I vividly remember in the year 2000 the hysteria of Y2K, the slow decline of grunge music, and the fact that I was turning 16 and getting my driver’s license. One night at my grandmother’s house as I was binge watching MTV’s TRL (a popular show in which they played music videos) one of the kings of hip-hop, Jay-Z, released his new song Big Pimpin‘. It was a video filmed on a yacht loaded with guys smoking cigars, fancy cars, hundred dollar bills, and dancing girls. The imagery of this video is something that has stayed with me forever as concept of success and manliness. A real man gets the girls, gets the boat, the cars, and the cash.
I recall this image of masculinity because about a year ago, Men Can Stop Rape visited our campus and had a conversation surrounding what it means to be a man in today’s society. One of their workshop activities had us describe males in popular culture and the characteristics that defined them as being a “man”. Answers around the room varied from athletes, movie stars, and musicians as we identified characteristics such as their money, fame, body image, and along with their ability to get what they want. The second question posed to the group by the facilitator was who was a man in your life that influenced you. A stark contrast immediately filled the room as themes like mentorship, compassion, leadership, coaching, emerged from the 15 different stories.
As males, especially those of us who are white and heterosexual, we exhibit some of the greatest amount of privileges in society. I seldom get catcalled while walking down the street and I have never been dismissed in group meetings for sounding “too emotional,” nor do I feel fearful walking down the street at night. But at the same time, I have also never really discussed with other males what it means to be a man. Over the last 13 years of my adult life, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve had structured conversations on what it means to be a man in today’s society. For many of us, we are on a difficult maze as one path pressures us to make money, get the girls, and accumulate power/management-based positions, but internally we want different things.
One of the biggest challenges I and others in our field face is the recruitment of male volunteers for service programs. I’m not naive enough to think that the world’s problems will be fixed through greater male contribution, but I am curious to why men are not showing up. From countless activist meetings to mentorship programs to religious leadership, I keep wondering, where are the guys at. Are these issues more trivial to men? I think one of the major reasons is that as males we have been conditioned to not talk about our emotions, to bury how we feel, to “man-up” and HTFU. Every media source from music to how men are portrayed in movies has taught us to aspire for power and fame, that we are the one’s in charge taking power, that we are the leaders, the car fixers and the handy men. I think its time that we men take charge of our masculinity and start at the bare minimum, just talking about what it means to be male. At our staff group discussion it wasn’t the powerful males who impacted us, but the compassionate, the nurturing, those who took time our of their days to invest in us.
As much as I love Jay-Z, I think its time that the imagery that surrounds the phrase man-up shifts from showing power to living compassion.
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Podcast With Dan Tillapaugh on Men & Masculinity