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How to Be a Man: Redefining Masculinity

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By Michael Carter

"Be a man." The meaning of this pervasive phrase seems simple: Don't show emotion, be tough, be masculine.

But masculinity has never been a concrete concept and, as young women continue to break down the gender divide in the professional world, the millennial generation lives on the cusp of a new understanding of what it means to be a man.

At the core of modern masculinity is the ability to provide for one's family. Career choice is about more than just pursuing an interest; higher earning is associated with virility. Even as women's role in the economy has shifted -- 47 percent of the modern workforce is made up of women and 61 percent of millennial women say they want to be a top manager someday -- men are still hesitant to give up their past notions about which careers are masculine or feminine. Men continue to have high representation in the corporate world, but will rarely enter traditionally female careers, such as teaching and nursing.

Adam Carter, a second-year student in the University of Virginia nursing school, started out as the only male nurse in his 98-person class. Since then, two more guys have transferred into the program.

"I just liked the interaction that nurses had with patients compared to doctors," said Carter. "I always knew I wanted to go medical, but it actually turned out when I looked at it, the doctors had maybe two-minute interactions with patients and then they were gone, they were typing away on their keyboards and the nurses were the ones that were actually doing the work, seeing the patients."

Carter is often told that he should pursue a career as a doctor and finds himself frequently explaining his choice to be a nurse.

"We're stuck in the notion that nursing is a female role and also that nurses aren't as smart as doctors... I think society's view of doctors versus nurses is very skewed in America."

Even with the societal stigma of being a nurse, Carter's non-nursing peers are open to his career choice. They ask him medical questions and occasionally make Meet the Fockers jokes ("Have you ever milked a cat?"), but overall tend not to perceive his major as inferior.

"I believe we're going in a positive direction," Carter said.

Millennials may be less critical of divergence from the norm when it comes to career choice, but masculinity in the social sphere has been more resistant to change. Men who are seen as effeminate are often mocked.

In one high-profile example, 22-year-old rapper Azealia Banks tweeted at blogger Perez Hilton, saying "lol what a messy faggot you are." Her tweet immediately came under fire, primarily from gay rights groups; however, she defending it saying, "A faggot is not a homosexual male. A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There's a BIG difference."

The gay community is often presumed accepting of less traditionally masculine men, but Banks' tweet suggests that, even as homosexuality becomes more integrated into society, effeminate men are still considered inferior. This is explained partly by the fact even within the gay community, effeminacy is considered undesirable.

According to Scott Rheinheimer, director of the University of Virginia LGBTQ Center, "A lot of times masculinity is still a coveted role for a partner or in any type of intimacy... There are folks in the community who do try to look for or fit themselves as that traditional role of masculine while the feminine role is still vilified or ostracized."

Additionally, as the queer community expands to include transgender, transsexual and asexual individuals, there is resistance from some gay and bisexual members of the community who fit within the traditional gender binary and don't want to be identified with those who fall outside this binary. The response from these individuals is to reject the queer label altogether.

"They see queerness as almost a bastardization of the movement," Rheinheimer said.

Jessica Xavier explains in her gender variance model that non-conformance faces greater resistance as it become more visible. Opposing the reproductive norm, a woman choosing not to have children for example, faces less opposition than choosing an occupation traditionally held by the opposite gender. Non-conforming gender identities -- transgender or transsexual -- face the most resistance. "As soon as you start going off the gender spectrum you get slapped back down," Rheinheimer said.

This opposition exists in both older and younger generations. The path that has led to greater acceptance of the gay community provides a template that could be useful for creating greater acceptance of non-conforming gender identity and non-traditionally masculine males. Gay rights gained ground by increasing the visibility of its community; seeing that friends and family were gay resulted in greater acceptance.

"We're always told love everyone, be nice, be kind, walk a mile in their shoes. I feel like our generation was really raised with that mentality, like so many other generations but the difference in our generation is that we didn't have as much of the stipulation of... not that person or not that person," Rheinheimer said.

Acceptance comes from respecting people on an individual basis, rather than making sweeping judgments. Part of this has to do with the figures that are respected by society.

Publicly visible effeminate men are rarely considered role models, even by Millennials. There are now several gay male role models in the media -- Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Collins, Matt Bomer -- but their admiration is contingent on their acting masculine. Whether gay or straight, a man who is seen as gentle and kind may be well-liked, but will rarely be held up as an ideal man.

Even with the Millennial generation's growing belief in equality of different sexes and sexual orientations, masculinity still determines the extent to which a man is accepted as normal. This engrained mode of thinking presents a barrier that, as long as it stands unopposed, will continue to make exclusion acceptable.

Originally posted on the Millennial Manifesto a curated project by Literally, Darling to tell the story of our generation.