It's always interesting to me to read what women think about the very limited and limiting ideas of masculinity we adhere to and impose on boys in this culture. In the end, until such time that men become equal partners in raising children, it is mothers who teach boys what masculinity is from birth through school age, so it is women who can do the most to change the prevailing gender roles for boys.
~ Sexuality Matters is a new monthly column produced by graduate students studying human sexuality at Widener University, offering insights into issues related to human sexuality to encourage individuals to think about and discuss these issues.
“Man up.” “You throw like a girl.” “Sissy!” These are common phrases boys and men encounter when they aren’t being ‘man enough,’ and being ‘man enough’ is important if you’re a male. Ask my eight-year-old brother, Zachary. He says, “If you don’t act man enough than nobody will want to play with you. All the other boys will be tough, and you’ll be the wimp.”
From the earliest days of their lives, males are socially conditioned to be masculine. Through series of implicit and explicit lessons on how to perform ideal masculinity, young males begin to develop a social framework for gender. This framework is created through many years of subtle prompting from family members, educators and peers on how to be a boy. Dads scold sons for running like girls; teachers guide boys away from dolls and toward trucks; peers have sophisticated notions of gender role expectations. We teach boys to repress their emotions, use masculine language and be strong competitors among other males. We bombard them with media images of strong, tough men who exude masculinity, and we expect them to live up to these expectations.
In creating such strict gender expectations for males, we have created a culture where being male means being tough and being straight. We have eliminated any possibility for expressions of masculinity outside of strong, aggressive and powerful. In part, I think we socialize boys this way to protect them. We know that boys who behave outside of the expected gender norm or act or appear effeminate will likely face adversity at the hands of their peers.
Another part of me can’t help but think that the reason we socialize boys to be masculine is to maintain the hierarchy of power and control among males. It’s a vicious cycle, don’t you think? We train our boys to be tough, aggressive and competitive so that they are socially accepted as male, but then we are shocked by violent male bullies who prey upon the weaker, softer boys. By teaching males to be aggressors, we are giving them the tools to maintain the systems of power and control, keeping males trapped in the confines of masculinity in the first place.
What if we expanded the social scripts of what it means to be a man and allowed males a broader range of gender expression? Imagine what it would be like if we focused less on toughening boys up and more on giving them tools for communication. What if we gave boys the language required to express their emotions, like we do so often with girls, rather than telling them to “quit crying” or “suck it up?” In doing this, we could alleviate a huge burden placed upon males to live up to the machismo that so few men can actually achieve. If we could eliminate the strict limitations of masculinity, men would be allowed to freely express emotions without fear that they may no longer be socially accepted or perceived as weak or damaged.
We are beginning to expand our notions of what it really means to be a man because the old, macho model does not encompass the wide range of masculinities that naturally exist among men. As I watch my brother navigate the complex world of masculinity, I am fearful that he will get trapped in the strict emotional limitations required to survive the male world, yet I am hopeful that changing notions of masculinity may lead him to a place of less rigid expectations. The ultimate gain from expanding the scripts of masculinity is to allow males to express their own masculinities without having to be shamed or ridiculed for not being “man enough.”
~ Chelsea Newton is a graduate student pursuing dual master’s degrees in social work and human sexuality education at Widener University.