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Simon Fraser University's Men's Centre debate oversimplifies gender issues

Image courtesy of Flickr

In a controversial move last month, the Simon Fraser University Student Society (SFSS) approved a $30,000 budget allocation for establishing a men’s centre in the fall.

The Centre's main proponent was SFSS Treasurer Keenan Midgley, who said that it was a necessary complement to the student-funded women’s centre. His main argument is that while women’s centres on campuses across the country empower women to break out of the traditional female role (i.e. housewife), few places address the fact that men also suffer from socialized gender expectations.

“As a student society, we’re supposed to represent all undergraduates," he said. "I don’t think we’re currently doing that.”

If all goes according to Midgley's plans, the men’s centre would offer peer support and a referral service to SFU’s health and counseling centre. 

“Men deal more with suicides, alcoholism, and drug abuse, and suffer from negative stereotypes just like women do,” he said.

Midgley does have a point: men don't reach out for help, especially when it comes to mental health issues. According to 2009 statistics from SFU, men are twice as unlikely as women to visit the counselling centre. As for the negative stereotypes, one only needs to look at what's happening on TV, billboards and online.

Boys don't cry

A stereotype for men that's been around for a long time is that boys aren't supposed to cry, or reach out for help. In order to be taken seriously, men are told they need to be “strong” or “macho.”

For instance, beer commercials have long been considered an informal manual about masculinity because their biggest market is men. A YouTube search for 'beer commercials' provides a bevy of examples on what is considered quintessentially "manly."

An example is this 2011 Budweiser commercial featuring NASCAR driver Kevin Harwick. What's the message here? By combining risky activities such as drinking and speed driving, Budweiser is appealing to society’s perceived notion of masculinity. It’s clear that what's portrayed as “masculine” can be harmful to men’s health.

Similarly, college culture encourages men to engage in “manly” behavior such as binge drinking. In his song, “I Love College,” Asher Roth encapsulates the “typical” college lifestyle perfectly with its recurring chrous line:  “Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!” (Note: 'chug' refers to the act of drinking the entire contents of an alcoholic beverage in one take).

The fallout from all this is quite clear: men who engage in so-called "manly" behaviour, combined with the pressure to "man up" and not ask for help, end up suffering in silence.

Critics respond: a false battle

So will the men's centre really be able to address this problem? The centre already faces steep opposition on two main counts.

On the logistical count, critics decry the Student Society's failure to get sufficient student input, as well as its failure to provide a detailed outline for how the centre's funding would be utilized.

On principle, some simply disagree with a men's centre altogether, as expressed in this YouTube video. Many simply disagree with the way the men's centre is positioning itself as a counterweight to the women's centre under the banner of 'gender equality.'

Mary Shearman, a professor in SFU’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, is concerned about the Student Society's “adversarial” and “competitive” approach in establishing a men's centre.

Shearman is right. Ultimately, substantial gender equality can't be achieved through false battles. The real world is much more complicated than women versus men.

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