Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bill Patrick - That’s not true, is it? On (in)-effectively discussing masculine stereotypes

Interesting article from XY Online (men, masculinities and gender politics) - a bit of a mea culpa from Bill Patrick following a talk he gave on the benefits and challenges of working with men. Nice "mulligan" here. And a nice honest look at the stereotypes so many men live with every day of our lives (some consciously, most not at all conscious of the limitations these stereotypes enforce).

Patrick mentions Brannon's seminal "four pillars of masculinity." Good stuff.

That’s not true, is it? On (in)-effectively discussing masculine stereotypes.

The other day I was giving a talk about some of the benefits and challenges of working with men. I asked the group what helpful qualities men might bring to a workshop or training, and about what behaviours men might bring with them that could be problematic. My intention was to discuss the notion that men are gendered beings, and how we can best work with men whose words and actions might be endorsing some of the traditional messages about what it is that makes a man.

But our best intentions do not always become our reality. What came across to several of the listeners was that I was engaging in an exercise that was in fact reinforcing many of the stereotypes that limit men and reinforce rigid gender expectations for both women and men. Having taken some time to reflect on this issue, I’d like to take another whack at it, and hopefully this time do a better job.

Some people say that in life that there are no “do overs.” But former U.S. President Bill Clinton (who was rather famous for awarding himself “mulligans” on the golf course) certainly didn’t believe that.

A “mulligan” in golf is when you make a terrible shot, and a decision is made not to count it. You then simply take the same shot with a new ball. Proper “mulligan” etiquette would suggest that one should only award these extra tries to the other players , and not to one’s self. But as we all know, Bill Clinton was not always one to observe proper etiquette!

While I generally try not to live my life according to the former President’s code of conduct, I would like to take this opportunity to award myself not so much a Bill Clinton “mulligan,” but a Bill Patrick “do over.”

The messages that shape men. One piece that I should have made very clear (but did not) during my talk is that there exist strong societal messages about how men should behave. Certainly no men fully adhere to all of these messages all of the time, and there is immense variation in the ways that men move through life. There are also great cultural differences in how men enact masculinity. However, much research and observation suggests that these messages still influence many men’s behaviour, and may lead some men to behave in rather predictable ways. While these masculine guidelines are generally thought to be artificial social constructions, when men enact them they in fact become “real.”

Brannon’s four elements of masculinity. In 1985 Robert Brannon wrote an influential essay about the four pillars of masculinity in North American society. Although he wrote this “seminal” paper 25 years ago, when I present this information to young people, they assure me that these influences are still relevant today.

Pillar 1: Status and achievement (“the big wheel”). This is the message that men must attain great wealth, a nice house, and a fancy car. It remains a driving force in modern masculinity. One need only watch a few music videos to see this dynamic in action. Possessing all of these material things (plus a harem of available women) makes you a man.

Pillar 2: Inexpressiveness and independence (“the sturdy oak”). Men are also told that we are supposed to be stoic and to be able to go it alone. The impact of this message can be seen in some men’s failure to ask for directions. It can also be seen in many men’s failure to seek healthcare and counselling when they might need it. Men often “shrug off” ailments that in fact do call for attention and assistance.

Pillar 3: Anti-femininity (“no sissy stuff”). One of the worst insults one can call a man is a “woman.” This is true in any society that says men are better than women. In an equal society, to call a man a woman would not be an insult. It would be erroneous and confusing, but not demeaning. This demand that men not be woman-like also contributes significantly to homophobia – because to love (and be sexual with) a man has traditionally been thought by many to be the proper role only of women. Men who love other men are therefore considered to be woman-like. And any society that disparages women will also disparage these men.

Pillar 4: Adventurousness and aggressiveness (“give ‘em hell!”). The final pillar that Brannon identified was the mandate that men must be up for adventure and for a fight. The hugely popular film Fight Club depicts the struggles of men who feel emasculated by the civilized demands of modern life and seek to retain their sense of manhood through brutal bare-fisted boxing. In real life, many men do seek to gain a sense of vibrancy in our lives through adventure and aggression. This can look like pursuing extreme sports, or cheering on one’s favourite football or hockey team. But it can also manifest itself in destructive ways, such as the overly-aggressive pursuit of sexual partners, and the underuse of condoms due to a “What the hell, I’ll risk it!” attitude.

Prescriptive, not descriptive. These messages about manhood do not describe how we actually are. Rather, they attempt to tell us how we should be. They are marching orders for boys as they grow and develop into men. Most of us will not follow all of these orders. But at the same time, very few of us will be able to ignore them entirely. And sometimes this means that our behaviours and reactions are far more scripted than they are spontaneous.

For example, I typically feel that I am somehow less of a man when I suffer professional setbacks. It is totally silly for me to feel that way. It’s artificial. Yet for me, it is still real. And while I am a man who allows himself to ask for directions, I sometimes fail to ask for other forms of help when I should. This foolishness often raises its thick head when there is something heavy that needs lifting. And then I pay for my hyper-independence with a week of back pain. Perhaps one day I will learn!

And I hope too that as I continue to do this work that I will continue to learn how to do it better – and in a way that more clearly shows my purpose, which the other day was to discuss the real impacts that these strong cultural messages about masculinity have upon men’s behaviour – and not to communicate a message that reinforces the stupid and artificial limits that society uses to constrain the lives of men and women.

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