Boys will be boys?

From misogyny to vulnerable masculinity

Donald Trump’s blatant misogyny has been catalyzing a shift in how we accept or reject perceptions of masculinity. This is especially evident since the release of the now infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump brags about sexually assaulting women to TV personality Billy Bush. This tape may be inspiring some men to dialogue about how culturally embedded -and situationally mandatory- male stereotypes fail to reflect the sort of men they are or want to be.

Conversely, Trump’s cartoonish presentation of the male self, and the legions of predominantly white men supporting him, could also be a reaction to the threat of this shift taking place.

In either case, we’re beginning to openly question “an acceptance of sexist talk, degrading talk, as that’s just how guys talk,” as educator and speaker Jackson Katz said in an interview with Maria Shriver. We’re also discussing the idea that “the drive to dominate is what makes an American man a “man,” as sociologist C.J. Pascoe says. While this movement has been growing since the 1970s (when some men took a stand against sexism in contemporary social movements), it’s apparent that the Trump Effect is inextricably caught up in expediting this shift. Not only that, Trump’s brand of sexism has been catapulting masculinity into a spotlight of critical investigation and feminist critique.

On the Media

We’ve certainly been inundated with entertainment media that glorifies two dimensional masculinity, often within the trope of a male hero’s violence for the sake of reclaiming stolen property, e.g. his pride, his wife, his child, etc. (think Duke Nuke’em 3D, Max Payne, or Taken). However, we’re now seeing films like American Male, directed by Michael Rohrbaugh, which takes a raw look at the ideals of masculinity in the U.S. today. The six minute film reveals how compulsory heterosexuality, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny are socially taught. The film’s protagonist, a young white man is seen abusing steroids to achieve a distorted body-type ideal, exploiting women’s sexuality to get closer to a man he secretly desires, and exerting raging violence against a new recruit in his male peer culture who fails to abide by the dominant masculine code. The protagonist layers these actions to create a shield against what is clearly his greatest anxiety: that the charade of masculinity he so ardently endeavors to prove will be exposed as just that, a charade.

While, on the one side, we still overwhelmingly seem to find romantic or family comedies (similar to Knocked Up or Failure to Launch) that display men as incapable parents or inept romantic partners. On the other, we’ve also been maintaining public dialogues that challenge the validation of “boys will be boys” as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. For example, there has been serious outcry since Melania Trump sought to lessen the blow of the 2005 tape by calling her husband a child; she told CNN that she sometimes feels she has “two boys at home — I have my young son, and I have my husband.”

This dispute continues not only in media and entertainment, but also in the household. Conflicted about his own son growing up to embody harmful masculine norms, author Andrew Reiner and his wife plan to reject antiquated standards of masculinity in their family. The lamentable repercussion, according to the author, is that their “boy’s going to be raised to feel and express his vulnerability. That’s a curse in this culture.” He goes on to say that “[O]ur son’s masculine identity would compete with such cultural norms as…a sports and gaming culture that exalt alpha domination (and aggressive male reflexes); and a tight lipped John Wayne ethos that breeds alienation and, too often, depression.”

In the Academia

Although many men most likely don’t want to be defined or limited by masculine norms like those exalted in films, video games, and common discourse, research indicates that social or institutional permission is sometimes necessary to break away from the herd. For example, language that promotes men valuing women’s sexual agency was first institutionalized in 1993 when college activists in Ohio advocated for the first “Yes means yes” policy. Change takes time, however, and the idea of seeking permission at each stage of sexual intimacy with a partner was not widely integrated into common discourse until 2012, when the FBI updated its definition of sexual assault.

While rejection of sexism has been circulating since the 1970s, Trump is presenting such an extreme of male stereotypes that he is inadvertently providing social permission to challenge and change dominant masculinity. Via Trump, we’re finding the means to publicly and broadly break away from a sheep-like mentality of condoning men’s -conscious or unconscious- sense of entitlement to power and to women’s bodies. I will add of course that Trump masculinity as a catalyst for men’s feminist re-awakening is likely no one’s idea of an ideal mechanism for change. Most significantly, Trump’s presence on the media is re-traumatizing survivors of sexual assault, in addition to serving as an embarrassment to the intelligence of U.S. politics.

Out and about (and quite close to you)

The conversation on masculinity and gender norms circulating across-the-board now, nevertheless, demonstrates a lower tolerance for silence or awkward laughter, for example, in the face of inappropriate male behavior. In the Access Hollywood video, Billy Bush, who clearly backs down in response to Trump’s more outrageous bravado, laughs awkwardly and makes sexist statements to show compliance with Trump’s boasting; whoever else is on the bus remains silent.

This scene speaks volumes about the norms in our culture, and the great potential for change. After the video was released, a fraternity member at the University of Florida found himself reflecting that his fraternity’s conversations “would probably sound worse than the Access Hollywood tape.” While young men everywhere have played the roles of Bush, Trump, and/or the anonymous bystander and will certainly not be held accountable for it via international scrutiny, the shifting nature in how we respond to normalized male behavior has them recognizing, and talking about, their own participation and/or collusion. Thankfully, we’re no longer just talking about intervening when an assault is happening; rather we’re addressing the culture of behaviors, attitudes, and systems that escalate to rape and maintain a hierarchy of alpha dominance amongst men and over feminized others – behaviours also known as rape culture.

As challenging misogyny continues to take hold as a norm, we are bound to see dominant perceptions of masculinity shift more broadly and visibly into a new chapter in U.S. cultural history, one in which figures of monstrous over-conformity to masculine stereotypes will no longer garner a following. Rather, men like the American Male character will break out of the suffocating charade and boys like Andrew Reiner’s son will not be cursed due to their developed capacity for vulnerability. In this up-and-coming era, it’s not just that colluding with misogyny, male entitlement, and violence will become increasingly unthinkable; what’s going to be really exciting is witnessing and participating in the emergence of vulnerable masculinity as a cultural norm.

Amanda Pickett

Amanda Pickett is an American gender specialist in Boston and administrator for Voice Male, a pro-feminist magazine chronicling masculinities today. Amanda promotes and advances spaces of men’s engagement in gender equality that set in motion men’s “aha” moment. By this she means the moment(s) it becomes clear that a) gender inequality is a pervasive and complex social problem, b) we are NOT ALONE in our discomfort with, and eagerness to change, gender inequality, and c) we CAN do something. She holds a master's in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College and has worked with Merge for Equality, Inc.
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  • Brits opt out of human rights obligations
    15 November 2016 at 3:13 pm
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