I still vividly remember the day twelve years ago. I stood transfixed near the side of a field watching (at a safe distance) as seemingly fully grown men launched into each other at what I later learnt was the 1st XV rugby trials. It was my first immersive experience of a largely all-male environment and I recall thinking what possible need could these boys have of a school counsellor. As I observed they appeared strong, confident (even dominant) and in control.
At a safe distance.
Three lies of Masculinity
Joe Ehrman, a defensive lineman with the Baltimore Colts for much of the ’70s, gave a well-known TED talk in 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVI1Xutc_Ws in which he says that as a child, he was taught that being a man meant dominating people and circumstances — a lesson that served him well on the football field, but less so in real life. In his TED talk Joe identifies three lies of masculinity that all boys and young men learn about what how to be a man. They are:
- Athletic Ability: You have to be big and strong or at least athletically capable. It is very clear to boys, from magazines, movies and adverts aimed at men, that size matters. Take the cover of any issue of Men’s Health magazine as an example.
- Sexual Conquest: Being attractive to, and successful with, girls (having game) is seen as important. Today this may also include sexting (digital sharing of sexual images and words), sort of virtual conquest if you like.
- Economic Success: It is seen as a mark of masculinity that a man must provide for his family. Provide and protect is the mantra of many men through the ages.
The three R’s
These three lies are very much alive today. Place these myths though in the fertile ground of an all boys’ boarding school and they can easily become intensified. Just think of an almost all male environment without the leavening effect of females. Then take that and place it in the pressure cooker of a twenty four hour, seven days a week and it is easy to see how things can get out of hand. The term given is ‘hyper-masculinity’ where genuine male traits are exaggerated, distorted and even celebrated. Without awareness and intentionality in confronting these issues we can easily end up with the traditional 3 R’s of Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic being unintentionally supplemented by three very different R’s.
Today it appears that it is more important for boys and men to look good compared to 30 years ago. Taking the anti-acne drug Rac, or Roaccutane, is an essential ingredient today for looking good and makes the ‘spotty teenager’ a thing of the past in certain circles. Concerns about over-prescription have been reported but it is hard to say no to a teenager ridden with both angst and acne. In terms of sexual conquest, appearance and image (both body and branding) are important. Dental work is also de-rigour, a key component in an image conscious society, where face value means different things to different people. Leaving your appearance to the influence of genetics and hormones is simply not enough.
Where size is important, steroids are always going to be a temptation. Boys these days gym, some even claim it is their official sport. This goes hand in hand with a focus on healthy eating. Many will happily skip desert at a formal dinner in order to preserve that ‘shredded’ body and a good definition these days is far more likely to be a topic of conversation in the gym class than the English lesson. It is not surprising with this focus on body image that anorexia and problems related to body image such as body dysmorphic disorder make their presence felt even in a boy’s school. There is an ongoing pressure for young men to be physically strong. Of course beyond the physical this translates into being strong emotionally, in this case not having (or at least not showing) emotional needs or weakness.
Rage, of course, is the term given to the big end of school party that Matrics flock to after they have written their last school exam. Gathering at various centres around South Africa, this is the party to end all parties. In this context I am using the term to cover partying generally and in particular the consumption of alcohol. Every event, be it a Matric Dance or a formal dinner, has to be accompanied by pre-drinks (prees) and an after-party. The common factor is alcohol. It sometimes appears that the youth seemed determined to cram in as many opportunities for drinking as is humanly possible around just one event.
Alcohol consumption is not just an issue amongst boys of course, in fact research tells us that binge drinking for young girls is a significant and growing problem. Nor is drinking specifically a problem with the youth. However drinking alcohol is somehow associated with being or becoming a man. I watched a ridiculous advert the other night where a group of men recapture a horse that has escaped its attractive female owner and gone charging down the high street. With the damsel in distress looking on, the men complete the task and then reward themselves to some beer while the sound track pumps out, “I’m a Man, I’m a Man, I’m a Man.”
Gender straight jackets
The media and even society gives our boys limited options as to what type of men they can become. Dr. Caroline Heldman in ‘The Mask You Live In’ explains that there are four ‘predominant male archetypes that we see in film and television and other forms of popular culture’.
- Strong Silent guy – This man is always in control and is not emotional (James Bond)
- Superhero – This character engages in high levels of violence to maintain control or achieve a goal (Batman, Captain America, Iron Man e.t.c)
- Thug – In the media these are predominantly men of colour, pigeonholed into violent roles. (Officer Frank Tenpenny in ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, reminiscent of Detective Alonzo Harris in the movie ‘Training Day’)
- ‘Manchild’ – A male who’s in perpetual adolescence. “His body doesn’t typically have a lot of muscle, but he tends to project masculinity in other ways, through the degradation of women and engaging in high-risk activities”. (Most of the characters in ‘The Hangover’).
This one dimensional view of masculinity is extremely restrictive and limiting. For many of our young men, it is like being forced to wear a straight jacket that prevents a full range of emotional expression and oversimplifies the glorious complexities of being fully male.
What do we do?
What are we doing as a school, as a community, as educators and as parents, to provide boys with access to a healthier range of masculinity? What
does healthy masculinity look like anyway? I was once asked by a psychologist when discussing these issues, “In what way is a good man different to a good woman?” When you go beyond the surface, that question is very hard to answer. Grappling with questions like this as an educational community is vital. If you work in an all boys’ school or have a son in one, here are some things to consider as a way forward.
- Redefine strength – Boys want to be strong, there’s absolutely no point in telling boys that they don’t need to be strong. It’s built into their psyche that they want to be seen as strong. The message just won’t compute. What you need to do is redefine what strength is.” Martin Seagar. We need engagement and conversations with boys that create a definition of strength that includes emotional expression and vulnerability.
- Redefine masculinity – At the end of his TED talk Joe Ehrman posts that being a man is actually about relationships and making a positive difference to the world around you. With reference to being a man he says, “One, it’s your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause. All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being. So I think it’s about relationships and commitments to a cause. That’s the underline of all humanity — men and women.”
- Provide a range of healthy male role models – Boys need to see there are many ways to be a man. As psychologist Michael Thompson says, not every boys wants to be ‘…like Mike…’ This means school staff and visitors to the schools need to reflect a diverse and varied spectrum of men. In addition, while male role models in boy’s schools are vital, it is also important that female staff make up a significant proportion of the faculty.
Don’t stay on the sidelines
Thinking back to all those capable boys I watched on the rugby field twelve years ago I now know that all is not what it seems. I have learnt that you take boys at face value, at your peril and possibly theirs. Young men will often put up a convincing mask of anger or disinterest that discourage us from getting close to them. Another memory I have is that of my youngest son, less than two years old, wandering away from my wife one afternoon down at the school sports fields. It was not too long before he was howling with a thorn in his foot. Before my wife could get to him though, a young man had detached himself from his scrum of peers, sat down next to my son, put his arm around him and gently pulled the thorn from his foot.
It’s all there, emotions, feelings, kindness, strength, thought, care, compassion, gentleness, vulnerability. But the thing is, you can’t stay watching at a safe distance, as I was that day on the side of a rugby field. You have to get involved and be willing to be immersed to some level of discomfort, yours and theirs. These last twelve years have taught me that these young men have fears, vulnerabilities, anxieties and weaknesses as do we all. There is still plenty, for me, all staff working with boys, and parents to be engaged with. We just have to be willing to dig a little deeper, look a little longer and create the space for these boys to become the young men they were created to be.
If you work with boys, don’t stay at a safe distance, have the courage to get involved.