Society’s Failures with Masculinity

It begins before he is born, the brutal conditioning of masculinity. Within the womb, he is already taught to embrace it, as his bedroom walls are painted ocean blue, not cheesecake yellow.

Even the most brilliant, socially conscious parents cannot protect the child’s blank slate for long. Enter the baby shower, the ensemble of the world’s manifestations of masculinity. Large, unyielding toys and dark, robust colors inundate the bedroom; gifts are stacked around the bassinet, the sheets inside still neatly folded, left untouched. From blue bonnets to blue plush bears to blue bottles of baby lotion, gendered gifts flood the room before the child’s homecoming. If the failure set forth centuries before this child was even conceived had not yet been apparent, the new backdrop for his entry into this world now greets him with great flamboyance.

Within just a number of weeks, the boy is born and so too is his ego. It begins to take shape, quickly reinforced by his macho trucks, red and blue bedding, and basketball hoops. Regardless, his preferences are fluid, the ages of one to three indicating a fresh and malleable mind. The boy picks up a doll or stuffed animal instead of his action figures. He colors with his crayons and pastels instead of kicking a soccer ball. His mother might nurture his preferences, but his dad replaces his stuffed bear with a G.I. Joe action figure as he sleeps.

Within a few years the boy’s world expands, as notions of masculinity are reaffirmed outside of his home. He begins to play with his neighbors. Kickball and street hockey. They ride bikes at full speed down hilly subdivision roads. The kids are all friends, complete with the occasional wrestle. Resolution to conflict begins to manifest itself in short, emotionless bursts of violence. Did the puck go into the net before the buzzer went off? They duke it out. But the fight is not to resolve what will remain an unanswerable question; it’s a statement of pride and ego, and ultimate worth. The measurements of strength and power quickly emerge as the boy is defined by these successes and failures. The match itself no longer carries significance. Winning the argument has become the true measurement of masculinity.

The fights are transient. Occasional outbursts inevitably push these boys to confront their own and each other’s masculinities. But another form of domination transpires when that over peers cannot be attained: control over nature. The boy collects caterpillars in his backyard. He pulls them off trees, gentle at first, piling them into a large dish bowl he found in the kitchen cabinet. Their colors are fascinating, neon yellow bellies juxtaposed against their jet-black bodies. He rolls his finger along their backs, their tiny hairs tickling his index finger as he finds joy in coddling them. The boy shows them to his mother, hoping she will be equally thrilled by his discovery, but he is shocked by her screams. He is reprimanded for his behavior and commanded to empty out the bowl outside and never touch them again. The boy’s attempt at nurture was discouraged, but the disappointment was quickly supplanted by a new excitement. His friends reveal that there is a way to light ant farms on fire. He grabs his magnifying glass and hunts for small hills of sand covering the cracks on the sidewalk of his cul-de-sac. For the following month, he brings his magnifying glass to school, carrying it with him to recess every day. And one day, he finds a dead bird in the woodchips near the swings. He summons his friends. They use sticks to dissect it until their teacher chastises them to leave it alone.

Individual moments become reinforcing. A mother scared of caterpillars. A dad fascinated by the hunt. The messaging is mixed. Don’t hurt a living bird, but you can eat the dead one. Morality becomes blurred, but the axiom that humans are in control remains true.

Command over nature becomes commonplace. The boy feels as though he has mastered it, or at least feels invincible against nature. Perhaps only the great white shark and the kraken will be his darkest fears. But otherwise, he has begun to develop an internalized sense of worth that depends on the devaluation of the world around him. The boy, now possessing a newfound confidence, feels strengthened through his ability to command at least one thing on the planet. This particular success has set the foundation to pursue greater control in his life.

The boy gets older. He still cannot control the people around him, but there are others whose fate he determines. He plays games where he can select his characters, sometimes he dresses them and other times he creates worlds for them. The boy takes care of them, watching their growth and attributing their success to his own gameplay. He finds gratification in their accomplishments and even enjoys a sense of camaraderie with the characters he brings to life.

Non-violent gameplay helps the boy further foster compassion, but so too does violence when placed in the context of protecting lands, defeating villains, and saving other characters.[1] However, when violence is enjoyed for non-essential purposes, a different emotion is experienced. When the boy discovers that he can build rollercoasters that lead to the characters’ deaths, the possibilities of gaming become endless. When he looks up cheat codes to get more money to build his mansion, he also learns that he can drown his characters in pools and trap them in between four walls until they wet themselves, starve, or die. If it’s not manipulating the world in which the characters live, it’s manipulating the characters with whom he interacts. The boy moves the joystick and suddenly the character is stealing a car. The character runs over pedestrians. He explodes frag grenades on civilians. When the boy plays with his friends, they are equally fascinated and share new violent experiences.

Notions of violent fantasies have begun to emerge, although none of them in isolation will amount to anything. Practically every boy will be able to dissociate fantasy from reality, but a seed has been planted, one that shows what could be.

The boy attends middle school, and suddenly he is confronted with what it means to be a man. Or rather, what his pre-pubescent peers have construed to be the truth about masculinity and manliness. The boy’s voice hasn’t even changed, but now girls don’t have cooties anymore. Now commended for his ability to speak with girls, he is finally past the period during which befriending one would have ousted him from his social circle.

His parents, friends, and siblings expect him to be competitive and athletic. He enjoys playing, but if he were to find a different interest or hobby, his friends would never let him live it down. If he were lucky, maybe his parents would let him quit and take art and film classes. But is it really worth the fight? He submits to flag football, and he spends the next three months playing that instead. When he’s out on the field, he enjoys it, and he quickly forgets his initial hesitations about joining the team; he even forgets what he originally envisaged doing, a short-lived dream succeeded by a new reality.

But there are moments when he feels incomplete, knowing that he doesn’t entirely love staying after school for football. The boy starts to internalize that feeling, a subdued unhappiness, a proclivity toward apathy, a sense of emptiness, as normal. He rejects any hint of emotions, even those that cause anxiety and discontent. During lunch, he can’t stomach his wrap. The boy sips on water and eats a couple crackers; the tension in his body makes it hard for him to swallow. He feels a knot in his stomach. Does everyone feel like this, he wonders. He repeatedly attributes the feeling to nerves before the game, which may or may not be true.

When the boy finishes his last class of the day, he heads to the locker room and realizes what has been distracting him all afternoon. He wasn’t ever nervous about the game. In fact, he thinks he will enjoy it. Instead, his confidence is shot in the locker room. He hurries after the last bell of the day to change before everyone gets there. But when he sees a couple of his teammates already in the room, he changes in the bathroom stall. Tomorrow, he will be prepared and wear his shorts under his jeans. He hasn’t become comfortable with his body yet and there is a small group of boys on the team who will take advantage of that. He has already seen a few other equally unconfident boys be shamed. Physique and body weight jokes have become the easiest ways to pierce an individual’s self-confidence, undermine them, and ultimately exert a sense of power and control. Publicizing the flaws so inappropriately reinforced by societal standards not only enables mass humiliation, but also the quickest rise to power.

It’s a complicated time: vocal fluctuations and voice cracks, volcanic acne and armpit hair, awkward growth spurts and remnant baby fat, inconvenient erections and wet dreams. Despite all the changes, normalcy is expected. Feelings and attraction emerge. Now, any girl that is a friend might become something more. A girl walks by in the hallway and the boy must whisper a rating as soon as she is a few feet away. It’s a one to ten scale and ten is the best. Everything about her is sexualized, but the boy hardly knows what he’s even saying. He wonders how big of a butt is acceptable to appreciate. He refrains from offering specifics in case his friends make fun of him. Would he bang her, they ask. Of course, he says, but he hardly knows how it would even work. He’s eleven. Another girl walks down the hall. He waves hello, and his friend leans over to say that she wants his dick. The boy laughs and nods, but in reality he actually enjoys hanging out with her and being her friend. He tells his friend a rating. The boy isn’t allowed to include her personality in his rating though — that would be “gay.”

The boy begins to internalize and cognize more complex emotions. Feelings of unhappiness have become complicated. Stressed and overwhelmed, weak and insecure, dissatisfied and incomplete, small and insignificant. Moments are already difficult to describe in words, but when the boy is taught that the strength of masculinity is in the lack of emotion and the ability to be resolute and stoic in the most trying situations, he represses any feelings that he may harbor. He loses the ability to express himself and be vulnerable. He finds himself lost and confused but desperately trying to showcase normalcy.

He is told that he, as a man, must view the world with rationality and logic. That emotions are weak. A sexist dad might add that emotions are for girls. Crying is for girls. Feelings should never drive actions, he reminds his son. Time goes on and the boy begins to view the world in black and white, extremes, one or the other. Masculinity has suddenly manifested itself in complete juxtaposition of femininity. One has become the correct way to live, and the other has become devalued.

The associations grow stronger. The boy’s friends begin to reduce the women around them, if not sexually, then based on their abilities. They attack their intelligence and emotional responses. The boys learn that girls menstruate — god forbid a girl has an accident. The boy has finally found an easy, human target. Society has told him, over and over again, that he is superior. He has been told, over and over again, that he is strong. It has been ingrained, over and over again, that emotions are weak, women are weak, and that he must always show control and strength.

With the devaluation of emotions, the ability to empathize has dissipated. The ability to understand plight and conflict, endure adversity, and emote healthily has begun to disappear. But life continues to become more complicated. Relationships are more intentional and words are more impactful. Purpose and existential thinking have surfaced, even if the boy does not quite understand the future or the possibility of the after-life. To not express emotions or admit struggle and difficulty is an uphill battle. It’s unhealthy. It’s taxing. It’s isolating. Instead of opening up, the boy closes off. Instead of confiding in a friend, the boy becomes violent. He is aggressive toward his parents. He gets in fights on the soccer field. He throws a punch in the locker room. The boy no longer knows how to articulate his feelings. He loses the one thing he was striving to be — rational. He confronts his problems with unhealthy behaviors, through violence and anger, the only emotions that have been repeatedly validated for him.

At home, the boy yells at his parents; he closes off from them and resents them for not understanding him. In reality, however, he has never learned to communicate or be vulnerable with them; in reality, he has never given them a chance. Instead of healthily emoting, he finds greater peace in distancing himself from the people who care most about him. The boy protests against the smallest requests from his parents: can you take out the trash, can you fold your laundry, can you help bring in the groceries? If he says yes or agrees to compromise his time, he gives up his power and he knows he cannot do that. The boy knows that he must always present himself as strong and consistent, and to acquiesce is to tarnish that front. Beyond life at home, the boy deliberately steps out of line to push authoritative figures. His friends validate his actions, either through their own bemusement or by mimicking his behavior. They find it more rewarding to rebel and challenge people in positions of power than to have a balanced dialogue. There’s an opportunity to win this way, and to defeat someone with higher status is one of the quickest ways to move up the power bracket.

A new world has evolved — a digital presence. The boy has found solace here. He can post to the world, and finally divulge his deepest and darkest feelings if he desires. Or he can do something that will make him feel even stronger.

A picture has been posted on social media. It’s a picture of a girl. She’s not popular and people say she’s ugly. The guys don’t ever talk to her, directly at least, but they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts online.

One boy posts, “Why are you so fucking ugly. Go die.”

The comment receives 161 likes. It’s not only boys who like it though. A few girls join in as well.

The string of comments that follow are equally hurtful, derogatory, shaming, and malicious. The boy, who has always been somewhat of a pacifist, decides to post. If he doesn’t say anything, his friends would ask him why he’s being “such a pussy.” If he tells his friends to back down, they’d tell the school that he likes her.

The girl spends the night crying. She can’t take it down because someone else posted the picture. She questions her worth, her intelligence, her beauty, her purpose. She can’t go to school ever again. What’s the point?

The next day, the school hosts an assembly. The topic is cyber bullying and the gravity of partaking in and perpetuating inflammatory rhetoric. The incident is discussed vaguely as a large group, but the students are on their phones still gossiping about the photo from the previous night. The assembly’s message is lost and has no substantial impact on the students. As a result, the principal takes further action. Each of the commenters and likers are summoned to her office to discuss their behavior. Punishment is provided — afterschool detention for three days and an apology letter to the girl who was targeted. Students blame each other, saying they were forced to do it or that “everyone else was doing it,” but the principal is unflappable with her decision. The students begrudgingly show up to detention, write half-hearted apologies, and justify their punishment by saying that the principal is “such a bitch.” The students externalize the problem, lay low on social media feeds for a few weeks, and then find other ways to exert control in places less visible to authorities.

Enter high school. A few years may have passed, but the boy still succumbs to the pressure of his peers and society’s definitive connotations of masculinity and gender. Notions of what it means to be a man have solidified. Connecting with women is a fine balance. Are they a romantic interest or are they similar to the boy? The possibility of sex makes it acceptable. Otherwise, the boy is gay. Homophobic pretenses had been established in middle school, but they continue to persist throughout high school.

The boy begins to date. He likes this girl, but he has no idea what he’s doing — an inevitable experience as a young teenager. He has watched plenty of movies and television to know a thing or two, but ultimately he wants advice. He starts to ask his friends about something serious, but the conversation quickly becomes reduced to “how far have you gone?” and “is she putting out?”

His friends don’t seem to care about much else. When he asks one of his buddies about what he should do for his girlfriend’s birthday, he is told to ditch her before he has to deal with “that stuff.” She’ll become emotional and needy and he should get out while he’s not in too deep. The boy listens, acknowledging his fear of commitment as well. But he has no idea how to say he’s not mature enough or ready for a relationship. He can’t confront her, so he ignores her. He avoids her calls and texts. He dodges her in the hallways and takes a different route to the buses after school. Being called an asshole is better than actually having to talk to her about it (read: better than admitting fault and weakness). The relationship fizzles out. Her friends glare at him when they see him at lunch and they’ll whisper to each other. He feels awkward and guilty for a couple weeks, but then he moves on. That’s what relationships are supposed to be like, he tells himself. His friends agree.

The boy does generally well throughout high school, but there are moments that he cannot understand. He feels anxious and overwhelmed, but he dismisses his emotions as weakness. There are periods of time when he does not feel anything, neither motivated nor unmotivated, neither content nor sad. He questions his worth and whether or not anyone would miss him if he were gone. He constantly feels pressure to do things he knows he shouldn’t do, but the options are either that or not having any friends. He struggles with his identity, worth, and belonging.

Like many others, the boy struggles to maintain real, consistent friendships. He floats between groups, unable to find one that makes sense. He identifies with a group of guys until they start drinking. He moves to another group that he connects with until those friends start smoking, all the time. The boy continues to amble between groups, questioning whether or not it’s his fault he cannot fit in; he also wonders if this is the reality of relationships and if only certain levels of depth and trust are achievable. The boy’s inability to be vulnerable or emote makes him unable to be comfortable with himself and ultimately serves as a barrier in developing a strong social circle. When the boy dates, he leans on his girlfriend’s friends as his own, taking little effort to maintain his own relationships. He never articulates it to anyone, but he ultimately suffers more than his girlfriends during breakups when he is actually committed to them; compared to his ex, he has much fewer sources of support during the aftermath.

The boy leaves for college. He has grown, become more confident after dating a couple girls, and is more intelligent and conversant about the world around him. He understands blatant discrimination, bullying, and notions of equality. But what is dangerous now is nuance. It’s nestled and packaged more finely in coded language and complex policy with subtle, yet manipulative, agendas.

The boy embraces his first year of college. It’s a new lifestyle; he chooses when he wants to go to class, whom he should befriend, and the subculture in which he belongs. He lives with girls for the first time in his life. He can redefine himself. He explores everything. The boy goes to parties and eventually he finds a fraternity with a nice group of guys. At their first party, a senior boy gives him brotherly advice. “Look for a girl who is wearing a dress. It’s winter — I mean, come on.” He adds, “Find a girl who has already had a few drinks before arriving. She’s here to have fun.” The boy listens, recognizing the 21-year-old’s prudent advice, and the training about consent quickly disappears from his mind.

Even though the boy knows that domestic violence and assault are inexcusable, he does not understand the concept of victim blaming. Could he defend a girl’s decision to dress in a particular way and go to a bad part of town without knowing there were consequences? He doesn’t know.

The boy grows significantly throughout his first year in college, however. At first, he is defensive and the devil’s advocate. He challenges the truth because it is contrary to everything that he has ever learned and ultimately too difficult to digest. He skirts around what is important because that requires acknowledging that he is part of the problem. When feminism is first mentioned, the image of hairy, men-hating feminists is all that he can conceptualize. But over time, his view of feminism morphs. It’s still imperfect, but it’s much more evolved. He meets women who are much more vocal about gender and the institutionalized discrimination embedded in national and local policy. He meets a handful of men too, perhaps a few years older, who share similar views and explain how regular habits and behaviors have been instilled in them to be just as reductive as policy. Strong mentors and role models begin to arise and pave the way for a long journey of self-improvement.

At a sexual assault and prevention dialogue on campus, he hears other men speak on the subject. They derail the event, taking up space and ultimately reinforcing that certain voices control these conversations. They are vocal about the assumption that alleged victims of sexual assault should have to prove their stories to be true before they send their friends to prison. One boy claims he had a friend who was falsely accused by a woman for assault and now his friend was in jail; he could not accept the notion that survivors should be believed and supported.

The boy is conflicted. The individual narrative is strong and compelling; he’s right, the friend should not have gone to jail. But also, he is so wrong. Survivors of sexual assault are already silenced by the trauma and uphill battle of being heard by law enforcement and the school’s administration. If the person accused is a celebrity or athlete or veteran, there was no way to make it past an initial statement. Over 98% of accusations of sexual assault are truthful, but the boys in the room were focused on justice for the 2%. At the end of the evening, the room was silent. Seeds of dismissiveness and questioning toward survivors were planted instead of training effective allies.

The boy continues to be challenged on issues he thinks he understands. But he discovers that he has to unlearn so much of what he has been taught to be true; he has to unlearn so much of what masculinity in particular has informed him to be virtuous and universally good for the world.

After dating and being around women, he thought he understood women’s issues. But his lens was limited, tainted and obscured by overwhelming notions of society’s definition of masculinity.

Relinquishing control of women’s bodies feels like an attack on masculinity, or at least the way society has defined it for the boy. Masculinity has come to inappropriately correlate with control and power, and to let go of that control and accept that masculinity is in fact the root of the problem is what creates internal conflict. Accepting that one’s core beliefs are the root cause of greater societal issues is challenging for the boy. Only later does he realize that it’s his own ego and fragility that are contributing to a problematic culture. His dependence on power is his weakness, serving as a barrier to effectively empathize and be self-critical.

Without being able to break down and understand how he has used his power to elevate himself throughout his life, how will he ever recognize the power structures at play on issues of gender, race, ability, immigration, sexuality, the environment, and socioeconomic status?

The boy grows older and he continues to dismantle his own preconceptions of the world around him. He occasionally fails, still hindered by latent and deeply rooted prejudices, but he holds himself accountable. He works to undo the damage that society has done on his internalization of masculinity; he can’t extricate it from himself, nor does he want to, but what he can do is redefine what masculinity means to him. What he can do is recognize how it effectively bred his own fragility. He can renounce his own need for control and instead elevate those around him to produce a collective strength that is much more powerful and rewarding. What he can do is finally accept responsibility and be an ally in addressing society’s failures with masculinity in both individual moments and as an epidemic.

[1] While not further discussed in this essay, damsels in distress tropes inundate the video game world. They paint worlds that reinforce men needing to protect and take control of situations, and women being weak, emotional, and requiring rescue.