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What Makes a Man?

By Shannon Clarke

Feature photo by Samantha Anderson

“Honestly, men don’t think about this. If girls didn’t talk about this all the time, we wouldn’t care.”

An impromptu debate about gender equality in my history lecture prompted a male classmate to say, what I’m sure he thought was kindly, that we should all just shut up.

Why are we talking about this?” another classmate behind me muttered. We were discussing a presentation on the role of women in the Caribbean and the conversation quickly turned to women’s rights. With time winding down and rebuttals heating up, my professor skilfully guides the discussion back to the topic at hand but not before everyone had, briefly, acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room.

Just before 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, people are filing into the second floor conference room of the Ryerson Student Campus Centre, cups of coffee in hand wearing the cautious expressions of people who aren’t quite sure what kind of day they’re in for. By lunch, the room is buzzing with conversation.

What Makes a Man, a conference on masculinity hosted by the White Ribbon Campaign at Ryerson, proves that my classmate certainly doesn’t speak for all men. The White Ribbon Campaign itself, an organization started by men to end violence against women, proves that whether we talk about it or not, sexism affects everyone.

Miranda Hassell, co-chair of the Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign, tells the group why she became involved with the project. Sexually abused by a family friend as a child, she realized later, when he explained that he did it because “guys at school did things like that”, that boys had their own mess to deal with and, until they were addressed, women would continue to suffer under a destructive idea of what it means to be a man.

I wish I could have told him he was enough,” she says.

Today we are going to talk about all the things we usually don’t talk about,” says Jeff Perera, who co-chairs the Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign with Hassell. The elephants in the room, he says, are “the conversations we don’t have”.

Over the course of the day, the speakers (including award-winning poet Carlos Andres Gomez and feminist reproductive activist Jessica Yee) and the audience, attempts to answer those questions that often, when asked unprompted and unplanned, spark heated debates and very quickly become uncomfortable: what makes a man a good father? What makes a man hit a woman? What makes a man neglect his health? What are the implications of popular sayings like ‘man up’? Why does everyone answer to ‘you guys’ but not ‘you ladies’?

It’s like therapy and dialogue,” I hear one of the girls in attendance tell a friend over lunch.

It’s true. One moment we’re discussing the ultra-macho, unrealistic portrayal of the ideal boyfriend s in Seventeen Magazine the next we’re doing stretch yoga and shaking our groove things at our seats.

Rodney Diverlus, a third year performance dance student at Ryerson and vice president of student equity at Ryerson’s Student Union, watches from the back of the room.

Why is it that dancing, something that is so in us, our truest form as humans is seen as feminine?” he asks.

Bridget Sirianni, 21, sits in the front row, and raises her hand to ask Baldev Mutta, executive director of Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS), how to bring up the topic of sexism and patriarchy in her relationship. Earlier, the group discusses the sometimes sexist traditions of marriage. As the speakers rotate and the topics change the sluggish Saturday morning fever quickly slips away.

It’s a common (and tired) myth that feminism is an exclusive club and feminists are hostile, man-hating, women determined to blame half the world for everything that is wrong with the world. That stereotype, along with the dozens others, have persisted to scare people away from talking about gender equality. The White Ribbon Campaign has worked to encourage men to acknowledge that women’s issues are men’s issues too.

We need to challenge the ways violence against women is promoted and tolerated in society,” says Alan Sears, sociology professor at Ryerson and activist for queer and radical movements. Challenging violence, he says, is as simple as speaking up in the locker room at boasts of sexual conquests or talk about love as possession (“I hate when my girlfriend talks to other guys”).

By not challenging it we end up as collaborators in it.”

Groups and Projects You Should Know About:

It Starts with You Digital Story Project Urban Hip Hop Union

I am Distinctly Beautiful Because…

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes

Pink Fish:

Black Daddies Club (BDC):

Roots of Empathy


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