Mark Greene explores the Man Box, and how it leads to policing of behavior that dares to fall outside the boundaries of traditional masculinity.
Humankind is in the throes of a savage epidemic. It is a blight on every continent and is at the heart of every bloody war and every catastrophic environmental disaster. It reigns over the bodies of Trevon Martin and Matthew Shepard alike. It is an illness that has been with us since we came down out of the trees and its time to shake it off before it kills us all. Human beings are cursed with a marked tendency to track, identify and condemn difference. We do it every minute of every day of our lives. And we need to stop. Because if we don’t, all of us, learn to embrace the full range of human expression, cultures, race and religions we are not going to make it. We’re just not.
In America, we have many ways of isolating and attacking difference. For American men, the social mechanism many have come to call the Man Box is the dominant frame for performing masculinity. Charlie Glickman writes eloquently about it in his article titled Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box. Glickman prefers the phrase “Act like a Man Box” over simply “Man Box” because he views masculinity as something we men perform, much like an actor performs a theatrical role. I agree with him. The fact is, men can choose to perform masculinity in any way they like. Which makes the Man Box all the more tragic. It is a choice.
According to Glickman and others, the Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is. A real man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a firefighter, a lawyer, a CEO. He is a man’s man. And whether or not we’d actually want to spend any time with him, we all know who he is.
This “real man”, as defined by the Man Box, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. He dominates our movies and television. He defines what we expect from our political leaders. He is the archetypal sports star. He is our symbol for what is admirable and honorable in American men. And if he happens to get aggressive, belligerent and violent some times, well, that’s just the price of real masculinity.
And to be clear, although the Man Box defines and enforces what is considered to be “real manhood” women are as culpable as men in the policing and the enforcing of its harsh rules. When American men attempt to express masculinity in more diverse ways, it can often be the women in their lives who force them back into the Box. This can be due to fears of economic and social isolation or out of a refusal by those women to engage in the kind of self reflective emotional discourses that exiting the Man Box can trigger.
The Man Box is sustained by both men and women. It will take a concentrated effort by both men and women to dismantle its abusive grip on our daily lives.
Policing for Conformity
If the Man Box was simply about performing its constrained version of masculinity it would not be so problematic. But one very specific requirement of the Man Box is its highly aggressive critique of those who do not perform gender according to its rules. This policing of difference monitors the behavior of those both internal and external to the Man Box. It relies on a wide range of criteria to do so. Criteria which typically includes the overarching biases of homophobia, racism, sexism and religious bigotry. But these overarching criteria are only a fraction of the full range of policing triggers. Policing is also applied on randomly subjective levels; being triggered by differences as minute as the color of a person’s shirt or how they might carry a book. In the Man Box, deviation from what is deemed normative, no matter how minute the deviation, is tracked and policed.
People who are labeled as sexually, racially, economically or socially non-normative become targets. And the attacks they face from both men and women who locate masculinity inside the Man Box can be brutal, even homicidal. Why does the Man Box dictate attacking difference? Is the Man Box’s ultimate goal to create a completely uniform culture?
Actually, no. Insuring universal conformity is not the purpose of the Man Box, it is the need to police that defines the Man Box. The Man Box exists to accrue power upward in its internal hierarchy and it does so by isolating men emotionally and then channeling their resulting anger into the repetitious and addictive act of policing and punishing others. Policing ranges from dismissal, sarcasm and contempt, to economic violence, physical brutality and murder.
Micro Aggression and the Man Box
The level of conformity needed in order to be fully accepted within the Man Box is not, in fact, possible to achieve. The more that men and women are herded toward conformity, the more slight the differences that are needed to trigger comment, harassment or attack. This is because the purpose of the Man Box is not to achieve social conformity. The purpose of the man box is to target difference and grant permission for acting out aggression. This self-perpetuating closed loop of emotional suppression, reactivity and policing is constantly taking place even among groups of men who reside entirely within the Man Box.
Take five of these men in a group. Put them in a bar. Much of their dialogue will center around the question of who gets to define the local standards for conformity. It can play out as follows:
Frank enters and approaches his friends. He is wearing a Dallas Cowboys shirt. All turn and say hello. Dan, who is wearing a New York Giants shirt says, “Frank, what the fuck? The Cowboys suck, dude.” Dan is smiling, but the message is clear. I’m dominant here. I’m the alpha. This is central to how the Man Box functions as a hierarchical system. Someone is always on top. Power and influence flows to him.
The other men in the group do a quick calculation. Is supporting the Cowboys not normative? The issue may play out as regional or based on the team’s win-loss record. Or the men in the group may know that Dan is more aggressive and don’t want to challenge him. Within seconds they chime in.
“Dude, the cowboys suck.” There is laughter all around. Frank shrugs off the aggression. He remains in the group. This momentary marking of difference plays out as a reinforcement of the group integrity and an indication of Dan’s alpha status within the group. The one thing Frank is not allowed to do is to exhibit emotional distress. His feelings can not be seen to be hurt. He is allowed to show aggression or disinterest but nothing else. In passing this test, he remains in the group.
This dance plays out dozens of time each hour. As more alcohol is consumed, the group’s interactions may become more volatile. It is a closed loop of internal judgement and policing which, at any moment, can switch its focus to external judgement. This constant internal policing within the Man Box is stress-inducing for all but those at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. Which makes the moment that policing goes external to the Man Box a great relief for those at the bottom of the pecking order. As such, they are always on the hunt for an external target. This is the most powerful factor which encourages marking and attacking others.
Empathy and the Man Box
Men who inhabit the Man Box exist in an unyielding web of micro aggressions and finely tuned conformities. Accordingly, the Man Box is both emotionally and relationally isolating. It does not encourage community through empathy or emotional connectivity. Men in the Man Box are “stoic” and “self reliant”. They do not reveal their deeper fears or insecurities. Accordingly, their hidden emotional landscape and the issues that arise from it are rarely addressed or resolved. Men who suffer from a lack of emotional connection typically struggle with higher levels of stress, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, failed relationships and shorter lifespans.
Because the man box thrives on attacking difference, empathy and tolerance of diversity represent direct threats to the othering the Man Box requires to acquire external targets for policing. Inside the Man Box, men must be ready to join in the escalation of what Glickman calls “the performance of manhood” without hesitation or risk being cast out. This performance of manhood can range from conforming to a sports focused social culture to attacking a transexual person in a back alley.
Glickman writes, “The (Man) Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box. And as each one’s performance becomes more vigorous, it forces the others to do the same.”
Ultimately, the internal pressure to police leaves men little choice but to attack what they are told to attack. As their capacity to connect emotionally is suppressed and their dependence on the narcotic thrill of attacking others is constantly reinforced, the stage is set for disastrous results in the social, political, religious and corporate cultures these men inhabit.
Corporations and the Man Box
It should come as no surprise that the Man Box blends itself quite seamlessly into the internal workings of corporate, political, religious and military institutions. The capacity it provides to reinforce conformity and obedience is particularly useful in rigid top down hierarchal command structures. The downside is the systemic suppression of creativity, individual initiative, and risk taking. Yet another depleting impact of this way of being.
The illegal and unethical behavior by big banks like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs in the lead up to the subprime mortgage collapse is the result of corporate cultures that continue to elevate their own interests above those of even their own clients. This capacity to dismiss ethical and moral responsibilities on a corporate scale is clearly a by-product of a culture of othering by which those who do not reside within a corporate culture have little value beyond being disposable sources of revenue. In corporations where the Man Box is embedded in the dominant organizing structures, corporate executives dismiss the interests of those who are outside the organization, often placing them in a collective adversarial category, in which those who are not directly aligned with corporate leadership deserve to suffer; or worse, should actively be punished.
A startling glimpse of this institutionalized punishment dynamic was revealed in 2004 when CBS News gained access to tapes of Enron energy traders who, after artificially spiking energy prices that had plunged California into rolling blackouts, then laughed at the results.
During California’s rolling blackouts, when streets were lit only by head lights and families were trapped in elevators, Enron Energy traders laughed, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales.
One trader is heard on tapes obtained by CBS News saying, “Just cut ‘em off. They’re so f—-d. They should just bring back f—–g horses and carriages, f—–g lamps, f—–g kerosene lamps.”
And when describing his reaction when a business owner complained about high energy prices, another trader is heard on tape saying, “I just looked at him. I said, ‘Move.’ (laughter) The guy was like horrified. I go, ‘Look, don’t take it the wrong way. Move. It isn’t getting fixed anytime soon.”
California’s attempt to deregulate energy markets became a disaster for consumers when companies like Enron manipulated the West Cost power market and even shut down plants so they could drive up prices.
To hear audio of Enron employees blaming the victims of Enron’s morally corrupt policies listen here.
The repetitive policing and punishing of others which takes place at the personal level in the Man Box ultimately underpins entire institutional cultures which, in turn, dehumanize and prey on others on a vast scale, resulting in economic, environmental and military violence. When individual othering goes global: the poor on other continents are defined as different and deserving of their suffering. Entire continents are marginalized and the body counts can run into the millions.
When the Man Box informs the worldview of those at the top of our private or public institutions, those institutions are automatically aligned against any who are not white, male, American, Christian, employed and so on. As private institutions like corporations undermine our global economic stability with impunity, public institutions like the US House of Representatives, lately a bastion of Man Box style thinking, attack the safety nets meant to cushion populations from the vicious boom and bust cycles unregulated corporate malfeasance creates. We all suffer the effects of this catastrophic othering, whether it is pollution and unemployment here, or endless military engagements overseas. Military engagements in places where drone strikes create “collateral human damage”, but that’s acceptable because it’s happening to “them”, and they are not like us. And in so much as economic and military violence are ongoing to this very day, we all are, on some level, able to collectively other those who lie below us on the global economic ladder.
The Man Box and the Devil’s Bargain
The Man Box told men in the last century that they were the king of their castles. At a time when women were economically powerless and vulnerable, the bargain men struck was to accept rigid hierarchical work lives in exchange for absolute authority at home. The Man Box granted legions of men permission to dish out whatever dictums they saw fit to their wives and children. Dictums that could range from the benevolent to the brutal. But even as women have gained significant degrees of economic freedom, corporations have abandoned the basic social contract with us all, no longer providing job security in any way shape or form. This alone has broken the central compact of the Man Box leaving many men economically powerless; operating in emotional spaces where they have to develop new and powerful interpersonal skills or risk the collapse of their families, social networks and personal identity.
The devil’s bargain of the Man Box is directly tied to privilege, patriarchy and the good old boys club. It is at the root of the glass ceiling and the backlash against women’s rights. When politicians stand up and say that the poor don’t want to work or that gay marriage will undermine the family, they speak from within the brittle confines of the Man Box. But we live in an age of change. The promise of the Man Box is collapsing under its own belligerent weight; under the litany of broken promises from elites who have abandoned even the slightest illusion of responsibility toward American families.What we need now is a more purposeful acknowledgment of our exit from the Man Box and all its attendant costs.
Additionally, as we continue to mark and address privilege, we need to take into account the relative rise of women and the fragmentation of the monolithic male patriarchy into to newer hybrid of elites drawn from men and women from across a range of races and cultures. The implications of patriarchy remain valid, that is, the damage done by those who condemn and attack difference, but the method of engaging it both institutionally and interpersonally need to evolve past a simple male/female binary or we risk punishing men (and women) who are actually on the leading edge of progress toward a more egalitarian gender and culture dynamic.
A Vast Landscape of Opportunity
In a time of social and economic upheaval, what may seem like a raft of challenges for men and women actually represents a vast landscape of opportunity. The Man Box’s promise of economic security in exchange for social conformity is crumbling. Pension funds are collapsing. Jobs are gone overseas. Where there once was a promise of career security there is now none. The cheese that baited the Man Box trap is gone.
Into the vacuum of these broken social contracts, a new breed of men and women are emerging. Among these are men who work as full time parents. Men who take joy in supporting their families emotionally as well as financially. Men who are struggling to end the rigid gender roles that our culture continues to force on their sons and daughters. Men who express gender in much more diverse ways.
Change is happening because a generation of men have stepped out of the grey confines of old school corporate America and are seeking more personally meaningful lives, either with companies that take a progressive view of their responsibilities in the world, or by finding entirely alternative ways to earn and live.
The work of undoing the Man Box and all it represents is ongoing. We must model for our sons and daughters how to connect emotionally, how to encourage the entire diverse range of what it can mean to be a man and how to enjoy caring for the world instead of seeking to dominate it. We can support companies that value diversity and social justice. We can invest in more locally based economies around how we buy food and services. The voices that are calling for better more diverse lives for us all are growing daily. And while the halls of power continue to preach hate and policing, vast subterranean economic and cultural changes are in motion that will end the primacy of the Man Box once and all.
For us men, its about making the conscious choice to live fuller and more emotionally rewarding lives. With that simple choice, change for the better follows.
“There’s nothin’ in the world so sad as talking to a man
Who never knew his life was his for making.”
Ray Lamontagne, Old Before Your Time (click here to listen)
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“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”