By MAX BROWN
Last fall, the group “Positive MENtality” was formed by Drake students Kevin Kelly, Andrew Blalock and Ben Mawdsley in order to facilitate discussion about masculinity on campus, and to fight the prevalence of “toxic masculinity,” both at Drake and in the larger society.
One of the challenges the group is trying to face is the fact that few people think of masculinity the the same way, and therefore it can be difficult to differentiate toxic and healthy forms of masculinity. Kelly defines masculinity as “being able to be one’s self without having to conform to others’ expectations.” He describes toxic masculinity as the “social expectation put on guys to act act a certain way or look a certain way.”
“When guys are seen as being rough and strong and muscly, I feel like that’s a negative connotation on what guys are expected to be,” Kelly said.
Drake Violence Prevention Coordinator Lynne Cornelius had a similar view on the divide between toxic and healthy masculinity.
“I think that the idea of masculinity for me is how anybody identifies themselves,” Cornelius said. “Where it becomes toxic is where men are trying to fit something that they’re not. I don’t think masculinity in it of itself is toxic, I think it’s when men struggle to be authentic, that that becomes toxic. So fitting into those kind of gender norms or what society has established as the norm…toxic masculinity, to me, is the idea that you’re doing things outside who you really are, just to fit in.”
Cornelius attributes many violent incidents on campus to toxic masculinity.
“I think that a lot of the violence we see on campus can be tied to toxic masculinity, whether it’s homophobia or sexual assault, lots of different things” Cornelius said. “I think some sexual assault scenarios play out because that’s what men believe is expected of them…and not in terms of like sexually assaulting somebody, but pursuing sex in a negative way.”
Kelly, Blalock, Mawdsley created the Positive MENtality group to ensure that there would be a safe, open environment to discuss these issues.
“The idea was that we had come to our own stories about what masculinity was to us, and wanted to create a space on campus for guys, or not just guys, but like anybody who wanted to talk about issues about masculinity and toxic masculinity, and what we can do to have those conversations with people outside of the people who want to be in the room,” Kelly said. “So we want to be able to have those conversations and have good conversations with people outside of the room, who aren’t necessarily going to be putting themselves in the room for that conversation.”
Cornelius said that Positive MENtality fills a gap on Drake for a space devoted to discussing masculinity.
“I think it’s happening, I think some of our fraternities are trying to have those conversations, but I feel like the more space we give men on campus to be authentic and be healthy, we can reduce violence that way,” Cornelius said.
Positive MENtality hosted a discussion in February, and Kelly was pleasantly surprised to see groups of students he hadn’t expected to come to the discussion participate.
“Andrew (Blalock), he’s on the soccer team, and, like, all of his teammates were there.” Kelly said. “I’m not sure, but the soccer team have been known to be involved in stuff…that has been not worthy for them, so for a lot of them to show up, it was really good, it was nice to see. I had a couple of my friends who, again, I wouldn’t have expected just because of the things I’ve heard them say It’s nice to see them come and support something we’re trying to change.”
Cornelius said that Positive MENtality’s success is due to the conversation being inviting. To contrast this, she discussed the infamous Gillette commercial from earlier this year, which many interpreted as implying masculinity as a whole was problematic.
“I think any time you call something out, people are turned off by it. The way Positive MENtality runs, and the way I approach things from this office is about being inviting. It’s not about putting someone down because they don’t see it our way. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just about understanding,” Cornelius said.
Kelly, in contrast, didn’t see the Gillette ad’s approach as a problem.
“I don’t think anything in that advertisement was badly portrayed, I think it was the way people saw it. I think men seeing it as ‘Oh, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we can’t have rough-and-tumble play, we can’t, like, do all this other stuff.’ Well, you can, you just can’t do the negative stuff. You can’t bully other kids for being different. You can’t spur your kids on when you see them fighting. You can’t let your kids just do that, because then it becomes inherent in what they do,” Kelly said. “That advert…people just needed to look at it differently, they just seen it as ‘Oh, we can’t be men anymore,’ but it wasn’t that.”
Cornelius stated that toxic masculinity is also harmful to men’s mental health.
“Men are strong and men are stoic, and they can handle things on their own, and if you say ‘mental health’ or you say ‘weakness,’ anything like that, that a man’s gonna associate with not being well or not being strong, I think they don’t want other people to perceive them that way.” Cornelius said.
Kelly said that the ultimate goal is to remove this stigma, and Positive MENtality is meant to create a space where that is possible.
“I think men need to have a safer space to talk about whatever it is that bothers them.” Kelly said. “Girls have this connection with other girls where they can talk about anything, I feel like guys just don’t want to ever get in this position with another guy…I have really close relationships with guys and girls, and people look at them whatever way they want to, but I’m better off for it because I can actually have these conversations.”
“I know there’s guys I live with who struggle with things every day, and they just won’t talk about it with anyone, because they feel like it’s uncomfortable to talk to another guy about it” Kelly said.
Photo courtesy of University Communications and Marketing