Breaking through gender roles: Creating conflict to change ourselves

One of the most ground breaking pieces of scholarly literature that spurred my introduction in to gender identity exploration was Voices of gender role conflict: The social construction of college men’s identity, written by Tracy Davis of Western Illinois University. Through a constructivist qualitative inquiry with ten college men, Davis described the phenomenon of identity foreclosure, where there is an absence of crisis that leads to identity self-exploration. In lay terms, Davis posits that college men in some environments were not being challenged to think about what type of man they were and how they were acting as a result of the ways they were and are socialized to be men (and in this case, also white). The absence of racial and gender identity exploration refers to other research that Davis cites:

The lack of gender awareness may also be explained by Jones and McEwan’s (2000) multiple identity model. According to this model, privilege and inequality are least visible to those who are most privileged by cultural systems.

For me this article was especially powerful. By raising my awareness of my gender identity and the way I was socialized to perform a male gender role, I was starting to experience the type of crises necessary to begin a process of connecting with feminism and supporting gender equity. The male gender role identified by O’Neil (1981) and explored by Davis highlights a fear of femininity at the heart of male gender role conflict. Homophobic statements/behaviors (which were rarely said, but also rarely challenged when witnessed), pressure to limit emotional expression, and impacts on open and honest communication are all symptoms of the way I was socialized to “be a man.” This created stress because it combined with my own personal feelings of inadequacy for not fitting the physical “type” of man–I was thin, lacked muscular definition, and was academically-oriented, not intent on sexual or romantic prominence–both in high school and in college.

The fear of femininity carried this perception that I did not measure up to society’s expectations of how I should act or appear–how I should perform my gender (see Judith Butler for more on gender performance). I am still unraveling the impact of this socialization and failure to confront my own gender socialization until I was 25. It continues to offer challenges to my personal relationships, approach to friendships and connecting with others, and feeling comfortable with developing the counseling skills necessary to do my work in student conduct. This is problematic for me as a partner intent on fostering an equitable and interdependent interpersonal relationship, and as a student conduct administrator, as the counseling skills are necessary to my work; yet, I still feel an underlying discomfort because the helping skills are socially constructed as feminine and it requires a huge mental shift to acknowledge this and still embrace the practice of these skills to normalize them in my own communication methods, role modeling this for the young college men that I work with almost daily.

Because I did not begin this exploration until I was in my first year of graduate school, at age 25, I am struggling to unlearn negative stereotypes from more than one fourth of my life expectancy. It’s imperative that we start to develop avenues to spark the developmental crises necessary for boys and young men to explore their gender socialization and performance as early as possible. We also have to be sensitive to social factors and intersections of class, race, and ability, among others, which influence the power dynamics that contribute to men’s feelings of powerlessness, despite the social power of masculinity. We are at an opportune time in this country to do this. There are numerous issues related to masculine gender norms that are regularly in the media–sexual assaults among high school and college students, gun violence, the rape culture that pervades American society, and the conservative party line about individual responsibility, to name but a few. As educators, parents, friends, and colleagues, we need to identify meaningful opportunities to challenge boys and young men to join us on a journey of identity exploration, and avoid foreclosure to the possibilities that can benefit our shared humanity. As adult men, we can open ourselves up to the conversation, to the idea that we have more to gain by taking that journey ourselves and making informed and conscious choices about the way we perform our genders, rather than a lock-step adherence to patriarchy and fear of all things feminine.