It strikes me as odd that, having identified a crisis of masculinity in our young boys, anyone would suggest that these same boys should be raised more like “warriors” than they otherwise would have been. And yet, Maggie Dent, a former high school teacher and counselor, suggested at the beginning of this year that many of the social ills facing young men today—from Sydney’s king-hit culture to lackluster personal and academic performance—are related to a broader societal problem of strangling the masculinity out of the boy. Boyhood, Dent claims, has been “stolen . . . in the name of a sanitized, politically correct, gender neutral, bland childhood.” Boys, Dent continues, need to constantly prove their own worth (primarily to other men, it seems) in order to “demonstrate potency, victory and independence” from a young age. To do this they need to cultivate their inner “boy warrior,” otherwise stifled by our increasing incursions upon their freedom.
“Roam[ing] unsupervised on adventures” will help unfurl the “warrior…within” because boys are naturally “competitive and active.” Similarly, we should be accepting, if not encouraging, of rough play because this helps boys to learn proper social cues, compensating for the fact that they are “less efficient at using language to resolve conflict,” and unlikely listeners. Just as Gail Bederman has shown how Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth President of the United States, needed to, and did, reshape his public image so as to be recognized as a competent and masculine leader, so too are boys required to conform to these tired stereotypes in order to be socially successful. Dent makes no mention of the importance of play or competition to girls, for example, implying that they are not-so-subtly different and reinforcing the exclusionary boundaries of the category of masculinity.
You see, maleness we can usually define chromosomally, but masculinity is trickier. Charlie Glickman, an American sexuality educator, offers a nice analogy for understanding how it is that masculinity is defined. Echoing this notion that the way we express our masculinity isn’t fixed but changes over time and with our different cultural contexts, Glickman asks us to conjure up a box: the “Act Like A Man Box.” This box defines the boundaries within which “real” men are required to fall in order to be considered as such. You’re in the box or you’re outside of the box; you’re a real man or you’re not. Questions arise, then, if a boy bucks these stereotypes and perhaps isn’t interested in adventures, roaming, or being a warrior, but is instead is a great communicator and listener?
When Glickman asks respondents to describe the type of person who would fit their conceptions of someone manly (someone in the box), responses include “competitive,” “dominant,” and “strong” — all traits Dent would like us to be instilling with greater force into our young men. Glickman argues that these same traits, rather than solving social problems, perpetuate them. Looking to prove that they are men, males turn to violence, or bullying, or humiliation, as socially acceptable means of asserting themselves and their place in an imagined, though no less real, social hierarchy. The drive to reach these masculine ideals produces the conditions under which violence can flourish. How else do you prove to your mates that you are the best, that you are socially and sexually aggressive? How else, to paraphrase Dent, do you prove your worth to your social peers? Not all men fall into this trap, of course, but the mechanisms are there to reward this behavior socially when it does occur.
This constant competition and incessant compulsion to prove one’s worth also has other ramifications for men. Sociologist Lisa Wade’s research, published in Slate, found that “adult, white, heterosexual, [American] men have the fewest friends” of the groupings she studied. More than this, the relationships that they do have are shallower, “provid[ing] less emotional support… than other relationship types.” It would be another matter entirely if men were happy with what these bonds provided, but, unfortunately, descriptions of their relationships do not always match expectations. Men want relationships with their friends defined by traits we usually associate with female friendships: men are seeking “emotional support, disclosure and… [want] someone to take care of them.” These intimate relationships are not unknown to boys in their childhood and early adolescence. Wade indicates that a shift from an openness about the intimacy and deeply-personal nature of their friendships to an almost ruthless independence happens at about the ages of 15 or 16. Incidentally, she remarks, this is the same age when the suicide rate rises amongst young men as compared with that of young women.
This is not a natural or inevitable transition, however. We need only look to the relatively recent past to understand the influence that contemporary masculine ideals have on the way men comport themselves and understand their relationships with others. It has been well documented by historians that many, usually wealthier or better-off, nineteenth-century, adult men had personal and physically close relationships with others of the same sex. Termed “romantic friendships,” this has been highlighted most notably by E. Anthony Rotundo. (If you’re looking for more on this, I’ve written about it before on Nursing Clio). Yet debate rages as to what kind of intimacy actually existed between men with seemingly feminine relationships. Most famously, exchanges between Abraham Lincoln and a young man named Joshua Speed fuel debates today as to whether Lincoln might have in fact been gay.
Kate and Brett McKay, the founders of the Art of Manliness blog, are right to suggest that these nineteenth-century images of men lounging over one another, or perhaps holding hands or sitting on one another’s lap, can be similarly “jarring to our modern man sensibilities.” We are not used to seeing images of (sober) men celebrating the intimacy of masculine interaction. More than what we would recognize as friendships, but not what we would describe as sexual relationships either, romantic friendships acknowledge this different conception of what it meant to be a man amongst other men. Close male friends could write to one another in missives reminiscent (to us) of love letters, proclaiming their affection for one another or offering reassurances of their continued and unflagging support in times of crisis without concern for perceptions of their masculinity.
As ever, we must be wary not to glorify the past, and this is certainly not my intention here. What we should take away is the importance of understanding the role of culture in conditioning masculinity. Relationships between men do not have to become shallower as they get older. Rather, it is our determination that men must be isolated and, indeed, warrior-like that forces men to internalize gender roles that shape their behavior in ways that perpetuate the social problems they otherwise face. Critical to understanding the problems boys and men encounter are these gender constraints that we place upon them: the pressures that they feel to live up to the label of “real man.” Rather than hardening these gender identities, as Dent seems to be suggesting, we should in fact be diluting them, enabling young men, and women, to pursue their own interests, talents, and paths. Moreover, by creating a society in which men are not bound by these expectations we can begin to tackle problems associated with emotional distance, the primacy of aggression and competition, and the importance of violence, bullying, and put downs to scaling the hierarchy of masculinity.
If a bland childhood means offering multiple, equally valid avenues for children to follow, each of which holds exciting opportunities to help determine the people they are to become, then it strikes me that blander might be better.
Image Attribution: Cover image from Flickr Commons , “Boys on a gun, Beatty Street. VPL_6871” (https://flic.kr/p/fyyBcL)
References: See Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), esp. ch. 5.