Academia's War on Men--That Isn't

The University of Wisconsin has launched a war on men. At least, that’s what Republican state senator Steve Nass says. According to Nass, the University’s undergraduate program on masculinity is an assault on men that is part of higher education’s “politically correct agenda.”

Apparently, Nass has no clue what a men and masculinities program is, nor the benefits such a program provides both men and women.

The academic study of gender has its roots in the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement, with the first women’s studies courses offered in the early 1970s. These initial courses brought women’s contributions in history, literature, art, theology, and other disciplines to the fore and for the first time centered gender as a significant topic for study.

Because gender generally and women specifically had essentially been omitted from academic study until this point, women’s studies began as a way to claim a place for women in the curriculum and to make women’s issues central. The accepted premise was that men’s lives and experiences were well represented in the rest of the curriculum, and so the study of women was a necessary additive.

Quickly, early feminist scholars realized that simply adding women to existing course content or offering courses about women was not enough. Rather, gender needed to become a primary lens for analysis because of the inextricable link between gender and power, in this case, as represented in the academic disciplines.

Inevitably, asking questions about gender led to asking questions not only about women and femininity but also about men and masculinity, and so the field of masculinity studies arose in the 1990s, not as a competitor to women’s studies but as its complement.

Masculinity studies ask questions of how we understand what a “real man” is, how notions of men and masculinity are also shaped by race, social class, sexuality, and other forms of difference, and how ideas about masculinity affect men and women.

At our institution, we teach a course on men and masculinities that is grounded in the important contributions that feminist scholars have made to our understanding of gender. The course attracts many young men who are interested in asking questions about what role masculinity plays in maintaining structural inequality, how ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine have changed over time and vary from one culture to another, and how masculinity is represented in media and the arts. Most importantly, students ask critical questions about how masculine ideals affect society and people’s lives in terms of everyone’s access to power and resources.

As an example of the kinds of thinking we encourage our students today, take the report that Oxfam published earlier this week that revealed that eight men own the same wealth as 3.8 billion people. Students who have taken courses on masculinity and gender in society are equipped to understand that it is no accident that the world’s wealthiest people are men. (It’s also no accident that of these eight men, most are white, speak English, and live in the United States.) We train our students to take a hard look at such inequalities, ask critical questions about history and unequal distribution of power and resources, and—we hope—go out and change the social systems that perpetuate such inequality. Honestly, isn’t that what Mr. Nass is really worried about?

Of course, the Right has reacted (a bit hysterically) to this field of study: It’s part of “The Left’s feminization of male culture in America,” “propaganda” to reduce “young men to brainwashed nancy-boys,” “a men’s auxiliary of women’s studies,” and part of a “plan to subvert Christian and traditional values and replace them with diversity and multicultural mush.”

Just days after Nass unleashed his invective against the University of Wisconsin’s masculinity studies program, Fox News contributor Todd Starnes targeted two other universities (one of them Oregon State University) for supporting programming that encourages critical thinking about men and masculinities from multiple scholarly perspectives. Starnes’s attempt at satire relies on a grab bag of conservative rhetoric about men and women that does nothing to help any of us understand and respond to the challenges we face as a country and in our communities.

Such absurd fear-mongering is made possible by dominant Western ideals of what men “should be.” Expressions like “Man up!” and “Boys don’t cry” perpetuate patterns of belief and social behavior that have a negative impact not only the lives of women and other marginalized groups but also on men themselves. The evidence from fields like psychology, public health, history, and law is overwhelming and continues to grow. Young men on college campuses, for example, are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse (Miller 2008; Swartout & White 2010). More troubling still is that suicide rates among young college-aged (as well as working-class) men are consistently very high for a variety of reasons (see, for example, Pitman, Krysinska, Osborn & King 2012).

Failure to pay close attention to masculinity—in ways that are informed by critical scholarly approaches from fields like women studies, queer studies, and critical race theory—is to fail society as a whole and young men in particular. Outside of universities, community organizations such as domestic violence centers, churches, and peer-support groups also provide men with the opportunity to learn about and understand male privilege as they work to create change in the world.

If anyone is “waging a war on men,” it’s not academics, scholars, teachers, or community organizers who work to help men understand that they don’t need to buy into the misogynistic, homophobic, and racist rhetoric of “traditional values.” It is people in positions of power who legitimize violent and destructive expression of masculinity, in part by rehashing the same tired language of “war” and “attack” that the Right has used at least since the 1980s to incite aggressive responses to social issues that require the kind of critical thinking and dialog that students in courses on masculinity and gender practice.

Miller, K. (2008). Wired: Energy drinks, jock identity, masculine norms, and risk taking. Journal of American College Health. 56.5. 481-490.

Pitsman, A., K. Krysinska, D. Osborn, & M. King (2012). Suicide in young men. The Lancet. 379.9834. 2283-2392.

Swartout, K. & J. White (2010). The relationship between drug use and sexual aggression in men across time. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 25.9. 1716-1735.

This post is co-authored by Dr. Bradley Boovy, assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and German at Oregon State University. Dr. Boovy teaches OSU’s course on Men and Masculinities.

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