March 12, 2014

Precarious Manhood, Indeed!

by Kelly Clark

Gender is a social construction. Men and women are socialized to be either masculine or feminine from the time of infancy. Boys are socialized to be strong, assertive, competitive, and rational. Social psychologists consider these to be instrumental traits. Girls are socialized to be soft, communal, nurturing, and emotional. These traits are termed expressive. In our culture, we often pass judgement on a person’s successful construction of gender. The more you take on these gender norms, the more man or woman you are considered to be. There is an argument in the psychological literature that it takes more work for males to become real men than it takes for females to become real women. This is referred to as the precarious nature of manhood.

In a study where people were asked what it would take for a woman to lose her “womanhood” answers where much more biologically driven, for example – “a hysterectomy.”  Where as for a man to loose his “manhood” the answers were much more psychosocial, for example-  “loose his job.”  It seems those things we consider womanly have much more to do with her physical body. To be a real man seems much more attached to a man’s performance of social male norms, like being the bread winner or satisfying his female sexual partner.

Here is a photo that first appeared on that has been making its way around the web. When I read the account I thought it was a perfect example the precarious nature of manhood argument.













I see two ways that this post can illustrate precarious manhood. First is the reaction of the adults at the party. They make it clear that they believe Chester will suffer some detriment for not being socialized into the strict male gender norms they believe will produce a strong, assertive, competitive and rational man. If they thought that there was something innate about being a boy that would produce these traits, there would be no need for the worry.  Clearly, their belief is that Chester needs to have expectations and directives that help him develop masculine and not feminine traits. That his parents have set gender neutral expectations and directives for him is scorned. That his parents consider his happiness above all else is of no consequence.

The teasing Chester’s father suffers may be a stronger example than the first.  It seems all it took for this man to loose his card to the category “man” club was to have a “feminine” son. Precarious, indeed! Whether lighthearted joking or more serious bullying, it all has the same effect – it forces men to maintain a constant vigil, to be on the look out for anything that might provoke such ridicule.

But isn’t it the strength of character of Chester’s father, to put the happiness of his son above all else, that is the mark of a real man? Isn’t it sad that this episode may cause dad to rethink this position as Chester’s happiness and even his safety may one day be tied to the level of femininity vs masculinity he displays?  Sadly, our culture has not made room for boys who are being raised with gender neutral expectations.  It will take all of us to make that world a reality.

February 16, 2014

The Real Value to American Society of Michael Sam Coming Out

by Kelly Clark

Sociologist Eric Anderson credits the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic for rendering gay men visible in contemporary society. Here-to-for only a concept in the minds of most Americans – “yes there are those people out there lurking in the dark” – the AIDS epidemic brought gay men into our living rooms via TV news coverage of men dying and men and allies “acting up” forcing anyone and everyone to finally pay attention to their plight. The AIDS quilt, with panels laid end to end stretching clear across the mall in Washington, DC gave visible gravity to the staggering numbers of gay men dying from AIDS. In the flash of one decade, gay men were forced out of the closet to save their own lives and Americans were faced with the reality that gay men were in fact all around us. In every state, city, village.

According to the Pew Research Center, today only 13% of Americans say they do not know someone from the LGBT community. Yet the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate and all effeminate men are gay still holds. Michael Sam’s coming out has now forced Americans to consider that their stereotype and thus their ability to pick a gay man out of a crowd is null and void. That an elite male athlete from a combat sport like football is gay flies in the face of this stereotype. Unlike his NFL predecessors who came out after their time in the limelight – David Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, Kwame Harris, and Roy Simmons, America will watch Michael Sam as he plays his heart out in the sport he loves with all of himself – his male self, his African American self, his college educated self, his gay self.

The real value to Americans in Micheal Sam’s coming out is that it chips away at the stereotype of all gay men being effeminate. Like the early days of AIDS, it is another shock to the American psyche that will force us not only to recognize that there are gay men all around us, but that we cannot readily pick them out of a crowd based on lame stereotypes. That just as there is no one way to be a straight man, there is no one way to be a gay man. That in fact, there exist a wide range of masculinities and men are indeed able to be “real men” in a multiplicity of ways.

March 18, 2013

Volkswagon walked right into this one!

by Kelly Clark

Have you seen this Passat commercial?

Many people are asking, “What’s the point?”  It’s posted all over the web under headings like “worst commercial ever.”  Unlike most car commercials that actually try to entice you with the performance of the car, zooming down a track or around a hair-pin-turn, this car is stationary. Other commercials show you the luxurious and roomy interior as child after child pile in. Still others use the latest Top 40 hit and some cool 20-somethings to prove to you how much fun their car is to drive.  In fact, in this commercial the car is not even the central subject. It is cleverly positioned in the background of a scene where a father is teaching his son how to throw a ball. The car is positioned so strangely that every time I see this commercial I get worried about the little boy throwing the ball through the window of the car!

I don’t like this commercial either, but perhaps for some very different reasons.  The whole point of the commercial seems to be to suggest that the father, who is visibly  awkward in his ball throwing technique (clearly meant to evoke thoughts of “throwing like a girl” – he’s clearly doing a ballet move known as the plie!), will at least have the long lasting Passat to pass on to his son. For this his son will be grateful because clearly he will not be grateful for dad teaching him to throw.

Most likely without meaning to, this commercial has joined the ranks of misogynistic advertising that demeans women and girls and also smacks of subliminal homophobia.  First, there are many, many girls who do not throw in the ridiculous fashion that this dad does. Second, those girls who do throw using a clearly untrained technique are just that, untrained. There is nothing innate to boys and men to cause them to throw with perfect technique and precision. What gives many boys an advantage over girls in this area is the gendered way in which many of us play with our children and the expectations we have of them as they grow up.  Like this dad, many fathers are out on the lawn playing catch with their sons while moms are in the house playing dolls or baking cookies with their girls.  To be fair, there are many moms out on the lawn making sure their boys can throw and catch because they are trying to make up for the absence of dads in the home. This is still a gendered decision.  In the absence of dad, are there many women rushing out to make sure their daughters can catch?

And yet we continue to make light of what is clearly an issue of behavior and not innate ability.  When boys are untrained or not performing to expectation why is the fallback position always something to do with acting like a girl?

“You throw like a girl!”

“Come on ‘ladies’ I know you can do better than that!”

“Get your panties out of that bunch ladies and get on the ball!”

Referring to boy as ladies. You’ve heard this in real life as well as movies and TV.  My question always is, “So what so bad about ladies?”

But there’s more to unpack in this commercial. From the looks of it, dad just got home from work. He still has on his shirt and tie. He is spending time with his son. They are clearly enjoying their time together and the dad is immensely supportive in his teaching.  Isn’t this what we say we want from dads? He seems to work and support his family with a nice house and a nice car. Regardless of his technique, he is spending time with his son – the number one thing our kids say they want from us. He is gentle and kind in his interaction and encouragement.  Wow! What more could we want?  Yet the narrater makes the assumption that this little boy will not be grateful about this precious time spent with his dad. Why?

The obvious implication is that the son will soon learn that throwing like a girl is bad.  The kids at school will eventually make fun of him.  Sadly, both the boys and girls will make fun of him because the girls like the boys have already internalized this stigma. He may also face homophobic remarks and bullying because boys who appear “soft” in any way are quickly labeled gay, which is funny because the kids are clearly acting out with regard to gender stereotypes not romantic attraction.  Too young to even know the difference, they have already internalized that there is something deeply wrong with a boy acting like a girl.

What’s the result? After a lifetime of being the one not to be; the one that’s wrong, weak, dumb, and incapable, girls and women chase one fix after another trying to feel good about themselves, trying to prove their worth to boys and men.  Gay boys and men have even more difficulty. Many of them stay in the closet due to fear of violence, and face staggering levels of rejection from friends, teachers, teammates, church, and even family when they choose to come out. Children and adults who identify as transgender or are gender nonconforming in any way perhaps have it worst of all. They clearly confound society by insisting on embracing their psychological sense of themselves regardless of what their physical bodies would suggest. By acting in ways that so clearly break open the myth of gender and gender stereotypes, they face the highest murder rates among people who identify as LGBT.  This is particularly true of male to female transgender people.  Again, what is so wrong with being a girl that your life would actually be taken from you in a fit of rage and violence because you are perceived by someone as a “man in a dress”?

The cumulative effects of these seemingly innocent advertisings, TV shows and movies can range from unhappiness and low self esteem, to loss of life.  While we should be upset with Volkswagon for producing this commercial, for most people the implications go right over their heads.  It is my hope that by reading my blog and others like it more people will begin to see what’s all around them for we are like fish in water and until we begin noticing the water, nothing will change!

Thanks for visiting!

July 24, 2011

The Vagina Dentata Alive and Well in 2011!

by Kelly Clark

Saw the 4th installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies this week. As promised, it quenched my thirst for action and adventure beautifully shot in the most amazing wild places on earth.

But that is where my praise for this movie ends. Just watching the trailers for the movie I knew I would have some issue with the portrayal of man-eating mermaids, and I did.  Their portrayal plays on every female stereotype. They are young, beautifully made up, long haired, dewy (well actually wet), doe-eyed seducers of men. They approach the boat and bounce along side innocently starring at the male sailors nary saying a word.  Should a sailor draw near they instantly grow vampire like fangs, grab their pray and drag them to the bottom of the ocean – but not before having “their way” with them!  In one scene the mermaids consume an entire ship causing it to capsize and sink to the shrieking screams of the men on board.

It seems the myth of the vagina dentata is alive and well in 2011! Stories of the toothed vagina occur in many cultures.  Common themes include the Creation Mother being conquered by the male hero who successfully removes the teeth thus making her into a human woman.  Or the witch who with magic spells can cause teeth to grow in the vagina for her own devious purposes. (Find a larger exploration of these myths at Goddess Cafe.)  Barbara Walker in The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets suggests that the more patriarchal the culture the more fear seems to be expressed through these myths.  That Pirates 4 relied so heavily on this imagery would suggest that we are still living in a patriarchal society indeed!

Modern psychologists have tackled the why of these myths. From where in the human psyche did they evolve? Might it be an unconscious exploration of the cycle of male sexual dominance and impotence? An erect penis enters the vagina and orgasms only to exit the vagina in an impotent state. Not only is he deflated but he has also been forced to leave some of himself behind. Do these myths reflect an unconscious judgement that even though the male in general has physical prowess through the sex act it is the female who holds the power?

And yet sex is pleasurable. The man-eating mermaids of Pirates were so appealing to the sailors that at least one expressed his willingness to be overcome by a mermaid, in full understanding of the fate that would await him, just to experience such beauty and promise of overwhelming ecstasy. Might the myth of the vagina dentata also express something similar – an inescapable desire to enter into a foreign place knowing that it will consume you, if even just for a moment?

Might then the connection between misogyny as expressed through this myth and modern homophobia occur right here? If the male psyche, through unconscious socialization, has internalized the fear of female consumption through the sex act YET gives in to it precisely because of the desire to be consumed by female beauty, where does that leave a man who has sex with another man?  The sex act leaves him impotent without so much as an ability to at least claim female seduction as the lure – for why else would a man ever willing render himself impotent?

I don’t know?  Just something to ponder…

Oh, next week I’ll share the problem I have with the portrayal of the only other female in the film – the character played by Penélope Cruz.






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