Living in a university residential college the past three years, discussions regarding gender and masculinity were cemented in the college dialogue. Admittedly, without a strong community culture and understanding of acceptable behaviour, a college environment can be a breeding ground for harmful gendered attitudes; think 200 young people living in close quarters, without the pressures of the parental gaze, and then throw in some (or sometimes a lot) of alcohol for good measure. My college experience, for the most part, was incredibly positive. However, Dr Michael Flood’s recent report on masculinities and health has touched on a sentiment that I, along with many of my female friends, have felt in a college context – how can seemingly progressive-minded males also endorse behaviours associated with traditional masculinity?
What does it mean to be a man?
Societal gender norms have overtime progressed for the better. According to the report, this change has come with greater and much needed recognition that gender roles are socially constructed and must be opened up to promote better health and wellbeing for males. It is also promising that much of this forward thinking is led by young men (aged 16-17), who are generally more comfortable than older men with ideas of traditional gender roles being limiting and outdated. But my concerns are not abated.
With the rise of the #MeToo movement and historic events, such as Kamala Harris becoming the first female US vice-president-elect, pervading our media outlets, gender equity and female empowerment have been at the forefront of the public consciousness in recent years. In a college setting, many a seminar, working group and private discussion have been dedicated to gendered attitudes and healthy relationships. Now more than ever are young people being educated on the damaging implications of traditional gender stereotypes. Although there is still much progress to be made, rejection of traditional masculinity is not a revelation. Therefore, the attitudes and behaviours of young men when there is no accountability mechanism in place can be unsettling.
What happens behind closed doors?
Despite being surrounded by this discussion of traditional masculinity, I have seen male attitudes and behaviours change when women step out of the room. Coronavirus is a prime example. Shutting universities down across the country, coronavirus removed the opportunity to establish a healthy college culture in-person. This manifested in college social media pages being dominated by male voices, and a post that objectified women gaining traction – even endorsed by the more progressive figureheads of the college. Surprisingly, standards of acceptable male behaviours in a virtual setting were different to that in real life.
I hear the exasperated cries of defeat – shouldn’t guys just know better!? I blame accountability. Behind a computer screen, the accountability created by face-to-face interactions and social settings were no longer relevant.
Explanation of this phenomenon can be somewhat identified in Flood’s report. Despite embracing more progressive notions of societal gender roles, young men also recorded the highest levels of support for men’s use of violence, homophobia, breadwinner roles and control in relationships. Flood suggests that this may be a result of the significant pressure felt by young men among male peers to prove themselves. When these attitudes are carried on from high school into a college setting, without strong role models to encourage change – that’s where the problem arises.
Thus, a paradox presents itself. Guys know not to subscribe to traditional masculinity. But, in an environment fuelled by testosterone away from the public eye, toxic masculinity can start to rear its ugly head.
It’s time to step up
Witnessing a strong resistance on the part of males in such instances to speak out against their mates, in an effort to maintain image, the onus often falls on females to point out the problem. In regard to eradicating traditional ideas of masculinity, women are leading the fight – consistently showing more progressive attitudes than their male counterparts in Flood’s survey. Without male intervention, we are leaving those who are often at the receiving end of harmful gendered attitudes to change them. It’s unfair, and sometimes can receive unwarranted backlash.
There is fear associated with being labelled a feminazi. That efforts to clean up messes created by males will viewed as a direct attack. As shown in Flood’s research, anti-feminist statements, such as: “The focus these days on harmful masculinity is part of a feminist war on men”, received overall agreement by male respondents. Truthfully, I even felt some hesitance writing this piece. But I also think we’ve got a lot to thank for the work of the angry feminists of our past and current day.
Flood’s report contributes to a body of research dedicated to promoting healthy masculinity, and brings to light some pretty positive developments regarding gender roles and stereotypes. What is now needed, is to close the gender gap. For males to take greater accountability in addressing internalised attitudes associated with traditional gender stereotypes and be more willing to champion healthy masculinity in the company of mates.
Erin Ronge is a third-year Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Science student with a keen interest in writing and journalism. Erin was previously a youth journalist for the Under Age.
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