"Machismo!" shouted a young college student in the third row.
"Tough!" "Violent!" "Homophobic!" shouted three other young men, sprinkled throughout the packed lecture hall. Ethan Wong, a student at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, who was dressed in a slim business suit, nodded as he wrote each word on the chalk board.
The roomful of young men was brainstorming all the qualities associated with masculinity. Wong was one of the organizers of the National Conference for Campus-Based Men's Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups, a long and clunky name for an unprecedented event that took place last weekend at his school. It was the first time that young guys from around the country -- guys like Wong, who recognize that the kind of masculinity they are describing is toxic for men, too -- gathered to share strategies for getting college men involved in gender-based activism and discuss the work ahead.
In attendance were about 200 individuals, representing 40 colleges and two dozen organizations, many of them sporting titles like Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, Men Can Stop Rape, and Men Stopping Violence. Notice a trend here? This contemporary movement of gender-conscious young men is largely identifying themselves in terms of what they are against. They're not rapists. They're not misogynists.
They're also not particularly effective in imagining what they do want to be. Case in point: back to Wong at the chalkboard. The negative associations with masculinity poured off the tongues of these feminist-friendly college kids. They've taken Women's Studies 101. When their buddy says, "That's so gay," they spit back, "That's a sexual identity, not a dis." They let a few tears fall during the Take Back the Night March. They devour Michael Kimmel's Guyland and proselytize about Byron Hurt's documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. This generation is saying no to toxic masculinity.
But what are these young men saying yes too? We've all failed to envision an alternative.
This became painfully clear over the course of the weekend as speakers and students grappled to find what one presenter referred to as a "feminist masculinity." Is there such a thing? Does it look like President Barack Obama -- or does his insistence on talking about sports and drinking beers reveal that he's just one of the guys? Does it look like KRS-1, the veteran rapper who recently said that hip-hop needs more women -- or is his statement too little, too late? Stephen Colbert, in some ways, is the closest thing we've got. He consistently lampoons misogynist punditry and policy, yet his "feminist masculinity" is only visible vis-à-vis its blowhard foil.
We've certainly got plenty of pictures of men who are stubbornly clinging to the old paradigm of maleness, and sadly, they're not acting -- think Tucker Max and Bill O'Reilly. The men's rights movement is making reclaiming traditional manhood a compelling project for young, lost men. These activists know how to paint a vivid, if delusional, picture of the kind of man who will overcome victimization at the hands of all of us hateful feminists: He's righteous, he's fighting back, and most important, there's nothing feminine about him. He is the opposite of female in every way.
While it's thrilling that there is also a movement of young men all who want to tear down the patriarchy right alongside women, it's dangerous that they don't have a clear picture of what they want to build in its place. At the conference, one young man spoke up against the notion of a new "feminist masculinity," explaining that he feared it would be one more box that young men felt they had to fit into. There's a lot of validity to his argument, but I fear that the old adage is true: We can't be what we can't see. Models help us try on various identities and find one that is truly authentic. The more publicly feminist-aligned men we have, the more opportunities the next generation has to find a positive, masculine gender identity that actually fits.
Many young men, it seems, are stuck in stage one of gender consciousness. They want to prove that they are one of the "good ones" and separate themselves from all the gendered behaviors and beliefs that they now see as oppressive. That, or they wallow in guilt. (This is not unlike the stage many white kids get stuck in upon fully realizing their role in perpetuating racism.) At worst, this point of view is paralyzing. At best, it leads to burnout. It's not until privileged folks, men in this case, can own the ways in which they have a self-interest in resisting systems of oppression that their work becomes sustainable.
This is about so much more than the 200 men who attended this conference. They are on the front lines, but there are legions of progressive men of all ages, all over the country who are struggling to redefine masculinity and live that redefinition every day. They fumble without models but continue on because they know that there is so much to be gained. Guys who reject traditional masculinity, for starters, have a greater chance of finding fulfilling work that isn't just a symbol of their provider status. They might explore the joy of relationships -- being nurturing with their kids, real with their friends, open with their partners. They have the opportunity to shed their socialized skin and all the anxiety that comes with trying to be a "tough guy" and make a happy life defined, not by their paycheck or their size, but by their humanity.
Fighting against the world that we don't want is a critical first step, but fighting for the world that we do want is where liberation truly begins.