Why a Focus on Men & Masculinity?

Robert Haaland

Across societies, there are gender norms – dominant, mainstream expectations of how men, women, girls and boys should supposedly look, act, feel, and relate to each other. We’re often taught that being a “real man” requires things like being emotionally and physically tough; being heterosexual; having lots of women; having power over one’s partner; not feeling or showing vulnerability, sadness or fear; being able to take care of oneself and others; and being financially successful.

Research around the world has found that rigid/dominant views about masculinity are linked in men with problems including homophobia, transphobia, sexual and physical violence against women, violence against other men, bullying, substance abuse, risky driving, and behaviors that increase risk for sexually transmitted infections. Masculinity norms which say that men should be tough and invulnerable are also linked with men’s lesser use of health care (including for mental health, injuries, cancer screening and HIV testing). In the U.S., men die years earlier than women of similar backgrounds, largely due to their higher rates of risky behaviors and lower rates of health-protective behaviors – patterns of behavior that are often linked with how men show their masculinity. Men’s enactment and experience of masculinity is also affected by other identities they hold, such as their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status.

Also, when “masculinity” is defined through its contrast to a less-valued, stereotypical “femininity,” and when being gay is seen as being “like a girl” – which is supposedly the worst thing a guy can be – it contributes to homophobia and transphobia, which in turn contribute to problems for LGBTQQIA folks including elevated rates of substance abuse, depression, suicide, school dropout and experience of bullying and violence. Homophobia isn’t only a “gay people’s problem,” insofar as straight boys and men often go to great lengths to not “seem” gay.

Overall, boys and men often feel feel pressured to fight, show their toughness and virility, not express their emotions, sexuality or gender identity, and set aside parts of themselves – to try to fit into boxes of social expectation which, in fact, almost no one naturally fits into! And when individuals (of all genders) who buy into hazardous gender role ideas hold positions of power in social institutions, patriarchy, gender inequality and the marginalization of LGBTQQIA and other less-powerful groups become entrenched through policy. The personal and the political are fundamentally linked.

On the positive front, it’s increasingly recognized in the public health and social justice fields that working to shift gender norms in support of healthy masculinities is a productive and needed approach to improving well-being for all people.

Given all of these facts, it’s essential to create bold, ongoing, mainstream forums around the world where the impacts of dominant masculinity ideologies are discussed, where men’s beauty and humanity is celebrated, and where healthy forms of men’s human expression are highlighted and supported. We need many local revolutions in male gender norms and gender relations – for everyone’s benefit.

The Men’s Story Project was initiated in 2008 to help move these revolutions forward. The core of our work is a scalable, research-based approach to helping groups create live story-sharing events, educational films, and other media in which men and folks who identify in any way with maleness publicly examine social ideas about masculinity through the lens of their own life experience. These events and media can be bolstered with film-based curriculum and community engagement campaigns. The MSP “crowdsources culture change” in social ideas about masculinity and gender dynamics, in locally-led ways, through people’s less-often-heard voices and stories.

MSP productions can be regularly-occurring (e.g., yearly campus productions, touring groups), accompanied with community engagement campaigns, and incorporated into broader education programs (e.g., as public culminations of multi-session programs with men). MSP Collectives can form around this work, and films and educational tools can be created on the basis of the live productions.

MSP productions have been overwhelmingly positively received, and we invite groups far and wide to get involved in creating MSP initiatives and join our growing MSP network! We provide training and consulting for groups creating MSP productions and other social justice testimonial-sharing initiatives.