#DownWithManUp & #YesAll

Illustration by Trevor via Flickr
Illustration by Trevor via Flickr

We need to talk about our men, our boys and our societal definitions and expectations of masculinity right now.

We need to talk about it because while I was on an idyllic camping trip with my boys and church friends, a male killed a whole bunch of people in California. His “manifesto,” as widely reported, was filled with hatred and contempt toward women.

We need to talk about it because the conversation since — both online and in real life — is revealing all sorts of interesting and ugly things about human beings. A sampling, from today’s news articles:

  • “The people of modern culture are stupid beyond help: they refuse to understand that if you kick a nice dog enough times, it will become a mean dog. “
  • “Six lives would have been saved if there was a societal mechanism to steer sexually frustrated males like Rodger into learning self-improvement, game and masculinity…”
  • “He notes that while Rodger was “undoubtedly mentally unstable”, he was not that different than many “socially awkward males“.
  • “”We live in a society where being shy, normal or a little awkward is duly punished by entitled American women who have been encouraged to pursue exciting and fun casual sex in their prime with sexy and hot men as a way of ‘experimentation‘”

Listen, I know that the people who wrote those words are in the minority. I know that they do not represent all of their gender. But residing beneath these angry and hateful words is a ton of hurt.

I’m not excusing the killer’s actions. I’m not ignoring the hate behind the words, nor the harm inflicted on so many women worldwide. I’m saying that a part of the problem is how we socialize our boys and young men. 

That last quote, the one that begins, “We live in a society where being shy, normal or a little awkward is duly punished…” unfortunately carries with it a lot of truth. The truth is not that women are punishing men by refusing to have sex with them; I reject that conclusion completely. The truth is that we live in a society that duly punishes those, especially boys, who are shy or a little awkward. The truth is that we live in a society that is still hostile to boys who fail to live up to the expectation of the Man Box. We live in in a society that still present boys with a very limited image of masculinity, a society that makes boys feel “less than” if they fail to measure up. A society that also not-so-subtly promises all the very best to the very manliest of the manly men.

Boys learn, early on, that if they are manly enough, they will get good things. 

It is 2014, and although we as a society have made progress towards social acceptance (think same-sex marriage, increasing acceptance of boys in the arts), we still unwittingly (and wittingly) reinforce these narrow concepts of manhood over and over and over again.

Don’t believe me? Today — today! — Secretary of State John Kerry told Edward Snowden to “man up.”

Why? Why is our Secretary of State essentially implying that another man does not deserve his man card, if he does not do what the Secretary of State wants him to? Why are we bringing gender into it at all?

There are those who will say that Kerry means “man up” in the best possible way, that he’s telling Snowden to take responsibility for his actions, to behave honorably. Then why not say that?

We need to stop sending our boys coded messages about what a man is or is not.

In a post written over a month ago — in other words, well before the Santa Barbara slayings — the Child Whisperer wrote about the harm “man up” can cause our boys:

How these messages contribute to violence

Children resort to violence when they are constantly shamed for who they are.

Sometimes the violence is small (like throwing items during a tantrum). Sometimes the wounds run so deep that the violence is dramatic.

In many ways, our culture actually shows masculinity as a violent expression. This shows up especially in violent movies and gaming—and then we’re surprised when that same sort of violence shows up in our news!

Do we need better mental health services in this country? Absolutely. Do we need to address the gun issue? Absolutely. But we also need to take a long hard look at the messages we’re sending our boys and young men. We need to stop equating masculinity with, well, anything. Having a penis does not guarantee you anything, nor does it require you to act in any specific manner. We all need to work together to dismantle the Man Box, to create safe spaces for our boys and men to be who they were meant to be. #YesAll need to work together to make the world a safe place for everyone.

As Considerings wrote on her blog today, this isn’t about #YesAllWomen or #YesAllMen. It’s about #YesAll.

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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6 Responses

  1. I LOVE this response. Thank you. You’re absolutely right – we need to fix these things from the offset, before they have a chance to instil and become pervasive.

    And we need to challenge the idea that being ‘a man’ includes any of those horrible things you mentioned. And it is NEVER okay for a man to undermine another man’s masculinity just because they disagree.

    Good grief our society’s broken.

  2. Jenny, I don’t mean to derail the great points you’re bringing up but I want to throw out there that, in addition to cultural pressures and mixed messages boys receive, that 1 in 5 American boys have been diagnosed with ADHD (this is a 37% increase since 2003) and most of them are on medication. Similarly, too many boys (in my opinion) are being medicated for depression issues as well. The long range effects of many of these drugs are unknown but clearly they change the biology of these young boys, altering them permanently. ADHD and depression are real, of course, but too convenient a diagnosis for frustrated, overworked parents and teachers. I personally believe this culturally is an attack on our boys, an inability to shepherd their innate boy natures (including natural aggressions) and guide these energies and impulses positively. By and large, men don’t take their boys camping and hunting any more. Men and boys rarely build things together. There is no male initiation in our culture when boys move from adolescence into manhood. Fathers work behind computers in cubicles 8 hours a day and their sons spend far too much time playing video games — the ultimate passive pastime. Young boys who don’t behave similarly to young girls are singled are as problematic and frequently medicated to get them to conform. I know this sounds too simplistic, but I really think we have failed out boys in a big way. And the more estranged boys become from their healthy masculine inheritance, the more conflicted and more extreme the responses are going to be. Frankly, I don’t think the macho ethos hold much sway anymore — but boys will be boys, and if we try to suppress that, via an educational system that doesn’t see a difference between genders or worse, drugs our young boys to conform to a paradigm that ignores their innate needs, there will be repercussions.

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