Nobody found it surprising that this year I decided to take a history course titled Patriarchy, Sex and Gender. Neither was I initially surprised to learn that only two boys had decided to take this class. On reflection, however, I wondered why I find it normal that courses focused on gender are more popular with girls and do not find it concerning that gender history in general is a field dominated by female historians. I feel that if a particular field of history was dominated by men (a common phenomenon) I would be concerned. When we think about the reasons why the majority of male students do not appear to be interested in gender studies, we see worrying issues about the relationship of young men to the concept of gender.
Why are young men seemingly uninterested in the study of gender? Perhaps optimistically, I do not think that the problem is a lack of belief in equality or support for feminism. The problem is that, in general, young men see gender as something exclusively belonging to women and, therefore, not relevant to them – the term “gender” has itself become gendered.
Indeed, this idea was confirmed to me when a fellow student said he did not take Patriarchy, Sex and Gender (a name which makes no suggestion that the course is exclusively about women) because he did not want “just to study the history of women”. It is the view that gender is a female concept, and only affects the experiences of women that I find troubling. It shows a misunderstanding of gender that, if not tackled, will make it harder for both men and women to move beyond the socially constructed roles and binaries that are so ingrained in our society.
Male misunderstanding of gender ensures the survival of patriarchal ideals in both university and wider social structures. The assumption that gender is something not relevant to young men reflects the view that men represent “the norm” in society and everyone else is “other” and therefore subordinate to them. This idea is shown by traditional definitions of history, where the ruling or “normal” history is the history of men and women’s history is simply a sub-field of it. Furthermore, the thought that only women have – and are defined by – a gender, perpetuates the idea that there is a correct, essential and universal form of masculinity. It suggests this form of masculinity denotes manhood, and those who do not conform to this ideal are somehow not ‘men’.
What I find so worrying about this idea is that, within our generation, the dominant form of masculinity is bound up with the ideals of social milieus such as ‘lad culture’, in which the objectification and suppression of women with victimisation of non-straight men are inherent . Through the promotion of such forms of masculinity, there continues to be a view among young men, whether unconsciously or not, that masculinity and being a true ‘man’ depends on the subordination of women. It is due to a lack of awareness of the nature of masculinity as a socially constructed gender that young men, falsely, see the hegemonic form of masculinity as the definition of manhood and therefore conform to it rather than question its values.
The apparent lack of interest on the part of men in gender history and theory reflects a lack of understanding of gender, and of the extent to which men, as well as women, are constrained by gender roles. We can only move beyond these roles when both sexes understand their socially constructed nature. Indeed, this is why I find the lack of boys on my history course so worrying – this would be exactly the kind of environment where they would be able to deconstruct and disregard current notions of masculinity, an opportunity which the majority seem not to have taken.
Following three complaints about the photograph which originally accompanied this article, the original photograph was replaced by the current photograph. This was the result of an editorial oversight, and was in no way the fault of the writer. The Glasgow Guardian has apologised to those who made complaints.