think my biggest failure yesterday was in failing to spend sufficient time on discussing how we “police” masculinity, and where the pressure to conform can be very harmful. I also would have liked to see us talk about how to put some of the things they suggested into action, particularly in the context of our relationships with women. What does it look like to be “kind” and “respectful” and “genuine” in our relationships with women? How do we make that happen? Under what circumstances might that be challenging? I tried to steer the conversation in that direction but again, it would have required a lot more time.
At any rate, I was surprised and pleased with how the day went, and am looking forward to next week. Only 3 more sessions to go!