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History, Evolution and Meaning of Masculinity

The Morning Show
  • Sep 17, 2014
  • 01:42:20

RAISING BOYS TO BE WALK LIKE MEN “There’s a lot coming at boys today,” says therapist and BYU professor Mark Ogletree. “ There are challenges because of the culture we’ve created with busy-ness, the media they’re saturated in, the fact that dads are not as much as part of their son’s lives – either they travel a lot or they’re just absent.” Ogletree thinks back to his childhood growing up in Texas: “We had a lot of free time. We had a lot of time to be outdoors and do outdoorsy things. Today time is so structured with our boys.” That structure comes from peer and societal pressure to have successful, high-achieving boys, says Ogletree. But on the education front, it’s not working. Boys are performing worse in school, dropping out at higher rates. Girls outnumber boys two to one in the National Honor Society.   “When boys are active and rambunctious, we medicate them,” laments Ogletree. The media is a primary culprit of the assault on boys in America, he says. Boys spend an average of 7 hours a day on media – playing video games, watching TV, etc.  The media message to boys is that to be a “real man you have to bench press 300 pounds and drink alcohol and have a lot of women,” says Ogletree. “You have to have candid conversations about what your sons are seeing in the media – in pro sports, in films,” says Ogletree.  “For example, if your son aspires to play pro-sports, Ogletree says it’s good to teach him to ‘dream big,’ but at the same time, they have to know the reality they’re getting into – the money, prestige, rule and law-breaking of the industry. Again, candid conversations.” “One of the main things boys need is time,” says Ogletree.  “Families need unstructured, sacred time together. Time to just be in the present, be spontaneous.” HOLLYWOOD’S TAKE ON MENSAVING A UGANDAN FOREST WITH CELL PHONES “Hollywood is all about stereotypes,” says Rod Gustafson of Parent Previews.  He and Kerry Bennett have noticed two main ones: the male antagonist who is womanizing and aggressive, or the dumb, silly guy.   “We don’t see much in the middle – a more nuanced approach to masculinity – that succeeds at the box office,” notes Bennett. That may be because Americans want stereotypical entertainment, or it may be because movie studios struggle to build an exciting marketing campaign around a more subtle portrayal of masculinity.  Bennett points to the 2005 film “Cinderella Man” starring Russell Crowe as an example of Hollywood getting it right about manhood. The main character is motivated to return to the ring as a retired boxer because he needs to feed his family.  Gustafson likes the portrayal of masculinity in the current film “When the Game Stands Tall,” which teaches boys “to talk about and deal with their feelings. Unfortunately it’s not doing well at the box office.” CHANGING VIEWS OF MASCULINITY IN AMERICA There have always been competing ideas of masculinity, says Michael Kimmel, sociologist at Stony Brook University of New York and author of multiple books on the subject, including “Manhood: A Cultural History.” Kimmel identifies two models of manhood in the late 18th Century: First was the landed patrician and involved father (think of Thomas Jefferson). It was based on the old British aristocratic model of men.  A second model was the “virtuous toiler” and urban craftsman.  In 19th century, the “self-made man” emerges in America, with Henry Clay declaring on the floor of Congress, “We are a nation of self-made men.” Kimmel says this became the dominant idea of masculinity in the U.S. from the 1830s on.  Who drives these messages of what it means to be a man? Kimmel says it’s other men. In workshops he gives around the country, he asks men what it means to be a man. “They list all of these characteristics of a man’s man – they want to be a man in the minds of men. When I ask where they got these ideas, it’s usually fathers, first, followed by coaches, male friends and older brothers. Women, such as mothers, sisters and girlfriends, don’t come in until at least fifth on the list.” Consider the difference between Fabio and Arnold Schwarzenegger, says Kimmel. Which would men rather be? Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, even though Fabio’s physique is equally impressive. “Being a man among men is a powerful idea for men.” Kimmel says today Americans use gender to talk about race, sexuality and religion. Whether it’s gay men or Muslims, Kimmel notes there’s an underlying message that “we’re the real men, they’re not.”  He identifies an emerging trend among men in the U.S. is the inclination to feel entitled and to blame women or minorities for stealing their rightful jobs and opportunities.  Kimmel discusses this at length in his latest book “Angry White Men.” Even so, Kimmel says he’s encouraged that young men today consider women their equals far more than ever before. He predicts that will have a positive impact on society. “I am optimistic this young generation will be more accustomed to, and acquainted with, greater gender equality than anywhere else in the world.” AMERICAN CRISES OF MASCULINITY Crises of masculinity in America are cyclical, says BYU History professor Grant Madsen. He points to the last time there was a major crisis of manhood in the U.S. at the end of 19th century, beginning of 20th century.  “Teddy Roosevelt is the symbol of the last crisis of manhood,” says Madsen. “In many ways, Roosevelt tried to embody a new masculinity throughout his life – the strenuous life, he called it, pursuing difficult physical experiences: exploring the Amazon, enlisting in the army to fight the Spaniards.”  The Spanish-American War is a puzzling one, says Madsen. “There was no really profound reason for Americans to get involved in it,” leading historians to speculate it was very much tied to Teddy Roosevelt’s desire to assert strength and power and the emerging view of masculinity as aggression. Madsen says a crisis in masculinity generally follows two things: (1) a change in the nature of work that requires a revision of gender roles, and (2) a wave of feminism.  The last crisis of manhood in America was prompted by the Industrial revolution, the suffrage movement and prohibition, says Madsen. The current crisis of manhood in America comes on the heels of the modern feminist movement  and a period of economic disruption that has changed gender roles in the workplace. It’s not necessarily a backlash against feminism, it’s a recalibration of roles, explains Madsen.  “Men and women are always rebalancing roles, but there are times of punctuated equilibrium.” TANGLED HISTORY OF BEARDS We tend to think about manhood and womanhood in “timeless ways,” but they do change over time and “beard fashion is caught up in that,” says PennState PhD candidate Sean Trainor, who researches and writes extensively on the history of facial hair.  “The great beard debates,” dominated social discussion about facial hair in the 1840s and 1850s, says Trainor. At the time, well-groomed facial hair was called “whiskers” and more unruly hair was described as a “beard.” “Fashionable men in cities who went to barbers for grooming wore ‘whiskers,’” says Trainor. “Men who wanted to position themselves as manly, rugged and frontiers-y would wear what were considered beards at the time.”  What does the resurgence of beards today among “hipsters” signal? Trainor says he’s hesitant to equate modern beard culture with that of the 19th century, but, “at the very least, we can say folks who favor the beard fashion today, often look at the crazy and colorful facial hair stylings of the 19th century and maybe trying to emulate that whimsy.” Aside from the symbolism of the beard, Trainor says historical conversations about beards were caught up with conversations about medicine. Medical experts said men could wear beards to filter out particulates that would cause respiratory disease or ward off flu and throat infections.  Technological advancements in razors and lobbying by barbering trade groups led to a decline in beards among American men at the turn of the 20th century.   “The idea of manhood lives on, but beards as a symbol of it got jettisoned,” says Trainor. MEN WHO LIKE MY LITTLE PONY Some 10,000 people attended this year’s BronyCon in Baltimore – a convention dedicated to male fans of the most recent reimagining of the cartoon “My Little Pony.”  Contrary to stereotypes, psychological studies show that “Bronies” are generally straight men in their 20s who genuinely like the show for its content.   “I support the show, it’s writers, it’s animators and I support more importantly the ideals this show promotes about friendship, optimism, having a good opinion of the world and looking for the good in people,” says David Halladay, president of the BYU Brony Club. Some critics have said the Brony movement subverts a show for young girls. But Bronies will tell you they genuinely enjoy the characters and animation of the series and that it has nothing to do with their sexuality or identity as men.  “Traditionally masculinity is defined as what it’s not – ‘I’m not weak, gay or feminine,’” explains BYU Comparative Studies Graduate student Rachel Meyers, who wrote her thesis on the Brony phenomenon. “In My Little Pony, the Bronies are latching on to the positive, simple moralizing of the show, about how to be nice to people and make friends. They’re trying to define their own masculinity in a more positive sense, saying ‘You don’t have to be tough and unemotional as a man. You can be emotional and create genuine friendships.’” When Meyers presented her Brony research at a BYU conference, she says responses were varied. But she says the most interesting was when she was approached by a high school football coach who said, “This is really important. I work with teenage boys all day long and this is so important. This definition of masculinity and what it needs to be is so important.” Show More...

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