Big man on campus

The Campus on a Hill

The problem of gendered violence is not going away. While UC Berkeley has faced criticism over the past few years for a pattern of mishandling sexual violence cases, recent coverage of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds has thrown a very relevant campus issue back in the spotlight. It remains crucial that women’s voices be centered and heard on an issue where they are overwhelmingly the victims and have been silenced for so long. I do have a concern, however, about the silence of male voices over the connection between sexual violence and straight male expressions of masculinity.

In order to understand how masculinity becomes toxic, we need a public reckoning with the basic question of what constitutes a man today and how that masculinity is expressed. This means first breaking down an understanding of men as a homogenous group. Only by understanding there are many different ways of expressing masculinity can male writers have a more substantive discussion about the male personality and its social consequences. It is important to articulate the limits to my discussion on the manifestations of masculinity, since my observations are confined by my experience as a college-aged heterosexual man.

College is a formative period in the male life. Many believe it’s these years that mark the transition towards manhood. What a shame, then, that an interested young male can only find writers telling him how to “become a man” as if every guy is progressing along the same track.

In fact, it seems that the only thing male writers are interested in when they write about masculinity is this monolithic, ideal Man. There are websites dedicated to the manners and style of the ideal man, but in few places can one find an open and nuanced account of the many forms of male identity.

And yet, we recognize this variety of manhood implicitly, but seldom openly. Few think that Esquire’s ideal male reader is the same kind of person as Barstool Sports’ ideal reader. A variety of male personalities are reflected in print, media, film and TV; by systemizing these male social characters, I aim to expel the monolithic ideal of Man. A more nuanced discussion about straight male personalities and motivations will allow us to identify where socialized masculinity becomes toxic.

The following types or forms of masculinity I sketch out are meant to be highly flexible, subjective and not at all comprehensive descriptions of college-aged men. I believe they are nevertheless informative and offer many truths about the types of male personality today.

The first type of man is what many call the “alpha” or the “man’s man.” This is the guy that exudes power or charm. He is the swaggering macho male. His personality fills the space he’s in and presses against yours. He might be a football player or an executive. On TV, he is the Don Draper in “Mad Men” or the Harvey Specter in “Suits.” He could be a bad boy, as many hip-hop artists comport themselves as, or a nobleman with a strong sense of pedigree. He can be a mysterious figure or a charismatic center of attention. In many ways the character of Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando, is the fiercest expression of this male type in the modern age, with all its allure and capacity for violence.

The second kind of guy is the performer or the jester of yesteryear. He’s clever, passionate and artistic. He can be nebbish like a Woody Allen character or exuberant like Robin Williams. He has a smart or witty sensibility. He’s a contrarian, an entertainer, a free spirit. He’s not the star on the field, but he’s putting on a good show from the bleachers. He doesn’t need to be handsome. He probably looks characteristically unkempt. He seeks novelty. He is a bit aloof — always with one foot in and the other out. He almost certainly enjoys reading about the Russian Revolution.

The third fella is the gentleman or the dandy. He cares about the appearance of his mind and his figure, perhaps to a fault. He is meticulous and careful, even when he’s taking care to appear otherwise. He mixes a conservative style with a flair for its expression. He can be charming or witty, but it’s in a pretentious way. He’s intelligent, eloquent and soft-spoken. He probably has excellent facial hair. He idolizes the solitary genius, yet he’s willing to take a “gentleman’s C” for appearance’s sake. He is basically every male F. Scott Fitzgerald character.

The final type of man is the “average Joe” as the saying goes. He is unadorned and perhaps unfashionable. He is dependable, reliable, friendly and down-to-earth. He is the glue in your male friend group, the one everyone likes and no one loathes. He may be blue-collar or simply modest in whatever station he is born into. He’s the guy Louis CK or Kevin James plays on TV. He is the one having a laugh at the bar. In many ways, his masculinity is the freest and least encumbered by abstractions. And it is worth saying he need not be dumb or stupid as the trope tends to be.

It’s worth reiterating that I don’t expect these categories to be all encompassing — all individuals are unique. And I don’t assume that any single man is only one type, in fact I believe strongly that all straight guys have a bit of all four personalities in them, and a bit of other personality types as well. The point in my exposition — limited and rough as it is — is to demonstrate that there are several general, socially formed ways of being a man today.

Merely putting in words the different nuances of masculinity allows us to better engage with social questions, such as the prevalence of sexual violence on campus. The problem of sexual violence is more widespread than merely the few men at the top of the social ladder. Breaking down the different forms of male personality can allow for more incisive and specific explanations for male sexual violence.

As an example, a recent New York Times piece titled, “What Experts Know About Men Who Rape,” notes that repeat offenders often tell similar stories of rejection in high school and looking on as jocks and football players get all the attractive women. As these once-unpopular, often-narcissistic men become more successful, sexual violence manifests as an act of revenge. The issue of male identity and personality are thus centered in this specific explanation of violence.

I’ve been conscious to write against the outdated authors of articles on how to be a man. I’m equally positioning myself against advocates of the modern man as a free and bearded being unencumbered by the past. That couldn’t be more misguided. Anyone that chooses to live as a man accepts an identity constructed by the past and the present. Let’s be honest about who we are, who we want to be and where all that comes from. It’s a start on the way to tackling how masculinity can and does become violent and toxic in our society.

Ismael Farooqui writes the Friday blog on campus culture in a time of institutional crisis. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishfarooqui.