Teaching Men: Masculinity, Literature, and the Undergraduate Classroom

Brown and Black Wooden Chairs Inside Room

In my first semester of graduate school, I was fortunate enough to audit an undergraduate seminar called “Men, Masculinity, and War Stories.” That course familiarized me with a number of the works I examined in my dissertation, and it trained me in new ways of reading and seeing.

It also informed my subsequent scholarship and teaching, which revolved around several key questions: What kinds of representations of “ideal masculinity” to young men and women compare their behavior and experiences against? How does popular culture—including Twitter—inform our perception and performance of masculinity? And what’s at stake in all of this? Is masculinity a valuable knowledge to be studied? 

“Teaching Men: Masculinity, Literature, and the Undergraduate Classroom,” plays on two meaning: First, the representation of men in literature and second, a pedagogy that attends to the embodied experience of men. So let’s start with that last question: What is gender studies all about, and is masculinity worthy of study? 

The Case of the Missing Men’s Studies

If you’re reading this, you probably are familiar with the concept that gender is socially constructed. In other words, gender is not a thing in the world in and of itself; instead, it’s wholly reliant on societal views and perceptions. (And if you’re not familiar with the notion that gender is socially constructed, check out this 3-minute video from the theorist Judith Butler for a fast primer.)

However, masculinity studies was a relatively late addition to the program of gender studies, and, with some exception, remains woefully undertheorized today. As Thelma Fenster has argued, “The conventions of modern historiography inscribed the stories of the few—the hegemonic males—as generic, human history. Readers often complied with that project, agreeing to read partial histories as comprehensive ones.”1 This perspective ignores women, but it also tends to treat all men as purveyors of hegemonic power. In other words, the notion that all men have all the power ignores the reality that the embodied or lived experience of men also depends on differences of individual identity as race or class, physical ability or appearance, or of military or business acumen, among other factors. 

According to such a line of argument, men as a group have operated to subjugate, oppress, or exploit women. But this means that the lived experiences of subjugated, oppressed, and exploited men go unrepresented. Treating men as an undifferentiated group elides the fact that not all men have control or power over women and not all men exploit others. 

Note: This “not all men” refrain has become a cultural trigger on social media sites like Twitter. In my experience the “not all men” response typically lands on a tweet where a (typically) woman writer describes a discrete incident. Male stranger X did this, can you believe it? And a man (or two, or 12) respond with, “Not all men would do that unbelievable thing!” Of course those men aren’t (exactly) wrong, but they’re exactly missing the point. The woman never said “all men” do this thing, but more often than not it appears that all men who reply instinctively with “Not all men,” fail to read closely before responding.

This failure to see men as a subject of study is apparent in the categorization of departments and degree programs in higher education. I performed a Google search five years ago and again today. Five years ago, results for “Women’s Studies” outnumbered the results for “Men’s Studies” by a ratio of 32 to 1. Today it’s still 4 to1. 

And it’s not just an issue in academia. The lack of scholarship on masculinity reverberates in popular culture as well. Phrases like “man up” point to the existence of essentialized notions of masculinity. The character traits or attributes commonly associated with men include strength, power, aggressiveness, and activity.

When we tell someone to “be a man” in the face of emotional or psychological duress, we suggest that maleness is defined by strength under pressure or emotional control in face of adversity. The counterexample is of strong or powerful women who are described as “masculine.” (A much better framing is describing those individuals as strong or powerful embodiments of femininity.) The fact that we’re still having this conversation in 2020 points to the pervasiveness of our tendency to understand men through essentialized notions of strength, power, and emotional self-control.

Teaching Men in the Classroom

When I taught a course with a women’s, men’s, or gender studies element, I asked my students to articulate “Where They Stand” at the outset of the course and then again at the semester’s close. In my Human Values in Literature course, in which I focused on masculinity and war, one of the prompts I used was “A real man is ______.” I asked students to fill in the blank by articulating the qualities or characteristics of a “real man.” 

This was by no means a sociological study, of course, and my prompt was leading, indicating as it does, that there is something other than a “real man” that a man could be. Nonetheless, their responses were telling. The vast majority would offer qualitative assessments of what constitutes masculinity. 

Here are four representative responses that reify notions of male strength and power:

  • “A real man is brave, strong, respectful and responsible. A man should be brave and strong to protect his family and others. A man should also be respectful especially to women and responsible for his own actions.”
  • “A real man is someone who stands up for what they believe in. A real man is not scared for what is to come, but is prepared for anything. A real man is tough enough to cherish and love what life has given him.”
  • “A real man is honest, brave, sentimental, caring, sacrificial.”
  • “A real man is honest, trustworthy, hard-working, selfless, positive but realistic. Willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people closest to him.”

A few responses pointed to the predicament that many men face; namely, the expectation of being emotionally stoic and self-possessed while simultaneously in touch with their emotions. 

Here are two examples from students who recognize that men face a double-bind of being both emotional and in emotional self-control.

  • “A real man is strong but also soft; knowledgeable but also curious; kind but also tough. A real man has the ability to be able to read a situation an[d] act in the appropriate manner. He can be strong while also being helpless and isn’t afraid to have his insecurities be seen.”
  • “A real man is someone who can set aside his pride for someone else. He is also able to see and do good for others, be responsible & a hardworker, love & treat his mother like a queen, be able to admit he’s wrong, and last but not least, be true to himself & show his raw emotions (no matter how girly it may feel).”

And some, as in the following example, reflected on the implications of ideal masculinity in their own lives:

  • “Growing up, I was taught that a real man should be tough physically and emotionally. I’m skinny and I have that pointed out to me a lot. Most people think I need to be buffer and stronger. But I think any man is a real man whether or not they are physically strong or are more emotional than other men.”((Others, it should be noted, cut to the quick of masculinity as a social construction. “A real man is impossible to define,” one writes. “It is subject to all sorts of cultural biases and there isn’t one definition.”))

One of the reasons I like starting the semester with such an exercise is because it required students to articulate some of those assumptions, idealizations, and ideations that “go without saying.” It also sets the tone for a semester-long discussion of multiple models of masculinity. Let’s take a look at how these models come into play with the example of William March’s World War I novel Company K.

Making Sense of Masculinity—William March’s Company K 

Neither strictly a novel nor a collection of short stories, William March’s Company K is composed of 113 different short chapters, each presented from the perspective of the character named in the title. 

March’s narrative technique does not allow for systematic or sustained interrogation of masculinity. Instead, each short vignette offers a glimpse at a single soldier during a discrete moment in time. 

The book moves chronologically: in each chapter, a new soldier describes his experience in training, on a troop ship, arriving in France, participating in a variety of combat situations, and coming home and reestablishing a civilian life after the war’s end. 

Let’s take a closer look at four chapters from Company K that provide four models of masculinity: Philip Wadsworth, Sidney Borgstead, Leslie Yawfitz, and Roland Geers.

Private Philip Wadsworth

The first, Private Philip Wadsworth, is a young man whose virginity makes him one of the “stock jokes” in the company (105). Wadsworth is isolated and different from the other men because of his chastity, and his comrades are intent on eradicating the difference between them. They set him up to spend an evening with a woman who is, unbeknownst to Wadsworth, a prostitute suffering from a venereal disease. She talks him into foregoing the chastity that he promised his fiancée, Lucy, by speaking of her own sweetheart, whom she says had been killed at the Battle of Marne. As the prostitute talks, Wadsworth thinks, “‘My morals are absurd. I may be killed next week. I may never see Lucy again’” (105). 

Following their encounter, Wadsworth contracts a sexually transmitted infection, is courtmartialed for “failing to report for a prophylactic[,] and [is] sent to [a] labor battalion” (105). He concludes his chapter thus: “I have thought the matter over a thousand times, but I cannot understand, even yet, what there is about male chastity that is humorous, or why it repels and offends” (105). 

Wadsworth can’t see why his desire to remain pure for Lucy is objectionable to other men in the company. In class, my students point to the ways in which Wadsworth’s purity threatens the standards of masculinity adhered to by the other men. 

Wadsworth’s choice of love and fidelity makes unromantic engagements with prostitutes look unsatisfactory by comparison. In order to feel better about themselves and their choices, one might argue, Wadsworth’s comrades use the prostitute to undermine his values. From Wadsworth’s perspective, however, chastity is a quality perfectly appropriate to men.

Private Sidney Borgstead

The second, Private Sidney Borgstead, is a man who had been a tailor in his civilian life. In the military, however, he is assigned to the kitchen as a soldier. In his new role, the sensitive Borgstead feels inadequate and out of place. He observes the illogical thinking of the Captain who assumed that “a man who had handled chiffons and lovely taffetas would be equally deft in the medium of beef carcasses and dehydrated potatoes” (112). 

Nonetheless, Borgstead throws himself into the work, attempting to “prepare the rations as attractively as possible” (112). He is soon dismayed and dejected by the men’s lack of gastronomical interest—they are more focused on portion size than presentation (112). 

One evening, overwhelmed by the swelling line of men waiting to be fed, he is made momentarily hysterical. He wants to say to them, “‘Don’t worry, little piglets, mamma pig will soon have supper ready!’” (113). Guided by his panic, he pours in “some medicines and salves” to the stew he was preparing, believing this will prevent the men from queueing for breakfast the next day (113). When morning comes and the line is as robust as ever, Borgstead attempts to desert the kitchen. Sergeant Mike Olmstead cuts him off and placates him by confirming Borgstead’s role as mother hen. The sergeant asks Borgstead, “How would the boys get along if they didn’t have you to take care of them when they come back from the trenches?” (114). Mollified, Borgstead returns to his duties. 

With this example, my students have in their interpretive toolkit a model of masculinity that looks very similar to stereotypes of femininity or of motherhood. In his depiction of Private Borgstead, March insists that men can be caretakers and providers just as women can. 

Private Leslie Yawfitz

In my third example, which takes place well after the war has ended, my students see how expectations of male stoicism conflict with psychological and social realities. Private Leslie Yawfitz was blinded in the war and lives with his sister. 

The chapter begins by describing their nightly routine: “After supper I clear the table and wash the dishes, while my sister sits in a chair and tells me about her work at the office, or reads the morning paper out loud” (243). One night, his sister reads to Yawfitz an article about France conferring an honorary degree on the “German scientist, Einstein” (243).((Einstein was in fact awarded an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1929.)) Frustrated, Yawfitz asks his sister, “‘If it was a mistake and a misunderstanding all the way round, what was the sense of fighting at all?” 

In response, his sister “sighed, as if she were very tired,” but does not answer him (243). Yawfitz continues to respond to the news, adding, “‘Since they’re all apologizing and being so God-damned polite to each other, . . . I think somebody should write me a note on pink stationery as follows: “Dear Mr. Yawfitz: Please pardon us for having shot out your eyes. It was all a mistake. Do you mind, awfully?”’” (243). 

This time his sister is moved to respond, but only to foreclose conversation. “‘Don’t get bitter again, Leslie,’” she urges. “‘I know, I know,’” he responds. “‘Don’t get bitter again, Leslie. Please don’t get bitter again’” (244). 

In other words, his sister suggests that bitterness is not a reasonable emotion for Yawfitz to express, and certainly not one she has the strength to entertain. My students compare Yawfitz’s inability to make sense of the international conflict that took his sight with his sister’s inability to accommodate his feelings of grief, frustration, rage or betrayal. They tend to find her refusal to allow him to speak a damning report on the expectations of male stoicism.

Private Roland Geers

In the classroom, I try to pair the expectation of masculine restraint of Yawfitz’s chapter with the chapter of Private Roland Geers, which explores homosociality, homoeroticism, and male intimacy. 

Geers’ chapter takes place early in the novel, while the men are still in boot camp and preparing to be sent overseas. He describes enthusiasm among the enlistedmen that even a training hike on a cold winter day couldn’t dispel. 

Upon their return, Geers and another soldier, Walt Webster, attempt to take a shower only to discover there is no hot water. Undaunted, Geers reports that the two men “held our breath and ran under the cold shower, jumping up and down and hitting each other on the chest, until a warm glow began to flow through our bodies. ‘This is great,’ I said. ‘This is great, Walt!’” (17).

Webster responds by singing at the top of his lungs, “merely because he was young and full of life” (17). Suddenly, Geers reports, Webster “picked me up in his powerful arms, carrying me to the bath house door, trying to throw me into a snow bank” (18). In response, Geers “locked [his] legs around him and held on” and both men went into the snow bank together (18). They “floundered about in the snow wrestling and laughing” until they drew the attention of the other “boys in the bunk house” (18).

Soon, “every man in the company was naked and wallowing in the snow, shouting with exhilaration” (18). Wrestling naked, playing exuberantly, and articulating their enthusiasm, the men in this chapter show comfort with and acceptance of all kinds of male experience and expression.((The chapter concludes with Walt Webster’s unbridled enthusiasm. “Walt stood up, slapped his thighs, and began to crow like a cock. ‘Bring on the whole German army!’ he shouted. ‘Bring them on all together, or one at a time, I can whip them!’” (18).))

In each of these examples, March provides a vision that expands today’s limited frame for masculinity. 

#FragileMasculinity and Social Media

One year when I was teaching Company K, my students brought to my attention a campaign on Twitter which suggests that masculinity had become more restrained in the eighty years since Company K was first published, not less. 

As part of the #fragilemasculinity campaign, users share screenshots from other digital sources and pictures of consumer products marketed to men as evidence of men’s so-called fragile masculinity. 

Such products include “Lip Balm Engineered for Men,” “Manflu” cold lozenges, and Q-tips brand cotton swabs marketed as a “Men’s Ultimate Multi-Tool.”

According to Sarah Dunn of The Register, “The concept behind the hashtags is that this man-specific branding is evidence of extreme defensiveness on the part of male shoppers. The campaign implies that men can’t bear to pick up a product unless it explicitly bolsters their masculine identity.” 

Dunn concludes by questioning the efficacy of such branding. “We’re not sure this kind of marketing even appeals to the majority of consumers—male or female.” 

However, in practice, the #fragilemasculinity campaign was not, in fact, just about interrogating marketing practices. A significant number of tweets critique men for their perceived fragile masculinity. Many of these tweets express scorn for men’s adherence to masculinity as an identity category or their willingness to be interpellated by such stereotypical gender norms. This Twitter conversation was a very useful tool in the classroom, and trending campaigns like this emerge regularly. 

Based on our study of works like Company K, my students recognized how the #fragilemasculinity campaign was not just ridiculing tone-deaf advertisements. Instead, my students saw the ways in which #fragilemasculinity operated as an implicit and often explicit critique of men and of masculinity as an identity category. 

Reflections on a Pedagogy of Masculinity

At the end of the semester, I asked my students to revisit their responses from the first day of class. Here are some of their reflections on how a pedagogy of masculinity impacted their view of the world and the place of men in it. 

As one woman student noted, reflecting on her previous response: “Before [I] took this course, [I] knew sex and gender were different, but [I] now understand embodiment and social construction better. It’s actually kind of funny. I had a huge moment of clarification after the clip on gender. I held myself back my entire middle school and high school years because it was socially constructed that tall was a masculine feature. I can’t believe I believed that! There’s no real definition of masculine and feminine, only relative ones. . . but to who? Who decides? I no longer feel intimidated by my height (maybe sometimes), but I started wearing 4” heels to work. I’m 6’2” two days a week! I’m confident in that!” 

Although this student had offered a nuanced understanding of gender as socially constructed when the semester began, an interrogation of male gender roles gave her tools for understanding the function of gender discourse in her own life.

Another student, this time a man, reflected on his previous answer to the prompt, “A real man is ______” as follows: “My first response [was] all things that I aspire to be. I used words like “loving and kind,” but these are simply traits I hope to possess. This class taught me that this, like many other concepts, is relative. Some people see a real man as tough and strong, stereotypical masculine traits. I would say a real man is willing to pursue what he is passionate about regardless of societal norms and expectations. If someone feels connected to masculine traits, who’s to say that’s wrong? Or on the contrary, who’s to say straying away from these norms is wrong? . . . To me, it boils down to taking advantage of opportunities to grow and learn while respecting other men’s right to do the same.” 

And it is this openness to a multitude of experiences that I hope an intentional teaching of men continues to inspire. 

Thoughts? Feedback? Pushback? Email me—I’d love to discuss. Interested in the syllabi I used? I’m happy to share those too.

Image source: Pexels

  1. Preface. “Why Men?” Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees. Page x. []

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