Toward the end of November, a series of posters featuring these statements went up in Toronto. The posters also had be-a-man.ca printed along the bottom. The be-a-man.ca site featured video of people walking past the posters, followed by text asking if the posters reflected what it means to be a man, then answering “we don’t think so” and announcing that on Dec. 3rd a new code of manhood would be written. It wrapped up with a revamped White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) logo and a countdown to Dec. 3rd.
Even before visiting the site, I had assumed the posters were for an anti-violence campaign that would ultimately deconstruct the offensive statements. Still, the posting of statements like that in public spaces without any accompanying unpacking or context made me uncomfortable, and the site’s video didn’t entirely reassure me. I dig WRC, though, and wanted to see what we were counting down to.
When Dec. 3rd hit, the big reveal was a redesigned WRC site, which included their New Code of Manhood initiative. The New Code discusses creating a code of masculinity “as complex and diverse as men” and asks visitors to “share a #manhug” (hug a man, take a picture, post it to social media with the hashtag) in support. I remain ill at ease, and am very lucky that Shameless affords me a space and community to explore why.
The posters were meant to be provocative and demand attention. They explicitly express misogyny and homophobia—all things that cause gender-based and homophobic violence. That’s why WRC picked these statements: they’re awful, dangerous. They also set the stage for a discussion of masculinity and violence.
I get all that. Yet, I don’t think that the ends justify these means. With no context and no unpacking, those posters could be intensely triggering—even for folks who recognize they’re a lead-in to an anti-violence campaign. People marginalized by their gender and sexuality regularly hear statements like these before, during, and after experiencing violence. So it’s a bold move to put them up in public spaces for survivors of violence, and those at continued risk of violence, to face with no accompanying explanation.
But maybe it’s worth triggering people through misogynist, homophobic statements when the endgame is action on those very issues? Perhaps. However, the endgame of these trigger-risking posters was largely the unveiling of a website redesign accompanied by a social media campaign—a campaign that, for the all the bravado of its introduction, keeps the stakes for participants relatively low-risk.
The New Code of Manhood and #manhugs
I support the idea behind the New Code, which is to create a richer, more inclusive understanding of manhood. Conceptions of masculinity need to be expanded, it’s essential to ending gender-based violence. The stuff in WRC’s New Code is good, but it’s still a code, and codes are prescriptive—even when expanded—and can be punitive to those who violate them. Replacing one code with another just isn’t that radical, to me.
As for supporting the New Code through #manhugs: physical affection between men is terrifying for many guys. Jeff Perera of WRC tackles hugging-anxiety brilliantly in a post on his site, Higher UnLearning. He explains that the side and shoulder hugs men often do (bro hugs) are performances of masculinity and “pretty much the equivalent of saying ‘no homo’ with your hugs.” I think his analysis is dead-on. I don’t, however, think that the man hug is that different from the bro hug. Sure, the man hug can be full-body if you want, and it’s really about being vulnerable and talking about dude-on-dude affection-anxiety, but it’s still a hug that we’re qualifying to ensure it isn’t read as feminine. By calling it a man hug, there’s something overstated about it, which takes the edge of sincerity off so there’s no threat of compromised masculinity (because we must maintain masculinity!). This renders the hug safer—which might be what is the pressing consideration at this time.
Safe Spaces for Men to Expand Conceptions of Manhood
The emphasis placed on making the work of expanding masculinity safe, on not being too radical (i.e. creating a new code rather than dismantling the very idea of a code; suggesting man hugs rather than flat-out hugs) is the crux of the matter for me. Basically, WRC threw down hard with their poster lead-in, but opted for a softer approach when it came to what they’re actually delivering (the work of expanding conceptions of masculinity). I don’t think a softer approach a bad thing; WRC is just trying to meet men where they’re at. In his post on hugs, Perera writes that using humour helps engage men they otherwise wouldn’t connect with and that eventually man hugs will become plain old hugs. Working with people’s comfort zones to achieve incremental change is a solid approach—but one that’s doesn’t justify or jive with the aggressive lead-in of the posters.
Men need to have safe, progressive spaces—like in WRC’s New Code—to question and expand conceptions of manhood. I am critical, however, of seeing a platform for this work choose to privilege being non-threatening and comfortable over being radical while simultaneously being promoted through the (radical) public postings of statements that may make victims of gender-based violence feel decidedly uncomfortable and threatened. I’m not sure it’s fair for the lion’s-share of the emotional risk-taking to be thrust upon on those who are already marginalized by gender-based oppression, all for the sake of promotion, while the emotional risk for the men WRC’s targeting is minimized for the sake of increasing engagement.
I think the work WRC does is valuable and necessary. I also think that the New Code (especially the #manhug part) is going to take off. It’s because I respect their work that I offer this constructive reading of their current work for them to consider as they move forward.
This column was first published on Shameless.