North America's first masculine studies program hopes to spur talk on being a boy and a man

The University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education is introducing a masculine studies program, with a speaker series designed to provoke conversation about the mythologies surrounding how to be a man.

Research chair of new University of Calgary program wants to start conversation to detoxify masculinity

Michael Kehler is the newly appointed chair of masculinity studies at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. (David Bell/CBC)

Maybe, if Michael Kehler has his way, there will be a new generation of detoxified masculinity.

Kehler hopes to use his platform as the newly appointed research chair of North America's first masculine studies program at the University of Calgary, to start a conversation about how to be boy and a man in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp.

From the sounds of it, that means out with mansplaining and in with careful listening.

Out with bullying, macho posturing and being emotionally inarticulate; in with building community, personal connection and finding creative compromises to personal obstacles.

Kehler spoke to Doug Dirks on CBC Calgary's The Homestretch, about the launch of the program, a four-part speaker series open to the public, Rethinking What It Means to be a Boy, a Man. It features academics from England, Australia, the United States and Iceland.

Chris Haywood, a masculinity expert from Newcastle University, will deliver the first lecture Monday evening at the University of Calgary at 6:30 p.m.

"We're talking about everything from how youth negotiate school locker rooms, issues around adolescent male body image, the ways in which boys understand the messaging about being boys through media, issues around heterosexism in schools, LGBTQ alliances and the like," Kehler said. "And the conversation goes on quite broadly."

What it means to be a boy

"It's the crux of what these conversations are about, which is to think more deeply about the rules, about the norms, about the ways in which boys and men adhere to certain rules and understand what those rules are," Kehler said. "But also to understand what the consequences are for backing away and rejecting some of the very traditional norms and stereotypes of masculinity." 

"This conversation really allows us to think more deeply both within education, but also beyond that realm to think about [answering] how do boys learn these rules, and how can boys reject the rules in a way that allows them to be different than other boys?"

Male mythology

Kehler says the current confusion surrounding toxic masculinity is also an opportunity to take a deeper dive into some of tenets of male mythology that have dominated our pop culture for years.

"There's lots of opportunity here to really break down all the myths about what it means to be a boy," he says, "and to be a man.

"I think we're on the crest of beginning to rethink and reconfigure masculinity, given the current climate around #metoo."

Kehler says the lectures are aimed at a wide range of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, academics and agencies interested in the effort to define a new masculinity.

"They're talking about everything from male bodies, the sexualization of male bodies, violence in intimate relationships, raunch culture, gendered bodies and queer masculinities — and really, across all of these four speakers we're raising a lot of critical questions," Kehler said. 

"We're  not looking to provide all the answers, but we are looking to engage the general public in dialogue about how we can reconfigure and rethink the power relationships and gender relationships between men and women and men and boys."

What to do isn't so clear cut

What the series may not provide is a simple blueprint for how to raise boys — because there's no such thing as simple.

"There's no how-to raise our boys," he said. "I have a 14-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, and the day-to-day in navigating multiple masculinities and multiple ways of being boys as well as being girls. It's very complex.

"What these conversations will do, with the speakers coming in, gathering people around this dialogue, will give us all an opportunity to challenge our traditional notions of masculinity."


With files from The Homestretch