Well over twenty years ago, scholars were writing about the ‘strait-jacket’ in which boys were being judged against outmoded ideas of masculinity and what it takes/means for a boy to become a man.
In his book, Real Boys, William Pollack writes ‘by placing a boy in this gender strait-jacket, society is limiting his emotional range and his ability to think and behave as freely and openly as he could, to succeed in the ever-changing world in which we live….Boys are pushed to separate from the mother prematurely. …As early as age five or six, many boys are pushed out of the family and expected to be independent—in school, in camp, at all kinds of activities and situations they may or may not be ready to handle. We give our boys in early adolescence a second shove—into new schools, sports competitions jobs, dating travel and more. The problem is not that we introduce our boys to the real world—that’s what parents should be doing—it’s how we do it. We expect them to step outside the family too abruptly, with too little preparation for what lies in store, too little emotional support, not enough opportunity to express the feelings, and often with no option of going back or changing course. We don’t tolerate any stalling or listen to any whining. That’s because we believe that disconnection is important, even essential, for a boy to ‘make the break’ and become a man….I believe that boys, feeling ashamed of their vulnerability, mask their emotions and ultimately their true selves. This unnecessary disconnection—from family and then from self—causes many boys to feel alone, helpless and fearful. And yet society’s prevailing myths about boys do not leave room for such emotions, and so the boy feels he is not measuring up. He has no way to talk about his perceived failure; he feels ashamed , but he can’t talk about his shame, either. Over time, his sensitivity is submerged almost without thinking, until he loses touch with himself. As so a boy has been ‘hardened’, just as society thinks he should be…..While we may joke about how adult males won’t ask for directions when they’re lost, it is not laughing matter that so many of our boys feel they cant reach out for the emotional compass they so desperately need. (William Pollack, Real Boys, Henry Holt, New York, 1998 pp.xxiv-xxvi)
Two matters need to be addressed at the outset:
First, there is no justification for the reader response that reads and sounds like ‘here we go again having a boy-pity-party’ from those who adhere to the very modality Pollack is describing. The truths he is telling are like social and cultural DNA for many, if not all, of the many men in leadership positions in corporations, academia, education, the church and especially in government. (More about that later.)
Second, world events, mostly manipulated by men who have been cut off from their inner lives, their emotions and their vulnerabilities, and then ‘masked’ them with bravado and braggadocio using whatever means and methods available for that task, one they consider absolutely essential to their individual survival, however that might be defined and envisioned.
There are legions of writers/therapists/coaches who write and speak about how the dynamic of ‘being damaged in our youth very often ricochets into actions and attitudes that hurt both self and others later’. Indeed, in some schools, both literal and in those of thought, the prevailing approach is based on a credo that young children need a surfeit of cheer-leading in order not to develop as damaged adults, inflicting pain on their peers as well as on themselves. (Naturally, opponents of such ‘touch-feely’ approaches, too often fall into the ‘tough-love’ category, as if an ‘either-or’ solution is either adequate or even professional or ethical. Simplifying the question of how to ‘raise’ a young boy in order to survive and to thrive in the real world, into a single mantra (hard or soft), is about as ethical and effective as telling an adult to take a daily dose of children’s aspirin to avoid any chance of a cardiac arrest. So, before we begin, let’s agree that silver bullets, and reductionisms, both in assessing the nature of masculinity and in moving forward with ideas and approaches that might begin to address some of the inherent individual, familial and societal issues facing masculinity and ‘it’s’ relationship with the world.
Many writers and scholars have noted the imprisonment of stereotypes of gender roles and expectations that constrict both men and women into cardboard cut-outs of their complexities. For example, in a January 22, 2021 piece in Forbes, entitled, “The Future of Masculinity: Overcoming Stereotypes,” Shelley Zalis writes:
One study found that men who cried at work were perceived as less competent than women who cried. More than one-third of boys think society expects them to be strong and tough, ‘be a man,’ and ‘suck it up,’ according to a survey by Plan International USA…Research finds that while half of fathers think men should take paternity leave, only 36% actually take all their permitted leave….’It’s time to talk about the kinds of men we want our sons to become,’ says Gary Barker, President and CEO of Promundo*. ‘For our daughters, we have promised a new world. We’re still about 200 years off from full equality at the current rate of change according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, but were making some progress….The truth is that some gender stereotypes can hold both men and women back from being the best that they can be—and impact our mental health. For example, new guidelines by the American Psychological Association say that men socialized to conform to the ideals of ‘traditional masculinity,’ such as not wanting to appear weak, are more likely to suffer issues such as cardiovascular disease, engage in heavy drinking and even commit suicide.”
And while there is mounting evidence that both education and socialization of men as part of a global initiative to reduce violence in all of its nefarious forms, and more research into health masculinities being conducted at both psychological and sociological levels, world-wide, there continues to be also a growing body of evidence and opinion that many men are even more divided about how to be a ‘real man’. Women, too, have conflicting notions and aspirations about what constitutes ‘authentic masculinity’ and many help, whether consciously or not, to uphold the traditional masculine stereotype of “alpha male”.
One of the glaring gaps, however, in how the culture approaches issues of gender stereotypes and gender equality, however, is to consider such issues, and the studies applicable and relevant to the business community where office politics plays a prominent role in how things happen there, and in the family where the traditional family of parents and children continues to thrive, is that gender issues are not generally discussed or even considered a force in the political discussions including the geopolitical discussions about how to address global issues. And just as such discussions and opinion pieces need not revert back to the Freudian “sex drive” in a reductionistic dismissal, nor do they need to be considered the most dominant factor in any political debate, nevertheless, the question of how power is envisioned, defined, executed and projected definitely applies.
And men and women, it seems by definition, have different modalities, conceptions, depictions and applications of how to deploy power effectively. Also men and women have different skill sets, attributes and blind-spots in their conception and deployment of power and influence. Neither gender has either a monopoly or a stranglehold on the exercise of power, nor can either gender really aspire to full effectiveness without the strengths and the weakness of both genders being considered, integrated and then deployed.
Words like collaboration, conciliation, compromise and androgyny, however, have somehow slid off the radar of the political establishment, even with political parties, and certainly between political opponents. And yet, amid such epic crises all of them threatening as existential, it is long past time for both evolved and imaginative and courageous and creative men and women to demonstrate a deeper and more nuanced and more complex appreciation of the strengths and the weaknesses of both genders from a perspective of magnanimity, appreciation, tolerance and support. The war of the genders, regardless of whom the initiators and the combatants might be, is another of the many sabotages we are inflicting on ourselves and on the planet.
It is not only in the office politics arena, nor on the dating scene, nor in the academic research lab, nor in the competition for employment in institutions like the church, the military, the health care system, and certainly the media, and in the public discourse that men must support other men, to a degree and with a conviction previously missing (MIA), just as women are increasingly vocal in their support of other women whose character and accomplishments warrant such support. And, in the light of the divide between the ‘straight’ and the ‘gay’ classifications, and the potential for mutual respect and honour, (not mere silent tolerance) is it not time for many of those traditional masculine ‘alpha models’ to fade into the oblivion we need them to wander.
And yet, on the world stage, especially in geopolitics and media coverage, men like those clinging desperately to the far right, whether in America, Canada, Russia, Brazil, North Korea, Hungary…can no longer be allowed to hide behind a faux political ideology or agenda that attempts to mask their ‘desperation’ at losing the traditional stereotypes and thereby potentially their identity.
Putin’s strutting, and then insulting western leaders who would look like losers with their shirts off, is only considered peripheral to the war in Ukraine, another almost irrelevant example of the heinous brutality of the wannabe czar. And yet, is it only a peripheral aspect of this war?
And is the MAGA movement merely a post-modern-deconstructionist movement to eliminate “woke” liberals and their ideology from power for the next century? Is there any difference, for example, between bannon strutting into the court and putin strutting on the world stage, or trump strutting in both vocabulary and body language, as evidence of the typical and traditional and stereotypical mask that adorns the young male adult in the college athletic locker room whose vulnerabilities and insecurities are hidden deeply behind a muscular Adonis-like body and a determination to ‘kill’ his opponent in battle?
The strutting, the bravado, the compulsive and desperate narcissism of too many weak and frightened men, all of them with far too much power, having arrived in those positions sometimes by inheritance and too often by the complicity and the insouciance and the indifference, and the projections of other weak men and women who see their fantasies being realized in and through these hollow men. Upon reading T.S,. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, my picture of those men (and women) was of the vacuous and tendentious and specious and meaningless chatter and gossip we commonly dub “small talk”…without ever have transferred my picture onto the international political stage of geopolitics.
Of course, that view was naïve, immature, inadequate and dangerous. And in the recent decade, I have had to revise both my vision and the proportion of ineffectual men who have positions of power and authority more as a consequence of their emptiness and the complicity of others who prefer ‘no drama and no ruffled feathers’ to the prospect of transformation brought about by authentic leaders who can and do consider the big picture and the finer details necessary to take the journey to a better place.
Parents, teachers, supervisors, and male and female colleagues have an opportunity to walk beside men who are determined to break out of the stereotype of chained masculinity and to foster, nurture and applaud those break-out’s whenever they witness them.
And they are happening everywhere….but fast enough? Time alone will tell!
*Promundo: a Brazilian-based non-governmental organization with offices is Brasilia, Brazil, that work in collaboration to promote caring, non-violent and equitable masculinities and gender relations in Brazil and internationally. Equimundo: Center for Masculinities and Social Justice (formerly Promundo US)