Reading Masculinities in our World

The spring, Professor Shaun Karli taught Reading Our World: Masculinity in English.  Today, Professor Karli reviewed the course and some of the history of Masculinity Studies for Women & Gender Studies students and faculty.  The following is commentary about the course, by student Jacob Dickens.


Shaun Karli teaching about masculinities
Shaun Karli teaching about masculinities

Every so often, I like to talk to my friend in Canada through the chatting app Discord about our favorite shows, YouTube videos we both love (we will send everything related to the artist Jack Stauber to each other, it’s a problem), and our personal lives. When I talked to him about my remaining classes before the semester’s end, I mentioned that I was enrolled in the class Reading Our World: Masculinity, an English class that explored different facets of masculinity through various short stories, plays, and books. He sort of scoffed at it and said, “I’m sure it’s a good class and all, but it just seems weird”. He wasn’t the only person to show hesitation about the class. Other people in the class talked about their friends acting incredulous when the class was mentioned, as if the idea of studying what our culture expects men to be is ridiculous or unnecessary. But to those people I say that this class was not only fascinating, but something that every student should consider attending when it becomes available.

The class was structured in a typical English format: a reading due and a discussion in class. But the discussions themselves felt loose enough that we were free to discuss whatever facets of masculinity we were interested in. In a recent class, a presentation on masculinity in American Beauty lead to a nearly hour-long discussion of masculinity in the Star Wars series (including about 15 minutes of explaining the premise of the series to classmates who hadn’t seen it). The class was also structured to discuss intersectional masculinity, the idea of men’s expectations overlapping in their race and class. For instance, the way that Troy in August Wilson’s “Fences” expresses his masculinity as a working-class black man is very different from how Yunior would in Junot Diaz’s “Drown” as a lower-class Dominican teenager. After a few classes, it was as if our class had developed its own language, discussing “breadwinner dynamics” and “hegemonic masculinity”.

Ultimately, the class showed me the various societal pressures we place on boys and men to assimilate as the “ideal man” and how ultimately destructive it can be. In America, the ideal man that is presented to us in the media continues to be one that isn’t vulnerable emotionally, that views women as a prize or a sex object, that exercises power by dominating over his colleagues or enemies. These are the idealized images of men and masculinity and they have been for decades. And these images reflect back into what we expect of men in our culture. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that more than eight in ten men nationwide say they face pressure to be “emotionally strong”. This bottling of emotions can be damaging to many men and provide them with little or no nonviolent outlets that are seen as acceptably masculine. It’s worth examining other, more positive ways to encourage boys and men to accept that they can forge their own paths in their masculinity and shouldn’t feel burdened having to match societal standards. You don’t have to be sexually active to be masculine. You don’t have to be violent to be masculine. You can be masculine and feel vulnerable and scared. It’s worth looking at these in an academic sense to fully understand these pressures through a wide variety of lenses and so I end by encouraging everyone to not only look into what they think a man should be or look like but why they think that. It’s worth doing so the men in our community and abroad don’t feel so tied down by this intangible idea of men.

–Jacob Dickens