Some of the first words that we hear after emerging from the womb are “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” This inevitably leads to blue or pink blankets, bibs, nursery rooms. But what does the assignment of a male gender mean?
40 or 50 years ago, the answer was much simpler; it meant dominance, strength and power. Now, the definition has changed to mean much more. We live in a time where equality on all levels is the new frontier to be reached, specifically gender equality.
This progression toward equality spits out different versions of masculinity, and caught in the crossfire are young boys. Stony Brook has begun to explore this progression with the new introduction of the Center for Men and Masculinities, which now offers students a masters degree in masculinities studies.
Markus Gerke, a doctoral student in the masculinities department, explained that there are so many different versions of masculinity in today’s world, and some versions are ‘healthier’ than others. The thing about a concept like masculinity is “ how I experience masculinity is different than someone else,” Gerke explained. Lots of factors play into one’s definition of ‘masculine’ like race, class, religion and others.
Since it is so personalized, how do we get several ‘generic’ versions of masculinity? Simply put, society works off of the templates from the past. Decades ago, the stereotypical man was the breadwinner of the family, physically strong, aggressive, and dominating in all aspects of his life. As much as things are changing today, these ideas still flow in and out of the minds of young boys.
The result of this hyper masculinity can be damaging to boys and men in many ways. On a smaller scale, Gerke gave the example of boys and school achievement. On average, boys have proven to be weaker readers than girls. The influence is not biological but societal. “These dominating forms of masculinity create ideas that separate certain activities by gender.” Gerke continued, “Boys are expected to play outside and roughhouse while reading is seen as a more feminine activity.” All in all, the influence is impeding young boys from reading by giving them the mindset that it is a ‘girly’ activity.
On a larger scale, Gerke explained how men’s life expectancy is lower than women’s. Once again, this is not inherently biological but stems from societal influence as well. “Men are encouraged to live up to this hyper masculine behavior which puts them at risk: driving fast, aggressive behavior, not seeking medical assistance, etc.” These versions of masculinity are what are unhealthy to men and young boys, both physically and societally.
Now, in 2015, we are seeing the rise of healthier forms of masculinity and much more tolerance and acceptance. “A couple of years ago I don’t think many women and men would be so confident as they are now to call themselves feminists.” Gerke says he can see the progression forward and away from the more dominating forms of masculinity. These newer, healthier influences are found everywhere from home life to school and even the media. Something as simple as kids TV shows are pushing more tolerant and gender equal ideas for their young viewers.
As a whole, Gerke explained that he believes the rest of the world is moving in the same direction as the U.S, in fact, there are several countries in Europe that are ahead of us in terms of gender equality, which we could use as examples. “Scandinavia offers both parents of newborns paid parental leave,” Gerke pointed out, explaining that this reaffirms the notion that women are not the only important figures in the child rearing process.
Masculinity and its influences doesn’t come in a big bright package so that they’re easily recognized. It comes in the little everyday interactions boys and girls have with each other and with the word around them. We are shifting our perspective; no longer are we trying to raise boys into men. We’re just raising independent people.
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