It’s not difficult to picture a group of women gathered for lunch, sharing their hopes and dreams, their fears and challenges, and what it means to be a woman in this day and age. It happens every day.
Take that same scenario, but replace the women with men, and you have the scene that played out in Main Lounge, Moulton Union at the Men’s Summit — a time set aside for men to let down their guard and do what men so seldom do: be vulnerable.
“It’s radical behavior for men to show up without their armor, “ noted Bernie Hershberger, director of the College’s counseling service and wellness programs, and one of many faculty and staff facilitators at the lunchtime gathering.
“Masculinity is an important issue that a lot of college age men grapple with, and it affects them over the course of their lives,” said Sam King ’14, who organized the summit along with Student Activities. “I came together with a group of other students and administrators who recognized a need for a forum for men to discuss in a confidential space what masculinity means to them and what it means to be a man.”
Nearly 100 male students took a brave step, each answering a personal challenge that ranged from simply showing up to such an event, to being what Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Jarrett Young called “intellectually courageous” in order to participate in discussions that included what it means to be a man at Bowdoin — with or without the status of being an athlete or someone known for romantic pursuits.
Having given each other — and themselves — permission to let down their guard and speak within a collective cone of silence, these young men spoke with great candor — allowing that they had indeed put down other males, perhaps in response to a perceived threat to their own sense of masculinity, and that messages had come, from as close as one’s father, that it was indeed “bad to be sensitive.”
“It’s definitely negative,” said Carl Boisrond ’16 of the latent and often overt signals men receive about sensitivity and vulnerability. “When you’re interacting with people, and in so many different experiences, you really have to be sensitive for a deeper understanding, so when there are these messages — men can’t be weak, can’t be vulnerable, they can’t be sensitive — it takes away from that experience.”
Invited speaker Mark Tappan, a professor at Colby College, spoke of “Guy Codes” detrimental yet omnipresent in our society — notions such as “it’s better to be mad than sad,” “nice guys finish last,” and “I don’t stop to ask for directions.”
Referencing Michael Kimmel’s Guyland (Harper, 2008), Tappan spoke of the culture of entitlement, a privileged sense that one is special and that the world is there for men to take. Kimmel articulated this point with a series of videos depicting lewd and even violent behavior toward women. This landscape is quieted, says Tappan, by a culture of silence borne of a fear of being outcast, marginalized, shunned — or of becoming a victim of violence oneself.
Tappan also discussed the role of anxiety, and media messages that you aren’t good enough or don’t measure up. Cue any number of commercials bombarding men, including one Tappan showed the group promising that a men’s grooming product can turn someone from a subject of ridicule to a brawny tough guy no one dare cross.
As students began to discuss these issues, Tappan walked around the room and noticed table after table of men opening up, feeding what he calls a hunger for this kind of conversation.
“There’s a silencing that happens around guys,” says Tappan. “We’re not supposed to talk about things. That extends from bad things out to everything. We need to break that culture or that expectation.”
Saying it’s the key to a stronger community, Tappan presented a new and improved model — resistant masculinity — that “resists, interrupts and rejects personally and politically” the Guy Code and dominant stereotypes. Such resistors, says Tappan, actively ally with women and LGBTQ folks in standing up for justice, proving their loyalty not to a perceived notion of manhood, but to humanity.
“Resistance,” says Tappan, “is a lifelong process.”
If ever an event was to have a takeaway, organizers hope this lunch provides men sustaining food for thought about who they are, who they want to be, and as importantly, how to talk with each other about these significant issues.