Combine the “chiselled out of rock” body of actor Ryan Reynolds, the intellectual prowess of writer Christopher Hitchens and the “funny, quirky” demeanour of film star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and you have the perfect role model for male middle-class undergraduates.
But while bourgeois students can “seamlessly integrate” many types of masculinity, a study at two universities concludes that their working- class peers find squaring the many demands placed on the modern man more challenging.
Working-class students, interviewed as part of the Paired Peers project, stress that “physicality, strength, toughness”, the ability to provide for one’s family and independence are crucial to masculinity.
David Beckham, Olympic canoeist and medical doctor Tim Brabants and television survivalist Ray Mears are all listed as role models.
Middle-class students also rate physical appearance but are happy to mix a “well-groomed” “metrosexual” look with a “gym body”.
Both groups say that brainpower is a part of masculinity, but as Nicola Ingram, lecturer in sociology at the University of Bath and one of the project leaders, explained, working-class students stress “physicality” and being a “provider”, on to which they add a “degree of intelligence”.
“They are partially struggling to pull [together] different forms of masculinity,” she said. “The middle-class men on the other hand seamlessly integrate [them]…to create a ‘composite masculinity’. This…allows them to be many different types of men at once, although they emphasise ‘intellectual masculinity’.”
One middle-class interviewee spoke of admiring how the late Mr Hitchens threw “his weight around intellectually” on debate shows, adding that the way he talked with female panellists showed “intellectual masculinity”.
This kind of attitude “belies an assumption of entitlement to dominance”, according to Dr Ingram, and was “arguably a refashioning of traditional male hegemony”.
Dr Ingram is working alongside Richard Waller, associate professor of the sociology of education at the University of the West of England, on Paired Peers, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project was launched in 2010 and has tracked 90 students at the universities of Bristol and the West of England throughout their undergraduate courses. It has already generated a paper looking at the experience of middle-class students studying at a post-1992 university.
The results on masculinity were presented at the Gender and Education Association Biennial Conference, held last month at London South Bank University, in order to receive feedback before being written up for publication.