Feminists have long sought to examine the multiplicities of female identities, power, and marginality. It is time to do the same for boys and men – and to question ongoing assertions about male privilege and patriarchy. To this end, I seek to examine which identities in society are authorized and made legitimate and, conversely, which identities are unauthorized, punished, and even made invisible, to bring to light knowledge about boys and men that, for some, may be difficult to bear.
A disturbing caveat to those daring to delve into the ways in which males lack power and are marginalized is the threat of being labeled misogynous. Studying boys and men as other than victimizers and privileged can even engender moral outrage. This prejudice impedes addressing the challenges facing many males, from their flagging literacy rates to their significantly higher rates of suicide, incarceration, homelessness, addiction, and workplace injuries and fatality. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), female students significantly outperform male students in literacy in every country and in every Canadian province;1 and as a single indication of the greater risks men face in their daily lives, in Canada, in 2008, there were 987 workplace fatalities for men and 48 for women.2
Boys in school are subjected to homophobia, racism, classism, and shame as a means of policing their burgeoning identities, and stifling anything that may be construed as “feminine”, so that being studious becomes considered “gay” or “sissy” or even “White”.
Portrayals of men in popular culture tend to be brutish, ignorant, and violent – often in sexual and predatory ways. Boys in school are subjected to homophobia, racism, classism, and shame as a means of policing their burgeoning identities, and stifling anything that may be construed as “feminine”, so that being studious becomes considered “gay” or “sissy” or even “White”. Both girls and boys, and men and women, enforce these behaviours in implicit and explicit ways. I contend that narrow social expectations, and lack of options for enacting socially acceptable masculinities, are at the root of contemporary struggles for boys and men, and become negative self-fulfilling prophecies.
At the same time, the majority of boys and men – who behave honourably and contribute to the betterment of society in their work, at home, and in their communities – are frequently ignored. Society fuels greater resources towards girls and women, from scholarships for postsecondary education3 to research on female health issues,4 and this despite the fact that girls and women dominate in most professional faculties today – including law and medicine,5 and, it can be argued, enjoy longer and healthier lives.6 There are programs for teen moms, but far fewer for teen dads. Do we value young men as fathers less, then? It is difficult to gain funding for programs for boys and men, or for research into their problems. Either we are wearing blinders that obscure the barriers confronting many of our boys and men, or we believe that that they will stoically “man up”.
Parents, guardians, educators, and scholars are starting to realize the plight of many males. There are committees to enhance the teaching and learning of boys, including exploration of single-sex classrooms and school options, such as the recently opened All–boys Alternative Program at Sir James Lougheed School in Calgary, a male-mentor reading program in conjunction with St. Thomas University in Fredericton, and the Boys2Men mentoring program in the Toronto District School Board. Times are changing, but we need to gain momentum and stop ignoring a long-standing, problematic, social and gender code for males.
To become a “man”, I (and others) argue that males still must undergo a rigorous, even punishing process of socialization whereby boys and men are forced to repress many emotions and attain autonomy at all costs. Indeed, “manhood” may be such a shaky state that it is unattainable for any significant period and must be constantly re-earned. Risky behaviours, including suicide, dramatically increase when boys enter adolescence and young adulthood, for this is when uncompromising pressures to become “a real man” intensify. Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bell Hooks, and other writers on freedom, equality, and democracy suggest that oppression can be defined as a lack of options.
It is time to confront the implicit and explicit ways that society – including men and women of diverse backgrounds, affiliations, and identities – contribute to maintaining status quo assumptions and options surrounding what it is to be a boy or a man.
It is time to confront the implicit and explicit ways that society – including men and women of diverse backgrounds, affiliations, and identities – contribute to maintaining status quo assumptions and options surrounding what it is to be a boy or a man. We must strive to provide more options for our boys and men on their journey through life, just as we have successfully done for girls and women over the past decades. Pollack describes a so-called “Boy Code” which delineates traditional gender roles for boys, in which – like “sturdy oaks” – boys are encouraged to be stoic, stable, independent, and never show weakness; boys are pressured to achieve status, dominance, and power, to avoid shame at all costs; perhaps most damaging of all, boys are taught to inhibit expression of feelings or urges erroneously seen as “feminine”, such as warmth, dependence, and empathy; and finally, boys are destructively led to believe that they should act macho, even to the point of violence, and engage in risky behaviours that could injure themselves or others – like their role models in popular culture from wrestling, hockey, and football, to action movies and video games.7
Increasingly, researchers in the growing field of boys’ and men’s studies are challenging traditions that perpetuate a patriarchal perception of boys and men, and instead subscribe to “masculinities”, or validating varied ways of being “male”. These new identities may include being a metrosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual; a househusband, artist, or a chief executive officer; a high school hockey player or a peer mentor to junior boys; a boy who loves to read or a boy who loves sports; a straight guy who defends his peers against homophobia and heterosexism, a gay truck driver, or a man who chooses to pursue a career as a daycare worker. However, stubborn societal prejudices persist that inhibit this enlargement of gender roles for boys and men – prejudices related to misandry, androgenophobia, and erastephopbia.
Misandry may be defined as the fear, distrust, and contempt of men, rife in popular culture and our legal system. It is unfortunate but revealing, that not only must I define this little-known misandry, but also that I had to invent two new terms – androgenophobia and erastephobia, to frame contemporary impediments to evolution in our treatment and expectations of boys and men.8 Androgenophobia is the prevalent societal conviction that maleness, the male body, and male sexualities are somehow unclean, perverse, and menacing, while erastephobia is the fear of impending pedophilia by males in general, including fathers, youth workers, volunteers, and male teachers in schools. All three concepts operate to confine and restrict what boys and men may become, and are omnipresent in our popular culture, from movies to video games, and in our school systems, thereby contributing to a kind of mass contempt for males.
Elements of misandy, androgenophobia, and erastephobia are incorporated in the following list, which I present here to provoke debate, break silences, and highlight some of the constraints facing diverse males in social and educational contexts.9 This list was inspired by my years of research into men, masculinities, and male sexualities, listening to boys and men tell their stories, and a multitude of sources in both academic literature and popular culture.10 It is my hope not only that dualisms of male-female, White-colour, and privilege and lack-of-privilege be challenged, but also that all boys and men may be looked at with sympathy, love, and compassion, rather than annoyance, impatience, suspicion, and fear, as is far too often the case. Our expectations – for better or worse – can and do become realities.
- Starting in primary school, when I yearn for more active learning, play, and levity, I am punished. Especially if I am not White. And/or from a low social class. And English isn’t my native tongue.
- I have a much greater chance of being segregated in a remedial reading class, or behaviour difficulties class. Especially if I am not White. And/or from a low social class.
- If I act “effeminate” or display so-called feminine traits such as caring, compassion, and gentleness, I risk being punished. These are human traits.
- I am expected to be competitive with members of my sex and only to confide in a female mate. Therefore, I am permitted few if any intimate friends of either sex.
- When I report assault or abuse, whether sexual, physical, or verbal, there are few if any social services available to me, other than to treat me as a potential criminal. Especially if I am not White. And/or from a low social class. And English isn’t my native tongue.
- I have less chance of attending university than many women – at least many of the White, middle-class ones. Especially if I am not White. And/or from a low social class.
- As a teacher, daycare worker, father, or youth club volunteer, I am vulnerable to suspicions of being a pedophile.
- Even though I am more likely to be the chief breadwinner in my family, I am often seen as an exploiter and privileged.
- My health is not good. I am more likely to die of prostate cancer than a woman of breast cancer, and have higher incidences of lung cancer, heart disease, and suicide. Where is the public outcry?
- I am more likely to be an alcoholic, drug addict, be in a car accident, commit suicide, end up on the streets, or be injured or killed in the workplace. Does anyone care?
- When I marry, I have only one respectable choice – to work full-time. If I stray from full-time work, I am viewed as a parasite.
- I can never truly attain manhood. It is impossible. This undying stress is with me every moment of every day.
- When I die, no one will have truly known me.
EN BREF – Des préjugés sociaux persistants entravent l’élargissement des rôles assignés aux garçons et aux hommes. Dans la culture populaire, les hommes sont fréquemment représentés comme des êtres brutaux, ignorants et violents – souvent de façons sexuelles et prédatrices. À l’école, les garçons font l’objet d’homophobie, de racisme, de classisme et de honte pour policer leurs identités en devenir et étouffer ce qui pourrait être vu comme étant « féminin ». Être studieux est ainsi qualifié de « gai », d’« efféminé », ou même de « blanc ». L’exiguïté des attentes sociales et l’absence d’options de masculinités socialement acceptables sont à la source des difficultés contemporaines des garçons et des hommes et risquent de devenir des prophéties négatives auto-réalisatrices. Dans le domaine grandissant des études des hommes et des garçons, les chercheurs remettent en question les traditions perpétuant une perception patriarcale, souscrivant plutôt au principe des « masculinités » et validant des façons multiples d’être « mâle ».
1 D. Klinger, L. Shulha, and L. Wade-Woolley, Towards an Understanding of Gender Differences in Literacy Achievement. (Toronto: The Education and Accountability Office, 2009).
2 National Work Injury, Disease and Fatality Statistics, 2006-2008, Report of the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC):103-105; 134-138.
3 C. Abrahams, (2010, October 21). “Designated Scholarships Overwhelmingly Favour Women, Globe and Mail, 21 October 2010. www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/failing-boys/designated-scholarships-overwhelmingly-favour-women/article1766443/
4 “Men’s Mental Illness: A Silent Crisis,” Canadian Mental Health Association, 2011. www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3-726
5 J. Intini, “Are We Raising Our Boys to be Underachieving Men?” MacLean’s (25 October 2010): 66-71.
7 W. Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myth of Boyhood (New York: Random House, 1998).
8 D. Gosse and A. Facchinetti, “What’s in a Male?” Education Today 11, no. 2 (2011): 26-30.
9 D. Gosse, “A Misandrous Queer List,” in Jackytar, A Novel (St. John’s, NL: Jesperson Publishing Ltd., 2005), 122-125.
10 D. Gosse, ed., Breaking Silences and Exploring Masculinities: A Critical Supplement to the Novel Jackytar (St. John’s, NL: Breakwater Books, 2008); Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women’s Studies. Working paper #189 (Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988).