“If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are—we can all be freer.” When Emma Watson made this call for freedom before the United Nations at the launching of a new gender-egalitarian pledge for gender equality, she knew what she was getting into.
She spoke about the media’s sexualization of women and cultural stigmatization of Feminism, and she spoke to the apathy that men and women alike allow themselves to feel about gender equality. Watson, who is the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson for the new HeForShe campaign, allowed herself a nervous giggle and then delivered her speech with great poise.
An internationally-acclaimed actress and model, Watson nevertheless had real reason to be nervous for this particular performance. The essence of the fight for gender inequality is often overshadowed by the politics that surround it. Basic questions of equality, freedom, and human rights are forgotten in favor of debates over entitlement and hormones, power and privilege. In her pitch for HeForShe, which involves men pledging themselves to making feminism a human rights issue and not a ‘women’s issue’, Watson recognized that the cause isn’t new. Hers was not the first plea for commitment to gender equality, and this isn’t the first article written on the topic. The issue isn’t going anywhere, and can always be added to.
In a time where sexual misconduct on campus is a hot-topic—what with the Women’s Center’s new powerful visual campaign, the Title IX adjustments to the university’s sexual misconduct policy, college rape statistics climbing in numbers, Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress performance art piece at Columbia, and SHARE presentations still fresh in the minds of all the freshmen—everyone is trying to establish an angle, fine-tune an opinion, and decide how much they can personally invest in ‘women’s issues’.
But perhaps rather than trying to add some new insight or make a call to action in some new way, it is time to take a look at the conversations that are already happening and ask ourselves—who is choosing to have them? There are students at Princeton who have already taken upon themselves to get the important partnership and sensitization work that Watson called for started.
MAVRIC, the SHARE program’s Men Against Violence Resource & Intervention Community project, began just under one year ago. They are an alliance of mostly male students who are committed to having conversations about violence, gender, mysoginism, what it means to have healthy masculinity, and topics like last week’s “What is a Bro Hug?”
I asked Shawn Maxam, a social worker with the MAVRIC project, about the program’s reasons for taking a stand on these issues from a specifically male perspective. Why should issues of gender equality and healthy interpersonal relationships be gendered discussions at all?
What it comes down to is that MAVRIC is not a collection of men committed to fighting “women’s issues.” MAVRIC is a coalition of students who feel that it is their role, usually as men, who consider themselves a certain faction of an entire gender liberation movement. The fight is not simply to elevate women from an oppressed status and end domestic violence, rape, or economic inequality—it is to establish a standard of “healthy masculinity” that promotes mutual support between all individuals. The operative term here is “healthy” as opposed to “toxic masculinity,” or an emphasis on gender-normative standards that limit what is socially considered ‘masculine’ to behaviors that minimize people who don’t fit these expectations.
Tony Porter, activist and co-founder of A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence Against Women, coined the term “man box” to explain how society has formed standards and norms that men are expected to obey in order to be accepted as satisfactorily masculine. At Princeton, MAVRIC is the group that has taken up Porter’s mission of reconceptualizing these standards and allowing men to define for themselves what is and isn’t deemed to be healthily and supportively “masculine.”
The idea is that when men are no longer trapped inside the definition of what society deems appropriately masculine, society will steadily grow to be a place that overall is less likely to box people into any definitions or roles. In Mr. Maxam’s words, “if society forces men in a man box, [it means] that we also have to put women in a woman box, which is restricting and limiting to both genders. When we allow men [to] be free from their gender box then we allow women to be free as well. It is liberating for everyone.”
MAVRIC members have weekly discussions on topics and prompts relevant to the conversation around the positive role that gender can play on our campus. At the moment there are about 90 members, and the project hopes to keep growing, possibly in partnership with the Princeton Women’s Mentorship Program. Mr. Maxam said that when MAVRIC discussed Emma Watson’s speech and the HeForShe campaign, there was a unilateral agreement that her points are relevant for our campus, and that having men participate in the conversation on equality is an essential step towards progress that people are clamoring for. Overall, the MAVRIC project’s sentiment is that one way or another, these conversations need to happen at Princeton.
Whether through MAVRIC or independently, the important thing is that Princeton students realize that the discussion of gender equality is not relevant only to people who feel that their own success or opportunity is personally at risk. For a world, country, campus, or any other system to project labels and standards on one group is to project similar restrictions and judgments on all people—regardless of the racial, religious, sexual, physical, gendered, or any other box into which they fall.