Engendering gender harmony

Yesterday, the Duke Men’s Project held its first meeting. The project, led by a goal of “creat[ing] a space of brotherhood fellowship dedicated to interrogating male privilege and patriarchy,” is both admirable and necessary. We wholly endorse its mission and hope that along with other initiatives, it will move our campus towards a better and more nuanced understanding of the mix of identities that populate Duke.

One of the central goals of the Duke Men’s Project is to explore and tackle certain “toxic” parts of masculinity. If masculinity describes the spectrum of attitudes and characteristics that a society expects men to express, toxic masculinity refers to a harmful narrow band of that spectrum—a band that includes the ideas that men ought to be mocked for being anything but stoic testosterone-bots, that masculinity ought to dominate femininity and that deviation from the norms of masculinity lessen the worth of a man. Toxic masculinity is what encourages men to suffer in silence from depression, internalize stress instead of releasing it and develop unhealthy sexual attitudes that can manifest in abuse and assault.

The Men’s Project is novel because it provides males a space (a safe space even) in which they can discuss their own gender. It is not a reeducation camp being administered by an oppressed group in the service of the feminization of American society, but rather a space by men and for men. Some aspects of manhood and masculinity, like any other identity characteristic, are difficult to talk about in mixed company: opportunities for awkward misunderstandings abound. The Men’s Project provides a home for those kinds of discussions, along with a place for males to ask any questions about feminism, gender and intersectionality that they have always wanted to ask, but would have been embarrassed to in a different setting. Among other men in a space like this, there is no threat of judgment.

The Men’s Project is critically important right now because the weaponization of masculinity and femininity continues to broadly affect all of us. It was evident on the presidential primary campaign trail during an episode in which a member of Ted Cruz’s campaign took to calling a pair of boots worn by Marco Rubio “Men’s High-Heeled Booties.” It was evident when an Olympic athlete was relentlessly attacked for not being “enough of a woman.” It is evident in all sorts of interactions and ought to be resolved.

The Duke Men’s Project has not set out to say that masculinity is bad or evil—few rational people believe that. Nor has it set out to say that male confidence and strength are inherently pernicious attributes. As always, gender equality is not about bringing men down but about lifting everyone up in order to create a more comfortable and enjoyable society for all.

Reflecting on masculinity in the environment offered by the Duke Men’s Project can help male students understand what masculinity really means in the context of our society and how conceptions of it affect interactions. It provides a space for men to help each other conscientiously observe and analyze harmful strands of gender identity, deeply embedded into societal norms, that for too long have been ignored. Women are forced to consider their role in society all the time—it is time for men now to do the same.


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