Beards, muscles, cars, sexual dominance, handshakes, tie knots, commanding voices and fists. These are a few of the many symbols of masculinity. Beards imply the kind of toughness that is synonymous with people like Sean Connery and Chuck Norris.
Muscles signify literal strength and the ability to show them off. Cars represent economic status over other males. Sexual dominance not only conjectures competition with fellow males, but also dominance over females. The list goes on.
From birth, we as males are taught to strive for these things. Whether it is by word of mouth from our parents, relatives and siblings, or through the consumption of media, we see masculinity and we want it.
Even in Disney movies like “Mulan,” one of the catchiest songs, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” states that a man must be “swift as a coursing river,” “with all the force of a great typhoon,” possess all “the strength of the raising fire” and last, “mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”
Despite it being a Disney song packed with moral lessons, it too has implications related to masculinity. Being swift, strong and mysterious are not inherently negative qualities, but they do present problems for men. Social constructs and stereotypes place us in boxes related to our races, religions, genders and more.
The song lyrics above describe the masculine category. Men must be strong; they must be tough and athletic.
However, the manifestation of males at the University goes farther.
“I’m wearing green pants right now,” says senior Matt Iverson.
One of the most common observations of this campus is students’ sense of fashion. Senior Matt Kaehler says he changed his clothing upon arrival at the University.
“I never wore Polo before I got here,” he says.
Thus, while masculinity is not traditionally defined by one’s clothing, at the University, clothing provides a medium to express one’s masculinity and confidence via brand names. Moreover, the aspect of wealth comes into play when designer names like Vineyard Vines, Burberry, J. Crew and Brooks Brothers become linked with the status of being a male here at the University.
Sophomore Josh Beltran says, “The guys that are the alpha males seem like they have something to prove.”
Lots of men feel they have to prove themselves and validate their masculinity by behaving a certain way or joining certain organizations.
Moreover, men are socialized to be unemotional which means being emotional is associated with femininity.
“A lot of the activities I’m involved in are predominantly female,” says Kaehler. “With women, there’s no intimidation, and I’m not afraid to say anything and have more emotional or spiritual conversation and have those deeper connections.”
Similarly, some men prefer to confide in their female significant others. This suggests fear and reserve about talking to other males about sensitive topics. More specifically, for men, the act of crying, or being vulnerable and sensitive is associated with being weak.
Iverson’s fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa, experienced the death of their brother, Billy Zimmermann, last March.
“I’ve never cried so many times,” he says. “All of us came together over his death.”
Depending on one’s circumstances, guys have the capacity to talk about sensitive topics, but if they are going to showcase their emotions, other males doing the same must surround them. And when men cry, the magnitude of the circumstance is generally traumatic.
While this certainly sheds light on a positive instance of male-to-male communication, it is also disheartening. If guys usually think that they cannot be vulnerable around their male friends, then they are not going to have more meaningful conversations. In my opinion, men do things together to bond and pass the time. Whether it is watching a football game, going hunting or fishing, their interactions are generally based on activity and not conversation concerning their deepest sentiments.
Still, when a male’s sense of masculinity is questioned or insulted, it is quite demoralizing.
“It’s your core, your primal brain and you don’t want to be challenged and it hits you really deep,” Iverson says. If someone is not man enough, then often it means that this person has nothing in common with the dominant narratives of masculinity. Additionally, it means that you socialize with a different crowd or participate in activities less often associated with masculinity.
“I am a male nurse,” Beltran says. “Often times, I feel like I have to be defensive about it when there’s really no need for me to do it. But since I am a nurse, I was not able to make as many guy friends and being in a fraternity gave me the opportunity to meet other guys.”
Whether it is being a male nurse, or being in the band, or doing anything that is generally not associated with masculinity, males often feel they need something to validate their masculinity in addition to providing a sense of brotherhood. Plus, even men who portray themselves as hyper-masculine need to continue to maintain and authenticate their masculinity.
Sadly for some, the confidence and substantiation may be a disguise.
“Guys have this need to feel superior and confident,” Kaehler says. “And they express that superiority and confidence all the time, whether it’s walking through campus or in class. Maybe some of these people are actually confident, but I feel like a lot of it is a show.”
Whether or not it is a spectacle depends on each individual. Nevertheless, it is problematic, because men describe being a man as being confident or resilient or tough. Does that mean their female counterparts are the opposite?
As men, we are given a certain set of expectations to fulfill. But we need not fulfill all those expectations. If we are confined to beards, muscles and cars, we exhaust ourselves in trying to be one thing instead of everything. The definition of a man ought to be limitless, as should any other social construct. If being masculine at the University is synonymous with loud clothing, working out, exuding confidence and even one’s wealth, where does everyone else fit in?
Sam Ellison is a senior political science and communication major. If you would like to know more about the series of upcoming articles this semester, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.