Photo by Jose Hernandez

“Traditional Masculinity” Isn’t Under Attack Because It Doesn’t Actually Exist

Mark Greene explains why man box culture is the real challenge

The “attack on traditional masculinity” is yet another derailing, false, and reductionist political binary designed to divide us at the ballot box. Which means we’re going to be hearing a lot about it.

What is needed instead, is a conversation highlighting our dominant culture of masculinity, often referred to as The Man Box (more on that, shortly). When we shift the conversation from individual masculine identity to our collective culture of masculinity, the result is a much less reactive discussion. We can continue to address the oppressive impact of man box culture while highlighting our individual agency to sustain or shift culture based on our daily choices. But if we insist on falling into the trap of language that points to individual masculine identity, we will continue to create ways of talking which are easily weaponized by those who seek to divide us all on gender.

Case in point, “the attack on traditional masculinity.”

The American Psychological Association released its Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. Gillette made an advertisement asking men to engage and make a difference. In each case, the language they used could be characterized as pointing to flaws inherent in masculine identity. In the case of the APA, the language was “traditional masculinity ideology.” In the case of Gillette, they used the term “toxic masculinity.” Both organizations’ efforts were quickly reduced to “attacking traditional masculinity,” which neither organization actually did, but there you have it. A little unclear language and guys like David French of the National Review are off to the races.

French wrote this on the APA’s guidelines for the National Review: “In fact, the assault on traditional masculinity — while liberating to men who don’t fit traditional norms — is itself harmful to the millions of young men who seek to be physically and mentally tough, to rise to challenges, and demonstrate leadership under pressure. The assault on traditional masculinity is an assault on their very natures.”

Millions of what Mr. French calls “non-traditional men” seek to be physically and mentally tough, to rise to challenges, and demonstrate leadership under pressure. Mr. French likely already knows this, and while Mr. French’s crude binary may serve his political agenda, it harms the larger population of men, traditional and otherwise, by herding us all into an identity-focused grudge match over manhood.

The loudly trumpeted “assault on traditional masculinity” will be a central issue in the coming 2020 elections. What’s at stake is multi-trillion dollar tax policy, women’s rights, environmental policy, immigration policy, health care policy and more. What is not actually at stake is whether or not men will be able to be traditional. As Thomas Edsall writes in the New York Times, The Fight Over Men Is Shaping Our Political Future.

While culture warriors like David French are happy to tell men that traditional masculinity is under attack, what they are unable to do is to clearly define the population they’re talking about. This is because when we attempt to narrow down traditional masculinity to some uniformly aligned population of men, we find we can’t.

For political binaries about traditional masculinity to work during the 2020 election cycle, all sides have to agree that traditional masculinity is white, monolithic, and conservative.
It is not.

The full spectrum of masculinities is an exercise in nearly infinite variation and diversity. Just as there is a wide spectrum of masculinities within, for example, the subset of gay masculinity(s), so there is a wide spectrum of masculinities in the subset of traditional masculinity(s).

The United States has hundreds of years of Latino American traditions. We have Native American traditions that date back thousands of years. We have centuries of African American traditions. We have centuries of traditional Asian American culture. We have Jewish traditions that date back to the Old Testament. The list of race and ethnicity in the US goes on and on. We have masculine traditions among religious groups such as Southern Baptists or Unitarians. We have geographically located masculine traditions in places like Boston, and Wyoming, and South Florida. Hundred year old organizations like the Boy Scouts have their own sets of masculine traditions. Colleges have them. Sports fans have them. And all these traditions intersect.

Men socialized across the vast range of “traditional masculinity” are practicing very different versions of it, and because there is intersectionality across all of these traditions, traditional manhood is even more diverse still. Within these populations there are most certainly stark disagreements about politics, religion and even about what it means to be a man.

Put simply, traditional masculinity doesn’t exist. Traditional masculinities do, by the thousands.

Which is why we need to be careful about how we talk about masculinity. When we push back against sexual abuse and violence by pointing a finger at traditional masculinity instead of our dominant culture of masculinity, we empower reactivity inducing political binaries that impede our progress toward solutions. We can disarm these binaries and make a powerful shift in the dialogue by locating our collective challenges where they actually belong in what author and activist Paul Kivel calls “the act like a man box.”

The conceptual origins of the act like a man box date back to the 1980’s, when Kivel, Allan Creighton and others at the Oakland Men’s Project developed it in their work with adolescents in public schools around the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We invited boys and men to explore the cultural rules by which they had been socialized to conform to narrow definitions of masculinity, police each others’ manhood and use their power and privileges to enforce gender-based exploitation, violence, and abuse against women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups,” Kivel says.

Man box culture, or what A CALL TO MEN founder, Tony Porters refers to simply as The Man Box, is the bullying and sometimes violent enforcement of a narrowly defined set of rules for being a man.

These rules are enforced through shaming and social pressure, as well as promises of rewards, the purpose of which is to enforce conformity within our dominant culture of masculinity.

Because man box culture begins impacting boys at birth, by age four, boys are already hiding their authentic expression and emotional acuity (Chu, When Boys Become Boys, 2014). Ultimately, our sons buy into bullying and abuse as central mechanisms for forming and expressing male status and identity.

Man box culture results in the abuse of women, precisely because it relies on the denigration of the feminine as its primary mechanism for policing boys.

Boys who fail to conform are called “girly or gay” (Way, Deep Secrets, 2011). When they fail to “man up” they are called sissies or faggots. This drumbeat of denigration takes place daily, if not hourly, over the course of decades, the side effect of which is generations of men who view of women and gays as deserving of contempt.

The man box is a brutal and abusive caricature of what it means to be a man. It amplifies masculinity’s worst aspects and suppresses its best, creating a culture of abuse that many traditional men would and do oppose. On closer examination, the actual purpose of the man box isn’t even conformity. It is designed to create an ongoing state of policing and anxiety for men, ensuring a hierarchical pecking order of top down control. It is designed to keep all men, policing, abusing and ultimately, fearing each other.

Ironically, the APA tiptoed up to the edge of naming man box culture with their language “traditional masculinity ideology” but failed to differentiate its singular agency and location (culture) in relationship to the full spectrum of masculinities (identities). Man box culture is not traditional masculinity, it is a cultural agent which acts on, distorts, and assaults all masculinities, traditional and otherwise.

Accordingly, when we are told traditional masculinity is under attack, or equally, when we are told that traditional masculinity is the problem, we should understand it for what it is, a political frame meant to enforce a political binary for a political result.

Pushing binaries about masculine identity only reinforces the most divisive aspects of man box culture. When boys and men feel their preferred version of masculinity is not acceptable, they become reactive, or are reduced to hiding the parts of themselves that don’t fit in. This results in lives of disconnection for millions of men, stripping them of authentic expression and connection.

Connection is what men actually need.

Men will never find the sense of belonging they seek in the suffocating, bullying confines of the man box. Our sense of belonging resides alongside the freedom to explore fully diverse, authentic lives. Organizations like The Mankind Project and Evryman are creating brotherhood among men who span the racial, sexual, cultural and political spectrum, proving that men want and need connection across the ugly and divisive binaries of man box culture.

And for all of us? We must not get drawn into simplistic, divisive political binaries about masculinity, regardless of where they originate. Our fight is not with masculinity, it is with man box culture, which is a threat to us all.

We can teach our children to connect and grow their relational intelligence, pushing back against narrow isolating gender roles, and learning to connect through healthy, authentic, lasting personal and professional relationships. The Relational Book for Parenting provides games, cartoons, stories and strategies for doing this transformative work in our families.

Mark Greene is the author of The Little #MeToo Book for Men