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Redefining Masculinity

Redefining Masculinity

Sweat drips down his chiseled jawline as he flexes his muscles and lifts weights. He knows that after he finishes at the gym, he must go to the bar, discuss football with his “bros,” check out girls at the bar and eat his body weight’s worth in meat – all while hiding his inner feelings rather than openly talking about them.

This image of conventional manliness has pervaded society through a variety of platforms in modern American media.

Whether advertisements show clean-cut men attracting the attention of all the ladies because of a certain “manly” cologne, or half-naked models showing off Calvin Klein boxer briefs, this notion of male masculinity centers around a Eurocentric ideal—that to be considered handsome, one must be buff and Caucasian.

Meanwhile, Asian American masculinity is often toned down and quasi-feminized in the media. This, of course, ignores the growing minority’s ability to redefine what it means to be masculine, said University of Florida political science professor Samuel Stafford, who teaches a course on ethnic migration.

“The femininity or background placement of minorities is to reduce the obvious perception of threat,” he said.

Such a threat, according to Stafford, reflects the idea that within the next few centuries, the complexion and culture of this country is going to change. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “the browning of America.”

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According to this theory, the rising population of different ethnic groups will eclipse the traditional “American Caucasian” person, and challenges the status quo.

However, this idea of preserving conventional white male masculinity is not one that has surfaced in recent studies, but rather one that has been persisting for decades.

Jeshow Yang, a UF Queer Asians and Pacific Islanders facilitator and Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs ambassador, agrees with Stafford’s viewpoint, believing that it even started in the post-World War II era.

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“After World War II, white males didn’t want Asian men to seem masculine and strong, so it would make white men look better,” Yang said. “That’s when Asian American men began to be seen as more effeminate and emasculated so they would seem weak. Femininity was attached to certain things like drinking tea, doing yoga or listening to classical music, so if you did any of these things, people would consider you feminine.”

However, with the increase of diversity awareness, the issue of underrepresentation of minority groups in media has become an emerging topic of conversation.

“With what we grew up with, masculinity is idealized European features, like how handsomeness is based on extremely muscular Greek statues,” Yang said. “In media, Asian American men often fill those stereotypical background roles, especially in comedy.”

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Mainstream American culture within the film industry tends to cast the lead male role as a tall, athletic-looking white man, Yang said. Seldom do Asian American men secure a part as the main character. Rather, they are frequently reduced to the socially awkward nerd who can’t get the girl or the friend whose only purpose is to provide comic relief.

“To me, being a man is being vulnerable and not wearing a mask.”

The stereotype that Asians have a greater mental prowess than bodily strength defies society’s expectations of conventional masculinity –  causing many Asian Americans to be overlooked when considering what defines “a real man” in the physical sense.

Although traditional manliness focuses on the physical, masculinity is a frame of mind and comes from within, Stafford said. Although Western culture equivocates masculinity with strength, it could also encompass confidence, interaction with one’s environment, as well as how one moves through space, he said.

“Being a man means being committed to a long-term vision, being confident, being grounded in your values and have your actions align with your commitments,” UF freshman Dylan Nong said. “To me, being a man is being vulnerable and not wearing a mask.”

This mask refers to the feeling of needing to put up a front to be seen by others as a true man. Whereas the societal stereotype may include talking about sports, picking up women at local bars and building tool sheds from scratch, the less-mentioned facet of masculinity includes being mature in one’s development as a human being, Nong said.

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“In a sense, masculinity is being mature, wise and open-minded,” said UF senior Ravik Samaroo, a member of the multicultural fraternity Sigma Beta Rho. “Everyone is slightly different when it comes to working out, but not everything can get that big; everybody has their own potential with their body, so when it comes to the physical aspect, you can’t discriminate. That’s why I stress intelligence.”

The ongoing generalization that Asian American men are usually shorter, smaller and weaker than men of other ethnicities contributes to a possible lack of self-esteem in Asian boys who grow up in America and feel that they do not measure up when compared to their Caucasian peers, said UF freshman Victor Lin.

“I’ve always been a really skinny person and sometimes I didn’t feel that confident,” Lin said. “We live in America, which is predominantly white, and they have roots in European culture, so the media here is still tied to that. We (Asians) are different, but we have our own culture where our standards of handsome men are different.”

Just as beauty for women is defined differently around the world, beauty standards for men also vary.

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According to BuzzFeed News, Asian countries such as South Korea and India encourage soft facial features, makeup wearing and skin lightening among men. The emphasis on male cosmetics has made the Asia Pacific region the largest consumer of men’s skincare products and a hotspot for male cosmetic surgery and men’s fashion.

However, the Asian male tendency to dress themselves in fashion-forward clothing as an emerging trend of metrosexuality can be seen as femininity in America.

Another persisting stereotype against Asian American men and the measure of their masculinity has to do with the size of their genitalia. Although there is little scientific evidence to prove this theory, this idea continues to be circulated throughout popular culture.

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“It goes back to controlling to minimize fear,” Stafford said. “It is a way by the majority Western culture to downgrade or minimize the perceived threat or fear of a seemingly intellectually superior identifiable group, especially males.”

Despite similarities in what is considered handsome and manly in other countries, such as a lean, muscular body, American media rarely portrays Asian men as sexual beings or the image of masculinity. The stereotype that Asians are purely academic persists even into the 21st century, Samaroo said.

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“(Asian Americans) shouldn’t be offended; every culture, every ethnicity has their own stereotypes, whether it’s true or not,” Samaroo said. “There will always be stereotypes, and that will never change, but as long as people don’t let it affect them, then I don’t really have a problem with it.”

As more Asian Americans come into the spotlight, they prove that Asian American men are well-rounded and cannot be generalized as merely skinny and submissive males as often portrayed in the media. Actors such as Ken Jeong, Aziz Ansari and Randall Park pioneer the way for more exposure to Asian American males in American culture and redefine the physical conventions of masculinity.

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“We need change in the future because this society is robbed of the benefits that can be offered if men don’t put forth, or aren’t able to put forth, and invest all that they have in a particular country, culture or location,” Stafford said. “You’re going to have half the power for discovery and for productivity.”

Photos: Royce Abela

Stylist: Kevin Huynh

Assistant: Joey Gonzalez

Models: Hae-Yang Chang, Howard Lin, Raheej Choudhary

Collection: Joyce Pilarsky