Photo by Gábor Csapó
This is a segment of a very personal conversation about some of the problems that young men face today, as observed by Andrew Callender and Jihyun Kim, both Class of 2018. They each bring their own perspectives into the dialogue, being male and female identifying and from Jamaica and Korea respectively. As close friends with very different backgrounds but with many similar values, they discuss the struggles their brothers and male friends and classmates face from their personal and non-representative gender perspectives. This non-traditional piece aims to give insight into the way their conversations about gender typically unfold.
Jihyun: So Andrew, what’s the problem with men in our generation?
Andrew: Well, to some extent, we could say that our genders share many of the same issues: economic disenfranchisement, a lack of general security and a lack of strong leadership and guidance. But, men are facing a whole host of unique issues. One big one? A lack of belonging. In previous generations, in many countries, a man would graduate high school and just hop into the workforce. There was a social contract between companies and men that allowed them to stay with one employer to provide for their families. Times have now changed — we all know the kind of instability and transience that exists within the job market, among many areas of our lives. With women now rightfully holding an equal place within the workforce, do men still have to play the role of provider? Quite obviously not. But what role do men now play?
Jihyun: So you are saying that the current tendency toward equality of men and women in society has led to men feeling less exclusive and burdened, which sounds like a good thing to me. But glass ceilings and income disparities still exist; women’s greater involvement in the economy has not deprived men of either ambition or opportunity. To me the issue seems to be that for men, the traditional, myopic aspiration to earn and provide for his family is no longer necessary nor sufficient to fulfill a life purpose. Do you think that men should then be encouraged to diversify their aspirations to deal with this lack of belonging?
Andrew: That’s exactly what I think. For us men at NYUAD, and institutions like it, we are less burdened by the singular goal of being a provider. Our elite education and exposure to so many cultures and places make it fairly easy for us to adjust to, and even thrive in, the new paradigm of the global economy. For many men it is indeed an issue, however, especially when resources are scarce. You hinted at the divide between developing countries and the developed world, which I agree with. How do men diversify their aspirations from being the sole or main provider when the alternative might not be appealing? I am of the belief that many societies are failing to retool men to cope with the new normal. In my home country many young men have taken to excluding themselves from the workforce since they feel ill-prepared to compete for jobs that may have been previously obtained through nepotism. This has led to a whole host of negative consequences, including an uptick in gang activity. This, in turn, has led to women taking up many of the roles men traditionally fulfilled.
Jihyun: You talked about the issue of scarce resources — college admission, high-paying jobs, reputation — that we as a generation collectively strive and compete for. This scarcity, however, ultimately implies a zero-sum game, right? I am given more academic, economic and political opportunities than any prior generation of Korean women has ever received, so does that mean my male peers receive less? For men to perceive gender equality as threatening to their traditional privilege seems to be a toxic, albeit very much present, sense of entitlement. How do you think this perception translates into gender-specific power play?
Andrew: Those are very big questions that I don’t think I could rightfully answer thoroughly. However, as I mentioned earlier, I think the men at NYUAD, regardless of background, are extremely privileged to be well-equipped to handle the labour market. I think a lot [of] this has to do with perception: Many individuals feel that having more people in the labour market will erode their own privileges, ignoring the increase in economic opportunity that a more educated and diverse workforce can provide. You touched on the issue of power and I completely agree — all of this is about power and privilege. Gender equality is not where it could be, and what it requires is not time, necessarily, but a society-wide acknowledgement that no gender owns the other nor exists to serve the other. That is most certainly the ideal case, and one I do not see happening anytime soon. In light of this, we will have to continue breaking the perceived entitlement over female bodies that some hold.
For me, it is an incredibly liberating time; I am not shackled to a particular company or industry [in order] to serve my future family as the sole breadwinner. My society largely no longer expects that I have singular primacy over my partner in a relationship. Responsibility is shared; this is a much better arrangement, in my opinion, as cooperation certainly yields much better experiences and results overall. I will confess, however, that I oftentimes like to have the final word in many decisions.
Jihyun: So do I. Gender being a loaded issue, it’s not always easy to talk about men’s issues and rights, and I certainly am giving you a hard time. But I really believe that this move away from traditional gender norms … will benefit men too, my brother and my male friends especially. One specific gender stereotype I want broken is that men are not and should not be emotional. In Korea, for example, there is a saying that men can only cry three times in their lives: When they are born, lose their parents, and lose their country. I don’t think this suppression of emotion helps either men or the women they interact with; ignoring or denying an emotion only seems to aggravate it. How do you think this expectation has affected you?
Andrew: Well, I was never explicitly told how to express emotions growing up. Rather, it was a social expectation that men should be emotionally stable and unwaveringly neutral. By contrast, women were allowed to be as expressive as they wanted with their feelings. Men were allowed to be angry, indignant or jealous, but never openly sad or fearful. I always tried to be a rock, taking the view that I was immune from extremes of emotion. In a society where weakness in men is taken advantage of, keeping ‘weak’ emotions hidden was, oftentimes, to my benefit. Of course, this was an extremely destructive perspective in some ways and I torpedoed several relationships because I was unable to truly express my emotions, whether positive or negative. Nowadays, while I am by no means an open book, I try my best to concisely express what I am feeling, when relevant, to those to whom I am closest.
Jihyun: Yes! I also think that encouraging men to acknowledge and cope with difficult emotions, especially vulnerable ones, benefits everyone. It’s grossly underestimated how much women appreciate and respect it when men are honest about their feelings, especially in romantic relationships. It makes communication much easier and more meaningful. The same, of course, applies to women; I personally struggle a lot with admitting my weaknesses, even to myself. It takes a lot of courage to accept and communicate one’s vulnerabilities, and I think it’s a very respectable and desired trait of a partner. What else do you think makes an ideal man in a relationship?
Andrew: Of course, perceptions of the ideal man vary across societies. Different traits are weighted according to their perceived importance. For my own context, it appears that men are expected to cultivate all the seemingly good traits, balancing tendencies in a way that appears unrealistic. Jamaican men are expected to be at once noble, unwaveringly determined, emotionally steady, humble, strong and brave. This does not seem to be much different from the masculine ideal held in most of the world. This is an ideal that I was taught to strive towards, and to a large extent, I still do. However, experience has shown that constantly trying to live out all of these traits, while great on the surface, can stunt the kind of high quality communication that relationships are built on. While I still have not completely figured it out, I believe that the ideal man in a relationship [is] at once dependable and relatable — able to maintain the levelheaded perspective needed to make good decisions, yet [also] able to reach out to their loved one and express what they feel when life becomes too overwhelming.
Jihyun: That is beautiful, Andrew. You are a brave man.
Jihyun Kim and Andrew Callender are contributing writers. Email them at [email protected]