Language is a major influencer. American Linguist Julia Penelope said, “Language forces us to perceive the world as man presents it to us”. Penelope used a well- known saying to make this point. In her book ‘Speaking Freely – Unlearning the lies of the father’s tongues’, Penelope examines the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Her examination of this well-known saying, suggests that it’s continuous use sets the reality for people who accept the meaning of the phrase.
Penelope’s analysis of language is important and in this uncertain world we should all be mindful of both its use and how we interpret what is being said by others.
The phrase ‘Be a man’ is another saying that needs some analysis and indeed clarity. It’s use, is both loaded and confusing. All boys and men at some stage in their lives have either been on the receiving end of this comment or have used it. We all know what it suggests but we all, well most of us have asked ourselves, what does it really mean?
In their early years boys and girls are as equally loving and caring as each other. In the following years something happens. Messages about masculinity are everywhere. They are in the films we watch, the other boys and men we meet. The confusion continues during this time. Boys just like girls, naturally feel emotion but when we think about showing it we are quickly reminded that we can’t.
In his emotional talk, retired American wrestler Mark Mero, talks about his mum and how his desire to be a champion resulted him in not spending time with her before she died. Watch the film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EyniGvsVg8 Whilst the girls in the audience are comfortable in showing their tears, watch the boys. All are clearly moved by the talk but appear to be on alert. In many ways they are both being policed by others and policing the others in the room.
The “boys don’t cry’ stereotype is one that most boys and men have grown up with. The fear of being called put by other boys/men keeps us well entrenched into the other box of killer stereotypes. I use the term killer stereotypes to re-enforce the reality that the box is indeed a killer. The man-box as its affectionally referred to by some, is a place where boys and men have to be tough and aggressive. They are heavy drinkers, they take risks and women are objects for their taking. This is indeed a dangerous place for many boys, why? Because most boys and men don’t want to be in the box. When you can’t be yourself, you lose control. Danger is everywhere.
The man box is a place where most men reluctantly go to be part of what CS Lewis referred to as the Inner Circle. We want to fit in, we all do. It is a place that is a part of every boy’s world. Without clarity and reassurance, it poses many risks for boys. The evidence of the box is everywhere. Boys are flaming out academically, sexually and in relationships. A confusing world is forcing our boys into the virtual world where the killer stereotypes are even more rigid. Online pornography and computer games are both messenger and the message. These quickly become the reality for those who accept them.
I used the term reluctantly above. I really believe that men in the main, as individuals do not aspire to live by the code communicated in the box. Having had many opportunities to work with boys and men I see healthy values as the individual norm for many.
Working in schools, universities, workplaces, in sports, even in prison settings I have boys and men discussing their desire to be caring, good fathers, good partners, loyal and trustworthy. In simple terms men want to be good men for others. The challenge many have is the box. It often creates the right situation for good men to do bad things.
Never has there been a time when we need to support our boys and help them understand the most toxic word combination in the English language – Be A Man.
In recent days US President Donald Trump has raised the discussion of masculinity again. In one of his daily spats with ‘whoever he feels like having a go at’, he took a shot at US comedian Jimmy Fallon.
Back in 2016 before Trump became president he found himself on Fallon’s show. At one point in the show Fallon asks Trump if he can mess up his hair. Fallon then proceeds to mess his guest’s hair up as the watching audience cheer. See for yourself – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIGcosb22_Y
Fast forward to present day and we have President Trump. An outspoken critic of the US President, Fallon recently had a moment of honesty in which he admitted that he regretted this previous spectacle suggesting that it had “normalised the president”, a far from normal man. Fallon said, “I made a mistake”. Men don’t make mistakes, or do they.
Enter Trump into the debate and if we don’t need any further insight into his views on masculinity we start to get a further flavour of this man’s coping mechanism when someone challenges him. He fights back. When he feels his status is being threatened or questioned he fights back.
Trump is a man who appears to be communicating messages from the ‘man box’ on a regular basis. His desire to be the one keeping others safe (a protector) is clear. His authoritarian message offers ‘freedom from’. This dangerous rhetoric pushes aside the notion of ‘freedom to’, freedom to be the person you want to be.
Trump’s subsequent attempt at humiliating Fallon is a way that society uses to keep boys and men in the box. What happens with the boys in the Mark Mero film is an example of this policing.
As I detail above being pushed into the box creates a perfect storm for a variety of social issues. It is also why so many men are silent when they witness unhealthy, even criminal behaviour committed by other men, even their friends. The fear of being discovered as not fitting into the box contributes to these deafening acts of silence
I want to end on a positive note. I don’t believe that masculinity is in crisis. Neither do I conform to the use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’. The acts may be toxic, the environment may be toxic, but let’s be clear masculinity isn’t toxic. How we help our boys navigate this toxic climate is a role for us all.
Above, I refer to my work in different settings where I see many positive values being communicated by so many men. Creating the conversations where we see these values rise to the surface will go a long way to reassure our boys. Being able to honestly share your thoughts, being able to be truly authentic is what we need. Unless we create conversations, we will still many men, either conforming to the stereotype or remaining silent when faced with certain behaviours.
We also need men to stand up and be the guideposts that boys need. It’s easy to become a father. Not so easy to be one. Dads, your boys are watching and learning. All men (including you Mr Trump) have the power to be a guidepost for our boys.
The ongoing World Cup in Russia has provided us with an insight into the values I communicate above. England manager Gareth Southgate this week gained much support for his display of compassion towards one of the Columbian players who had missed the spot-kick that sent England through to the next round of the tournament. Whilst England (and some of Scotland) went mad, Southgate was pictured on the football field consoling the player. Southgate himself, knows all too what it feels like to miss such an important penalty having been there, missing a similar spot-kick against Germany in Euro 1996 championships.
Southgate’s demonstration of compassion for his fellow man was a powerful message that will be seen by many boys and men across the UK. By challenging the dominant norms that I describe above, Southgate, himself is being the guide-post that is needed at this time.
At a time when our boys are struggling, surely a landscape of clarity is needed. With rates of male suicide two, three even four times higher than female suicide what we do now will make a difference for the long term.