A recent article from CBS News, based on a soon-to-be-released CBS documentary, asks if there is “a better way to raise boys to avoid toxic masculinity?” The article details the trials and tribulations of parents who want to protect their sons from the horrors of traditional masculinity.
Roberto and Tenysa Santiago are parents to three children, one of whom is a boy who expresses himself by occasionally wearing a dress or painting his nails. Roberto remembers a moment when his son wore a ponytail to school. “I said, ‘Hey bud, I want you to know I love your hair. I think it’s so cool. But kids at school might not understand and they might say something about it.’ And he got this look. He [was] just crestfallen, just done. He took it out and he wouldn’t wear it,” Roberto says. “For me it was one of those things as a parent where I’m like, ‘I’m cool with this,’ [but] the world is not going to be OK with this, so what do I do? And how do I protect him? … That crushed his spirit that day even though I thought I was trying to help him.”
The founder of a group called A Call to Men explains that boys should not be taught to “embody certain ideals”:
“We have coined a term called the Man Box. And that’s a short form for the collective socialization of men, that we’ve all been taught on some level,” Bunch explains. “Not asking for help, always feeling like we have to be in control, dominating and having power over others, not expressing any emotion except for anger. All of those things are rigid notions of manhood. Feeling like we have to be in control, that we have to control things, those are all things that are rigid, and that they don’t bend.”
Meanwhile, a 2017 study reveals some findings that the author of the article categorizes as “disturbing:”
“[O]ut of 1,328 men between the ages of 18 and 30 surveyed in the U.S., 72% said they have been told that “a real man behaves a certain way.” The survey also found 59% agree with the statement that “Guys should act strong even if they feel scared or nervous inside,” and 40% agree that “Men should figure out their personal problems on their own without asking others for help.”
More disturbingly, 23% of the respondents agreed that “Men should use violence to get respect, if necessary.”
A psychologist named Dr. Michael Reichert confirms that these attitudes are very bad and very harmful:
“It’s not the experience of emotions that’s different between males and females, it’s the expression of emotion. Expression of emotion follows what we call ‘feeling rules.’ Those feeling rules are culture. We tell girls, ‘Don’t be angry. Be a lady.’ We tell boys, ‘Don’t be scared. Don’t be vulnerable. Don’t cry. Don’t be weak. Be strong. Be stoic. Keep it inside.’ That is so profoundly damaging of how we actually keep our minds present.”
The main thrust of the piece is that boys in our culture are broken, and it’s our outdated and “disturbing” notions of masculinity that broke them.
This is all wrong.
The people interviewed for the article, along with the author herself, are perpetuating the very problem they say they want to solve. The real toxic thing is the attitude and approach they embody. Traditional masculinity is not at fault here. What’s at fault is the confused and contradictory attempt to dismantle it.
A few points. First, you’re starting on the wrong foot if you’re using a phrase like “toxic masculinity.” In practice, it seems that toxic masculinity can either refer to traditionally masculine traits that are now wrongly regarded as harmful, or actually harmful traits that are often associated with men. If it’s used in the first sense, it’s obviously degrading and damaging because it tells men that their natural masculine dispositions are somehow disordered. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
In the second sense, it unfairly blames masculinity for bullying or narcissistic behavior that has no gender. If you don’t understand why men might take issue with this approach, just imagine how almost any woman would react if I said that gossipy, materialistic bimbos have “toxic femininity.” That would be, at the very least, an unnecessarily inflammatory way of addressing the problem of materialistic bimbos. But worse than that, it would suggest that femininity, taken to a toxic extreme, results in dumb bimbos who spend their husbands’ money on shoes and purses. It seems to say: “It’s okay to be a woman, but don’t be too womanly.” Of course, nobody ever does talk about toxic femininity. And the reason we don’t talk about it is because we recognize how insulting and demeaning the concept is. We have simply decided that it’s okay to be insulting and demeaning toward men.
Second, there is nothing wrong with telling boys that men “behave a certain way.” There’s nothing wrong with telling them to be strong or encouraging them to exercise control over their emotions. Obviously these messages can be delivered the wrong way, but the fundamental point is good and important. The problem in our culture isn’t that boys are being thrown in a “box” or forced to conform to some strict notion of masculinity. In fact, our problem is exactly the opposite.
Too many boys are given no instructions on how to be men, no example to follow, no guidance on how to grow and mature in their masculinity. The folks over at A Call To Men seem to think we’re living in the 1940s. They haven’t noticed that the era of the Strong and Stoic Man ended a long time ago. We’re living now in the era of drag queens and feminism, of gender fluidity and fatherless homes. Most boys these days have no clue how to be men, no idea about what to do with their masculine energy, because nobody has ever told them or shown them.
The fact of the matter is this: most boys are born with a propensity to “behave a certain way.” There’s a reason why nearly every civilization throughout history and across the world has come to remarkably similar conclusions about what men are supposed to do and what role they are supposed to fill. They didn’t all arbitrarily and coincidentally invent the same “social construct.” No, they noticed that men are naturally aggressive, and so they said that men should be warriors. They noticed that men are naturally stronger than woman, and so they said that men should be protectors. They noticed that men have a greater propensity and desire to leave their homes and go out into the wild, and so they said that men should be hunters and providers. They noticed that boys have lots of physical energy, and so they came up with sports for the boys to play. The point is that societies, until recently, have not invented masculinity but harnessed it. They said to boys: “This is how you naturally are, and that’s good. Now here is how you can best put those tendencies and abilities to use for yourselves, your families, and your communities.”
Now we insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that boys are not naturally inclined to act in any particular way. Or worse, we say that their natural inclinations are toxic. This results, in the best case scenario, with boys who are given no road map to follow into adulthood; no direction for becoming well adjusted and contributing men. In the worst case scenario, it results in parents, teachers, politicians, etc., who set out to directly and intentionally break a boy’s spirit and destroy his masculinity like it’s some kind of cancer. This is done with psychiatric drugs, hormone pills, brainwashing sessions with drag queens at the library, or any number of equally insidious ways.
If boys are disproportionately struggling in the school system — and they are — is it because the school system is forcing them into a box of rigid masculinity? Obviously not. If boys in school are put in any box, it’s a box for girls. The school system requires students to sit still for long periods of time, remain calm, memorize information, etc. These are all things that girls naturally do well. The problem for boys is not that they are forced to be masculine, but that they are not allowed to be masculine.
Consider also how boys are apt to punch each other when they get angry, whereas girls are more inclined to cut each other down verbally. The verbal attacks often have a psychological impact that vastly outweighs and outlasts the momentary pain of a bloody lip, yet boys who cause bloody lips can get expelled while girls who give each other emotional complexes that last into adulthood are let off with a stern warning — if there is even any punishment at all. Once again, the system comes down like a ton of bricks on masculine expression while making all the room in the world for feminine expression. A similar dynamic can be found throughout our society. If there’s any rigid gender construct being forced on boys and men, it’s a feminine one. After all, we are the first civilization in human history that has attempted to literally turn boys into girls. And yet we’re told that traditional masculinity is the problem? Madness.
As I argued in a recent talk, if we really want to help boys, we need to accept them for who they are, as boys, and help them to grow in that identity. Our message to boys should be this: “You are a boy. That is good. That is what you are meant to be. And one day you will be a man. We will tell you how. We will show you the way.” Direction and guidance. That is what our boys need. Not confusion, ambiguity, and self-loathing. Which is all they seem to get from our society these days.