“Women cross their legs when they sit. Men keep their legs open. Women hold books across their chests; men hold them at their sides. Women listen to pop music. Men listen to rock. Women sing to the radio, men nod along.”
Michael Rohrbaugh shows acts of insecurity-fueled aggression as a narrator lists societal gender norms like those from the quote above to explore the problematic brutality of hyper-masculinity and internalized homophobia in his short film American Male, which won MTV’s Look Different creator competition. Paired with darkly lit scenes of a stereotypical ‘frat boy’ determined to retain an alpha male lifestyle that is still so heavily prized in our society, the voiceover dialogue gives a haunting glimpse into the trivial determinants of what it means to be a man according those toxic societal standards. While one may argue that the film paints a somewhat negative and stereotypical picture of Greek life, the violently presented message reveals that gender and sexuality norms are very much alive and thriving. The fact that they continue to have a long-lasting and incredibly damaging impact comes across loud and clear.
Many members of the LGBT+ community are taught certain ways to act and behave as pre-determined by their gender from a young age. Society tells us what to wear, what music to listen to, what to eat and drink, how to talk and walk, and any other number of minuscule things. If you follow these rules, everyone will love you and you’ll be happy. Stray from them and you’ll be an outcast rejected by metaphorical boxes used to neglect diversity and punish those that dare to be an individual. Not surprisingly, this struggle paired with the journey of self-discovery as a LGBT+ person is a breeding ground for insecurity and a lifetime of identity issues.
From a young age, many of us learn ‘masculinity’ from those around us so as not to come across as feminine or gay, as though either of those are negative qualities. We do whatever we can to blend in to avoid the crushing insults and constant harassment. We observe the behavior around us and attempt to fully mimic it as a way of being a chameleon; paranoid and utterly terrified of anyone discovering our true identity. It becomes a survival tactic that sacrifices our true selves for our own personal safety.
How much is enough? When will we stop ignoring the toxic role gender and sexuality norms play in our society? How many stories do we need to publish of LGBT+ suicides caused by the world that rejected and let them down? What can we do?
Something needs to change. Too many LGBT+ people grow up resenting themselves and rejecting who they are because their very existence is deemed unacceptable. Grade school kids are shoved into lockers because they don’t carry their books the way the other boys do. They cry themselves to sleep at night because their fashion sense doesn’t come from the cover of all the magazines. The word ‘faggot’ is thrown out all around them daily, insinuating that anything other than the default is vile.
Make a pledge to reject the stereotypes that surround us and stand up for those that are struggling. Diversity brings unity, so celebrate it rather than reject it. Let your kids play with whatever toys they want, regardless of whether the store aisle was painted pink or blue. Allow them to express themselves. Encourage their hobbies and interests. Give less of a damn what neighbor Betty has to say. Refuse to be the one to send them down a path of self-hatred and rejection. Above all, love them unconditionally.
With the astounding progress that’s been made in the LGBT+ rights movement, we have to remember to keep fighting for the individuals within the community as well. We have to make sure we continue to focus on taking care of our brothers and sisters by focusing on supporting and encouraging individuality and expression. We have to resist pushing gender norms within the community itself and stop reinforcing the awful ideology that there’s a certain masculinity to femininity ratio that must be reached. Embrace one another for who we are rather than relying on stereotypes and pre-conceived notions of what it means to be LGBT. Despite the amazing progress we continue to make, we have to always remember that there are still stigmas and norms for us to fight back against.
Men can do whatever they want with their legs when they sit. Carry their books whichever way feels comfortable to them. They can listen to pop, rock, crunkcore, or whatever genre appeals to them. They have the option to have no reaction to music, or they can perform every part of Bohemian Rhapsody in all its glory, free of shame. That’s the beauty of being an individual. If we can learn to deny and discard the dangerous societal norms that taunt us all every single day, perhaps the LGBT+ youth of the future will never have to play the childhood role of a chameleon, but rather can unashamedly be themselves. While this may sound like a utopian dream, it’s past due that we reevaluate and redefine what it means to be an “American Male”.
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