The term “mask of masculinity” was coined by Harvard child psychologist William Pollack to refer to developing boys' responses to the typical social expectations of them, responses that they carry into manhood. According to Pollack, we generally expect growing boys to not get too emotional and to achieve independence from their parents relatively early.
Should a boy show weakness, readily seek support, or even demonstrate intellectual curiosity too often, he may face criticism from parents or teachers and ridicule from classmates. Men have learned to put on a mask to avoid criticism, ridicule, and outright shame. Behind this mask, they can appear cool and unaffected, confident and in charge, brave and happy. How they really feel rarely matters.
For a boy to consistently feel that he is not the person he ought to be raises concerns on how others will view him and tears down his confidence. To feel that he misses his mother on the first day of school but also feel forced to “man up” and hide his attachment breeds insecurity. And for him to live in constant fear that expressing his feelings for someone may lead to both people getting hurt is dehumanizing.
Men put on the mask and try to regain the personal integrity they lose in erecting a facade of confidence by setting out to prove themselves to those around them. Sometimes that false confidence we gain comes from humiliating women by making lewd comments about their appearances, bragging about them as sexual conquests, and otherwise undermining their humanity.
Because the mask often stunts early social development for boys, it drives an unacceptable set of problems by brazenly distorting men’s identities, and, to take a recent example, showed itself when varsity college athletes at the College created sexist scouting reports.
Every time sexism rears its ugly head at the College, through news of sexual or gender-based harassment or violence, I am shocked. It’s hard to understand how men could objectify and humiliate young women who face on the horizon an exciting, rewarding college experience. Often, friends and I condemn this crude language and unequivocally express our disapproval of such misogynistic behavior.
But shortly thereafter, I stop thinking about the matter all together.
Relatively few men make the news for describing women’s bodies in sexually explicit ways, assigning them numbers to quantify their physical attractiveness, or comparing the appearance of one woman to another, though I would guess that many more have verbalized them at some point in a private forum. Many men have worn the mask. I have, too.
That does not make such comments any less unacceptable. I am not saying that the mask is an excuse, that men’s need for help with institutionalized masculinity trumps women’s need for help with femininity, or that men are the real victims. Rather, I am proposing an avenue for change, one whose consideration we owe to women. We should acknowledge the role played by masculine gender norms in undermining gender relations on campus. We should educate all students on the insidious prevalence of these roles. We should offer support for men who feel hidden behind their masks but apprehensive for living without them.
It is clear that there is an urgent need to end sexual and gender-based discrimination and harassment, to treat women as first-rate citizens rather than belittle them. Efforts to empower women and embrace inclusivity in the community have accomplished much toward this goal. Yet we can do a tremendous deal more, specifically by addressing our behaviors and attitudes toward women. The mask has everything to do with that.
With every exposé of sexism, we see the true face of the mask of masculinity. It is a mask men brandish, deny, cherish, despise, take on the world with, and hide behind. Every now and then, brave women who have been subject to sexual harassment come along and muster the strength to hold up an almost unbearably heavy mirror. Its telling reflection motivates us to hang up that repulsive mask and walk away. But it persists, luring men to return to it, to feel its flawless, impenetrable exterior, and to experience the empowering thrill of putting it back on. It is time we came together to get rid of the mask altogether.
Siavash Zamirpour ’20, a Crimson Editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.