In my marriage, I’m usually the one who likes to play the hypotheticals game. Sometimes for pure fun (first post-lottery purchase?) and sometimes as a way of asking tougher questions about the future (favourite baby names?).
Now that we’re parents, a lot of these scenarios involve our infant son. What would we do if he grew up to be picky in our family of adventurous eaters? What would either of us tell him if one day he decided to pursue our own chosen career paths of musician and journalist? (Likely, that he’d better hope we win that lottery.) And more recently: What would we tell him if he asked us one day what it means to be a man?
While it’s not likely he’ll ask the question quite so directly — at least not early on in his life — his environment will provide him with answers every day, unprompted, in ways both loud and quiet. The way clothing stores sharply enforce colour divisions; the way strangers insist on knowing whether he’s a boy or a girl when he’s wrapped up in his silver snowsuit; the way I scan his interactions with other young children for signs of aggression, even though I know he’s just a baby.
It’s a question I’m finding increasingly difficult to avoid. Our cultural moment, shaped by #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, increasingly acknowledges the deep, pervasive wounds regressive definitions of masculinity have always inflicted on girls and women — and on the lives of boys and men, which can also be bound by expectations rigid enough to leave marks that scrape and fester. In a Chatelaine essay published earlier this month, Rachel Giese brings up the sociological concept of the “man box” — the idea that social dicta demanding that men be “stoic, aggressive, financially successful, sexually rapacious,” among other things, leave little room for other expressions of masculinity, often to harmful effect.
Chatelaine, which also published a nation-wide survey on what it’s like to be a man in 2018, isn’t the only publication asking questions about the state of masculinity lately. Last week, New York magazine’s The Cut ran a week’s worth of coverage on the theme of how to raise a boy, calling it an “urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo,” while Fox News host Tucker Carlson launched a weekly news series on the “largely ignored disaster” that is the state of men in the contemporary world. Shortly after the Florida high-school shooting last month, comedian Michael Ian Black wrote a widely shared New York Times op-ed about the double-bind boys face because of the modes of masculinity they’re culturally encouraged to subscribe to: “They are trapped,” he wrote, “and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.”
“It’s no longer enough to ‘be a man,’” he writes. “We no longer even know what that means.”
While there are certainly people who would see that statement as a negative — interpret the deconstruction of traditional masculinity as somehow a threat to social order — I don’t think Black meant it as a bad thing. It certainly doesn’t have to be.
For one thing, it opens up a little room to honestly examine how the concept of Western masculinity has changed over time and in different places — in contextually specific ways, often to the advantage of a particular set of people. And it serves as an acknowledgment that the rapidly aging “man box” model the contemporary world has spent years fruitlessly investing in doesn’t work for anyone: for the women subjugated by it; the queer and gender non-conforming people who feel trapped or shut out by it; even the men — even the straight white men — who are supposed to benefit from it.
As Giese writes, “Researchers have found that men who most strongly exhibit conventional masculine traits, or who are most anxious about their masculinity, are more likely to behave in ways that hurt themselves and others: more likely to have unprotected sex, to binge drink, to sexually harass women, to bully other men through homophobic slurs.” Meanwhile, a third of all respondents to that Chatelaine survey reported often feeling lonely (the number jumps to 45 per cent in the 25-to-29 age range). Many participants also report having been encouraged by their parents to talk about feelings only if absolutely necessary (30 per cent) or not at all (24 per cent).
Not too long ago I put the hypothetical question to my husband: In the future, what might it mean to our son to be a man? It might have started as something of a game, but it didn’t end as one. We ended up talking about childhood expectations and the way that rebelling against something harmful can still shape you in ways that hurt.
There was a time, around age 10, when the things my husband loved most didn’t quite sync up with those of his male classmates. While they spent afternoons playing football and James Bond-themed video games, he played instruments and collected rocks — and pre-emptively got defensive about it. As he puts it, it wasn’t cool to suck at sports, so he cast himself as a sharp-tongued smart aleck instead. “I think it made me mean,” he told me, and while that’s perhaps a little harsh, it’s true he can come off as brusque to people who don’t know him well.
But seeing him interact with our son in public suggest that this, too, is changing: the loving giggles; the little songs he makes up on the spot for him; the incredibly gentle way he’ll tuck stray wisps of hair under his hat or wipe his nose when it’s cold out. I’m glad that, instead of a masculine ideal, our son has a role model in his life, a person capable of emotional honesty and personal growth. That gives me hope.
May we have a moment of your time?
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