Students examine gender roles to prevent violence
What does it mean to be a man?
It’s a question that has been on Jordan Hale’s mind for years. As a kid, he didn’t have many male role models – the people who made a positive impact on his life were mostly women, as most of his close friends are now.
“I’ve always been fascinated with masculinity and what being a man means,” said Hale, a senior political science and communications major. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen that answered in some negative ways.”
Hale is a standup comedian. He has listened to joke after joke where gender is a punch line. In workshops, he’s watched female comedians endure critiques that seemed to him unnecessarily harsh and overly analytical.
“I’ve found that if there’s one place where misogyny runs rampant, it’s comedy,” Hale said. “People can say the most horrible things about women when they disguise it as a joke.”
He doesn’t know if this kind of masculinity is becoming more common, or just more visible, but he wants to be part of making the comedy world – and the UNC campus – a place of equality.
He joined the UNC Men’s Project, a new campus program that brings together male Carolina students to explore and promote healthy masculinity and use those skills to help prevent interpersonal violence. A group of 22 students will meet two hours a week for 12 weeks examining how dominant views of masculinity can be harmful to all genders.
“When you hear words like ‘privilege,’ it’s easy to retreat or feel attacked, but it’s helpful to really learn what that means,” Hale said. “The goal isn’t making men feel bad about who they are. It’s to show how they can make a positive impact.”
Challenging popular perspective
“Very few men live up to the standards set by masculinity – strong and stoic, wealthy, athletic and popular with women,” said Bob Pleasants, the project’s creator.
Many drivers of masculinity also surround things like aggression, power and strength, he said.
“Gender roles don’t automatically equal aggression, but it’s part of the story. Some of the gender dynamics that are created by limited and prescribed gender roles can encourage men to step over the line into negative and violent behaviors,” Pleasants explained.
As Carolina’s interpersonal violence prevention coordinator, with teaching appointments in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, he had thought for years about a program where men address masculinity. A grant from Verizon helped him make it happen.
The applicant pool for the project exceeded his expectations, showing that men on campus are already aware of – and interested in – the issue. The chosen cohort – who come from diverse backgrounds, races and social spheres, including the Greek system – were eager, enthusiastic and committed.
Each week Pleasants and members of the arts-education organization Sacrificial Poets lead the men through interactive lessons, writing exercises and discussions to look at how dominant views of masculinity are unhelpful to all genders.
“There are so few opportunities for men to have conversations about this. Men benefit, as a group, from these kinds of views, but individually, it can lead to a lot of struggle,” Pleasants said. Pressure to perform and act a certain way, and to live up to what they think a man should be, can keep them from being authentic and happy, he explained.
At a recent meeting, the group was asked to participate in an activity which involved trusting other members of the group to catch them. Hale said usually men are taught the only way they physically interact – even jokingly – is with their fists, or in feigned combat.
“It’s no big secret that men aren’t taught to talk things out, or to have discussions. We’re taught to fight or argue – the one who wins is the one who was strongest, or has the loudest voice,” Hale said. “Changing that view can prevent future incidents of violence.”
Changing a culture
Anondo Banerjee applied to the project after taking Pleasants’ class “Leadership in Interpersonal Violence” last year. He’d been drawn to the class after learning that violence had impacted his own life, secretly, for many years.
“I discovered that a trusted male family member had been violent toward a female family member – and for a long time,” said Banerjee, a junior biology major from Alabama. “It took me a while to understand how something like that could happen, and from someone who I liked so much.”
Neither had he thought much about harassment.
Banerjee has never been on the receiving end of catcalls or damaging language, and his social circle doesn’t do things like that. But, when his female friends opened up to him about it, he saw that just because he had not experienced something didn’t mean he shouldn’t try to change it.
Deciding not to get involved can be easy for many men, Pleasants said, and the influence they can have in preventing interpersonal violence issues can be overlooked.
“Some men don’t think it’s their part, or they don’t understand that violence can also involve men directing their behavior toward other men,” he said. “There’s physical, sexual, verbal and emotional violence, and also bullying.”
Choosing not to be affected by what one might consider a “women’s issue” is a symbol of privilege, Banerjee said.
“Before it happened so close to me, it was something that didn’t really cross my mind. I learned that fact is problematic in itself,” he said. “Violence affects everyone, whether you know it or not.”
Setting an example
When Pleasants took his first women’s studies class as a senior at Carolina in 1999, he did it for a woman.
This woman – who would eventually become his wife – was a women’s and gender studies major. Pleasants signed up for Sherryl Kleinman’s “Sex, Gender and Society” to learn more about what her life might be like.
“Quickly, the experience went from doing something to be a ‘good guy’ to being able to understand the things I was learning in class and see that I was relating to it,” Pleasants said.
Gender, he learned, wasn’t a zero-sum game where you lift one while putting the other down.
“Expanding those gender roles offers a lot more of humanity and better understanding in all kinds of relationships,” he said.
It was an eye-opening experience, one upon which he’s built a career of advocacy and education, and one he hopes to pass on to other young men through the UNC Men’s Project.
He and Sacrificial Poets will let them guide the process, which is still new. Once they do some of the deep work on masculinity, they will work on how to translate that to violence prevention work.
“Men doing that kind of work without really understanding themselves or understanding what masculinity means can be risky,” Pleasants said. “You can run into all kinds of problems: men dominating the movement or falling into a trap of chivalry.”
Some of the young men in the program already have taken the first steps toward effecting change. Although Banerjee said he’s “not exactly where I want to be to make a difference,” there are things he, and any men, can do now.
“You can decide you won’t laugh at rape jokes. Change your own language – don’t say things to other men like ‘man up,’” Banerjee said.
“You can start just by changing some things you do that you might not have realized were problematic, and then you are an example to others.”