Today, the idea of the “Yale Man” inspires disdain. Memes that denigrate Yale men proliferate on Facebook; terms like “softboy” and “fragile masculinity” etch themselves in the Bulldog’s lexicon. Some of this outrage is well-deserved: At its worst, Yale masculinity can be sinister — indeed, criminal — as evidenced by recent allegations about sexual assault at Delta Kappa Epsilon and other fraternities.
But caricature is not critique, and buzzwords are not substitutes for analysis. As scholars of gender studies have understood for years, the “patriarchy” harms men as well as women. By setting an impossibly high standard for the elusive, ideal Yale Man, the dominant culture condemns the vast majority of men to fall short, prompting them to act out and hurt others — primarily women.
To be clear, I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between the challenges facing Yale men and the prejudice confronting nonmen. Neither am I excusing bad behavior. But unless we apprehend the cultural forces that produce our gendered status quo and recognize that we are all losers, we foreclose the possibility of transformative change.
“Male privilege” disproportionately affects nonmen, but it also inhibits its beneficiaries from flourishing as individuals. To be a “successful” Yale Man is to check off a daunting list of boxes. One must be tall, fit and subtly dressed. Outgoing and social, but not loud or crass. Not just funny and intelligent, but effortlessly so. In reality, few live up to the demands of the normative Yale Man, yet his specter lives on as a figment of our cultural imagination, haunting we who fall short.
While women face similar pressures, men probably have fewer ways of conforming to this aesthetic of Yale cool. You can be the idealized boy next door — the frat bro or student-athlete, who also happens to be in Phi Beta Kappa. Or you might become a Yale politico — Yale Political Union extraordinaire in the streets, policy wonk in the sheets. Or you could be a man of arts and letters — think theater, a cappella or The New Journal. Fall outside these tropes, and goodbye social capital. The intense pressure leads Yale men to seek out sites of male bonding, only to find that these, too, disappoint, with their petty cruelties and oversized egos.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. In fact, the vision of the idealized Yale Man has a long cultural history. In 1912, Owen Johnson published his best-selling novel, “Stover at Yale,” which documents the titular character’s attempts at navigating Yale’s social hierarchies. Driven by its ladder of fraternities and societies and its emphasis on football, brutal competition characterized Yale at the turn of the 20th century.
That atmosphere took a toll on real-life as well as fictitious Yalies. As an undergraduate, William L. Harkness, class of 1881, felt lonely and alienated — an experience that would later move him to donate his fortune to establish Yale’s residential colleges. Paul Mellon ’29 similarly struggled with depression for most of his youth. Apart from founding the Yale Center for British Art, Mellon would leave a significant bequest for the University’s nascent mental health programs.
Some things have changed since the days of Harkness and Mellon — but others have not. For one, the concept of the “all-rounded gentleman” still defines Yale masculinity. Yet the conceit of all-roundedness evokes complex racial meanings: The practice of holistic admissions evolved in part to exclude Jewish applicants, for they were seen as too industrious for the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant chivalry of the Ivy League. Today, our culture emasculates Asian men by stereotyping them as nerds, while questioning whether black and Hispanic men truly belong at Yale by associating them with a threatening brand of hypermasculinity — hence the question black men at Yale always get: “Are you an athlete?”
We urgently need to reimagine Yale masculinity, in part because social values ultimately become economic destiny. Artificial intelligence will increasingly automate jobs in technical, male-dominated professions like law, finance and medicine. To the extent that even highly educated college graduates have a role in the digital economy, it will be because of the emotional labor that they supply. Despite this, elite culture continues to reward emotional aloofness in men, valorizing the “Brogrammer” as the latest, beta version of the alpha male.
So how might we create a kinder and more generative masculinity? Instead of focusing on Yale cool as an aesthetic, let’s transform it into an ethic. Rather than fixate on who we are, let’s think about what we can do — for ourselves as for others. And let’s tell more varied stories about “real men” at Yale — stories of redemption as well as perfection, of struggle as well as triumph, of vulnerability as well as strength.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .