Photo by Kiley Distelrath
Strong. Dominant. Buff. Protector. Emotionless.
Never asking for directions.
These are ideas some Pepperdine men said they felt characterize masculinity.
In a world talking about toxic masculinity and throwing around male stereotypes, interviews with 12 Pepperdine men found more complex and sincere definitions of manhood. The men, which included staff and students in athletics, leadership positions and fraternities, generally agreed that toxic masculinity exists but said social constructions of masculinity did not necessarily mesh with their personal definitions.
Toxic masculinity is a term that defines a “form of gendered behavior” that The Good Men Project characterizes as violent, aggressive, power-driven and sex-driven, Colleen Clemens, director of Women and Gender Studies at Kutztown University, wrote in a December 2017 article on Teaching Tolerance.
David Humphrey, associate dean of Inclusion and Diversity, said society has done a thorough and damaging job of telling men who they are supposed to be.
“The typical masculine ideas are based in modes of dominance … strength, lacks vulnerability, lacks emotion,” Humphrey said. “There has to be a proper temperance on emotion because too much emotion is feminine. I think those are the ideas of masculinity — hyper-sexualization, this hyper-sexual idea and it’s our goal to dominate the earth and all its inhabitants, even women. That’s what it ‘means’ to be a man — yeah, that’s what it ‘means’ to be a man.”
Harmful messages, including toxic masculinity, affect men but have also shaped some of their characteristics, interviewees said. Masculine pressures are present in sports and fraternities but most Pepperdine men agreed there is not a generalization for men at Pepperdine.
What are stereotypical ideas of masculinity?
Pepperdine men were quick to list male stereotypes: emotionless, independent, strong, womanizer, fearless, competitive and provider, tall, muscled and having a deep voice and a beard.
“And also I think a really deep-rooted [stereotype] that a lot of people struggle with is being the provider, having to be the provider,” senior Ben Huyard, Pepperdine Graphic Media’s Advertising director, said. “The concept of having a partner or a wife that makes more money than you as a guy is like so challenging for a lot of guys.”
A Pepp Post poll of 46 men found that a high majority identified masculinity with being strong, confident and protective.
Often, the men said they felt that being emotionless or having emotional toughness characterized masculinity.
While these traits exist in some men, they are “falsehoods” and not representative of the majority of men, said Student Government Association (SGA) President Austin Welch, a senior.
What does it mean to be a man?
When Coleman Carpenter, a sophomore water polo player, turned 13, he said his parents had him complete a right of passage to manhood. Carpenter was instructed to follow a hiking trail where he would pick up large rocks his parents had written negative character qualities on. His load got heavier as he trudged on. Along the way, however, Carpenter ran into important male figures in his life, whom were stationed along the path. They would meet Carpenter and trade his heavy, negative rocks with smaller rocks that wore virtuous words.
By the end of the hike, Carpenter said he figuratively learned the weight of vices and the reward of embodying honest qualities of a “good man.”
Pepperdine men said they have nobler definitions of masculinity compared to what they see portrayed in society.
For Carpenter, a man is honest, has integrity and respect, is responsible and cares for and loves family.
Huyard said manhood comes from the inside — from emotional maturity — not from external occurrences, like a man’s build.
“I think when a boy learns to humble himself and be vulnerable with with his own feelings and the feelings around him and take responsibility for his own life, then he really progresses into manhood,” Huyard said.
Although men are seen as being emotionless — as brick walls — being a man is about vulnerability and humility, said Aaron Lee, freshman and academic chair for Alpha Tau Omega (ATO).
Junior Jared Lee included the stereotypical notion of male strength in his understanding of a man, however.
“I think there’s a certain mental and emotional fortitude that is needed,” Jared Lee said. “That’s not always holding back tears. Sometimes that is crying when you need to do, but it’s also having the emotional and mental support to be strong for others when others are having a tough time. Can you take care of them? Can you be there for them?”
Jared Lee said gender labels are sticky and said what is expected of a man should be expected of every human being.
“A lot of times I try not to differentiate what people in general need to do than from what men need to do,” Jared Lee said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of things men need to do in particular that others shouldn’t do.”
Does toxic masculinity exist?
All 12 men and two female faculty members said toxic masculinity exists in the world. The aforementioned Pepp Post poll of 46 men found that roughly 94 percent agreed that the toxic masculinity that Clemens defines exists.
Bernice Ledbetter, director of the Center for Women in Leadership at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School (GBS), said she experienced toxic masculinity early in her career when two male colleagues at GBS told her she did not belong. She agreed with Clemens’ definition.
The interviewees also had additional elements to their definitions of toxic masculinity.
Jared Lee said he had a broader classification of the term. He said it was any form of traditional masculinity, defined by the American Psychological Association as embodying “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk and violence,” used in a detrimental way, involving both actions and words.
“You see it all the time,” Jared Lee said. “I think it’s unfortunate.”
Simon Pilato, a junior and president of Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) fraternity said he could recognize toxic masculinity in fraternities, and Huyard said he saw it in most men.
Humphrey said he recognized toxic masculinity as reinforcing the systems of oppression, such as sexism, that have permeated society’s understanding of gender. He said toxic masculinity and femininity is created when men and women internalize these dominant ideals, i.e. when men and women embody gender roles.
Toxic masculinity is not representative of men, though, said Adam Williams, sophomore and member of Psi Upsilon (Psi U) fraternity.
“I think it exists but not on the scale or magnitude the media gives it attention to,” Williams said. “I would say it’s probably the minority of … the aggressive, frustrated men that just don’t know how to handle emotion properly.”
Does toxic masculinity stereotype men and masculinity?
Half of the 14 interviewed said toxic masculinity did or could stereotype masculinity. Those who agreed, however, differed on whether it was for better or worse.
Williams said he thought the idea of toxic masculinity generalizes men and negatively affects masculinity.
“I just feel like the term masculinity has been under attack recently with the whole toxic masculinity movement,” Williams said. “And so, I would just say everyone defines masculinity in their own way, but what I see as masculinity would be being a good father, a good leader, a boss or a good husband.”
Pilato, on the other hand, said he viewed the stereotype as a benefit, since it raises awareness of negative male behavior.
Jared Lee, however, said it did not stereotype men, but the matter was subjective.
“I don’t think toxic masculinity is addressing all forms [of masculinity] …” Jared Lee said. “It all depends on who’s using that word [toxic masculinity] and what the belief is.”
Ledbetter said she did not know for certain if toxic masculinity mischaracterizes men.
“I don’t think the term is being misused, and I hope that it’s not stereotyping men in general, but I do wonder if that’s what men feel like is happening,” Ledbetter said. “And if they do, we need to talk about that out in the open and have a conversation.”
The poll found that about 41 percent of male students said it did stereotype men.
One thing is for sure: society teaches and reinforces the toxic masculinity stereotype to men at a young age, Psychology Professor Jennifer Harriger, who is developing a study to learn how masculine images affect young boys, said.
“I think it’s just so engrained in our culture and the way we treat little boys versus little girls that a lot of men don’t even realize they’ve kind of been just conditioned to think this way about themselves and other men,” Harriger said.
Whether or not Pepperdine men and women think it stereotypes men, the term is a sounding alarm to men, Ledbetter said.
“I think that toxic masculinity for some men, that term is probably a cause for concern because they might be afraid they’ll be accused of that,” Ledbetter said.
She said society sends men unclear signals on how they are supposed to behave.
“I think that women have been overly simplistic in giving coaching and guidance by simply saying, ‘Just don’t be a jerk. It’s really clear. Just don’t be a jerk,’ but that’s really not helpful,” Ledbetter said.
The Pepperdine male image
Overall, male students said they felt there was not a typical male image at Pepperdine because there are too many groups on campus to generalize the men.
Welch, however, found a typical image of Pepperdine men. He said he characterized them as SoCal beach boys with blond hair who surf, work out and are in a fraternity.
Additionally, Christian Lee, senior and member of the Board, said that if there is an image, it is male Pepperdine students being kinder and more genuine than college males on other campuses.
“And I think, at least from my experience, knowing that there’s a lot of guys who are pretty down to earth … You can get on a deeper level with [them] — emotionally, spiritually,” Christian Lee said. “I think that it might be easier to embrace that personality because there’s other people like that here.”
When it comes to toxic masculinity, the majority said it was not on Pepperdine’s campuses.
Doug Hurley, associate dean of Student Affairs, said he did not see it in the students he worked with or the men he has worked alongside. He works with students who are orientation leaders and who are a part of the SGA Executive Board, the Inter-Club Council and the Student Wellness Advisory Board.
Harriger has recognized traditional masculinity on campus and has characterized what she has experienced.
“I think just muscular, opinionated, loud, kind of dominant, aggressive but I think there are just as many if not more males at Pepperdine that don’t adhere to that at all,” Harriger said.
The harm of masculine ideals
“Feminists have long argued that traditional gender roles harm women … It’s also possible, though, that received expectations of men hurt men,” author Noah Berlatsky wrote in an opinion piece on CNN published Jan. 15. He cited the “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men” that the APA released in January.
The APA created these guidelines because “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful.” Men face gender stereotypes from psychologists, according to the guidelines. They also have higher death rates, across all ages, than women in many of the leading causes of death.
Teasing for being emotional or being ‘feminine’ is common among boys, Christian Lee said. Women chime into the jokes toward men as well, Welch said.
“But I do think that’s probably one thing as far as toxic masculinity goes that I’ve definitely experienced more,” Christian Lee said. “I’m sure if I cried over something, my friends would give me a hard time. It’s sort of an expectation.”
Teasing is hard on men, Huyard said, especially since it is hard for men to show emotion.
“Releasing emotion and being vulnerable, being open and honest about how you feel is super hard,” Huyard said. “I think a lot of guys are working on that and maybe don’t get the credit that they deserve for working on that stuff or are just maybe totally misperceived because they don’t know how to communicate what’s going on instead, in a way that makes sense to other people.”
Huyard said he hopes to see being called “feminine” change to a compliment.
Women push masculine ideals as well because they speak of manliness standards and physical qualifications a man needs in order to be attractive, Welch said. He said it is hypocritical though, because when a man lists physical qualities he wants in a woman, it is considered objectifying but when a woman says a man is “out of her league,” that is OK.
Chivalry is even under attack. Welch said he was cursed at by a woman for whom he held the door open. She said it was degrading.
Even though Welch thinks holding the door open for people is respectful, Jared Lee said he sees chivalry as part of toxic masculinity because only men are expected to be chivalrous.
Humphrey and Associate Chaplain Eric Wilson have taken steps to open up spaces for men to have these conversations at Pepperdine. This semester, they created “The Shop,” short for “barber shop,” as a communal event for Pepperdine men to come have their hair cut by barbers and to have conversation about manhood, Humphrey said.
“We especially want to welcome men because we feel like men need to have this conversation,” Humphrey said. “So we’re not stopping women from coming to this space, but we would strongly encourage men to come to this space because we think that there’s a conversation that only men can have when it’s just men.”
Humphrey said he hopes it will occur every semester.
Athletes and the male image
Masculine pressures are alive and present in Pepperdine Athletics, three Pepperdine athletes said.
Pepperdine Men’s Tennis players Pawel Jankowiak, a sophomore, and Corrado Summaria, a freshman, said coaches reinforce masculine ideals with comments they make to motivate the players at practice.
“When we train hard the coach says to us, ‘Come on, do more. You are men. You can do more. You have to do more. Work harder, or harder weight, harder lift, run more, run faster,’” Summaria said.
Carpenter said many people play into the masculine pressures.
“It comes from everybody,” he said. “It comes from players, it comes from coaches, it comes from spectators.”
Fraternities and the male image
Pepperdine fraternity members said they are aware of the standing impressions of fraternities as disrespectful, macho and competitive groups of men. They acknowledged the truth in some of these images, but they said they do not think Pepperdine fraternities embody these images.
“I don’t see that [toxic masculinity] nearly as much as I thought in a fraternity, so that’s me kind of having that wrong opinion coming in and realizing it’s not true,” Pilato said.
As president of SigEp, he said he sees mostly positive, confident male leaders on campus. But Pilato said toxic masculinity behavior still arises. He and his fraternity work to combat it.
Aaron Lee (ATO) said his fraternity promotes respect and acting like a gentleman.
“That’s what we define as masculine,” Aaron Lee said. “Treat people right. I don’t think they give off the toxic masculinity vibe.”
Pilato said people often give too much weight to the toxic image and forget the good his fraternity does.
“There’s not a group out there in the world that I would rather or be more comfortable being vulnerable in front of than my fraternity and that I think most people wouldn’t think,” Pilato said.
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