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One Class, One Day: Are You Man Enough? (And What Does That Mean?)

American Masculinities probes a fluid concept

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Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Being masculine means more than owning a penis.

That’s among the takeaways in Barbara Gottfried’s American Masculinities class, a sociological exploration of the nature of masculinity, or as the plural name suggests, our many different notions of masculinity.

“We argue exactly that it’s not at all biological, that it’s a social construct, and that you are constantly learning gender from practically day one of being born,” says Gottfried (CAS’74), a College of Arts & Sciences instructor and codirector of undergraduate studies in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Notions of masculinity are fluid, she adds, and what’s seen as the ideal male in America has changed over time and varies between regions of the country.

During one class in the WGS course, Gottfried leads a discussion of evolving views of that infamous brand of male, the nerd. Once a pejorative, the word has become, in our internet-dominated era, something of a badge of masculine competence and success. The change can be seen as Gottfried goes around the room, asking students for adjectives describing nerds.

“I date a lot of nerds,” one woman says. “They’re very willing to let someone else take control.” Another agrees, using the descriptor “insecure.” But a third disagrees, arguing alpha males’ bluster can be a cover for insecurity, too. Gottfried reminds her students that one academic article on the syllabus argues that nerds are redefining “hegemonic masculinity,” the culture’s idea of the dominant form of manhood.

While New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is no one’s notion of nerdy, Gottfried suggests that his idiosyncratic, largely vegetarian diet would have raised eyebrows in previous times: “If food has a gender, Brady is not eating in a masculine way. He doesn’t eat steak.”

Whether Tom Brady—treating himself to a rare drumstick after winning February’s Super Bowl—eats a manly diet was a subject that came up in a BU course exploring America’s many notions of masculinity.

Whether Tom Brady—treating himself to a rare drumstick after winning February’s Super Bowl—eats a manly diet was a subject that came up in a BU course exploring America’s many notions of masculinity. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Students disagree, citing Brady’s strong-and-silent-type discipline—“the ultimate masculine male,” one says—and the fact that his diet is designed to further athletic excellence, a very masculine pursuit.

“OK, he’s the ultimate alpha,” Gottfried cheerfully concedes.

The most noticeable thing in this class on masculinity is that of the two dozen students, only three are men. “There are just not a lot of guys in the gender studies program in general,” says Sage Russell (CAS’17), one of the three. “A lot of people associate it as women’s studies, and so a lot of guys don’t feel like that’s either a thing for them or a thing that they’re interested in.”

He and Safi Aziz (Questrom’17) are perfectly comfortable being isolated representatives of their gender in the class. Gottfried “does a really, really good job of making us feel included,” Aziz says. “We’ll often point out that we are the only men, but ask us about our experience in a certain subject we might be studying, and we might have a take on it in a way one of our female classmates can’t.”

Gottfried’s class “was the main reason why I came to BU on exchange,” says Hannah Haw, a junior exchange student. In her home country of Singapore, “you don’t hear of a masculinities class,” she says, noting that gender studies there are confined to feminism.

Anushka Pinto (CGS’15, CAS’17) took a fall class on gender and war that focused on how some male soldiers use rape to oppress women. When she heard about Gottfried’s course, she thought it would be a perfect follow-up, answering the question of “where masculinity kind of stems from, and the idea of it in society.” The class has led her to shed her biology-only definition of maleness, leading her to see “that masculinity is a performance…from males that they do to other males, to kind of compete with each other.…Whether conscious or subconscious, it’s almost like they’re wearing a mask.”

Men say the class teaches them a thing or two about themselves. “I always thought I knew what masculinity was,” says Russell. Pushed to define it academically, he admits, “I don’t know. It’s so vast and changing.…That’s one of the harder questions I’ve had to answer in my time at BU.”

The traditional American notion of masculinity, Gottfried says, is that “a guy has to be strong, he has to be autonomous, he can’t cry, you have to repress your emotions.”

She says the stereotype exalts positive traits, too, in “that sense of doing right by others, of taking care of others, of being a respected person, of following a certain ethic.…The problem is that the dark underside of masculinity is this repression of emotion, this constant policing of oneself and others to perform an appropriate masculinity, and so on. It’s just very—suffocating.”

And it reverberates in our politics. Last year, 63 million Americans installed as president a man who had boasted about sexually assaulting women, claims he later dismissed as “locker room talk.” While some male voters in interviews decried Donald Trump’s comments, the returns showed “traditional masculinity persists and is a major motivating factor for some guys,” Gottfried says.

Indeed, Americans’ view of masculinity is more inflexible than norms for women, the variations on masculinity notwithstanding, she says. “When guys are younger…they’re constantly trying to figure out where they can fit. And there’s more pressure to be masculine than for women to be feminine these days, in my opinion.

“Nobody even knows what being feminine means anymore.”

14 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

14 Comments on One Class, One Day: Are You Man Enough? (And What Does That Mean?)

  • Steve on 04.19.2017 at 8:57 am

    “A lot of people associate it as women’s studies, and so a lot of guys don’t feel like that’s either a thing for them or a thing that they’re interested in.”

    Or we want to take classes that lead to actual jobs and training and not waste thousands of dollars and time discussing theoretical social constructs.

  • Just another BU parent on 04.19.2017 at 9:43 am

    Perhaps spending “thousands of dollars and time discussing theoretical social constructs” is a wonderful way to prepare people for “actual jobs”.

  • Paul on 04.19.2017 at 9:49 am

    Steve: Universities exist to expose students to a wide range of ideas and concepts, not just to train up tomorrow’s workers. Classes like Professor Gottfried’s encourage critical thought about the power structures that exist in society, as well as the ways in which we define ourselves and one another. Becoming aware of the ways in which society shapes itself isn’t “merely” a theoretical exercise: look at our political climate today and tell me gender roles and our understanding of masculinity and femininity aren’t relevant questions in the shaping of public policy and the evolution of the workforce, never mind social justice issues. Maybe you’re looking for a one-to-one relationship between the dollars you spend on your education and the acquisition of job-related knowledge because you know where you want to go next, but as a good friend of mine told me years ago, one of the purposes of an education is to give you something to think about while you’re earning your living (“rendering unto Caesar” was his term). If you see no difference between attending university and vocational training, you’re selling yourself short – and quite possibly wasting those dollars after all.

  • Steve on 04.19.2017 at 10:40 am

    Just another BU Parent: You’re right, it will prepare them exceptionally well to be a barista at Starbucks or your local café.

    Paul: You bring up good points, but with the amount of crippling debt students are taking on it is becoming more critical that students remain cognizant of what will set them apart (fun fact: it’s not these types of classes). Secondly, you might want to tell your friend to research the biblical quote of “rendering unto Caesar” as its true meaning during its historical context is “Christians are obliged to disobey Caesar when Caesar’s dictates violate God’s law.”

    • Paul on 04.19.2017 at 1:55 pm

      I’m familiar with the Biblical passage, Steve, and so was my friend. He was much older than me, and used the reference humorously to reflect the fact that most of us have to work to survive in a material world. Just as one cannot live on “bread alone,” the realms of the mind and spirit are likewise insufficient to sustain life. Thus, working is “rendering unto Caesar” – i.e., meeting the material needs of life – but in his view and mine, that necessity needn’t impair the life of the mind or the spirit. In fact, it is frequently the liveliness of our intellect and spirit that sustains us in the face of life’s challenges. To that end, one of the goals of a liberal arts education is to prepare the mind to embrace the breadth of possibilities in the world and synthesize knowledge and experience in ways that can be applied profitably to life – and I don’t mean that just in terms of money.
      For example, my background is in the arts, yet I work in the sciences, something I certainly didn’t anticipate when I completed my B.A. 27 years ago, or my M.F.A. a few years after that. While there is plenty to be said for vocational training, not everyone knows they want to pursue a clearly-defined career path when they enter university.
      Whether they do or not, however, possessing a university degree is almost certainly going to increase lifetime earnings, and its absence has become a liability in many areas of our economy. A college or university degree doesn’t just indicate what you know, but that you are a curious, motivated, capable individual who brings a capacity for learning and growth to a workplace. No matter how well-prepared they are by school, internships, etc., nobody walks out of school and into a job with nothing left to learn. So while I understand your argument about the urgent need to turn your educational investment into earnings, I think you’re dismissing too quickly the value of classes that aren’t strictly about knowledge of the “how-to” variety. The ability to think “outside the box” is a workplace skill, and classes like the one you’re disparaging are in part about identifying some of the many boxes we live in and so often fail to see. Education is as much about cultivating healthy habits of mind as it is about imparting knowledge. Indeed, without the former, it’s harder to make good use of the latter. And who knows? Maybe that process of critical questioning will prepare your mind to one day look at a workflow at a job, ask “Why are we doing this?” and save your company a lot of money by introducing a better process.
      Just sayin’.

  • Richard Bennett on 04.19.2017 at 10:53 am

    I’ve taken courses at BU on gender roles . My impression is that females are far more comfortable with the idea that their presentation of themselves is influenced by role. Males tend to believe that their identity is “self determined”. Men are less skilled at managing presentation of self. Also,they are less savvy regarding how they are “taken”. In other words there is greater disjunction between intended social signals and the impressions they produce.

  • Richard on 04.19.2017 at 10:53 am

    Wild. This is what my father and I pay for…

  • Seriously? on 04.19.2017 at 11:50 am

    All of the revelations mentioned in the article – you need a class for that? Seriously.

  • Christian on 04.19.2017 at 1:11 pm

    It’s interesting that the people most bent out of shape at the thought of this class are men. Kind of goes to fulfill the theories of the class described in the article, no? The thought that taking a class such as this would have no impact on one’s employability is narrow-minded. A well-rounded and informed view on gender and social constructs can take a person a long way in interviews and work-place relationships. If you don’t want to take the class, don’t take the class. Just don’t bemoan those who chose to do so.

  • Bradley on 04.19.2017 at 4:54 pm

    The most infuriating part against the “self-determined,” nature of masculinity is that it simply ignores biology and mental differences between men and women. Not everything is a social construct, we evolved traits and habits such as loyalty, need to be a caretaker, and a need to be strong (you could argue that strength is more of a flexible definition), because we needed them to survive. Men are more disagreeable than women psychologically so of course they’re going to actually question someone who tells them that their biological predispositions are social constructs. The differences between sexes are in part a result of millions of years of evolution and much more complex than the ‘patriarchy’ feminists adhere to. Masculinity is not simply a social construct and its post-modernist theories like that that are plaguing the minds of already-confused liberal arts students.

  • Gilda on 04.19.2017 at 9:57 pm

    Had my daughter elected to waste my hard-earned money on such an absurd and contrived concept of “study” while at BU, I would have found my inner masculinity, despite being unapologetically female and feminine, ( I’m not in the least confused about what that means) and protested in my best attempt at alpha-male roar. And then I would have refused to pay the tuition…because that’s the only sensible thing to do. Won’t someone please stop the nonsense?

  • Lara on 04.19.2017 at 10:31 pm

    I am happy that BU is promoting a course like this, and I think the comment section here only demonstrates the dire need for critical studies of masculinity in America. The more people try to argue that men are biologically inclined to dominate, abuse, and question other people, the more it becomes obvious that there is nothing natural about patriarchy. Humans are the only “animals” that use culture – ideas, science, religion, art – to justify their beliefs. You don’t see chimpanzees coming up with scientific tests and studies trying to prove why males do or should dominate females because male dominance is natural for them. But it is not for us humans.

    I’m curious to know if the class looks at how racial and class differences among American men impacts masculinity, or many masculinities. Those who are liberal and educated often talk about intersectionality when it comes to women and feminism, but what about intersectionality, men, and masculinity?

  • Andrew Wolfe on 04.20.2017 at 12:01 pm

    It’s hard to take seriously the notion that masculinity “is not at all biological, that it’s a social construct.” This is the sort of in-your-face rejection of overt material realities that people seem to throw around. It makes BU look terrible. No discussion of differences in brain development, ongoing differences in hormone concentrations, not to mention major differences in body size and layout? Every day we walk through overt and visible biological differences among our male and female companions at BU that are consciously manifested in visible behavior, clothing, and social interactions. Despite clear intentional attempts to deconstruct the social constructs of gender throughout my thirty years of adulthood, there has been no effect. Culture, ethnicity and society do little more than frame the expression of masculinity and femininity.

  • Kayla on 04.25.2017 at 12:47 pm

    What these people in the comments fail to recognize that is ,while yes, certain traits of femininity and masculinity are natural , the thing is within both males and females there is a wide variety of traits and expressions of that.

    What society does is promote certain traits over others as its ideal. That is the construct. It’s important for everyone for the ideas we hold about femininity and masculinity to be more fluid than they currently are, because that’s just acknowledging the reality of the situation.

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