Ramisa Rob: What is good and bad masculinity?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 3:58pm

Since I was eight years old, my teachers and parents warned me to avoid the types of clothing that revealed my feminine features because men on the streets, uncles who visit my house and even young boys in my class might be provoked to take advantage of me. I grew up in a society where a man’s testosterone-driven malignancy was rarely decried when rape crimes flashed on the news. Instead, the news vilified the women who were victims for wearing outfits that unveiled more legs than necessary and blamed them for “asking for it.”

I perceived the link between sexual assault, abusive power and a man’s gender identity as a South Asian, sociocultural phenomenon — until I attended a multicultural boarding school in Italy where the male teachers sexually harassed their female students, and the only physical violence that happened in two years was between men, or a man towards a woman. When I came to the United States for college, my friends and I were groped on dark dance floors at frat parties. During my vacations to France and Los Angeles, men from all over sent me catcalls. My girlfriends and I were verbally abused when we rejected men who pursued us at bars. I witnessed the toxic elements of a universal framework of masculinity built on the historical social dominance that gives men a license to abuse, violate and sexually mistreat members of the opposite sex.

But I cannot theorize the boorish behavior as the essential nature of manhood because I have seen the more righteous sides of it as well. I was raised by my father — a non-violent, affectionate, masculine paternal figure — who continues to sacrifice his own comfort to provide for me. He always respected my mother and reprimanded family members who treated females as subordinates. Many men — not just my father— in my life have been compassionate, caring and respectful.

This new year, the topic of masculinity has wrecked the internet with raging debates. In early January, the American Psychological Association published its first-ever guidelines for therapists working with men and boys, in order to address the concerning fact that men are more often the perpetrators and the victims of violence, and also comprise the larger demographic in suicide rates.

Though the study draws from four decades of research (long before the #MeToo era) and is intended to better men’s physical and mental health, it has still been opposed as “anti-men” for concluding that perceptions of “traditional masculinity” (such as suppressing emotions and not seeking help) can have potential harmful effects on men and people around them.

A week later, Gillette released a commercial critiquing, "the particular brand of masculinity" by which some men feel they are allowed to commit various acts of harassment such as bullying, groping and catcalling. This ad was met with furious backlash from men’s rights activists and many others, including women, who have been seriously offended that the phrase “toxic masculinity” has branched out from the confines of gender studies classrooms and entered our personal lives where we can actually address it.

In response to the Gillette ad that garnered 1.3 million dislikes to date, Egard Watches released a commercial that has been received without the same fury because it positively frames men’s bravery and doesn’t display some of the more problematic aspects of masculinity. Similar to the APA guidelines, the ad made note of the fact that men make up the overwhelming majority of homicide victims. The two commercials and the APA guidelines essentially agree that men are inherently righteous and the deplorable, abusive behavior does not portray “real men.” The fundamental difference is that unlike Egard Watches, Gillette and APA expose the detrimental aspects of socialized masculinity in order to prevent them. Both of these messages are equally important.

If young boys are only shown that courageous men have sacrificed their lives to end wars, they won’t learn that men engaging in “locker room talk” is dishonorable. We seem to not realize that condemning certain damaging actions in order to eradicate them is just as vital as praising positive, virtuous conduct so as to encourage its adaptations. While we should highlight the model of masculinity that entails the selfless and commendable, we also need to discuss and dismantle the problematic archetype of masculinity that, time after time, perpetuates a crude culture of entitlement that far too often leads to abuse and violence. While social media struggles with what it means to be a man, one constructive message is clear: Bullying and sexual violence are not key characteristics of a man’s identity. So, it’s time to start denouncing the bad behavior as well as positively reinforcing good behavior.

"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" actor Terry Crews has emphasized the necessity of this call to action and said: “Until men stand up and say, ‘This abuse, this harassment, these assaults are wrong,’ nothing will change.” And this is crucial because men do not always hold each other accountable for bad behavior, even when they see it or know about it. Of course, there are men who do, but it is not as commonplace as it should be. For example, when a male friend of mine warned one man to stop his pernicious insistence on sex with a drunk woman, he was criticized by other men for being “unchilled.”

Similarly, when my female friend was sexually assaulted by her Tinder date who ignored all the “Nos,” her male best friend responded, “I’m sorry but you cannot just walk into a strange man’s house and expect everything to be alright.” If a 21-year-old, college man utters such words, it demonstrates the fallacious mentality that presumes an innate bridge connecting masculinity, sexual assault and fear. But that dynamic should not exist because a society where a woman has to fear an unfamiliar man but a man can violate an unknown woman is simply unfair. When another man in the same friend circle learned of this comment, he claimed it was thoroughly disrespectful. Yet, he failed to warn his male friend who blamed the victim because they have a “guy code” where rebuking each other’s wrongs rhymes with “uncool” negativity. But negativity is not calling each other out on sexist comments or bullying, it’s the destructive words and actions itself. Hence, men need to administer conversations about sexual assault awareness with their “bros” and deliver warnings when required.

And yes, men are not the only ones behind social problems because women can also be guilty of harassment, bullying and violence. Women unquestionably share the responsibility for ensuring the community is safe for all. Yet, even up until 2015, rape prevention tips were mostly directed to women and not men. Discourse on sexual politics is progressing. That’s why this current dialogue on masculinity is a good sign that we can now start decomposing any association between a man’s gender identity and abuse of power and violence. So to everyone reading this — especially men — I urge you to hold yourselves and your friends accountable for harmful behavior. If this is something you uphold, continue to do so. But if you don’t, it’s time to start now.

Ramisa Rob can be reached at rmfrob@umich.edu