What are people learning about masculinity and femininity that teaches boys to act a certain way — especially against women?
It’s a question Roxanna Harlow, the class’ instructor, posed to a small class on the third floor of Hill Hall at McDaniel College, a question which the class would come back to over and over again during the third week of the Common Ground on the Hill’s flagship class Finding Common Ground.
“In this, our flagship class, we draw from our experience as artists and human beings to have a dialog arising from our life together here and in the larger society,” a description online of the class reads. “In an atmosphere of trust and safety, and inspired by song and story, we will listen to and learn from the voices of our sisters and brothers from communities represented in our circle.”
The class, Tough Guys and Pretty Girls, spent just over an hour each day for five days exploring gender roles and stereotypes, violence and sexism against women, toxic masculinity and more.
Harlow, in an interview with the Times, said she taught a class last year on gender, but it was more introductory, and didn’t cover nearly as much as this year’s class did.
Discussing these topics are important because there’s a problem with violence and sexual harassment in our culture, she said.
“Simply talking about it isn’t going to make it go away. There’s a broader problem with the way our system is structured, the way we understand what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman,” Harlow said.
“Until we address that, until we get out of the box that men are supposed to be violent and passionate and lustful and women are supposed to be willing, wanting and arm candy for men, we’re constantly going to have issues …it’s not about being good or bad men, but where men are engaging in behavior that is hurtful to both women and to themselves and where women are going to contently find themselves in positions where they are either hurt or they find that they are having to be … sexualizing themselves [and] hurting their bodies in order to fit into some type they’re supposed to be, that society says they’re supposed to be.”
On the first day, Harlow told the class “we are at a crossroads right now in our society.”
Overall violence is down, but mass shootings are up. And most, she said, are committed by men. What does that mean, she asked the class. Harlow brought up the fact many continue to explain away bad male behavior by saying “boys will be boys.”
But, Harlow warned, it’s important to keep in mind “there is no one cause” for these type of acts.
Through the five classes, Harlow discussed a number of topics like mass violence and sexual assault and harassment, the sexualization of women even from a young age, how the media portrays women, masculinity, when it becomes toxic and what boys are taught.
Harlow spent the first day tracing through the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story, the #MeToo movement and the ripple effect that has continued since. From there, she talked about recent incidents of mass violence — the shooting at The Capital newsroom, the shooting at the Parkland high school — and their ties to men who have histories of abuse, harassment and the like.
Can the behavior that leads to events like these be traced back to what boys and girls learn about their roles, Harlow asked throughout the week.
“What are we taught either directly or indirectly,” she asked.
On the second day, two Elle magazine covers were projected on a screen at the front of the class. They showed two women in sexualized outfits and positions.
Harlow asked for thoughts on what the images showed — what the messages were.
One class member brought up the fact that specific words like “sex” were deliberately placed on the bodies of the women on the magazine front.
Harlow said placements like that are messages that people don’t even realize they’re consuming.
“We’re not even realizing that it’s there,” she said, because it’s so commonplace.
And, Harlow said, even if people are aware of the messages being sent, they are still impacted by them.
The class looked at power dynamics and sexism, especially in the world of politics. Harlow asked the class if representation matters. Some say women aren’t being prevented from holding positions of power, but rather, just don’t want to be in them.
“A lot of people argue that we’re trying to force this representation,” she said.
George Perkins, a member in the class, said he finds it hard to believe there aren’t women who want to be in power or who want to be president. There’s something in society that’ preventing them, he said.
Stephanie Pastovic, another class member, said she thought for many women, it’s hard to be one of just a few, and trying to hold these positions of power is an uphill battle, something that wouldn’t be so hard if it was 50-50 men and women.
“It’s a very corrupt place and it’s hard to be the only woman,” Pastovic said.
Elora O’Neill, a class member who said she interned in the Maryland General Assembly for Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, said she disagreed.
It wasn’t that women struggled, but rather, those who worked hardest — man or woman — found the most success.
“The ones that put the most effort into it did the best,” O’Neill said, though acknowledge there is some under representation. But, she reiterated, “The ones who work the hardest see the most reward.”
Harlow posed another question — do people who work hard succeed? Is that enough? Or, she said, is hard work just one piece, and there are other elements at play that help someone find success?
“Is that just a little piece of a much bigger puzzle,” she asked.
The final two classes focused the challenges men face in terms of gender roles, and how those challenges are related to toxic masculinity.
Harlow said there are some who believe as a country, movements like feminism are trying to “wossify” and emasculate men. What are men taught, she asked, about gender roles, and how does this impact their behavior?
Ellamae Barnwell, a class member, said she found it interesting that men and women are growing up in the same culture of sex and violence, but that men are the ones who are statistically more prone to commit murder, sexual assault and mass shootings.
Pastovic said she thought that women and girls manifest behavior differently — more often, she said, women don’t lash out at others but instead hurt themselves with eating disorders and self harm behaviors. Women are also sneaky in their behavior to manipulate and emotionally hurt others.
“They’re very smart about that kind of stuff,” she said.
Caroline Freundel also said women and girls are cruel to each other in ways that don’t include violence, whereas men see violence as a manly way to cope.
“[Men feel like] you have to prove your manhood with violence,” she said.
She also said this behavior can stem from the fact many men as boys are told they aren’t allowed to show their emotions.
Harlow said with these traits of men and women, the question remains whether they are caused by nature or nurture, or if it’s a mix. And, she said, it’s hard to really separate what the cause is.
“From the time that kids are born, we’re socializing them into certain roles,” she added.
The final class was made up mainly of a discussion about toxic masculinity, and just exactly what that means.
Bryon Layman, a class member, said he felt like toxic masculinity was when the concept of masculinity begins to snowball, gets stronger and becomes a negative.
“It just fuels on itself,” Layman said.
Harlow said toxic masculinity is when masculinity is set up in opposition to femininity, and in a way that means femininity is a bad thing.
Harlow said she thought current movements and discussions that challenge traditional ideas of gender — like the transgender and non binary movements, will help continue to combat these stereotypes.
Harlow said these gender roles, and what they do to society, aren’t simple. It’s complicated, she said, and we don’t have all of the answers yet.
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“We continue to do harm to ourselves,” Harlow said in an interview with the Times. “If we want to stop harming ourselves, then we have to really address the source, which is a patriarchal structure — at least one piece… that says men have to act a certain way, women have to act a certain way, and that’s not … helping men or women.”