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COLUMN: The Gender Question

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 00:02

Hi, I’m Evan and I’m a women’s studies minor. I’m a passionate supporter of GLBTQ rights, an actor, and a huge fan of Mumford and Sons. I don’t really enjoy going to the gym, but I do know the words to every song in Les Miserables (actually). While I like watching sports, I don’t know much about them, and I could probably name more members of American Ballet Theatre than the Baltimore Ravens. And I am very much a man.

Do those ideas seem contradictory? Did you, while reading this, conjure an image very much contrary to what you typically think of as masculine? Probably. But why? When it really comes down to it, what is it about Broadway songs, disinterest in sports and exercise, and emotional sensitivity that has become incompatible with masculinity in our society? When did we decide what’s manly and what’s not? And why does any of it matter?

I’ve only been at Boston College for a few months, but in that time, I’ve found our culture to be openly hostile to atypical masculinities. In my experience, manliness at BC is strictly defined in terms of trips to the Plex, protein shakes consumed, Mod "conquests," and numbness to any emotions except anger and aggression. Of course, this is a generalization—there are thousands of men at BC, each with his own definition of what masculinity is, but our culture subtly and sinisterly promotes the aforementioned, conventional stereotype while shaming variants as "un-manly." Just look at the parties hosted by a group I’m in: the girls had a wine and cheese night at the Mods while the guys had a beer and wings football party, despite the fact that there are probably plenty of guys who’d love to chat with friends over wine and cheese (me) and plenty of girls who’d rather eat wings and watch the Patriots. For a guy like me, who’d rather read than work out, who’d rather watch Bridesmaids than Skyfall, it can be easy to get discouraged by the overwhelming machismo that seems to predominate amongst men at BC.

But lest it should seem that I’m using my column simply to air my insecurities and grievances with my new school, allow me to arrive at the point. We need to do a much better job of engaging and understanding the complexities of gender at BC as a spectrum of attitudes and behaviors, not a fixed, biologically-determined fact. Gender is complicated, and gender stereotypes have a profound influence on individual’s self-perception, behavior, and outcomes. Why else would there be such a gender gap amongst our public officials, despite the fact that women are more likely than men to vote? Why else would men account for an overwhelming majority of violent crime, when women are more likely to live in poverty, which is a strong correlate of criminogenesis? To reduce gender and its implications for identity to a biologically-fixed phenomena is as absurd as reducing Scripture to its text without context or further analysis. Like the Bible, gender should be discussed and dissected, with individuals testifying to its meaning and impact on their lives, and ultimately determining what it means, for them, to be a man or a woman. We should resist attempts to classify things as intrinsically manly or unmanly, masculine or feminine, instead creating an environment in which individuals feel safe to determine for themselves what their gender encompasses.

To do this, however, we must have a robust conversation. We must actualize the definition of a university that Rev. Michael Himes gave in his speech at freshman orientation: an extended conversation on the great questions of existence at the highest possible level. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to reject simplistic notions of man and woman, and instead collectively engage in a vibrant discussion about gender and society. This discussion is not an easy one to have—for men in particular, any questioning of traditional notions of masculinity is perceived as itself unmasculine. The effects of this are visible in the vast gender disparity in courses that cover gender issues—for men, to even step into that classroom is a strike against us (see the mockery I’ve gotten from my relatively open-minded friends for taking Women in Politics). But we should have more courage than that. We must ask the tough questions and answer them honestly, with designs not on validating ourselves as "manly" or not, but rather on creating a community in which masculinity is recognized as encompassing a diverse spectrum of personalities and behaviors. We owe it to ourselves and to the men who will come after us to create a community in which a man can be artistic, emotional, and vulnerable without having his masculinity questioned. Ours is a culture resistant to depth, resistant to change, resistant to differences—that isn’t going to be easy to change. But if we come together, if we’re open, if we’re honest with each other, we can make BC a place where all are welcome.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.

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