April 9, 2018

Are Men Talking?

The Werklund School’s Michael Kehler discusses (Un) learning What it Means to be a Man After #MeToo
Men Talk
Men Talk

If the word has no power and the pen is not mightier than the sword, then #MeToo is nothing more than a Trumpian illusion. The fact of the matter, however, is that words are powerful and the pen is mightier than the sword.

The truth is that silence can not take away the pain, nor can it forever bury the sexual assaults, harassment and humiliation experienced by women who have recently taken control and been empowered in the social media #MeToo torrent that has seen an unimaginable stream of allegations in Hollywood and beyond. I say “unimaginable,” not because it is hard to imagine in North America a culture of masculinity would produce such painful and devastating attacks on women. It is unimaginable for me because of how the voices of women and the accounts of sexual assaults have emerged out of social media and, moreover, found resonance around the world and in the daily lives of so many women.

As the new research chair in Masculinities Studies at the Werklund School of Education, I have followed the conversation about sexual assaults, allegations and responses online. I am a feminist. I am a man. And I have been left wondering: are men talking? During the Nov. 26, 2017, episode of CBC’s Sunday Edition, Gillian Findley interviewed three male guests about what she referred to as “a cultural reckoning” and the “whisper network” of conversations among men who are aware of other men behaving badly, but about whom no one speaks. This begs the obvious question about whether, in fact, men are talking and, more importantly, who is listening? Are men talking and is this really a “cultural reckoning,” a watershed moment, a time that will forever redefine gender relations and significantly impact the culture of masculinity?

Will we look back upon 2017 and recall the tide change? I can only hope that yes, this is a historical moment in redefining gender relations. What strikes me most about this conversation is that it continues to be part of a growing public dialogue, for now. Men are being asked, “Are you ashamed to be a man?” Others might question whether this “moment” will escape men. Will we be left with a silence more deafening than the utter immobility cloaked by a code of masculinity that has damaged so many people?

Behind these words, I am a partner, a father, an academic, a son and a brother to three other boys. I am a masculinities scholar who has spent my career examining how boys and men engage in being boys and men. I have explored issues intersecting boys, books, homophobia, adolescent boys and body image in health education, the counter-narratives of boys who resist sexism and gender stereotypes, and, still, I am puzzled and perplexed by the social media movement that is #MeToo. I am perplexed by the immense momentum and the immeasurable power demonstrated in a wave of upstanding public denouncements of alleged sexual assaults. Against this backdrop, however, I am worried that the narratives of patriarchy, the stories of domination that underscore every headline of assault, will remain unheard and misunderstood by men who need to listen and take action to forever shift the course of masculinities in our day-to-day lives.

Action and change require both the willingness to listen and the ability to understand. In my research interviewing adolescent young men, the most powerful takeaway has been the incredible truthfulness of their accounts, if and when people were willing to listen. I am struck by the fears, the anxieties, the vulnerabilities of young men who constantly struggle with being young men. The repeated references to dominant, aggressive, imposing boys who wield power, alienate and marginalize, oppress and silence other boys is perhaps not surprising. It is, nonetheless, painful to hear. What is more disturbing is the level of acceptance of a particularly narrow culture of masculinity that exists and indeed flourishes within many schools. These are places of education that grow and develop minds, and yet I see a recurring and overarching acceptance about boys and masculinity. What is surprising is the deeply entrenched and accepted mantra of “boys being boys.” You can hear it echo in the school corridors: “It’s just the way they are,” “That’s boys for you,” or, “It’s their testosterone.”

In a recent visit to a Grade 9 class where I spoke about masculinity, body image and media representations, I was moved when students volunteered terms such as “toxic masculinity” and “mansplaining.” I was further moved when, in seeking authentic, real-life evidence of their experiences, they revealed to me the degree to which they, as young men and women, had been marginalized, felt ostracized because they did not measure up to or were inadequate compared to the expectations of masculinity and femininity in their school. I listened, I saw and now I struggle to understand how change will occur. Who is listening? While a maelstrom of media and social media accounts paint a broader picture of sexual assaults and harassment within a culture of patriarchal power and a whisper culture that allows “boys to be boys,” I am left in awe of the voices that have spoken out while our youth remain trapped and restricted, limited and bound by normative standards of masculinities and femininities.

Unlearning what it means to be a man is unspeaking, unseeing, undoing the powers that define masculinity. We are in the midst of powerful and unsettling socio-political times wherein we see a Canadian prime minister who identifies as a feminist and an American president who adheres to locker room talk as “just talk.” How more polar and oppositional can two men be? Unlearning means shifting the cultural standards, redefining the norms of masculinity and reconfiguring gender relations that reflect a culture of respect. The shift, the ability to listen and, moreover, the ability to change means accepting the need to alter current definitions of masculinity. If, in fact, men are talking, then it requires a huge cultural shift within North American culture that encourages different, less-dominant, less-aggressive masculinities that do not rely on normative masculinities rooted in sexual domination, aggression and homophobia.

If men are listening, then there needs to be an active rethink, an active and visible commitment to activism against inequalities. Men can be agents of change. Adolescent boys can recalibrate, renegotiate masculinities but they will only do so if they see the possibilities, if they understand the need to change and recognize power in not reinscribing heteronormative masculinity. Boys and men need to reject sexual violence, reject sexual dominance, and embrace more complex and fluid ways of being boys and men that unseat dominance towards other men and women. I am thus bewildered in a manscape that looks all too familiar, but one that has felt a shift, the unsettling of terms and, with optimism, I hope the redefining of gender relations in which men are indeed talking and, more importantly, becoming agents for change.

Originally published in UCalgary Alumni Magazine - Spring / Summer 2018