BY DONNA NEBENZAHL | Montreal Gazette| January 28, 2012
“Talking about stuff in a meaningful, considered way has always been associated with femininity – traits like caring and sensitivity that many men are taught to eschew.”
That’s the thesis that binds many academics in the new area of masculinity studies, who say their examination of how the culture of maleness impacts men, rather than those around them, has been a long time coming. While women’s studies have been gaining a foothold at universities across the country since the early 1970s, academic courses and research on men could barely be found, most often hidden under the umbrella of gender studies.
Now, however, researchers who focus on the study of men and masculinity are coming out of the cold. They are the vanguard, whose theories are often used in newspaper and magazine stories about how men are faring. “Clearly it’s at a very nascent stage in its development, in the humanities and social sciences,” says Concordia University sociologist Marc Lafrance, who teaches about men and masculinity as part of several courses on gender and sexuality.
But even though there are just a few courses in masculinity studies given at the university level across Canada, and no departments of men’s or masculinity studies, Lafrance, 35, says that since arriving at Concordia in 2006 after completing a PhD at Oxford, “I went from supervising nothing on masculinity over my first two years to supervising four students and then five and now, we’re waiting to hear about the status of three new applications in our graduate program in the upcoming year.”
And more and more research is being published in Canada. At the University of Western Ontario, for instance, anthropologist Wayne Martino has recently completed extensive work on masculinity, gender and role modelling; Christine Ramsey, a media studies professor at the University of Regina is editor of Making It Like a Man: Canadian Masculinities in Practice; while Lafrance will be contributing to an upcoming volume, Canadian Men and Masculinities: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.
The push to study masculinity might be viewed as a logical extension of women’s studies, which examine the problems of gender and the social construction of sexuality mostly from a female perspective. In addition, there’s the “masculinity crisis” widely discussed today, males under pressure from societal changes.
“These two things together have created a fertile context for study, and we’re starting to see concrete evidence that this is becoming a full-fledged area of inquiry,” Lafrance says. But rather than looking only at men’s behaviour through the tired lens of their power and destructiveness, he believes we need to look at how masculinity “as a structure, as a lived experience, can also be fundamentally disempowering to men.”
The aggressive arena of men’s sports and its connection to serious emotional damage is being studied by sociology graduate student Cheryl MacDonald, 24, who interviewed a number of major junior hockey players about what masculinity means to them.
“I find that hockey players are socialized to adhere to more traditional forms of masculinity, being very tough and competitive, and sometimes those practices become more problematic – men committing suicide, drugs and alcohol, and those head shots,” MacDonald says.
The research attempts to understand how these “masculine” behaviours are linked to the way in which young men are socialized, how they express their values.
MacDonald began considering men’s studies when she took an undergraduate course with sociologist Anthony Synnott, who discussed the importance of studying both genders. “In my undergraduate experience in sociology, a lot of courses on women and even courses about gender focused on women and not much on men,” she says.
Synnott, who has been teaching a course on the Sociology of Men for 10 years, wrote the 2009 book, Redefining Men: Heroes, Victims and Villains, and currently writes a column on men for Psychology Today. He believes that the rallying cry of “male chauvinist pig” has ignored important realities that men face. “Men dominate at the top and also the bottom,” he points out. “The vast majority in prisons, victims of accidents, victims of work fatalities, 99 per cent of military fatalities – are all male.”
Men, argue McGill University professor Paul Nathanson and his colleague Katherine Young, suffer from the myth that they are the gender with the power and therefore cannot be damaged by criticism and ridicule. The physical, political and economic power that a small percentage of men do wield renders women, they believe, “either unwilling or unable to see men as fully human beings, people who can indeed be hurt both individually and collectively.”
Nathanson and Young have written five books chronicling the rise of misandry, the hatred of men, which they view as a culture war being fought because of the feminist activism that led to the changed role of men.
But Lafrance and many of his colleagues are eager to avoid setting men and masculinity studies up against women’s studies. “We need to figure out what it is about masculinity in our culture that is oppressive not just to women, but to men,” he says.
“Since the 1960s and ’70s, the push was issues relating to the lives and experiences and injustices faced by women. In my view, it was totally appropriate that this kind of scholarship should have taken centre stage, mainly because those forms of knowledge had been silenced for so long.”
At this point, he considers it counterproductive for theorists of men and masculinity to “organize our analysis around who has more power and who’s in more trouble. There’s evidence to suggest men have lots to deal with but it’s also true about women who confront injustice on a daily basis.”
Only by looking at the issues contextually can you understand where the gender balance really lies, Lafrance says.
“There’s lots of anti-male stuff out there and anti-female stuff,” Synnott agrees, “and a lot of people are badly hurt by men versus women. We should be noting the glory of female and male achievements.”
These scholars note an increasing restlessness in the academic community over the last decade, a need to shift the gaze to focus on men.
Acknowledging “there’s sometimes a sense that we’re trying to re-appropriate centre stage for the straight white guy,” Lafrance points out that in much of the ongoing study claiming to be about women’s experiences, there will be reference after reference to men, about their bodies, desires, behaviour – without any real theories being put forward.
What this means is that “men constitute a present absence around the work that’s going on in the university,” Lafrance says. “There are assumptions about men in gender studies, but men themselves aren’t being seen as a legitimate object of inquiry.”
Never has an understanding of masculinity been more urgent, because the stereotype macho man is not going to survive very long if he doesn’t adapt, Lafrance believes. “The irony is the dominant norms of masculinity, what the academics call hegemonic masculinity – the breadwinner, the guy who never gets scared, the guy who is extremely successful – really make for an unlivable life for men.
“These structures distance men from themselves,” he says. “You can’t be a person who can feel, you can’t be weak, you’re not allowed to be sad, to fail.”
Although he discusses issues of masculinity with male friends, and many are actively thinking about their roles as men, one of the reasons there’s no coherent movement around this rethinking is precisely because talking is so taboo among men, Lafrance says. “Talking about stuff in a meaningful, considered way has always been associated with femininity – traits like caring and sensitivity that many men are taught to eschew.
“One of the key challenges is going to be how you form a movement when dealing with a part of the population systematically taught not to talk.” [Male Matters: They've especially been taught not to talk about gender issues!]
Undergraduate courses on men and masculinity still attract slightly more women than men, but the majority of graduate students are men, Lafrance notes.
In doing her graduate research, MacDonald has certainly come up against a code of silence among the hockey players she has interviewed. “When asked about something like hazing, it’s really hard to break through,” she says. “The coach would say everything’s fine and we’re all best friends, but there are players who are struggling with the common rituals of the sport and tell me about the darker side of hazing and competition.”
After 14 interviews and 20 surveys, she has concluded that the code of silence prevailed in her research. “It seemed that half of the people I spoke to gave me the same story about how great things are and the other half told stories about what they are able to get away with.
“We can’t really solve any of these problems of masculinity and hockey if people aren’t going to speak out.”
But even in the classroom, Lafrance says, “my female students are more than happy to talk about these issues, but the men are silent.
“Men are not talking – especially not with other men. Just talking about masculinity, acknowledging there’s something to talk about, seems to transgress the conventions of our society.”
But when you understand how power functions, the context in which men operate, you realize it’s no way to live, he says. “It’s a model of masculinity built on competition, success at all costs, it’s emotionally empty and ruthless and focuses on a need to be constantly invulnerable.”
Men have got to realize, he says, that their silence reinforces the social structures. “If we can get men to feel that their lives don’t need to correspond to this mythic machismo, that will open them up to life experiences.”
This burgeoning field of study is ripe to make that case, these academics believe, and is an opportunity for dialogue between women’s studies and men’s studies. While there is still considerably more emphasis placed on women’s studies, there are more and more conferences focusing on men’s studies and even at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Lafrance says, “I don’t find any resistance to thinking critically about men and masculinity.”
But more research is needed and he and colleague Synnott are discussing an innovative idea: the creation of a centre for the study of men and masculinity.
Synnott says he believes the models of gender are slowly shifting. There was the “romantic model in which we become a couple, the patriarchy model characterized by unequal rights and the feminist model of female superiority,” he says.
“Now we have the postmodern model in which gender is completely irrelevant.”