In the middle of football practice a few weeks back,, a group of young athletes on the University of Redlands team were having a conversation about wage inequality. Emari McClellan, a freshman middle linebacker, remembers it going like this:
“Someone was saying — and this came up because of Trump and Hillary — ‘well, the woman makes less because they leave work earlier to go pick up their kids.’”
A teammate chimed in, asking why men couldn’t be the ones to go pick up their children from school. McClellan piled on, adding that regardless of who picks up the kids, feminists have long advocated for child-care assistance and that a growing number of women are now the primary breadwinners in their families, often working more hours than men.
The discussion pivoted: The players started talking about the idea of who “wears the pants” in a relationship, and why a guy’s sense of manhood feels challenged if his partner out-earns him.
Then, presumably, they got back to playing football.
“At times, you have to break the conversation and just bring this stuff up,” McClellan tells me. “The football player is the stereotypical hypermasculine man — we feel pressured to hide our emotional side — but I say, you know what, I’m gonna talk about feminism, I’m gonna talk about masculinity, I’m going to ask why you aren’t in touch with your feelings.”
Because McClellan, besides being a football player, a freshman political science major at Redlands, a young black man from South Pasadena, and someone who takes his nickname, “Mr. President,” very seriously (“I want to be the president of the United States one day”), is a Dude of D.U.D.E.S., and he thinks the whole team should start coming to meetings.
D.U.D.E.S., or Dudes Understanding Diversity and Ending Stereotypes, is a “traveling men’s center” at Redlands, and the creation of Zack Ritter, 30, and Reggie Robles, 27, two staffers working in the office of Campus Diversity and Inclusion.
The program is just one gem in a glittering tiara of support and wokeness at the small liberal arts institution in California’s Inland Empire. (There’s B.L.A.C.C.—Brilliant Leaders Advocating Color Consciousness—and L.U.S.T. —Let’s Understand Sex Together—to name just two.) But until D.U.D.E.S. began in the spring semester of 2015, there was no program aimed specifically at the young men of Redlands — even though the university knew they could use a little help. Fifteen percent of the male students weren’t making it to graduation, compared to 10 percent of women.
That tracks with national numbers: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 62 percent of women and only 56 percent of men got a degree within 6 years. In the context of the past 35 years, too, men are falling behind — between 1980 and 2014, the percentage of American women getting bachelor’s degrees grew from 21 to 37 percent, while the rate for men only went from 24 to 31 percent.
The theories that researchers have come up with to explain this gap often circle around issues of male identity: men are less socially adaptable, in part because they have a more rigid sense of self, and end up isolated in the new world of a college campus. Once they’re isolated, or otherwise having a tough time, men are also less likely to seek help at counseling services than women. Plus, the almost exclusively male myth of the hyper-achieving Silicon Valley dropout billionaire is still going strong, and might encourage more confident kids, frustrated with the grind of papers and grades, to strike out on their own.
So, in a meeting with the Men’s Retention Committee, an administrative body created to come up with ideas to reverse these trends, Ritter and Robles pitched a new idea: a program where men could talk about their man-ness, and learn more about the research being done on masculinity.
“We really liked the idea of doing something fun and interesting, and having organic conversations about what it means to be a millennial man, and how that compares to our fathers’ masculinity” Ritter says. A student proposed calling it “Dudes,” then Ritter and Robles fleshed out the acronym to reflect the program’s broad scope.
At first, D.U.D.E.S. was just a lecture series on topics like pornography, gun violence, and machismo, followed by brief discussion sessions. But in the two years since, it’s expanded to include an annual Men’s Retreat in the nearby mountains, a D.U.D.E.S. week towards the end of the fall semester with daily activities like beard styling, a fashion contest, discussions of men’s health, and an activity called “Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk,” in which men can try walking down a red carpet wearing high heels. And, most importantly, there’s the weekly meeting of the D.U.D.E.S.
These discussion sessions, held every Thursday night, make up the heart of the program. Ritter and Robles like to lead off with a few YouTube clips or a specific news story to spark discussion on the topic of the day, like race and gender in hip-hop or the macho culture of sports, but the structure is intentionally loose. Students can officially enroll for a single credit (compared to four for a regular class), but everyone on campus is invited to join the conversation at any time — including people who aren’t men.
On the night in late September that I sat in the back of a session, four of the 25 students who showed up to discuss Trump’s particularly toxic brand of masculinity were women. In the wake of the first presidential debate, the conversation drifted between discussions of gender and more generic national politics, but every so often, Ritter or Robles would try to steer the group back to questions of masculinity.
Was Trump’s constant interruption of Hillary a typically masculine move? How is Hillary’s confidence interpreted differently than Trump’s cockiness, in the context of gender? And why do white men seem to like him so much?
Terms from academic masculinity studies pepper the conversation — students discuss “taking off the man mask,” and “the empathy gap” created by the emotional distance that’s often enforced by “masculinity police.” The films of Michael Kimmel (Guyland) and Thomas Keith (The Bro Code, Generation M) get a lot of play. But the tone is generally gentle, and everyone in the group listens patiently to each others’ comments, even when they veer into nihilistic Trump trollery.
Ritter tells me that the goal of the program isn’t to forge a uniformly woke male student body, but just to allow men to “become their authentic selves,” which presumably lie somewhere beneath their layers of constructed masculinity.
“I’ve thought about this stuff a lot,” says Jesse Wims, a freshman on the basketball team, who isn’t enrolled in the D.U.D.E.S. course but has started coming to meetings anyway. Before college, at an all-boys prep school in the Boston suburbs, he says there was “a sense of uber masculinity,” especially on the sports teams. But by senior year, he had fallen in with a crowd that was “in touch with their emotions, and more willing to have real conversations — and I realized that those are the type of people I like being around.”
“I come from a very open-minded family,” Wims says, “but even my father struggles to express his emotions — you can tell he’s uncomfortable with it. For some guys, it’s so hard to even describe an emotion that you’re feeling because the fear of being called a pussy, or a bitch, and that creates an inability to build strong relationships. Getting past all that nonsense is the reason I’m so close with the friends I have now — it’s led to greater quality of life, in my opinion.”
“I just saw D.U.D.E.S. and thought it was a cool name for a club,” says Alex Cheney, a freshman who plans to major in biochem. “I didn’t really see any other guys’ clubs on campus, and I was like OK, this could be fun I guess — we don’t always talk about masculinity and deconstructing it, but it’s pretty cool that people aren’t afraid to talk about it,” says Cheney. “It’s been really catching on — more and more people are coming in.”
According to Michael Messner, it’s not just Redlands students who are more interested in studying and talking about masculinity. The USC professor of Sociology and Gender Studies has been researching and teaching on masculinity for over three decades — since before it was cool.
“Twenty years ago, even fifteen years ago, it was really, really hard to get guys to take this course called Men and Masculinity,” Messner says. “And if they did sign up, they were generally of a few types: one would be a man of color for whom something about manhood had been problematic, another would be a gay man who’s come out or is just about to come out, and the last would be a straight white guy who’s taking it because his girlfriend said he had to or she’d dump him.”
Starting about five years ago, though, Messner says that men started showing up in greater numbers, bringing the gender ratio of his classes closer to 50–50.
“I’m not going to say that there’s been an entire sea change,” Messner says. “But this is a generation of young guys that grew up in a culture where feminism is part of the air that we breathe.”
Back at Redlands, Ritter attributes the robust interest in D.U.D.E.S. to similar social factors. “After three or four waves of the feminist movement, however you want to count it, I think that women are demanding a lot more of our men, whether our men identify as heterosexual or homosexual,” says Ritter.
“I think millennial men are looking at their fathers’ lives and having a Betty Friedan moment. They’re saying: ‘Isn’t there more?’”
D.U.D.E.S. was first created to try and reduce some of the harm that a rigid, emotionally constipated conception of manhood can inflict. If guys have a place to unwind, take off their man masks, and learn about themselves, the theory goes, they might feel happier at Redlands, and be less likely to drop out of college as a result.
As the program’s matured, that therapeutic mission has expanded beyond just keeping enrollment numbers up. Many of the dudes I spoke with talked about the dangers inherent in the path of unexamined manhood, and the benefits that men could reap from liberating themselves from its prescribed roles.
But masculinity is a double-edged sword. Beneath every conversation about the harm that men can do to themselves, there’s the conversation about the harm that men can inflict on others — especially women.
“I think of D.U.D.E.S. as the other side of rape prevention,” says William Dahlin, a junior public policy major who volunteers for D.U.D.E.S.. “The culture isn’t so much like, ‘oh what were you wearing, you deserved that’ anymore, we’re mostly past that, but still our main training is to think ‘if you don’t get drunk, you don’t get raped,’ which is still horrible.”
“If we can get a bigger impact in greek life, that would make a world of difference,” Dahlin adds.
Soon after Ritter and Robles started D.U.D.E.S., they realized they needed to try and address the ways that collegiate masculinity can lead to abuse, assault, and other dangerous behavior. Researchers, journalists, and lawmakers have declared America’s college campuses to be in the midst of a “rape epidemic,’ often citing the finding that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, and Redlands itself was scandalized earlier this year after the student newspaper published a student’s account of her rape as a freshman that criticized the way the university handled the situation. (Between the time of the incident and the published account, Redlands had instituted reforms to comply with the 2011 Department of Education guidelines on Title IX enforcement, like appointing dedicated Title IX Coordinators to oversee cases of sexual assault.)
So the D.U.D.E.S. administrative duo began reaching out to the frats. “We go in and talk about Title IX things and healthy sexual relationships,” Ritter says, “but we do it in a way that’s a more peer-to-peer model… We try to speak their language, we get a little bit bro-ey.”
For the most part, though, the frat brothers are staying away from D.U.D.E.S. sessions. “Fraternities and sororities, and the athletic teams, they’re a tough nut to crack,” Ritter says. “They already have their community.”
And at the same time that programs like D.U.D.E.S. are reaching a more diverse audience of men, reactionary subcultures with inflammatory gender politics — from MRAs to MGTOWs to various alt-right personality cults — seem to be blossoming on college campuses.
“I know it seems ridiculous, but fact of the matter is that Milo Yiannopolous had a college tour around the country, his followers are increasing exponentially. I’ve even seen some guys wearing Milo shirts both on and off campus,” Dahlin says. “I want to confront those kinds of ideas head-on.”
Based on Dahlin’s experience getting hooked on gender studies in a freshman-year course taught by a man, he believes D.U.D.E.S. could work as an antidote to the red pill. “I sometimes think of myself as doing damage control for feminism — not because men need to save women, but men themselves need feminists,” Dahlin says. “We need to be loud and be very present to be like, ‘hey, you’re full of shit, we actually have some answers, and you’re just throwing out a lot of crap.’”
Given the dedication of its student dudes and some pending moves by the staff, D.U.D.E.S. seems poised to keep growing across the Redlands campus, and even across Southern California. Ritter himself is leaving his post at Redlands soon to take a similar position at the nearby Harvey Mudd College.
“I’ll be coming back to campus to keep D.U.D.E.S. going,” Ritter says, “and I want to try to bring some of the D.U.D.E.S. stuff there, too.”
Emari McClellan says that, the next time he’s home in Pasadena, he’s planning on getting in touch with his Catholic high school to talk about establishing a similar program. He’s also in the process of convincing his football coaches to set up a semi-official D.U.D.E.S. event for the team. “I have 120 people on my team,” McClellan says. “If I get only half of them to show up, it could help the program move to a larger scale.”
In the meantime, Dahlin notes that the open-doors policy has attracted some of the dudes he thinks could use D.U.D.E.S. the most. “At the meeting that we had last week, these five guys from a frat walked in and sat in back,” he says. “They didn’t really talk, but they were engaged — I could tell that they were there because they cared.” And perhaps most importantly, for the gospel of D.U.D.E.S.: “They said they’d be back. And that they’d bring more people next time.”