This is the second article in a series of interviews with men about masculinity – you can find the first article here – and I’m going into this one a little more intrepidly. I have received some interesting feedback from various people and I will try to order my thoughts here.
My first article did not seek to answer any questions or make any absolute statements, and this is why I avoided analysis or concluding remarks. I want the words of the men with whom I have spoken to stand for themselves. In my interviews, I had a basic framework of questions, but often the men with whom I’ve spoken went a little off-track, and I’ve enjoyed these spontaneous discussions. Therefore, a clear-cut comparison between the ‘responses’ in the men’s statements is a little problematic.
Then I also received greater criticisms to do with the circumstances of the men with whom I have spoken. In a St Andrews University magazine, I am naturally informed by the men who attend this university – although some of my interviewees are not students here – and this week’s subjects are also somewhat more diverse than last week’s. However, of course, this is a limitation. There is no question of the opinions expressed by these men as being at all representative of men in general; in many ways, I think it is more appropriate for a student magazine to aim to represent a student body. Nevertheless, I am not defending this choice, just explaining it, and would love opportunities to talk to men who do not fulfil the ‘student stereotype’.
And – of course – the greatest issue of all: why do we need to listen to men’s stories at all? Most news and history concern themselves with straight, white men – and so do these articles, largely. I am a white, middle-class man with a British passport: the world could scarcely be an easier place for me. Our stories are not ones which need to be told, or which necessarily illicit many surprises. Acknowledging this privilege does not excuse the hypocrisy. It does not justify the exclusion of experiences of women and trans people whose stories have been smothered and repressed for generations. In many ways, it is simply not good enough.
Yet – if we are going to try to find out why young men have such high suicide rates; why statistics of sexual harassment and rape is not diminishing from generation to generation and why far more men than women are in prisons, especially concerning gun crime in the USA, we need to start somewhere.
And I believe that talking to men is not a bad place to start.
[2: The Academics]
This week, in true St Andrews style, I’ve spoken with three men who I am calling the ‘Academics’. Like my first article, I have anonymised them: they will be referred to as D, E and F. They all grew up in different countries and with different family circumstances.
For D, who grew up in a large continental European city, his gender identity has a greater impact on his personality than he likes to acknowledge. He is often told by men and women alike that he does not fulfil clichés of gender, which he worries make him forget the privileges and problems which can come with being a man. In terms of how he interacts with groups of men and women, he sees himself as a confident person regardless of his gender. It is only occasionally that he ever wonders if this is affected by his masculine status, rather than separate to it.
What D finds interesting about this conversation, is that even though he has given this question thought before and acknowledged that probably his maleness does subconsciously inform his confident persona, this does not change the way he acts at all. He simply enjoys his status as a self-confident and articulate young person.
This is slightly different when D interacts with men and women who are strangers. He actively dislikes the idea of ‘chivalry’ and a man looking after or being responsible for a woman, and yet he cannot deny that he still subconsciously panders to this in certain circumstances. He believes this is unavoidable. Nevertheless, while this part of his brain might kick in when he is opening a door for a woman or in dialogue, he tries to not let it affect his interactions with women in general: he hopes that they are barely affected by gender. He avoids circumstances where he has to spend time with very manly men.
He acknowledges his father as a greater role model than his mother, and this largely has to do with intellectualism. While his mother would be the one who would organise things in the house, his father was the one with whom he talked about books, music and other artistic pursuits. He acknowledges that this probably affects how he deals with women and men today.
He believes the discourse about gender and gender relations which is now more present in society, but it is tricky to pinpoint this. For him, there are no easy answers – and there shouldn’t be. Everything needs to be constantly questioned.
E constantly referred to himself as an ‘outlier’ during our interview, self-consciously acknowledging that his answers are probably not representative of all men. This is most important in his own identity, which he believes is not at all informed by gender. He is first and foremost a human, and the important values which he sees in himself and in others have more to do with issues like politics and nationality than gender. Even this, however, he acknowledges, may come from a place of privilege – as a man, he is not reminded every day that he is a man, and is therefore free to concentrate on other things.
Despite all this, he still feels there is often something more special in his male friendships, though he has several close friends who are female. Around just men, he says he feels a certain ‘brotherhood’ and that there is less pressure and a greater ability to simply have fun. However, most of his close friendships are greater informed by longevity than by gender – and as a child, he was more likely to have male friends. Therefore, his best friends remain male.
Around strangers, he says he finds it strange when people are obsessed with a group comprising only males or only females. He does not feel uncomfortable spending time with a group of women. He believes the influence of his father may well have been important in this. E characterised his father as the opposite of an ‘alpha male’, but in his description of him told me that his father always fought for his rights. E’s father then became someone who he could be influenced by who did not fulfil masculine stereotypes. His father subverts the trend of male authority figures, which he believes informs why he often got on better with female teachers. For E, something about men in power can be difficult to deal with, partly because of this idea of the ‘alpha male’.
In terms of the way he treats women, E believes that personal, formative experiences will always be much more important than anything in the news. A ‘movement’ like #MeToo can be powerful but becomes impersonal. The way E thinks about women is far more informed by his personal conversations and interactions than by Twitter hashtags from celebrities hundreds of miles away.
For F, he had barely given his status as a man a thought until he came to university, where he had to write essays about gender and read about gender theory. His upbringing in a large city in an Arab country informs what he thinks about masculinity: there masculinity is an extremely important concept but is also extremely diverse.
He says he is usually more comfortable in a groups of men, but because of circumstances of academia usually spends more time with women. He perceives that in a group of mostly men with only a few women, the men will subconsciously fight for an ‘alpha male’ position.
His experience in the army has given him an insight into masculine identity. In the army, one becomes the uniform; completely losing your own identity. Things you would never say become the norm, and even gendered language is lost as everyone is referred to by a surname and female soldiers are given the same titles as male soldiers.
Although he acknowledges and understands how his background has changed him, he still says he largely feels uncomfortable about meeting new women, especially in social situations like parties. He thinks this comes from a place of being afraid of being perceived as a sexual predator. In the city where he grew up, molestation and rape were not just stories you heard about in the news, but things that happened regularly to women he knew well, including his classmates and family members. F thinks this has made him extremely aware not only of statistics and so on, but also of the emotional impact that this can have. Because of this, he mostly stays as far back from women who are strangers so there is no chance of his actions harming a woman.
In terms of role models, he thinks females have generally influenced him more, but in academia there tend to be more men. He draws a line between academic and social role model: most men in academia, he opines, are ‘assholes’.
When it comes to #MeToo and the recent surge of greater public awareness of sexual harassment and rape cases, F takes a measured, academic viewpoint. This movement is important and the activism is important but there becomes a danger that academic gender theory and feminism alienates some members of society. Generalising about morality is a tricky issue and will always exclude some groups, not least in terms of intercultural differences. For F, the greatest challenge now to is find a language to discuss the place where feminism and gender relations are. Language is inherently tied to gender, class and culture, and this makes any open discussion about these topics incredibly problematic.
However, while he didn’t quite admit it, he seemed positive that finding this language and tool is possible for our society.