“Masculinity” is a word that everyone talks about but no one really understands. As a queer male laden with debilitating prejudices and uncertainties regarding America’s version of traditional masculinity, I walked into Claiming Williams’ matinee performance entitled Phallacies: A Masculine Performance with reservations. By the end of the hour-long event, however, I was seized by the uncontrollable urge to stand up and cheer for this motley crew of semi-awkward, 20-something-aged men sporting baggy shirts, scruffy beards and fitted caps. For me, the Phallacies troupe’s modest, haphazard, skit-driven performance was exactly what I had been waiting for at the College: It was an earnest refutation of problematic representations of men in today’s media and society; an affirmation that one doesn’t have to be sexist, homophobic, emotionally disconnected, etc., to be considered a “real man;” and most importantly, a way of liberating men from extremely constricting behavioral expectations imposed upon them by traditional gender roles. I feel strongly that both Williams men and the College community as a whole would benefit greatly from continued exposure to these issues of masculinity.
Phallacies’ amalgam of sometimes-cheeky, sometimes-heartfelt skits confronted a barrage of issues surrounding traditional or hegemonic masculinity. One performer suavely recited a beat poem about making a woman feel beautiful without objectifying and over-sexualizing her. Another denounced using the word “gay” as a derogatory term. In one performance, two men complained that the term “bromance” derides and delegitimizes the emotional depth of male friendships. The skit “Hugging 101” playfully parodied men’s efforts to refrain from touching one another out of fear of stigma while challenging the basis for these constant compensation measures.
These are deep-seated issues that result from millennia of patriarchy and gender conformity. Despite recent sociological research that heralds the upsurge of “inclusive” masculinities – that is, the widespread rejection of hegemonic masculinity in favor of a more fluid and accepting approach to gender identities – many American men still attach a host of destructive baggage to the desire to embody a masculine ideal. Too many men are still subject to family traditions and hierarchies; to societal beliefs that American men should be heterosexual, sexist, unequivocally competent, aggressive, stoic and homophobic; and to simplistic media representations of men and women. To those who condemn the entire male sex as “chauvinists” or “pigs,” I say that not only does this negate any possibility for men to change, but also it further fails to account for the fact that men are often not perpetrators of but victims to the assumptions and expectations of their gender.
Unfortunately, I think that many social problems at Williams reflect this very prevalence of misguided conceptions of masculinity. Sadly, instances of rape and sexual assault still abound on campus; many victims continue to feel pressured against speaking out while men are not held responsible. Words like “gay” and “faggot” are still exchanged between male students as a way of continuously checking and attempting to undermine each other’s manliness. Many students feel pressured to act and dress according to male-oriented standards of conduct. People across boundaries of sex, race, sexual orientation and gender expression are still mutually fearful of and uneducated about one another. While many of these issues transcend masculinity, a great deal are exacerbated by troublesome ideas about what it means to be a man and the fact that these ideas are virtually never discussed or debunked on this campus.
That’s where the Phallacies performance comes in. I was struck not so much by the content of these skits – I’m sure many students here feel hoarse from a constant (and sadly, often unheard) vocalization of these issues – but by the immense impact of having these masculine problems iterated from the mouths of a group of average young men. Like it or not, there was something very powerful about this broad array of men – of different shapes, sizes, ethnicities and backgrounds – demonstrating to all of us that it is possible to discard the upsetting elements of masculinity while still being a man.
What these men are doing is incredibly important. For other men, they serve as role models for the type of inclusive masculinity that would ultimately benefit all men and all those with whom they interact. For women, LGBTQ people and others who often feel oppressed by men, these men ask for forgiveness and, in return, for the elimination of prejudices against men. After this performance, I felt that I could begin to dismantle my own stereotypes of men and be accepted by other men. For the first time, I felt my fears addressed, my sexuality affirmed and my identity as a man upheld.
The College needs to continue this conversation about masculinity, what it means and how it affects this community. Man up, Williams!
Daniel Schreiner ’14 is from Winston Salem, N.C. He lives in Agard.