A close-up of a MasculinUT poster.
Image: University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin has launched a new program, dubbed MasculinUT, to help expand definitions of masculinity on campus. Part of the project has been a poster campaign featuring images of students with messages suggesting that you can cry, be queer, put on makeup, or treat women with respect and—imagine this—still be masculine.

It’s a pretty sensible and timely project as we grapple culturally with the sometimes devastating results of restrictive notions of masculinity. But, naturally, right-wingers—including Rush Limbaugh and his ilk—are losing their shit over it.

The program’s critics are seizing specifically on the fact that the program is produced by the university’s Counseling and Mental Health Center. As PJ Media, a conservative news site, put it, they are “treating masculinity as if it were a mental health crisis.” Rush Limbaugh, who ranted about the program on his show, was outraged: “In red state Texas masculinity is being treated as a mental health challenge.” I would argue that masculinity, or our conceptions of it, is a mental health crisis—what more evidence do we need?”

The conservative outrage has gained enough traction that the program’s organizers felt compelled to respond directly. “The MasculinUT program does not treat masculinity as a ‘mental health issue,’ and any such statements are simply not accurate,” a statement read. “It was established to bring more men to the table to address interpersonal violence, sexual assault and other issues.” Addressing rigid conceptions of masculinity is part of that.

But the right-wing outrage is rooted in an inability to tell the difference between an attack on men and an attack on restrictive notions of masculinity that harm men—and everyone. The campaign’s website explains:

By addressing masculinities and gender expression, we are not trying to incite defensiveness, fear or anger, or suggest that all masculine people are violent. They aren’t. We want to provide students with the language and concepts to understand who they are and how our culture, particularly ideas about gender, influence our everyday thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

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However, a writer on the conservative blog RedState, demonstrating profound reading incomprehension, writes incredulously, “The idea that it is a negative—or, excuse me, let me adopt their language, a ‘restrictive’ or ‘exclusionary’—characteristic for a man to be a bread winner and provide for his family, to be confident and strong, to be physically active, is absolutely ridiculous.”

It is, indeed. But that’s not what the program is suggesting. The point is that it’s “negative” when men feel the need to be “a bread winner and provide for his family, to be confident and strong, to be physically active.” It’s “negative” when men—or, as the program inclusively emphasizes, masculine-identified people—don’t feel they have a choice about the gendered roles that they play. But all of that is lost in the very-much-proving-the-point response of critics like Limbaugh. As he asked on his show, “So if it’s not a good thing for a man to be a man, then what are they going to turn men into? What do you think is the alternative? If masculinity is a problem, then what are these guys gonna become?” Better humans than you, perhaps.