Denial of Masculine Nature

waronmasculinityI’m going to comment briefly on an article in the Atlantic called Today’s Masculinity Is Stifling, which gets a lot of problems right, but the solution to them largely wrong.

As boys grow up, the process of becoming men encourages them to shed the sort of intimate connections and emotional intelligence that add meaning to life.

As boys become men, they have to learn to live with the reality that the world doesn’t care about men, and that the only value that they will ever have is what they can earn. Intimate connections are lost as they realize that those connections can be used to manipulate, use, and cause pain. Emotional vulnerability is also used against them as a weapon.

In hindsight, our son was gearing up to wear a dress to school for quite some time. For months, he wore dresses—or his purple-and-green mermaid costume—on weekends and after school. Then he began wearing them to sleep in lieu of pajamas, changing out of them after breakfast. Finally, one morning, I brought him his clean pants and shirt, and he looked at me and said, “I’m already dressed.”

[Later, the article makes it clear this boy is a preschooler.] A prepubescent boy who wants to take on a feminine roll has likely been taught to believe that there is something wrong with masculinity.

I scanned the entrance to see whether any parents noticed us as they came and went. I hadn’t expected my stomach to churn. I felt proud of him for his self-assuredness, for the way he’d prepared for this quietly and at his own pace, but I worried about what judgments and conclusions parents and teachers might make. And of course I worried somebody would shame him.

These are reasonable concerns. I would be more concerned of the judgments and conclusions his peers would make.

One day when my husband dropped him off, he heard a little girl stand up to a naysayer and shout, “Boys can like beautiful things, too!”

But they can’t. Not without someone looking askance. To embrace anything feminine, if you’re not biologically female, causes discomfort and confusion, because throughout most of history and in most parts of the world, being a woman has been a disadvantage. Why would a boy, born into all the power of maleness, reach outside his privileged domain? It doesn’t compute.

It has nothing to do with the disadvantage of women. People look askance because femininity in men is not normal. [I mean abnormal here, not wrong.] Boys can like beautiful things, and do. What they can’t do without being correctly perceived as different is behave as girls.

As much as feminism has worked to rebalance the power and privilege between the sexes, the dominant approach to launching young women into positions that garner greater respect, higher status, and better pay still mostly maintains the association between those gains and masculine qualities. Girls’ empowerment programs teach assertiveness, strength, and courage—and they must to equip young women for a world that still overwhelmingly favors men.

The reason these qualities empower is not because they are masculine, but because they are correlated with success. For example, assertiveness is needed if you want to get pay raises. Without assertiveness, you will not be paid as much as others doing the same job.

Last year, when the Boys Scouts of America announced that they would begin admitting girls into their dens, young women saw a wall come down around a territory that was now theirs to occupy. Parents across the country had argued that girls should have equal access to the activities and pursuits of boys’ scouting, saying that Girl Scouts is not a good fit for girls who are “more rough and tumble.” But the converse proposition was essentially nonexistent: Not a single article that I could find mentioned the idea that boys might not find Boy Scouts to be a good fit—or, even more unspeakable, that they would want to join the Girl Scouts.

Another male space taken away. Sad.

If it’s difficult to imagine a boy aspiring to the Girl Scouts’ merit badges (oriented far more than the boys’ toward friendship, caretaking, and community), what does that say about how American culture regards these traditionally feminine arenas? And what does it say to boys who think joining the Girl Scouts sounds fun? Even preschool-age boys know they’d be teased or shamed for disclosing such a dream.

Boys already spend much of their time in a female oriented space–school. Why would they want to spend their time out of school in another such space?

While society is chipping away at giving girls broader access to life’s possibilities, it isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world. To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood. At the earliest ages, it’s about external signifiers like favorite colors, TV shows, and clothes. But later, the paring knife cuts away intimate friendships, emotional range, and open communication.

Why not stop whittling away at men and boys spaces? Let boys act like boys, at least while they are children. Stop trying to turn them into something they aren’t.

There’s research connecting this shedding process to the development, in some adolescent boys, of depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. In her 2014 documentary The Mask You Live In, the filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom features the voices of dozens of teen boys describing their progression from childhoods rich with friendships to teen years defined by posturing and pressure to prove their manhood. Some of the boys, who present tough exteriors, admit to having suicidal thoughts. The film flashes news clips from the most notable mass shootings of that time—Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook—each committed by a young man.

Trying to make boys into women will make them more prone to depression, not less. By taking respect away from male roles, you have stolen their self worth. Becoming independent is what adolescence is all about. In the past, an independent man was valued by women as a provider and protector. Without this, young men are lost.

“Whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shamed and humiliated, or feel they would be, if they didn’t prove that they were real men,” the psychiatrist James Gilligan, who directed Harvard’s Center for the Study of Violence, says in the film.

I agree that shame and humiliation lead to violence, though not that these are the only emotions that lead to it. Having no positive value is what leads a man to feel shame.

There are so few positive variations on what a “real man” can look like, that when the youngest generations show signs of reshaping masculinity, the only word that exists for them is nonconforming. The term highlights that nobody knows what to call these variations on maleness. Instead of understanding that children can resist or challenge traditional masculinity from within the bounds of boyhood, it’s assumed that they’re in a phase, that they need guidance, or that they don’t want to be boys.

You cannot change the instinctual behaviours that millions of years of evolution have given us. As an adult, you must learn to harness your emotions and curb your irrational impulses. Resisting one’s nature leads to unhappiness and suffering, and eventually, that nature will assert itself violently.

Numerous parents of gender-nonconforming children report initially trying to stifle their child’s tendencies out of a protective instinct, thinking they might forestall bullying if only their child would fit more neatly into the box that’s been set up for them. Ultimately, though, most realize that their child is less happy when prevented from gravitating naturally toward their preferences.

Making sure your child is aware that they may be picked on is reasonable. I’m a firm believer in both natural consequences and in each person’s right to make their own choices. Letting your children make tough choices, as long as they aren’t putting themselves in too much danger, is good for them, but it can be really hard too.

It’s important to note that there are children who do feel they’ve been born in the wrong body, who long for different anatomy, a different pronoun. Trans kids need to be supported and accepted.

Genuine gender dysphoria is rare. If you think your child has this disorder, you should find a good psychologist who can help them.

And, at the same time, not every boy who puts on a dress is communicating a wish to be a girl. Too often gender dysphoria is conflated with the simple possibility that kids, when not steered toward one toy or color, will just like what they like, traditional gender expectations notwithstanding. There is little space given to experimentation and exploration before a child’s community seeks to categorize them. Boyhood, as it is popularly imagined, is so narrow and confining that to press against its boundaries is to end up in a different identity altogether.

Not every boy who puts on a dress is a girl trapped in a boy’s body, but every boy who puts on a dress is trying on the role of being a girl. Boyhood is already broad enough, or was until masculinity came under attack.

According to the San Jose State University sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, who studies gender in children’s toys throughout the 20th century, American gender categories are more rigid now than at any time in history, at least when it comes to consumer culture. There may be greater recognition in the abstract that gender exists along a spectrum, but for young children (and their parents), consumer products have a huge influence over identity development and presentation. “Toymakers are saying, well, we can sell each family one toy, or if we make separate versions according to gender, we can sell more toys and make families buy multiples for each gender,” Sweet told me.

Bullshit. Gendered versions of toys are a failure. Female action figures don’t sell well, and boys don’t want male dolls. On average, girls like what they like, and boys what they like. There are a few boys who prefer toys made for girls and vice versa, by they are the exception to the rule.

The same holds true for clothes, baby gear, school supplies, even snack food. And parents begin gender-coding their children’s worlds before those children are even born, sometimes kicked off by “gender reveal” parties, a sort of new version of the baby shower, in which parents-to-be discover the sex of their baby alongside family and friends through a dramatic, colorful display.

More bullshit. I remember in the eighties, a friend’s wife told me how her boy, who she had brought up without “boy toys”, returned from daycare and was running around with a Pringle’s potato chip can on his arm. When she asked the day care worker about it the next day, she was told he had watched the He Man cartoon. In just half an hour, he had become He Man.

There is so much parents can’t know when a baby hasn’t been born—they can’t know the baby’s hair color or eye color or whether they’ll be colicky or peaceful, healthy or sick. But they can know their child’s anatomy, and with that information they can create a to-do list full of tasks that quell the angst of knowing so little else. They can paint a nursery, buy onesies, pick names. A baby’s sex creates a starting point on a cultural road map that the whole family and community can use to direct the child towards defining who they are, and who they are not.

Biological sex is not a cultural rode map. Its more like a force that constantly pushes in one direction. It can be resisted to a degree, moulded, harnessed, but it is always there. If your map follows the lay of the land, you can prosper. If you choose to go against the grain, you choose the way of pain.

Of course today, among a certain set, there’s an active rejection of pink for baby girls, whose parents don’t want them treated as delicate flowers. But again, the reverse still has no purchase. Exceedingly few parents dress their baby boys in a headband and a dress.

For some reason, I always dressed my youngest daughter in yellow when she was little. Soon enough, she was wearing what she wanted. My son wouldn’t wear pants, far less a dress.

Somewhat ironically, those pink-foresaking parents of infant girls often find themselves, three years later, remarking that in spite of shielding their daughters from overly feminized colors, toys, and media, they’ve still turned out to be princess-obsessed preschoolers. The parents display lighthearted self-consciousness that they couldn’t render their girl immune to sparkles.

You can’t fight millions of years of evolution. As children grow into adulthood, they can learn to recognize and modify their instinctual behaviours. Children rarely have the maturity to do so.

It’s unlikely, though, that they shame their girls for their “girliness.” They throw up their hands and acquiesce to an Elsa costume. By contrast, boys’ parents tend to double down on reinforcing masculinity.

Why would they shame girls for being feminine or boys for being masculine? These are the normal behaviours that nature gives most of us. Shaming someone for being what they are is evil.

“Most nonconforming adult men, when they talk about their upbringing, say their first bully was their dad,” reports Matt Duron, whose wife, Lori Duron, wrote the book Raising My Rainbow, about their gender-creative son. Matt, who had a 20-year career as a police officer in Orange County, California, has been a vocal supporter of his son, though in their conservative region, his stance has been attacked. The Durons’ son, now 11, gave up dresses years ago, but he still loves makeup and wears his hair long. Classmates bully him, but he finds support from his family, and lately at Sephora in his local mall, where male employees demonstrate a different way to be grown men in the world.

No parent should fail to support their own child. As long as your child is not harming others, you should do your best to help them succeed in life.

The idea of Sephora as a haven for gender-creative suburban American boys is touching and wonderful in its way, but it’s bittersweet that alternate models of masculinity are so scarce and relatively unvaried. There are now quite a few books featuring boys who like dresses, but almost all of them follow the same arc: Boy dons dress among friends; boy gets shamed and bullied; boy becomes despondent and hides at home; then, finally, boy returns to friend group and they see his value and embrace him (usually after one last-ditch attempt to reform him through shame). Each time I pick up one of these to read to my son, I find myself wanting to change the narrative or skip the portions where rejection and suffering show up as inevitable.

Children can be most unkind. Adolescents, as they work to become independent from their parents, form cliques and circles, and those who fail to fit in find themselves living on the margins.

“But little kids live in the real world,” Ian Hoffman argued when I questioned the trope. Hoffman co-authored the children’s book Jacob’s New Dress with his wife, Sarah. “Would it be nice to have a book with a boy in a dress with no conflict? Yes. Are we there? I don’t think so,” Hoffman told me. He says when the book was published in 2014, he and Sarah dreamed that someday it would seem quaint that a boy in a dress was a big deal. Then, just a year ago, their book was banned in North Carolina, cut from a public-school unit on bullying and harassment. “The initial first-grade book selection, which focuses on valuing uniqueness and difference, has been replaced due to some concerns about the book,” the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system toldThe New York Times. One can imagine that if it had been about a girl who dressed as a firefighter, such extreme measures would not have been taken.

I doubt boys will ever be allowed to take on the role of girls without coming into conflict with other children. In their struggle to find a place in the social order, adolescents will take any opportunity to throw anyone who is different under the bus to prove that they are not themselves different.

There’s a word for what’s happening here: misogyny. When school officials and parents send a message to children that “boyish” girls are badass but “girlish” boys are embarrassing, they are telling kids that society values and rewards masculinity, but not femininity. They are not just keeping individual boys from free self-expression, but they are keeping women down too.

Boyish girls are not “badass”. On average, men are attracted to feminine women, and women are attracted to masculine men.

It is lopsided to approach gender equality by focusing only on girls’ empowerment. If society is to find its way to a post-#MeToo future, parents, teachers, and community members need to build a culture of boyhood that fosters empathy, communication, caretaking, and cooperation. But how? Could there be a space or an organization for boys where they’re encouraged to challenge what’s expected of them socially, emotionally, and physically? What would the activities be? What would the corresponding catchwords be to the girls’ “brave” and “strong” other than “cowardly” and “weak”?

The best way to empower boys is to tell them its OK to be what they want to be. Stop trying to make them something they aren’t–girls. The Boy Scouts fostered a culture of empathy, communication, care taking, and cooperation. Now that it’s open to girls, that will end, with boys unwilling to openly express themselves in front of the girls.

It’s a societal loss that so many men grow up believing that showing aggression and stifling emotion are the ways to signal manhood. And it’s a personal loss to countless little boys who, at best, develop mechanisms for compartmentalizing certain aspects of who they are and, at worst, deny those aspects out of existence.

Aggression is a show of emotion, and boys need to learn to regulate it. As long as society sees men as disposable providers of utility, and tells them to man up when they have problems, boys will need to learn to stifle their emotions or risk being ostracized, taken advantage of, and even jailed for their aggressive outbursts. If you want men to be emotionally healthy, value them as more than sources of resources and status.

This fall, our son will start kindergarten, and with kindergarten comes a school uniform. This means pale blue collared shirts for all the kids, paired with navy blue pants, jumpers, or skirts. Currently there don’t seem to be any boys at the school who choose the jumper or skirt, and it remains to be seen whether our son will maintain his penchant for dresses even when the sartorial binary becomes starker—and the dresses more plain.

As he gets older, he will likely look to his peer group for behavioural norms. This is a normal part of growing up. Most people fail to become truly independent of what others think even in adulthood. The most you can do is support his independence. When adolescence arrives, be prepared for the fact that he will need to reject your support on the road to actually becoming independent of you.

Whatever he decides is fine with us. My only hope is that if he chooses to stop wearing dresses, it won’t be due to feeling that his fullest self-expression no longer has a place.

In childhood and especially adolescence, independent self-expression is constantly at war with the need to fit in. By being too independent, one risks being outed by the tribe. Learning to balance individuality with societal norms is what becoming an adult is all about.

What I want for him, and for all boys, is for the process of becoming men to be expansive, not reductive. I know I’m not alone. More than a century ago, in the October 1902 edition of London’s Cornhill Magazine, the writer and poet May Byron wrote a piece called “The Little Boy,” in which she talked, among other things, about boys’ evolving mode of dress as they move through childhood. She tied it then, as I do now, to a mildly tragic departure from a boy’s richest relationship with himself: “Petticoated or kilted, in little sailor suits, and linen smocks, and velvet coats, and miniature reefers, he marches blindly on his destiny,” Byron writes. “Soon he will run his dear little head against that blank wall of foregone conclusions which shuts out fairyland from a workaday world.”

The passage to adulthood necessarily takes boys and girls from dependence on parents, through the need to conform with peers, then hopefully to true independence, and finally, interdependence with a mate. Trying to thwart the biological imperative will lead most often to sorrow. Rediscovery of the anima typically requires that a man first achieves his independence from his peer group, just as women can best learn to tap into the assertiveness of the animus as adults.

While society recognizes the value of female animus, it gives little to men who tap into the anima. Worse, masculinity itself has come to be seen as ‘toxic’, just as femininity is now viewed as weakness. By devaluing the fundamental psychological archetypes of men and women, our society risks destroying itself. Only by accepting our masculine and feminine nature can we achieve mental health.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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