The Men’s Project

What does it mean to be a man?

It’s a question that has been on Jordan Hale’s mind for years. As a kid, he didn’t have many male role models – the people who made a positive impact on his life were mostly women, as most of his close friends are now.

“I’ve always been fascinated with masculinity and what being a man means,” said Hale, a senior political science and communications major. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen that answered in some negative ways.”

Hale is a standup comedian. He has listened to joke after joke where gender is a punch line. In workshops, he’s watched female comedians endure critiques that seemed to him unnecessarily harsh and overly analytical.

“I’ve found that if there’s one place where misogyny runs rampant, it’s comedy,” Hale said. “People can say the most horrible things about women when they disguise it as a joke.”

He doesn’t know if this kind of masculinity is becoming more common, or just more visible, but he wants to be part of making the comedy world – and the UNC campus – a place of equality.

He joined the UNC Men’s Project, a new campus program that brings together male Carolina students to explore and promote healthy masculinity and use those skills to help prevent interpersonal violence. A group of 22 students will meet two hours a week for 12 weeks examining how dominant views of masculinity can be harmful to all genders.

“When you hear words like ‘privilege,’ it’s easy to retreat or feel attacked, but it’s helpful to really learn what that means,” Hale said. “The goal isn’t making men feel bad about who they are. It’s to show how they can make a positive impact.”

Challenging popular perspective

“Very few men live up to the standards set by masculinity – strong and stoic, wealthy, athletic and popular with women,” said Bob Pleasants, the project’s creator.

Many drivers of masculinity also surround things like aggression, power and strength, he said.

“Gender roles don’t automatically equal aggression, but it’s part of the story. Some of the gender dynamics that are created by limited and prescribed gender roles can encourage men to step over the line into negative and violent behaviors,” Pleasants explained.

As Carolina’s interpersonal violence prevention coordinator, with teaching appointments in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, he had thought for years about a program where men address masculinity. A grant from Verizon helped him make it happen.

The applicant pool for the project exceeded his expectations, showing that men on campus are already aware of – and interested in – the issue. The chosen cohort – who come from diverse backgrounds, races and social spheres, including the Greek system – were eager, enthusiastic and committed.

Each week Pleasants and members of the arts-education organization Sacrificial Poets lead the men through interactive lessons, writing exercises and discussions to look at how dominant views of masculinity are unhelpful to all genders.

“There are so few opportunities for men to have conversations about this. Men benefit, as a group, from these kinds of views, but individually, it can lead to a lot of struggle,” Pleasants said. Pressure to perform and act a certain way, and to live up to what they think a man should be, can keep them from being authentic and happy, he explained.

At a recent meeting, the group was asked to participate in an activity which involved trusting other members of the group to catch them. Hale said usually men are taught the only way they physically interact – even jokingly – is with their fists, or in feigned combat.

“It’s no big secret that men aren’t taught to talk things out, or to have discussions. We’re taught to fight or argue – the one who wins is the one who was strongest, or has the loudest voice,” Hale said. “Changing that view can prevent future incidents of violence.”

Read more from Courtney Mitchell’s story in the University Gazette.

Published March 7, 2014.