Why is strength still associated with masculinity? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to professor Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. about his 24-year career in the Marine Corps and the connection between strength and masculinity. Learn how cultural changes are changing the perception that strength and power are masculine traits and why it’s so important to emphasize that masculinity and maleness are two different things.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today, we’re talking to Dr. Larry Parker, Department Chair in the School of Business, and today, our conversation is about the military, masculinity, and strength, and welcome, Larry.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Hey, Bjorn. It’s great to be here.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. This is a great conversation. I can’t tell you how many articles and different podcasts I’ve listened and read about the military, about the concept of strength and masculinity, and it’s not only from a Western perspective, it’s from countries all around the world, and every generation has, I guess you can say bemoans the quote, “loss of masculinity,” but what does that mean? So every generation and every country has complained about the current generation’s masculinity. What is this actually about?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: And this is a great topic. As I was telling you before we began, that I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to discuss it, because it’s an age-old question. And it’s something that, really in Western societies, I believe we’ve created an image of something in our head that is what is masculine, what is strong? And I guess, in my generation, our generation, the John Wayne, or the Westerns, but it really is a question of strength and power, and that’s really what I think it gets down to at the heart of it.
Success, that a lot of people like to attribute that to being successful and strong. But I think we’ll probably get a little bit more deeper into this, but I think that’s at the root of it, an aggressiveness, that innate ability to achieve certain things is now being ascribed to masculinity.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought that up, because you can’t have a conversation about masculinity, and then also talking about femininity. Now, here’s a question, and I don’t know if I’ll ask it right, but masculinity, culturally and societally, very easily equates to the military in a very common, I guess you could say limited, cultural perspective, not limited, just stereotypical, age-old. How is femininity, how is that also related to the military?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: The military, unlike very many occupations, is solely about really stepping in when other forms of diplomacy have failed. If we really look at it, almost every occupation within the military supports an aggressive action. So you can even be a medical provider or something else like that, but you need to be prepared to support someone who was wounded from an aggressive action.
And so, it’s no surprise that in an organization that it’s, I won’t say sole purpose, because we’ve seen over time there’s other humanitarian things that happen with the military effort, but it was founded to fight and be aggressive, and so, that’s where that masculinity piece comes in.
And I’ll take one first peel on that discussion about femininity. It’s probably more challenged within the military, because it could be seen as weakness. I know that is opening up a whole box of discussion there, but really, if it’s not considered masculine, the first assumption is then it’s weakness. If it’s not strength, that’s all ascribed to masculinity, anything else, you’re taking a step back from it. And that’s really wrong in the sense of what can form a successful military unit.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like how you said “forms a successful military unit,” but also, when we think about how culture and countries view masculinity and femininity, and as you say it, the military is about an aggressive action. Essentially, the military is about, I mean, typically, most military doctrines are today about defense, or even international laws about defense. You can only reciprocate an action, if you were already attacked, break international law, if you were the aggressor, unjustifiable aggressor.
Now, with that said, there’s so many different ways in which strength is demonstrated. So that leads us to the next question is, what is strength in the military, and how do different people demonstrate different types of strength?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, strength, very much akin to courage, or we’ll say that’s part of the definition, it’s the ability to overcome whatever challenge, whatever’s pushing back or whatever you’re needing to overcome, that is strength. And actually, this is a great opportunity to talk about how the feminine side of the discussion is also a strength, and I like to utilize the Lionesses Program, Lionesses.
That’s seen and utilized in more of the Eastern cultures, where we take things for granted as for a male speaking to a woman in our cultural context, but you go into other cultures, the woman of the home, or women in that culture are not supposed to be seen speaking with men the way that we would do here in Western culture.
And with the Lionesses program, we saw as we were conducting diplomacy or moving in a foreign area, that small units of women, military members, soldiers, Airmen, Marines, would move throughout the culture that could gather intelligence, conduct whatever operations that needed to be done, but this is where we get to that discussion, just because of gender, doesn’t mean that there’s a change in the strength. Because I can tell you, those Lionesses went into more dangerous areas than quite many of the male counterparts in those areas of operation.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you brought that up, because when I think of the military, and so, just from example, my dad was 24 years Army. So, I saw his experience throughout my entire youth and into my, I guess I can say early adult, and when I think of the military, it really makes me think of, just like you said, what are the different strengths? The tip of the spear is a small percentage of people. So like when people join the military, not everybody’s going to be in the frontline carrying the gun, going head first into battle, and just like you said, there’s so many people that support.
And so, the “aggressiveness,” you don’t need a population of military people in which all of them are hyper-aggressive. It would almost seem like that would be counterintuitive. And even then, if you have the tip of the spear, which you could quote, in a simple way say are “aggressive,” that could actually be a huge detriment because they might throw themselves into the fray, and then get killed instantly.
And so, how is it that the military then is able to then put different people into the different roles that really fulfills their strengths as individuals, but also fulfills the need of the military? Because the last thing the military wants to do ever is just get people killed for not a good reason, and waste lives.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, that’s where the real value of the initial training that individuals get. I know I’ll speak from the Marine Corps, and thank you for your family’s service because obviously, anyone who serves, their family served, and so thank you for your family’s service.
I served 24 years in the Marine Corps, and when individuals talk about bootcamp or the basic school, that’s when you’re forming that sense of family unit comradery, that we’re all in this for the same mission. And so, yes, we all foster some sense of aggressive posture, because you never know what may happen in a particular mission, but, at the early stages, when you identify what your job specialty will be, it’s always taught, inundated at an early point that this supports the mission. So you train to that, you train to understand that it supports the mission, and everyone understands there’s a dangerous aspect to this.
And just a short comment, like, for example, when we deployed to Afghanistan, I was a leader of an organization that we had combat support: postal, some of the other service items that would need to be delivered. And those individuals, those Marines went out on the front line, just like everyone else. I mean, in order to get some of the products, some of the items to the individuals in the foxhole, they were under the same fire. They experienced the improvised explosive devices, the IEDs, that everyone spoke of, and they drove those convoys. And so, yeah, everyone puts themselves in harm’s way, they just get a good opportunity early on to understand they’re part of the mission.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s an absolutely wonderful story, because if you go into a conflict that is hot, I think one of the things, and I’ve read so many stories, I’ve read so many different tales, I’ve heard so many politicians talk about service and sacrifice, but when you get into a situation where it’s at actually a hot conflict, all the rules are out the window. And I’m assuming you have to then really rely on your training and rely on the person next to you. Because at the end of the day, if somebody’s literally firing weapons at you, or an AK, or anything like that, I mean, your brain is racing so fast that it’s about survival. And so, how does the military help prepare people for those heightened stress situations? Is it all about the training, and consistency, and practice?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: That’s exactly what it is. There is an adage that we say, “Smooth is fast, fast is smooth,” and that really comes from knowing the steps that you’re going to take in a particular situation. One of those points of where that adage comes into play the jammed weapon scenario, where if for whatever reason, if your weapon won’t fire, there’s a series of steps that we’re all trained to take. And just to know that those are the steps, it may not be the real reason, but it’s the thing that you can go to when it’s very heightened, nervous situation or dangerous situation, you go to that series of steps, and it actually gives you an opportunity to be in a calming place because you’re falling back on something you know. And so, practice, or rehearsals as we call them, make them very important because you’re more successful when you operate in an area that you’re familiar with.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. It’s one of those things where, since we’re talking about masculinity, one could be quote, “as masculine as possible,” but then when you’re put in as stressful situation, the training, you have to fall back on that. Just because you might look the part or have certain characteristics that culturally, people think are “masculine,” once you’re in the situation, you have to rely on your training. And honestly, a military is only as good as the training that it gives its soldiers.
And so, this leads me to the next question is, how has masculinity been politicized in the U.S., and why is this topic not helpful in the public sphere? And also, to add to that, it’s been politicized in many other countries, pretty much every country out there that has a military.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: I honestly believe it still falls back to power. It’s positioning in society. It’s when you put certain attributes or you align them with certain positions, whether it be elected positions, or just positions within civilian organizations, and as well as we know, the military, it creates a situation of, I would say, separation. “Okay, if you don’t have these certain attributes, you can’t be here.” And if I can define what those attributes are, then in many cases, they’re going to be to my benefit, so I’m controlling both of the narratives, or all the narrative.
And so, masculinity is very different than maleness. We won’t argue biology. So for someone to automatically say, “Well, if you’re strong, you’re a man,” and masculinity has just gotten wrapped up into that strength-type discussion. And so, it almost takes us back to that very first conversation we had, strength comes in very different ways and different forms. And, unfortunately, it’s just become political because some individuals who have traditionally held onto power, want to continue to hold onto the power, and they will continue to control that narrative.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree, and it makes me think of, if the world is changing, and that’s one of the tough things is that the world changes every generation, no matter what happens. You’re a teenager and you look at the world, and you can’t believe the world you’re inheriting. And so, usually, you want to change it.
And then you live a life in your 20s, and 30s, and 40s, and then say, 40s, 50s, and 60s, you see the world changing. The world that you lived in starts to change, and some people are fine with it, and other people aren’t. And in many ways, it’s okay to not be okay with how the world changes, because we all have our views, or I can say, we all have biases, but the most important thing is that we work on them. We realize that the world is changing.
If you look at how military strength was projected, just like you had said, it was almost exclusively a male job. Now, what does that mean? It means that culturally and societally, we have all of these ideas, and concepts, and schemas about military equals men and it’s masculine. But then fast forward to today, we don’t have conflicts that are a bunch of people with swords running into each other anymore. How has the concept of the older, more tribal, that concept of conflict, how is that different than today, and how are politicians reacting to that positively and negatively?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, you hit right on the progress that’s been made in recognizing everyone’s contribution, and when I talked about the conscious effort to control the narrative of masculinity and strength, and who should be in a position, if we look back, even in the military history, the successes and the contribution of a number of women just was not recognized.
Everyone looks at Rosie the Riveter, and the photos and things of that nature, but if you really took a harder look at military history, the number of accomplished pilots in the United States is severely underscored when it comes to women. For example, when we were building the incredible number of aircraft for World War II, who do you believe ferried those aircraft, had to fly them from one side of the country to the next, or to their destination? But we never hear of those women. There was whole squadrons of individuals who they were accomplished pilots, but the way society was at the time, the fighter pilot, the individuals that you saw on the old news reels tended to be male, you would never see that. So it was a conscious effort to continue to project the strength of our military might, but it wouldn’t be possible without those individuals, because all the other pilots were touring, fighting.
And so, when we get to just, it really is a cultural thing that we’re holding onto, to hold onto that adage that if it is strong, if it’s an aggressive posture, you want the most intimidating, and I’m invoking all these other thoughts, these pictures in your mind when I say these words, but no one wants to put those akin to be a woman or the feminine side of it. So really, to get to your point, and I’m sorry for dragging this answer on, why is it politicized and why do some individuals hold onto it so hard? It just keeps going back to, “I want to keep things in a place where I’m in control.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense, because for some people, life is about control, and so, political power for some, is all about control. You can throw into other spheres, and I’ll say the religious sphere is about control, to a point.
Now, here’s a question: When women were allowed to then go into combat roles, do you see a day where the military will be 50/50 men and women? Or do you see that the military will be one of those jobs that men still go into more, such as nursing? Nursing is mainly women, or teaching is mainly women. So, is the military still going to be something that men go into more often, but do you see that women will go into it more and more? And, of course, then their contributions won’t be questioned, because the culture will change with the times, and then they won’t question, “Well, can a woman fly a jet into a combat, or can they be on the ground?” because eventually it’ll be like, “Well, of course they can.”
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: That’s a great question, because we see it over in some European, some Middle Eastern, and I know some people would probably raise their eyebrows when I say Middle Eastern, there are a number of countries when the population is truly challenged, that there are probably comparable number of women that serve because their population is so small, everyone of a particular age needs to serve.
In the Western society, I believe we will continually lag behind because culturally, some people may even get into the question of continuing on our society, how many women we need to have individuals and that gets into a very deep conversation of childbearing individuals of what age. And I want to make it clear that it’s not such a farfetched discussion, because I actually attended a military school with a European friend of mine that his country was dying. They literally had no one of the original blood of that nation remaining, and they were literally trying to promote young people to have children because it happens. But that’s a very far-reaching point for our discussion, but I will say, the numbers will continue to increase.
The disparity that we see right now is just because really, we’re a volunteer force, and so, we’re also in a society where there’s lots of opportunities right now elsewhere. So, the military can be seen just like any other occupation, and it’s like, “Ah, I don’t want to deal with that,” or “I don’t want to deal with some of those challenges.” So, will the sentiment continue to grow and change? Absolutely. But right now, the issue is not being forced.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And this is a random question, can you think of any science fiction depiction of a military force that is, I guess I can say which talks about masculinity or male-female equality? So just to throw it out there, “Starship Troopers.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but when it first came out in the movie, which is actually a lot deeper than most people give it credit for, men and women both serve in the ground forces and in other forces, and it’s never brought up, it is just a fact. Do you want to make a comment about that or any other depictions? Because sometimes science fiction can really comment about societal issues in a way that allows people to understand it.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, if we just look at two key points in that film that really caught some people, likely by surprise, it was the birthing areas or the sleeping areas, and the restrooms were co-ed. And so, it was something that any of us that have served, it quickly caught us by surprise. But if you think about it, it’s something that we’re slowly moving towards anyway, because then we’re not oversexualizing a number of things, and just like, “Hey, we’re just here to serve. We’re here to do our job.”
And that brings back some of the current challenges we have in society now with the restrooms, and the things that we have in there, and now the military is actually grappling with that, because as we look at moving past, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and we’re having individuals that are transgender or that are changing right now, transitioning, we’re dealing with it on our Naval vessels. We’re dealing with it in certain situations right now in deployments.
I had a friend that was being told that, “Hey, you may room with someone on this next deployment that is transitioning, they’ve declared, and they’re in a certain stage of their transitioning process.” And we’ve gotten to that point in the military where we’ve actually identified, at what point do we accept the individual in their transition? So it is something that is evolving. Will it get to the point as far as we saw in the movie? I don’t know. It would likely make things a lot easier in the sense of some of the current arguments, “Oh, well, how many facilities do I need to have? Do I need to have certain things?” Well, it makes things quite easy in that movie.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For anybody in our audience who hasn’t seen “Starship Troopers” in a while, go back and really look at it from a philosophical, from a propaganda perspective, because there’s a lot of really good and interesting commentaries. Also, the fact that the entire movie is a farce in itself, and it was an intention about the over and the simplistic of military. The strategy used in the film is just a joke, just throwing people down there to die, and that by itself. But really, in the way it presented the genders, and just like you said, if you’re on a ship, or say, a sub, and then if you only have one area for people to sleep in, to go to the bathroom, it makes it so much easier.
And the way we view each other, both male and female, I’ll say is cultural. There doesn’t have to be this big hangup on “Men have to be over there, women have to be over there.” Now, of course, if there is a combined area for everybody to live and to habitate in, then there’s obviously some rules, but there’s already rules that assumes that, and I’ll throw out there sexual violence, that always assumes that all sexual violence is male-female, but there is sexual violence, male-male. Obviously, more rarely is it female to female, or female to male, but if that, as a cultural and societal thing changes, then it totally makes the military logistics just right there, easier.
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Absolutely. That’s my job when I was in the military, is supply and logistics. So, and then from a command standpoint, you just spoke right on it the number of times that we had to, even if we were on a forced hike going somewhere, identifying sleeping areas that were different for the different sexes, all of those things. But like you said, it’s cultural, because if we even look at some of our universities, there’s some universities that push that envelope. I know in Ohio, I believe Oberlin University was one of those that was open, co-ed bathrooms.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought up about the military having to grapple with it, because I think one of the ways in which masculinity or gender is politicized is right now, people are talking about it, people have very strong opinions. But at the end of the day, people are just people, and if somebody who is a male or if somebody’s a female, or if somebody down the road transitions or whatever, if they want to serve, they should be able to serve their country. And that’s one of the things that people want to do, and they want to be able to give back, and that’s more important than politicians giving speeches about this or that, because culture changes, and oftentimes, culture does change for the better.
But for so many people, it’s a hard, to use the term “transition,” it’s a hard transition. And when things are uncomfortable, they don’t quite go along with it, or sometimes we’re in little groups where you aren’t actually encountering other people. So you don’t even know, because you’ve never encountered it. And so, sometimes people’s opposition, it makes sense, because they just haven’t encountered it in their daily lives. Now, from your time in the military, did you find that military people were exposed to so many more things, and was that a positive for them?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Yes. You’re going to be exposed to a number of other cultures quickly. But the interesting thing is that you’re both, say if two individuals from different parts of the country came into the military, you’re joining a single culture, you’re both being inundated with the lessons of that culture, but you’re bringing your home with you.
I know I was still going through school, but my roommate at the Naval Academy, he was from Elk Point, North Dakota, and this was something that he had never seen a Black person in person, and I was the first one, and we were roommates. And so, we wind up being the best of friends, and we continue to be best of friends to this day. He served in the Navy and I served in the Marine Corps, but that was something that I hadn’t thought about because I’m like, “What do you mean” And he’s like just, “Besides TV and everything else,” because he played basketball just like I did, high school basketball, but every team he ever played looked just like him.
So it’s to say, even in the United States, even in this time and age, you would find someone with that great a disparity, and if you think about it, then that person’s going to go on and he’s going to lead other individuals from other cultures. And unless they’re open to seeing things differently, I don’t know what roles women played in his families or things back then. But that was probably the most extreme example that I was like, “What do you mean you’ve never seen?” And that was that.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that makes sense, because there are certain states in the union that are more Black, more white, or more Hispanic. For my own example, I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and El Paso is about 80% Hispanic, and so, I grew up being the minority in El Paso. Now, of course I’m white, but by being white in El Paso, you’re still the majority in the United States. So there’s not a dynamic in which I experienced being a minority, per se. If people want to go to El Paso, it’s a great experience of having an area, where the majority of the city is Hispanic.
One of the things, and I remember my dad talking about this, is that the military just really brought everybody together, and you just really had to accept the person next to you, because you had to get the job done, and that’s one of the things where ideally, higher education does that, ideally some jobs do that. But sometimes people aren’t just in North Dakota, and there’s nothing wrong in North Dakota, but if you live and were born in North Dakota, you might just be around the same types of people all the time. And again, that’s okay, but it’s important to know that there’s a wider world out there, and to have experiences, and also, just to have experiences like we’ve talked about, what is masculinity? Absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words, Larry?
Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, the main point that you and I got to discuss, that we should not equate masculinity with the only forms of strength, and understand that masculinity and maleness are two different things. Because then that is one thing that I do see that was probably detrimental in a number of situations, where men didn’t think that they could feel anything other than just strength, all the strong type things like, “Okay, you can have no emotions, you can’t have anything else.” So if I could just leave with that point, that masculinity does not equal maleness, and it also is not the only forms of strength that are there.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful final thoughts, and thank you so much for talking about this great conversation. Today, we were speaking with Dr. Larry Parker about the military, masculinity, and strength. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.