Why We Fight to End the Man Box

The brutal enforcement of traditional American manhood is putting millions at risk

I’m going to start with a quote I believe is from Bell Hooks. I didn’t make this image, I found it on the net. I can’t even 100% vouch for its accuracy, but it is a powerful statement about the relationship between men and emotional expression. Namely, psychic self mutilation, the killing off by men of their own emotional parts, backed up by the standing threat posed by violent rituals of manhood that assault our self-esteem. This pretty much sums up our distorted version of manhood in America.

And we wonder why men are violent, angry and self destructive.

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Make no mistake, a battle is being fought for the right to define what modern manhood is. Those who attack boys and men for not conforming to the narrow rules of traditional manhood, do it in the name of religion, patriotism, community, and god help us all, they do it in the name of their children.

Gay or straight, white or black, rich or poor, every single American man feels the looming threat of what will happen if we don’t do manhood “right.” And we feel it every single day of our lives.

The Man Box
Enforcing traditional masculinity is called living in the Man Box. Charlie Glickman does a great job of explaining the Man Box here.

The rules of the Man Box go something like this:

1) Real men don’t show their emotions (Anger, yes, but little else.)
2) Real men are always confident. They make all the decisions.
3) Real men are providers not care givers.
4) Real men are heterosexual and sexually dominant.
5) Real men continuously talk and play sports.
6) Real men are never handicapped, disabled or unemployed.

And so on. Whatever else they are, “real men” never do anything that might be construed as feminine and that’s the biggest tragedy of all, because the poweful emotional capacities we typically mislabel as feminine are capacities that every boy baby is born with. Boys are blocked from growing these powerful relational capacities and they pay a high price for this “emotional self mutilation” as they live out their lives.

Enforcing an emotionally stoic mindset is single most damaging impact of the Man Box. Shutting down boy’s and men’s emotional expression, blunts our capacity for creating authentic relationships, resulting in epidemic levels of male isolation, addiction and violence. It is at the heart of our raging binary debates. It crowds our prisons and it populates our AA meetings. It leaves us feeling alone even in the midst of our families and our marriages. It has unplugged us from living fully authentic, emotionally engaged lives.

And Yes It Most Certainly is Killing Us.
In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. That’s 44 million Americans. And its getting worse. Just a decade before, only one out of five of us said that.

In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:

Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer — tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

Men who suppress their natural capacity to connect emotionally are condemned to face lives of social isolation (even while married and raising a family) and the damaging health effects this creates.

Being a traditional American man has its own intrinsic poetry and strength. It is only when people think they must shame and bully others to conform to that version of manhood, that they have lost sight of what is right. Wherever that shaming and bullying arises from, the church pulpit, the halls of Congress, the locker room or the local bar, it is a sign of moral weakness; a brittle and ugly flaw in our national psyche. It is a fearful need to control others and it is a catastrophic waste of our true potential as human beings. And for the record, it is fundamentally un-American.

A New Collective Understanding of Manhood
If men (and women) want to be free from the oppressive rules of the Man Box, we need to radically broaden our collective definition of manhood. We need to create a world where being a man can mean being anything. Any work. Any play. Any love. Any life.

This is about creating such a vast range of options for being a man that no one ever again gets to say to any man among us, “you’re doing manhood wrong.” Nobody. This is about a world of boys and men who make their own choices in life based on what comes naturally to them.

If America is truly about freedom then this is how free people live.

But there’s a much more fundamental reason why I say our definition of manhood should be vastly more wide-ranging. Because this is what manhood already is. This is the fundamental secret at the very heart of manhood. Men are already everything you can possibly imagine, across any spectrum you can name, gender, race, sexuality, politics, spirituality, or society. It is because we are so very diverse that the pressure to fit in one narrow box is killing us.

When we finally accept a completely diverse view of manhood, when even the most far ranging possibilities for manhood are viewed as perfectly normal, we will finally have peace. Until then, we will have judgment, rage, violence, oppression and murder.

And so, for our young sons, for all the boys coming along who are beautiful and varied and different. For the women and men who deserve a wider range of partners from which to seek loving companionship. For the rich emotional connection and vulnerability we are all capable of as human beings. For joyous diversity. For peaceful co-existence. For the celebration of what it means to be truly human we will fight for the right for men and boys to live the lives they choose.

The Man Box doesn’t know it yet, but it’s done. Dead. We will never again be cowed by bullies, we will never again back down.

To destroy the Man Box, once and for all: THIS is why we fight.

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Image by: pellethepoet

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