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How the fear of femininity affects us all

Male gender role stereotyping, a past non-issue in lieu of the massive uphill battle for feminine equality, has slowly been creeping its way into social consciousness. Dinner tables and cafes are now fair game for discussions of masculinity, male femininity, and what it means to be a man in the 21st century. UFV recently hosted Teaching a New Masculinity, a presentation about the necessity for a deeper emotional intelligence within the male culture.

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“As a girl growing up, I was allowed to play with trucks or dress like a boy. I certainly had a lot more freedom than my brother in what I was allowed to like,” said Jaleen Mackay, the president of UFV’s advocacy for men and boys club. “My brother just wanted to try wearing makeup, but my dad was so vehemently against it.”

Male gender role stereotyping, a past non-issue in lieu of the massive uphill battle for feminine equality, has slowly been creeping its way into social consciousness. Dinner tables and cafes are now fair game for discussions of masculinity, male femininity, and what it means to be a man in the 21st century. UFV recently hosted Teaching a New Masculinity, a presentation about the necessity for a deeper emotional intelligence within the male culture. This is where I met Jaleen Mackay.

“I think the expectations of masculinity are to be gruff and tough, the pillar in every situation, but that’s counter productive,” Jaleen said, handing me a mug of ginger tea. It was the day after the event, in the Student Life lounge where Jaleen had agreed to speak with me about masculine gender role issues. “I think some men don’t feel like they have the complete freedom to be who they are.”

This narrowing of men’s sense of emotional freedom can result in something known as Male Gender Role Stress (MGRS).

“MGRS is the experience of emotional distress as a result of not adhering to or violating traditional masculine gender norms,” writes Amy Baugher, author of Masculine gender role stress and violence: A literature review and future directions.

In her paper, Baugher quantifies exactly what the expectations are within a masculine gender role: “Masculine gender role beliefs are theoretically rooted in three distinct norms: status, the belief that men must gain the respect of others; toughness, the belief that men are inclined to be aggressive; and anti-femininity, the belief that men should not engage in stereotypically feminine activities.”

These symptoms of toughness, aggression, and anti-femininity can result in the victimization of the carriers of feminine traits, traits that men have been conditioned to resent.

“MGRS has been linked to violence against women and gay men,” writes Baugher. “MGRS is used to control people perceived by the perpetrator as feminine.”

Male violence against women in North America has become an epidemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that one in three women experience physical and / or sexual abuse, and 30 per cent of women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and / or sexual abuse by their intimate partner.

In our interview, Jaleen states, “There are a lot of specific issues that need to be tackled with men before we can address certain egalitarian issues.” Certainly, abuse against women and sexual minorities would be an example of one these issues.

Physical abuse and violence is intrinsically connected with MGRS. Stephani Granato, author of Masculine Gender Norm Adherence: Potential Pathways to Higher Rates of Male Suicide, writes that an adherence to masculine gender role norms correlates with many problematic behaviours and adverse outcomes, from alcohol and drug abuse to heart disease, depression, anti-help-seeking attitudes, risk taking, and aggression.

“When men and boys’ masculine behaviours are reinforced, and feminine behaviours are punished, they are often done so in contexts that expose them to pain, humiliation, and provocation,” writes Granato.

This culture of violence has far reaching consequences. Over half of all boys are physically abused, and one in six boys are sexually abused; children who have been abused or neglected are nine times more likely to be involved in crime, claims the World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO, boys are four times more likely than girls to be expelled from school; 97 per cent of all prisoners are male; 90 per cent of homicide perpetrators are male; 94 per cent of mass homicides are by boys, and in the United States of America a boy commits one school shooting per week.

Jaleen’s sentiment, that stereotypical masculinity harbours unhealthy expectations, has a surplus of research to back it up, but more meaningful than research is her own personal experience. Jaleen witnessed gender stereotyping in her upbringing; her father harboured an intense “fear of femininity” with regards to her brother.

“Growing up, my brother had a strict limitation to the things he was allowed to do. He wasn’t allowed to play with my dolls or anything feminine,” she said. “My brother just wanted to try wearing makeup. I didn’t see anything wrong with that, even if he were gay, or trans, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But my dad, he was so vehemently against it.”

This stifling of men’s femininity results in what Daniel Coleman refers to as “cognitive rigidity,” and when something rigid is pressed into unfamiliar territory, it can break. Daniel Coleman is the author of an academic article titled The Social Nature of Male Suicide, and has some powerful statistics that show expectations of hyper-masculinity not only as unhealthy, but also as emotionally retarding and even deadly.

“There is an emphasis on constricted emotion, anger, and impulsivity within the male gender role,” says Coleman. “The traditional male gender role creates a culturally-conditioned narrowing of perceived options when under stress that increases male suicide risk.”

In British Columbia, suicide is the third leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 45. In North America, 80 per cent of suicide victims are male; 40,000 men in the U.S. commit suicide each year. Some men become emotionally tormented when they are unable to adhere to the stifling expectations of masculinity. When pushed to the extreme, this MGRS results in suicide, and it is especially prevalent for homosexual and bisexual men.

Gay men commit suicide at three times the rate of heterosexual men, and the suicide rate for bisexual males is seven times that of straight men. Many sexual minorities are poisoned by a culture that manipulates them into believing they are worth less because of a physical, mental, or emotional impossibility to adhere to expectations of masculinity.

“Boys are first taught to hide their emotions between the ages of three to five through a ‘boy code’ that rewards toughness, and relies on shame to enforce a prohibition against emotional expression or vulnerability, a condition referred to as ‘gender straightjacketing,’” writes Coleman.

This gender straightjacketing has deadly consequences. Dr. Niobe Way is quoted on the social documentary The Mask You Live In, stating that “At exactly the age we begin to notice the emotional language drop from boys’ vocabulary, that is the precise moment we see boys’ suicide rate spike to seven times that of girls.”

The effects of male gender role stereotyping are far reaching, impacting boys and men, women, children, and people of all genders. The implications of these gender role expectations reach all the way to our quaint university nestled in the Valley.

At UFV, The Cascade recently conducted a survey to record the level of comfort students feel showing certain emotions. Results indicate that the most suppressed emotion amongst men is fear: 44 per cent male to 18 per cent female. Sadness was the most suppressed emotion for women, and second most suppressed for men: 48 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. Nearly 50 per cent of men felt uncomfortable crying in front of friends, but contrarily, men were overwhelmingly neutral or comfortable with regards to angrily yelling in front of friends: nearly 65 per cent. These stats show that even in a Canadian university, among a generation of youth that are supposed to be breaking down the divisive walls of gender stereotypes, a deeply imbedded culture of hypermasculinity is difficult to discard.

Near the end of our interview, I asked Jaleen whether she had any last comments.

“There is a stigma about women fighting for men’s rights, that we are against feminism,” she said. “But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I believe in equality for both sexes, and to move forward with women’s issues we really need to move forward with both men’s and women’s issues as a whole.”

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