I’ve been compiling interviews with friends and peers about American masculinity, inspired by some stuff I’ve been reading/watching:
- Patrick Dilley’s “Queer Man on Campus: A History of Non-heterosexual College Men, 1945- 2000,” 2002;
- Byron Hurt’s film, “Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” 2006 (featuring the brilliant activist Jackson Katz);
- Michael Kimmel’s “Guyland,” 2008;
- And, to play devil’s advocate, Roy Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?” 2010.
I think this project will be ongoing. I love talking to people.
I met Merawi when I attended Howard University last spring. We had a class together and like many of my peers at Howard, he was interested in why I decided to attend as a visiting student. In the months following I had many interesting discussions with Merawi and our mutual friend, Dallas. Merawi grew up a few blocks away from Howard University – indeed, he was born and raised in Washington, D.C., a city with a 50.7% population of blacks or African-Americans. Merawi’s family owns Sankofa, a café and bookstore across the street from Howard that sells literature and film “by and about people of the ‘Third World’ and its Diaspora.” His father, Haile Gerima, is an Ethiopian filmmaker, philosopher, and professor of film who has produced internationally- acclaimed films about Africa.
Knowing this about Merawi’s family, I thought Merawi could offer some interesting opinions about masculinity. While Merawi and I covered many topics, the one I was fascinated by the most was when we talked about how young males (16-22) influenced one another. Merawi noted that “it’s rare in D.C. to have a solid household – meaning a mother and a father.” Because of this, Merawi speculated that many young men strongly influence each other because they lack positive role models.
After we talked about more serious aspects of this phenomenon, Merawi brought up group influences. When guys hang out they often talk about women, and then the group influence surfaces most strongly when they’re at a club/bar, or hanging out on their porch, watching people walk by (many row houses in D.C. have large front porches). When an attractive girl walks by, you “have to say something, or else you’re a bitch.” If the girl doesn’t respond, it’s a burn – and your guys will make fun of you. I asked him if he or his friends had ever considered what the woman feels like in that situation, and he thought for a minute and responded… no. No, none of them had ever thought about that before. This discussion could have gone further into an exploration of street harassment, and we agreed that that discussion should happen in the future.
I asked Merawi what being a man meant. He contrasted masculinity with femininity, believing that there was indeed a stark difference between the two. Men and women provide a balance with one another, so a woman looks to you (the man) for certain qualities she doesn’t have (that is, masculine qualities). It meant standing your ground, speaking your mind, and paving your own way.
Merawi was the first guy I talked to, and I learned afterward to not project my expectations for the interview into the actual questioning. For example, I thought Merawi would discuss his upbringing more than he did, but he found it more interesting to relate masculinity and posturing to his male friends. Interestingly, I found out that when interviewed, my boyfriend Ben had more to say about his friends as well.
Sara is one of my best friends, and I wanted to interview her not because I’m close to her, but because our views about men and masculinity are so different. She grew up in Maine with, in her words, a traditional family. Her father is a middle school social studies teacher, her mother is a nurse, and she has an older brother that she is (increasingly more) close with. Her parents raised her Catholic, but she doesn’t consider herself religious. In Sara’s case I think that her community and close-knit extended family may have had strong impacts on her views of masculinity.
In the beginning of the interview we discussed her expectations and views of fatherhood and motherhood. Sara is a very caring person, a quality that is projected through her studies – elementary education. As such, she looks forward to being a mother, (“I want to be a soccer mom. And I want to bring all the orange slices to their soccer games…”) but interestingly, she’s quite indecisive about what she looks for in a man. Say what you will about this film, but her exclamation in the beginning of the interview that she wants to be a soccer mom reminded me of Mona Lisa Smile when Julia Stiles’ character, Joan Brandwyn, tells Professor Watson that some women want to be mothers and housewives as well as scholars (whatever! It’s a fun film and I like art history…). While Sara wants to continue her education and get her masters degree, I immediately thought of that moment in the film.
So I wanted Sara to discuss her ex- boyfriend, Brian. Their relationship, which lasted about five months, was the most fascinating relationship I’ve ever witnessed from a sociological lens. Brian and Sara met in summer 2010 at a bar in Maine and began dating. At first Sara loved Brian’s chivalrous nature and the constant attention she received. As time went on, however, she began to feel suffocated and as if she had lost her independence. Her feelings about Brian quickly changed – “[h]e wrote me love letters on a weekly basis… I felt like the man in the relationship!” He cried a few times when he felt Sara wasn’t paying enough attention to him, and Sara felt like she was the one who was supporting the whole relationship, mentally and emotionally. Sara’s expectations of masculinity from her boyfriend reveal that some females do, indeed, desire a traditionally masculine guy.
When I interviewed Ermelin, he talked about being chivalrous – opening doors, paying for things, and so on. I mentioned Sara’s case to him and asked him if he’d ever considered how a female might feel as though it was suffocating and irritating. He gave me a dry response – if she was feeling that way, she should have said something. Ermelin said that if a guy stops being polite and chivalrous after a period of time, it’ll be obvious that he was only doing it to woo the female. Interesting, but I’m not sure if it works that way.
Ben is my boyfriend of 4 years and I thought he’d be a good person to interview since I knew that his views on masculinity were very different than most men his age (22). In “Guyland,” Kimmel discusses the bro code in a chapter titled “Bros Before Hos: The Guy Code.” Kimmel notes that when he asks women what it means to be a woman, “they look at [me] puzzled, and say, basically, ‘Whatever I want.” For men, though, that similar questions still carries heavy weight. Kimmel includes a guy code, featuring a list of ten epigrams such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Take It Like a Man,” “Nice Guys Finish Last,” and “I Don’t Stop to Ask for Directions.”
When I first met Ben his masculinity very much conformed to most of the guy code. He was conscious of the “gender police” and this may have had a lot to do with the fact that he was just entering college; I certainly noticed a very strong sense of masculinity right away in his presence. Over the years Ben has let his guard down and become more comfortable with the idea of a man in an adult sense – he is very caring, sensible, strong, and determined.
A striking part of the interview came when I asked Ben how he felt his male friends viewed him. His answer was one that I had never thought of. He said that sometimes he felt as though his friends judged him in a negative way because he has strong liberal views on social issues – and not even because his views are liberal, but because he actively cares and learns about them. His internship at the National Coalition for the Homeless sparked his interest in homelessness, and he cares deeply about gay rights.
I’ve informally talked to other men about masculinity, asking them the same question – “Where did you learn how to be a man?” – and many of them, like Ben, said they weren’t sure. They had no concrete answer, it was more a “feeling” they got from their surroundings. Ben told me about how his father (who was in the Navy) never really told him “This is what a man does,” or “This is what a man does not do,” but rather engaged him in activities that he perceived to be masculine. For example, Ben was immediately reminded of how he would go to the town dump with his father, loaded up in the car, and they’d buy beef jerky on the way. It was a sweet story, and I could imagine how that must feel for a 5-year-old.
Ben was with me while I interviewed Merawi and they spoke about masculinity for a little while. They both agreed that picking out specific moments in their life when they were taught masculinity was difficult. They also agreed that the expectations of masculinity are so pervasive in society that it seems like everywhere you go, there are lessons and implications for every action that may be un-masculine.
Ermelin is a friend from high school who also attended my college as an architecture major. He was born in Haiti and moved here during our junior year of high school. While I’d heard Ermelin talk about his parents (who are divorced) and their academic expectations of him, I’d never asked what their expectations were of him as a man – or if there were any. Unlike many of the men I spoke with, Ermelin immediately had an answer for “Where did you learn how to be a man?” Interestingly, his mother had a major influence, and Ermelin noted that she primarily told him, “Don’t do ____ – your father did that!”
I really enjoyed listening to him talk about his views on males and females. His opinions were very, very traditional when I compared him to other men. When I asked him if men and women should have different roles in a relationship, he said he wasn’t sure, but “I do know that there are roles that work better,” implying that he knew this from experience, or that males and females are inherently different. I wondered if this could be attributed to Haitian culture in general, or if his upbringing was very traditional. We talked about his future – he plans on getting married and having children. When he mentioned that a man would raise children differently than a woman, I asked why. He said that women were more nurturing and men may lose their temper more quickly and set bad examples. I asked him if he thinks he would be that way as a father, he wasn’t sure.
I wonder how many men’s opinions like that were based on their own feelings versus feelings projected onto them via their upbringing and culture. Like many of the men I spoke with, Ermelin was unsure at first if he’d be able to offer any “good” insight into masculinity, but of course, he’s the expert and talked at length about it.
A theme that I found men wanted to discuss was their relationships with other men, and the influence they had. I asked Ermelin if he’d ever felt pressured into doing something because of the guys he was with, like how Ben mentioned that he felt like he had to read the sports section every day, or when Merawi “had” to shout out to attractive women. Not surprisingly (because I know Ermelin’s easygoing nature) he said he didn’t feel pressured very often. Many of his friends smoke weed and when they’d ask him to come smoke and jokingly nag him, he felt no obligation whatsoever to cave in. Similarly, he felt that being able to hold one’s ground and not sway your opinion was another important part of being a man. This is very similar to something Merawi spoke about.
Ultimately, I found Ermelin’s views to be very traditional, especially about gender roles. However – and this was something I noticed in so many men – he seemed totally flexible when hypothetically asked to implement these roles. That is, if/when he gets married and has children, he would not mind raising them. I found similar views among the men regarding wives making more money; Ermelin said that he would probably jokingly tease a friend if their wife made more money, because “that’s what guys do,” but there would be no serious beliefs behind that.