Branding Masculinity as ‘Bad’ Restricts Change

Jack Rockwell, Contributing Writer

Last week, I watched a close friend mediate a discussion between two students. My friend, who I will call Jaime, was doing an excellent job, periodically interjecting with statements that found a middle ground between two opposing viewpoints. Ever cognizant of their role in the discussion, at one point they apologized for taking up too much space in their role as mediator, saying, among other things, “Sorry for being so masculine in the discussion.” My friends and I assured Jaime that they were not taking up too much space, but I was taken aback by the use of the word “masculine.” Why would someone apologize for something that could be an intrinsic part of their identity?

Men frequently take up too much space in discussions. You can see examples of this everywhere. From TV shows to classrooms to dining table conversations, men talk more than people of other genders. I’m not writing to apologize for or on behalf of men, or to suggest that we should hold them any less accountable for how they take up space. But the way my friend used “masculine” raises interesting questions about the way we talk about gender.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “masculine” as “having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men.” It’s certainly true that disproportionately taking up space is a quality traditionally associated with men. But by choosing to use the word “masculine” instead of naming the actual transgression of allegedly taking up too much space, Jaime inadvertently removed the agency from masculine folks to reconstruct themselves as egalitarian listeners and speakers within the bounds of their identities.

This highlights a broader problem about how men and masculinity are conceptualized and discussed at Oberlin. It’s critical to hold people accountable for how they affect others, and for men to educate themselves on how they might have been socialized to act a certain way is a fundamental step in changing their behavior. But if men are going to reconstruct their masculinities without the toxicity they embody today, they need to be given a space in language to do so; one that allows them to separate themselves from the negative habits they’ve been socialized into. By avoiding backwards associations like Jaime’s, we can teach men better behavior while still allowing them to embody their masculinity, so that future generations of masculine people have positive examples of behavior that fall within their conceptions of manhood.

Identities and social constructs are constantly in flux, and ideas about masculinity have been changing as long as they’ve existed. Hopefully, we’re moving in a direction in which men and other masculine people can reconstruct their gender as an identity that encourages sharing discussion space rather than dominating it. Let’s imagine a new masculinity, in which being a man doesn’t mean being an asshole.