When I was seven years old, a classmate informed me that a girl who acted like a boy was known as a tomboy. But a boy who acted like a girl, my laughing friend said, was just a “sissy”.
I was a kid who adored choir practice but wanted to melt when a fly ball was hit my way, and the comment stuck with me. It was clear there were codes of conduct that I was supposed to abide by, and everyone around me seemed to have an intuitive sense of what they were. Superheroes, laser tag, books about sword-wielding mice – really anything with sufficient violence was a desirable activity for a boy. Acknowledging the genius of Hanson or playing with my sister’s Fantastic Flowers paper-cutting set, however, were best avoided.
My childhood self took all this as an affront: why was it a badge of pride for a girl to play sports, but a source of shame for a boy to join the cheerleading squad?
In high school, a teacher made me see things in a new light. Since girls and women, the teacher explained, have long been second-class citizens, a boy who acts in a traditionally “feminine” way is taking a step down on society’s ladder. In other words, the patriarchy – a culture built on male supremacy that prizes masculinity above all else – was at it again. While its toll on women was devastatingly obvious, men suffer collateral damage in the system they so cleverly crafted for themselves.
The result confines boys to tiny boxes that restrict far more than the choice of whether to take martial arts or ballet classes. There is the repression of feelings, the difficulty in finding connections, the glorification of violence even as we are among its countless victims. And while my gender reaps benefits from the patriarchy, no boy is born asking to be part of this system.
I experienced its harm a few years after college, when I was walking home one night from a train station. It was late, and bars and restaurants were mostly closed. I wasn’t paying much attention to a small, aimless crowd drifting ahead of me until one young man peeled off and darted my way, screaming: “What did you say?” I hadn’t said anything for more than an hour, having been on the train, but he didn’t care.
He punched and kicked me as his friends watched and I stood there, paralyzed, in shock. Finally it occurred to me to flee and call a friend, who picked me up and took me to the hospital.
In the car, my friend told me he’d been through something similar not long ago. My father told me he’d also been punched in the face by a stranger as a young man. Other friends had stories of their own. I had known plenty of children who got in fights at school. But I hadn’t recognized how common the experience was in young manhood. As I spent the next few days jumping out of my skin when a fellow man asked me the time or glanced at me in the laundromat, I realized that this was a sort of male rite of passage.
I am privileged, as a straight white cisgender man, to have felt relatively safe walking home in the dark. But the experience drove home our warped conception of what it means to be a man. It felt like my assailant had something he needed to express, and fury was the obvious route. This is a particular problem among younger men, according to a recent study at Duke University that highlighted the links between social pressure, masculinity and aggression.
The cost is evident in our friendships. As I grew up, I felt compelled to shift into Dude Mode when I met other young men, a pose that involved minimal vulnerability and as much swagger as I could manage. Words like “chief” and “buddy” were useful. Hugs were permissible, but they had to either begin with a handshake or end with back-slapping violent enough to sting. Though I could temporarily operate within these boundaries, it was an exhausting social performance, and the friendships founded on it were unfulfilling. I felt like an alien who’d been taught the language of the male human but would never be fluent.
Among women, on the other hand, I felt I could be who I was. I envied their friendships with each other. There was an intimacy and openness to female friendships I had only experienced in the context of romance. With close male friends, talk was often impersonal – about abstract ideas, movies, the news. With others, conversations were built mostly on jokes: as the Swedish musician Jens Lekman describes male friendship, we could talk about anything as long as it was nothing. Much as I valued those conversations, I missed something richer: talking about experiences and emotions, offering mutual support. I wanted to be able to tell my male friends I loved them without adding an obligatory “man!” at the end. Even when we exchanged tales of being beaten up, it was with a certain detachment – matter-of-fact accounts of moments in which we all must have feared the worst.
It’s hard not to think this lack of an emotional outlet plays a role in our darker impulses.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have been beaten up that night if my assailant had been raised on Fantastic Flowers. But I had a sense, as his knee flew into my face, that his motive was as unclear to him as it was to me.
The Duke study suggests that, in some men, a fragile sense of masculinity can provoke aggressive behavior. Participants answered a series of questions before receiving an arbitrary masculinity “score”. Those given a low score were divided in their responses: if their sense of their own masculinity was rooted within themselves rather than others’ perceptions of them, as determined by another questionnaire, they did not appear upset by the findings. Those whose sense of masculinity was dependent on others’ views, however – a group that tended to be younger – showed more signs of aggression.
This sense of uncertainty channeled into anger is particularly dangerous when combined with the violence boys are conditioned to admire. I’d be lying if I claimed not to understand it. Videos of my childhood largely consist of me whooping and doing karate chops; for my 11th birthday I requested a sword. And when I was about 12, as I rode a bus full of boys returning from a track meet, one of them shouted out the name of a girl I liked, to which I responded with a punch. I immediately felt ashamed and bewildered as to why I’d done it.
Certainly, my parents didn’t encourage such behavior – they chose not to provide the sword I requested. Popular culture, however, put violence front and center, and I lapped it up. Perhaps being on a bus entirely populated by boys and aggressive male coaches didn’t help.
For me, the shame and disgust ensured I never punched anyone again. For many men, that is not the case – about 75% of violent crimes in the US in 2019 involved male offenders, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Patriarchy is toxic to everyone. By the same token, feminism helps us all. As Robert Webb puts it in How Not to Be a Boy: “Masculinity adds up to little more than the pursuit of not being a woman.” If a fear of femininity is what makes men loath to show their feelings, then eliminating the social hierarchy should have a welcome side-effect: maybe men can finally be themselves.
I know I am far from the first man to call for a change in the kind of masculinity we value. But I believe that call needs to be made repeatedly and without shame if we want anything to change. Even as I write this, my man-alarm is going off: ABORT – FEELINGS DETECTED. Maybe someday I can take out the batteries.