This is what a group of 17-year-old students had to say about toxic masculinity
Back in May, I received an email from a teacher who had read this piece I’d written earlier this year where I contributed my two cents to the debate around what it means to be a man today. It’s the same question said teacher wanted (me) to ask her 17-year-old students as part of ‘Drop Down Day’ (an ‘out-of-the-classroom’ opportunity for pupils to explore and learn about issues that are socially and culturally relevant to their lives). The session, she told me, would give me free reign to sow the seeds of gender enlightenment into the porous minds of a cohort who, at nearly 18 years old, were at the precipice of entering adulthood. Feeling flattered by the request — yet nauseated by the thought of going back to school for the first time in 12 years — I said yes.
Fast forward a month and a half and I’d found myself in Croydon, London, for my address. As I waited in the reception to be collected, my ears were overcome with the sounds of howling children not wanting to participate in school that day. I could relate. For most working adults, this manifests itself as Instagram memes on Monday mornings.
The students had just participated in sports day the day before, so I was cautioned I might be met by a sea of jaded faces. It was then that I realised my primary objective would have nothing to do with gender enlightenment at all and everything to do with keeping them awake for a whole hour. It helped that the classroom had air conditioning. Gone are those free-standing rotating fans we had in my day which would only give you a fleeting moment of bliss when they spun in your direction. Oh no. Schools have finally democratised cool air for students.
My talk would orbit around a red box I’d draw on the whiteboard, which I’d call the ‘man box’ (referring to a set of beliefs communicated by the outside world on how men ought to behave), with the eventual aim of joining forces with the students to wipe away (with the scrunched up paper towel I was given) the very red lines that incarcerates them to this toxic — and regressive — interpretation of masculinity.
I thought I had my work cut out for me. But little could I predict that the maturity of the young minds of generation Z would rival — hell, outshine — most adults I know.
There lies an unequivocal want from boys to define ‘maleness’ for themselves
Although the students were clear on the rhetoric that exists among boys which chastises them for stepping outside the ‘man box’ — through name calling such as ‘gay’ and ‘batty boy’ — there was also an intelligent awareness of how this makes them and others feel, with many boys in the room no longer wanting to brandish such insults on peers who choose to step outside the box.
“What can we do to encourage boys and men to move beyond the man box?”, I asked. “Let them wear skirts!” was one girl’s response. Bold yet entirely appropriate. And she timed it well. It triggered a debate on this GQ cover featuring racing driver Lewis Hamilton donning a skirt. It was his bid to offset comments he made on Instagram last Christmas, where he shamed his nephew for wearing a ‘princess dress’. “Boys don’t wear princess dresses”, according to a then-naïve Hamilton. For most students in the room, his GQ cover represented nothing more than an attempt to save his behind by showing off some leg. For others, however, it effectively blurred the lines between social acceptance and self-expression, letting us know that dressing in a piece of clothing typically reserved for the opposite sex doesn’t minimise nor erode one’s gender identity — it enhances it.
Yet our eon-long obsession with clothing as a unilateral marker of gender has also done very little to shift our association between clothing and sexuality.
“Don’t wear that, people will think you’re gay”
One student with a demonstrable passion for fashion said his mother once scolded him for (almost) wearing something to a wedding that people would deem “too gay”. Not expanding on which fashion choice provoked such a response, I imagined it could have been something as light touch as a flower lapel pin or as ‘garish’ as a suit colour that departed from the usual colourways of black, navy and grey which — apparently — safeguard men from having their hetero-ness questioned. The point being that any deviation from what is judged acceptable is commonly gifted the side-eye.
And it’s not just what boys and men wear that rouses assumptions of their sexuality — according to the students. Several friendships with women who he doesn’t want to shag? Must be gay. Enjoys spinning around in a tutu at the age of four? A mother’s dream for a daughter-in-law shattered. Can’t differentiate his Ronaldinho from his Ronaldo? Bi — at least. Moving beyond the man-box clearly calls for resilience as much as it does encouragement, for being a non-conformist — as much as it should be celebrated — also enslaves you to people’s beliefs of who you are and who you will become. And it’s never easy to reconcile the two.
As for the student whose choice of wedding attire was deemed “too gay”, I asked if he’d decided to change his outfit for something his mother might consider “more straight”.
“Hell naw!”, he yelled. Proudly. Unapologetically.
Sisterhood is a safer place to be than brotherhood…or is it?
I came into the school assuming what we’ve all come to assume about a man’s (in)ability to speak openly about pain, sadness and suffering — emotions condemned by the how-to-be-a-man brigade. Sisterhood, I told the students, is a much safer place to be than our brotherhood because women typically have no problem talking about any of the things men are told to repress. It was at that moment a student raised his hand to disagree. He revealed that his circle of male friends had no issue laying bare their emotions to one another. “If I cried the day before, I’d let my friends know I was feeling down”, he professed. “And they would immediately say: ‘I got you, bro’.
Feeling pleasantly stunned, I turned to the girls in the room to unearth their response. Logic told me they’d rebuff this claim in order to uphold the tenets of sisterhood that made their same-sex friendships more authentic than those experienced by boys. But for many of them, sisterhood — at least in school — was more superficial than they would have us believe, implying that classroom behaviour among them may appear deep, but peel back a layer and you’ll likely uncover a performance simulating how girls ought to behave: affectionately, warmheartedly, and sympathetically. These girls were calling out femininity for being something they were taught, had learned, then practiced awkwardly on a stage that took guise as a school.
And their opinions aren’t altogether surprising, given how society vilifies women who refute the softer, more ‘palatable’ female archetype. Take Serena Williams as an example, who, in this year’s US Open final, was chastised by the umpire for supposedly stepping outside the laws of gender, because how dare she display the anger, aggression and fervor only permissible for men, both inside and outside of sport. It seems that stepping outside either of the two gendered boundaries will have your character questioned, your conduct penalised, and your freedom revoked.
In this school at least, it was the boys who had drawn a curtain on the performance of gender, swapping idolised masculinity for a display of a full spectrum of human emotions in their friendships, including those usually — and wrongly — typecast as sensitive and feminine. It shunned some of my misgivings on the absence of male emotion that arises from a want of appearing strong, stoic and stable, yet what simmers underneath is an insatiable hunger to express fragility and seek help. This prolonged period of emotional drought sees 84 men in the UK kill themselves every week, a statistic which, when mentioned to the students, amassed stunned silence — the kind that longingly waits to be destroyed yet no one dares to destroy it, for destroying it might undermine the reason for why it was created in the first place.
Perhaps the statistic sounded outlandish to those who hadn’t fully grasped the dangers of emotional constipation. Or perhaps their ignorance was just a testament to a world where mental health provision is served as the chopped liver to illnesses that manifest themselves physically and are better understood.
“There is a difference between toleration and happiness. Would I tolerate one my future children coming out as gay? Yes. Would I be happy? I’m not sure”
- sentiments from a student.
For all their progressive attitudes towards gender, there still remained some areas of uncertainty upon which the students weren’t wholly able to articulate their stance — or agree — on. The subject of homosexuality, for example, was divisive. In a hypothetical imagining which saw their future son or daughter come out as gay, several students veered towards sentiments of toleration than they did happiness. It didn’t take them very long to reveal that this was likely a product of their upbringing, despite them witnessing the increasingly positive narrative that surrounds same-sex rights. Even a generation perceived to be as liberal-minded as Gen Z, isn’t entirely immune to some of the traditionalism upheld and passed on by their family environment. A toxic combination of expectation, disappointment and shame, still lurk in the minds of these 17-year-olds, who will have to break free from these shackles first before they allow their descendants to.
Moments like these continue to serve a reminder of the long path we still have in washing away the dyes of controversy that have stained such issues for centuries. However, moments like these also don’t negate the promise that these students demonstrated in droves in their want to combat stereotypes.
I came into the school feeling that I’d be like one of those preachers who stand near Oxford Circus Station — whose gospels are heard but seldom listened to. But I quickly felt a heat, excitement, and emotion so strong among the students that it reverberated off of the four walls, leaving little room to hear the school bell instructing them to shimmy off to their next lesson. It gave me some validation to my purpose of being there. And by the end, I was hopeful that these students might give themselves permission to define their own gender, step outside of the boxes designed to create imbalance, and stand out in a world that orders them to fit in.
“When did you decide to step out of the man box?” a student asked me.
And at that very moment, I turned to the whiteboard and, as initially intended, wiped away the lines of the red box I’d drawn earlier.
“I was never in it”, I replied.