Where the boys aren't

Apr 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

In a split second the classroom air goes from composed to one thick with female solidarity. You can hear a pin drop. The women leer at the "sacrificial" male student, their eyes like heat-seeking missiles. He said that all women are "biologically engineered to nurture and mother offspring, so why would a woman ever want to deviate from that?" Soon the intellectual shrapnel flies as student after student rips this poor guy's comment (and ego) to shreds with well-honed feminist rhetoric.

Sure, the average women's studies class, like the one described above, may appear tame, but they're often filled with opinionated women baring their fangs. These rather intellectual debates can get personal and, when they do, things can get ugly fast. So it's no wonder that relatively few men show up to them.

On the other hand, women's studies isn't some platform for hordes of whining women to hide behind academics; rather, it's a university-level department that looks at gender, race and class from a different perspective, one designed to better understand society.

"Women's studies courses provide nuanced conversations, not solely about women, but also about how gender norms and social pressures impact and influence women and men," says associate professor Jonathan Metzl, Ph.D., M.D., who teaches and researches in the department at the University of Michigan.

But for many guys, these classes aren't worth the intellectual commitment. Yet some men brave the good fight. Jesse Game-Brown is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Michigan concentrating in women's studies. While his early experiences in the program were rocky, he continued pursuing courses because analyzing gender and masculinity norms sparked his interest.

Game-Brown isn't your average beer-guzzling, sports-obsessed college dude; he thinks before he speaks, which comes in handy in an academic world that's as personally layered as women's studies.

But Game-Brown still suffered through a biased class and, after two weeks, he dropped it. The then-sophomore didn't mind the twice-a-week, hour-long lectures, but the weekly two-hour discussions killed his gender-study buzz. In a small discussion class (whose beginning readings tackled male patriarchy and oppression) with about 15 women and a few guys, Game-Brown felt disturbingly conspicuous as a white male. "I felt like I was being blamed ... I think part of it was I was unprepared to really be examining patriarchy," he says.

Sure, Game-Brown's experiences would deter most college guys from pursuing women's studies courses. And maybe they're afraid of getting called "gay."

"Of the men I've met in women's studies, not very many have been straight," says Andy Kravis, a senior at U-M, majoring in English and women's studies. "It's a stereotype that arises from a half-truth, but it prevents straight guys from going into these classes."

Out of the 48 women's studies majors graduating from U-M in May, Game-Brown and Kravis are the only males.

"I have an anomalous position being a straight, white male in women's studies," Game-Brown adds. "And I've gotten some negative reactions too."

Maybe the confusion and bias lie in the very title "women's studies." While some of the discipline's courses focus on women, each addresses myriad themes — one class can differ greatly from the next, covering topics including health, witchcraft, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) studies, history of the U.S. family and women in literature. The majority of courses are cross-listed with other departments, ranging from psychology and sociology to nursing to African-American and African studies.

"[It's] a diversity major," Kravis says. "You talk about gender, race issues, sexuality, disability and ethnicity."

Kravis and Game-Brown point out that the curriculum benefits men and women, and, in analyzing topics concerning men, women's issues connect seamlessly.

"The categories of women and men are constructed around each other — whatever a woman is, a man isn't supposed to be," Kravis says. "To be aware of that and the forces that are playing into women's subjugation and male power. ... Men need to care about the fact that they have an unfair privilege.

A boy's club

On a spring Saturday afternoon, a simple circle of chairs is arranged in a small room at the U-M's Michigan League in Ann Arbor. A little more than a handful of students sit in the circle, passing crackers and Pringles, munching and chatting as they readily welcome new guests and ease into conversation. Intimate and inviting, the gathering is a chance to stick your toe in the water before diving into a women's studies classroom discussion.

This is Man Forum — a student group created by Game-Brown to examine what it is to be a man in America.

"It started out as me wanting to educate the males that I knew in the field that I was studying," Game-Brown says. "I felt like they were approaching media and society from a standpoint that wasn't good enough for me. I didn't want to be the token feminist. I just had something that I wanted to talk about with the men in my life. So I created a forum in which they could do it."

Man Forum is a small but growing bunch, mostly made up of straight males from varied backgrounds — there's a feminist here, a cognitive science major there and so on. Each week sees a different theme; subjects covered include childhood, media, and deviant and predictable sexuality. It's a safe space for people to talk without offending others.

While some Man Forum participants don't consider themselves feminists, their conversation addresses themes and issues common to a women's studies classroom.

The discussion centers on domestic and sexual violence. Emotions and tempers can run high, especially when some share personal stories. But the talks mostly stay calm, with dashes of relevant pop culture references such as South Park and Deliverance.

Game-Brown patiently and quietly moderates; every so often he reels the group in from off-topic tangents and over-the-top analyses to the debate's main points. He makes an effort to include less-heard viewpoints. In small snippets, the group makes feminist questioning pertinent to a man's life; things society takes for granted as being "simple" in a man's world aren't so cut and dry.

"Gender issues are typically analyzed from the perspective of women's issues, and this gives kind of a nice counterpoint to that and to look at there's two or more parties involved in gender issues," says Alex Kostrzewa, a regular at Man Forum. "And so being able to look at gender issues from the male side is a really important part of that discussion."

Back to school

Metzl is a joint-appointed associate professor in psychiatry and women's studies at U-M. His research explores how racial and gender stereotypes impact medical and popular understandings of mental illness.

Even as one of the only men in the department, Metzl feels quite at home.

"I think that women's studies has become an increasingly energetic place on the U-M campus to be," Metzl says. "People are doing a great deal of very important, interdisciplinary gender research. ... I find it to be an incredibly welcoming place for the research I do."

Metzl has also taught undergraduate courses that take men as their subjects, such as "Men's Health." He and others in the department have worked to add a masculinity studies component to the introductory women's studies course —"It's been evolving over the past couple of years; it's so far from the stereotype of man-hating feminists."

For Metzl and others, feminist methods used in women's studies offer a way to re-evaluate social and political pressures affecting men and women.

"To my mind, women's studies is a perfect place to be addressing those questions," Metzl continues. "Feminist models are helpful in understanding what it means to be a man as well."

And for guys who'd rather not be pigeonholed a manly man or pansy, recognizing social expectations placed on them and women creates an awareness that can be, for some, freeing.

"I definitely have a better sense of what pressured me into my identity and what has made me value certain masculine traits, as well as what has sort of pushed women into feminine roles," Game-Brown says. "So in that sense, I do have a better understanding of the world."

Julianne Mattera is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]