Monday, June 28, 2021

Thinking Outside the Man Box

I used to wear my hair longer than I do today. Indeed, there were times when one could call it a flowing mane. This meant that people regularly called me "ma'am." Waiters would approach me from behind as I sat with my wife, greeting us breezily, "What can I get you ladies to drink?" It happened often and each time they would catch sight of my bearded chin, an expression of horror would cross their face, and then they would descend into stammering awkwardness.

You see, those are fighting words. Not for me, I would laugh and accept the free drink they proffered in apology, but for many men to be compared to a woman is the height of disrespect. I learned pretty young that the worst insult was to be called a "sissy," or any other aspersion on your masculinity. Well before I was a teen, I knew that to be compared, in any way, to a girl, required either an angry response or a comeback insult that was worse -- and there were few things worse than being called "a girl" or "a pansy" or "pussy." As we got older, homophobic slurs were added to the mix.

To be a "man" meant, as far as I could tell, doing whatever you could to distance yourself from femininity, which was associated with most emotions other than anger. Fear was too girly. Sadness, too prissy. Even indecisiveness or thoughtfulness or basic kindness could make you a target, for your peers as well as adults. Reflecting on my experiences growing up as a boy, I'm horrified by how much of my waking energy was spent on the project of avoiding the shame of being labelled as not masculine enough. And, to be honest, even today I'm not entirely sure what masculinity means except as a reaction against femininity.

In her book How to Raise a Feminist Son, journalist, professor, and presenter at Teacher Tom's Play Summit Sonora Jha, writes, "In many cultures, we rob boys of the range of human emotions and connection . . . And how are boys often trained in "masculinity?" By distancing themselves from femininity." 

I don't have a son, but I am one, I grew up among sons, and I have spent decades working with other people's sons. I have strived, as an educator, to create spaces in which all children can express themselves, not as a gender, but as individual children. We celebrate the expression of emotions. We eschew shaming. We don't bat an eye when a "boy" spends a day in a princess dress. Yet I see the work of our culture as one-by-one these boys struggle to be "big boys" or "man up" or "get over it." There are few things that break my heart more than to watch a two-year-old who wears his heart on his sleeve, slowly retreat over the course of his preschool years into the kind of emotional guardedness that we attribute to masculinity. We are trying, believe me, but in the end the culture outside our little bubble is strong. 

I like to think we make a difference, but I know the research finds that even those of us who identify as feminist or non-sexist, tend to reinforce, in both overt and subtle ways, the idea of what is often called the "Man Box." And much of that box is constructed of this idea that to be a man is to reject anything that might be considered feminine. Stanford researcher Dr. Judy Chu says, "We teach boys to abandon women, and the first woman he must abandon is his mother." As she points out, we all crave connection, but to "be a man" requires that our boys avoid connection. And we all know that disconnected people tend to be lonely, isolated, self-destructive, hostile, and even violent, the definition of "toxic masculinity," and the sad and dangerous condition in which too many men find themselves.

As Sonora Jha writes, this kind of masculinity "isn't what boys are made of but what they are made into."

One of the strongest predictors of whether or not a boy grows up to embody toxic masculinity is whether or not they have experienced caring relationships with other boys and men. Sonora talks to me of how her own son, a young man, has male friends with whom he can talk about feelings: even their fears, even their sadness. She says they call one another out on the use of sexist or homophobic language. It is all so alien to my own experiences as a young man. It gives me hope, even as I see the damages wrought by the twisted things we do to our boys in the pursuit of a brand of masculinity that is killing us.

As important adults in the lives of boys, we cannot protect them from the toxic messages in our culture. It is in the air we breathe. But we can talk about it. We can point it out. We can give them the space to cry, to cower, and to trust us with their emotions. We can teach them the "radical notion," as first articulated by activist Marie Meiselman Shear, "that women are people," and that to define oneself as a rejection of half of humanity to reject half of yourself.

Men, in particular, need to make an effort to break the cycle. When we role model our own vulnerability, our own compassion, caring, and connections, we show our boys that a different world is possible. When we, like Sonora's son and his friends, point out false narratives and stereotypes, we give our fellow males a glimpse of that loving, connected world outside the Man Box. 


The live portion of Teacher Tom's Play Summit is over, but it's still not too late to join Sonora, Lisa Murphy, Akilah Richards, Maggie Dent, Raffi, Suzanne Axelsson, Peter Gray and the rest of us. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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