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Professor reviews masculinity and media

| Sunday, February 8, 2015

Notre Dame professor of theology John Cavadini said society has forgotten what it truly means to be a man in his talk “Media and Manliness: A Brief Study at the Edith Stein Conference on Friday.

To illustrate his point, Cavadini described the book “How to Be a Man,” which he said profiles individuals whom authors consider great men. Cavadini said the book failed to portray a positive ideal of masculinity.

“Many stories [in the book], which answered the question how to be a man, depicted promiscuous, disloyal, cowardly, uncouth, abusive, violent, unfaithful, chauvinist, discourteous, greedy, ruthless, parasitical and lazy men,” he said.

Many men may fall into these categories, so it is good to be warned about following in their footsteps, Cavadini said.

“But the fact that the title of all of the stories is “How to be a Man” puts them into a different perspective,” he said. “That is, as though as a culture we have forgotten that the word ‘man’ can represent any ideal with positive content. Or as though as a culture we are uncomfortable with the very idea that the word ‘man’ might have something distinctive and positive about it.”

Negative media portrayals of what it means to be a man have the power to harm men’s opinions of themselves, Cavadini said, just as misogynistic portrayals of women in the media are harmful to women.

“Feminist writers of the last decades have rightly pointed out that standard cultural narratives about women are internalized by many girls and women as self-loathing, precisely insofar as they are women,” he said. “I wonder now if our standard cultural narratives about men are beginning to do the same thing.”

There are portrayals in the media of what it means to be a true man although they are not often recognized as such, Cavadini said. An episode of “The Office” ends with Michael Scott crying while he professes his love for his girlfriend Jan. Throughout the episode, other characters assert their manliness through acts of force and control, but it is Michael’s profession of love that is most manly, Cavadini said.

“What’s more manly than the risk of assertion of true love?” he said. “Whatever else it is, true manliness seems to involve not force … not control … not the status of domination … but the risk of self-assertion that makes one truly vulnerable and accountable.

“Putting oneself in a position where one risks looking silly, but has something to live up to — the risk of love, which will always involve the waiver of the privilege which disdains love and tries to replace it with force, control or status. None of the other versions of manliness involve any risk freely accepted.”

True masculinity is ultimately more gentle than what the media portrays or what society believes, Cavadini said.

“The message seems to be that true manliness has nothing to fear from a world which seems to deconstruct the privileges of masculinity because true masculinity has nothing to do with these things in the first place,” he said. “True manliness, it seems, is the willingness in a man to take the risk of the assertion of love, that is, of self-gift, magic that was always the reality all along.”

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