Main Hall Forum questions role of masculinity

Beth McHenry

Four Lawrence faculty members discussed the concept of masculinity and its cultural and social effects in a packed Main Hall Forum Wednesday afternoon. The panel presentation, titled “What is ‘Masculinity’? – And Why That’s the Wrong Question,” focused on the constructions of masculinity in culture and history and how they relate to power.
Students, faculty and members of the community left standing room only at the well-attended forum.
Monica Rico, an assistant professor of history with a focus on gender and cultural history, introduced the concept of masculinity studies, a branch of study that has evolved since the advent of women’s studies and gender studies.
The establishment and development of “gender history” in the ’70s and ’80s opened up further questions about the nature of male and female roles.
Although there was and is some debate about masculinity studies, Rico and others who study masculinity in culture and history assert that concepts of masculinity play an essential role in shaping the views of and responses to social changes and crises.
Paul Cohen, professor of history and the Patricia Hamar Boldt professor of liberal studies, explored the portrayal of masculinity in post-World War II American film.
Cohen began his portion of the panel discussion with a clip from Howard Hawks’ western film “Red River,” released in 1948 and starring an essential icon of American masculinity, John Wayne. The clip highlighted a number of the classic icons of masculinity including the Wild West and an independence from women and romantic love.
Cohen pointed out that studying
masculinity in film can make masculinity in pop culture more visible. Revealing masculine icons can take away some of the enormous power that masculine concepts
have in other areas of life, such as politics.
Randall McNeill, associate professor
of classics, discussed some of the history of masculine behavior in Roman society. As in our modern society, Roman citizens sought to define the ideal “Roman values.” Most of these expectations were different for men than they were for women and have similarities to expected gender roles today.
Melanie Boyd, a Lawrence fellow in gender studies, discussed the concept of masculinity in relation to queer theory. Queer theory examines relationships between sex, gender and desire. By analyzing and pushing the boundaries of these concepts, queer theorists hope to disrupt the flow of cultural power from the norm.
Boyd pinpointed especially how researchers and analysts in gender studies find that masculinity is especially prominent when viewed apart from the standard concept of “the male.” For example, it is often easier to identify masculine traits in a black female than in a white male.

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