Why I will never 'anchor up!' with Louie the Laker
Editor's note: Steve Tripp is a professor in the history department at Grand Valley State University. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.
Grand Valley State University has its fair share of start-of-the-academic-year traditions: move-in week, Convocation, Laker Night. I like my employer and try to be a good citizen of the university, but there’s one tradition I refuse to participate in: I will never “anchor up!” with Louie the Laker. Why? Because both the phrase and the mascot embrace a masculinity—that is, a concept of manhood—that is both out of sync with the university’s mission and unreflective of the university’s demographic base.
Consider the phrase “anchor up!” first. This is not a nautical phrase. Seamen yell “up anchor!” and “weigh anchor!” but not “anchor up!” It’s simply not part of naval lexicon. So, where did the phrase come from? It originated on the sidelines of a GVSU football game—an impressive moment of creativity by Laker fans. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that whoever thought it up didn’t copyright it, especially given the amount of money the university has made off of the phrase via T-shirts and whatnot.
What inspired the first iteration of this phrase is not known, but I think it reasonable to conclude that it was a play on the popular phrase of visceral masculinity “man up!” That term needs little explanation. It means to do the things that a man is traditionally expected to do. Some of these traditional traits are indeed praise-worthy, such as being responsible and brave and following one’s convictions.
But the phrase can easily become harmful to mind and body if exaggerated or overextended. And that, of course, is partly what the phrase intends. After all, it’s a statement one man makes to another man when he feels that person is not being “man” enough. As a corollary, it can also mean that the individual needs to shut out all traits identified as feminine, including compassion, gentleness and even forethought.
This suggests another problem with the term: It implies a strict dichotomy between masculine and feminine—that is, real men possess praiseworthy traits, while women and effeminate men do not. For this reason, “man up!” is often embraced as an essential attribute of “bro culture,” the hyper-masculinized male subculture that endorses a code of primal honor, misogyny, physicality, predatory sex and immediate gratification. Of course, not all Laker fans who shout “anchor up!” will fall to bro culture. Nevertheless, the term does carry the baggage of its antecedent, and we should be aware of how this may influence behavior.
What about Louie the Laker? Certain GVSU T-shirts implore us to love Louie with our heart and soul. Alas, Louie does not look all that lovable. Indeed, his face is molded into a permanent scowl, which I suspect is supposed to demonstrate resolve and will but—to me, anyway—makes him look painfully constipated.
In fact, Louie is supposed to look like the very embodiment of primal manliness, albeit with a nautical twist. My quick Google search of Louie photos shows him in all sorts of manly postures: flexing his muscles, high-stepping, raising his hands in victory, waving the flag, posing with adoring women and otherwise drawing attention to his bad old self. Louie is one fiercely determined, square-jawed, steroid-jacked, no-nonsense sort of a fellow. Heck, he doesn’t even wear a jacket when it’s freezing cold outside. No way. Not our Louie. He’s tough, Chuck Norris hyper-masculine tough. And that’s intentional.
Years ago, opposing fans ridiculed and teased the original GVSU mascot, a wizened old salt with beard and rain jacket. To remedy this, the administration created the Louie we have today, an unassailable sailor who demands respect by force of his angry facade. Note the lesson our Louie implicitly teaches us: toughen up when picked on.
The university’s enthusiasm for Louie carries with it considerable irony. At a university that prides itself for encouraging diversity, Louie is very white and very male, even though the university routinely attracts far more female students than male students. Clearly, the administrators who created Louie did not want Louie to represent the GVSU student body. Rather, they created him to reflect traditional conceptions of manhood, no matter how problematic those conceptions may be.
And make no mistake: Those conceptions are problematic. Together, “anchor up!” and Louie the Laker offer an ideal of manhood that is dubious at best and dangerous at worst. Dubious because there is simply no scientific evidence to suggest that men are emotionally stronger, more courageous or more determined than women. To suggest otherwise is to burden men with behavioral expectations that are contrary to their nature.
Feminists understand what this is all about. For the past several decades, they have combated ideals of womanhood fabricated by Hollywood and the advertising industry. Mass media perpetuates and ennobles equally unrealistic and cumbersome expectations for men, but men seem far less self-aware. Most men do not know that the behaviors they feel compelled to perform are in fact social and historical constructs.
Even more troubling than the behaviors men feel compelled to perform are the behaviors many feel entitled to perform. According to recent studies, men are more likely to crave power and authority than women are; consequently, they are also more likely to assume positions of authority over others (consider the consequences of this the next time you have a mixed-gender meeting).
This helps to explain why men are far more likely than women to be the perpetrators of sexual assault. That is to say, men are more likely to act upon the belief they deserve sexual gratification, even if that gratification comes without consent. Men also feel more entitled to exhibit anger and aggression than women. Recent studies have shown that men and women feel anger about equally (in fact, some studies claim women may actually feel anger more than men do), but women tend to deal with their anger in constructive ways (e.g. talking out their feelings).
Conversely, men are more likely to act forcefully toward the targets of their anger. News headlines offer tragic testimony to this. Timothy McVeigh, Timothy Roof, James Hodgkinson, James Field, Nidal Hasan, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and countless other men acted out their anger by killing people en masse. More typically, men exhibit their anger in less dramatic but similarly destructive ways. For example, they are more likely to join extremist “hate” groups, drive aggressively, commit road rage, engage in physical bullying, physically punish children, commit assault, and otherwise act violently and aggressively toward those who incur their wrath.
Sadly, the ethic of hyper-masculinity dictates that anger is about the only emotion men can exhibit. Feeling lost, confused, anxious? Stow those feelings, son, just like our Louie. This little edict explains why men are far less likely to seek help when they are troubled or depressed. Apparently, men consider it a sign of weakness to ask for help because real men stand on their own. Women do not suffer from this gender baggage, and it shows in academic performance. Women now tend to outperform men at all levels of academia: K-12, college, professional and graduate school.
This is wonderful news for women, but dismal news for men. It gets worse—much worse. Because men are less likely to seek help, they are more likely to suffer from the most desperate consequences of depression and mental illness. Specifically, they are more prone to act on suicidal thoughts than women. In fact, American men are three to four times more likely than American women to commit suicide. Men try to be tough, but that toughness often leads to tragedy.
Think I’m making too much out of something frivolous? I mean, we’re talking about a slogan and sports mascot here. Maybe so, but words and images matter. If they did not, GVSU’s marketing folks would not spend precious resources promoting Louie the Laker and “anchor up!” They know that words and images serve as our cultural DNA, imprinting upon our psyches the values we hold and the roles we play. “Anchor up!” and Louie may be a miniscule part of that DNA, but they are important to the culture of GVSU.
Louie, in particular, is a ubiquitous presence at GVSU. He has gone from being a sports mascot to being an essential part of many GVSU events. Meanwhile, his avatar graces university publications, and the Laker Store sells his likeness on everything from shot glasses to T-shirts to tennis shoes. Perhaps even more than university President Thomas Haas, Louie is the face of GVSU. That’s a problem—or at least it should be.
What to do? If GVSU is serious about inclusion, equity and public safety, it should replace its current mascot for something that is both more reflective of its student body and less wedded to toxic conceptions of manhood. At the very least, we ought to have a Louise or Lucy Laker. Or how about just “Lou/Lu," an androgynous entity who represents more than one race and more than one gender?
Regardless, GVSU needs to recognize that its adoption of “anchor up!” and Louie the Laker perpetuates misleading and dangerous conceptions of manhood. As a center of intellectual growth for West Michigan, GVSU ought to do better. We ought to offer a conception of manhood—of humanity—that is as complex and as nuanced as the students we serve.
Perhaps, too, GVSU can be proactive by initiating discussions about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. This is a hot topic today in gender studies, in political discourse and in social commentary. But it barely receives notice at GVSU. The university has an organization dedicated to furthering awareness about men and masculinities, "Men in Action," but its institutional support pales in comparison to that of other student organizations. Want evidence?
How many of you have even heard of Men in Action? Unintentionally, the organization’s initials—MIA: “Missing in Action”—offer a sad commentary of its place at GVSU. This is unfortunate. Men—no less than women, racial and ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT community—need and deserve a place where they can discuss and explore identity. The GVSU administration needs to do more to encourage those discussions.
Indeed, the continued presence of Louie the Laker and “anchor up!” suggests the administration needs to participate in those discussions.