Men’s roles are changing almost faster than we can keep up with the change. Here are ten reasons that make the conversation about men so incredibly important.
1) Unrealistic and Stereotypical Portrayals of Men in the Media and the Culture
Tired of seeing dumb and deadbeat dads? Sick of every man on TV being a sex-obsessed womanizer? So are men. Men are often seen as incompetent, misogynistic, brutish slobs who only think about sex, beer and sports and have few other redeeming qualities. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is the superhero—the man who is financially successful, in perfect shape, rich, handsome, brilliant, athletic—the gold standard, and an almost impossible ideal. These epitomize the false choices of manhood—society constantly asks men to choose between being sensitive ninnies or hyper-aggressive bullies, financial providers for their families or absent fathers, “men of the house” or “pussy-whipped.” And so the “man-box” begins—the ways in which it is acceptable by our culture is narrow and limiting.
Where are the portrayals of the many men that are complex, kind, communicative, nurturing, able to be both warriors and poets as needed, able to love deeply and for the long term, with various levels of abilities about a whole host of things? We don’t know, but that’s almost every guy we do know at The Good Men Project.
2) Raising Boys Today
Whether you are raising boys as a parent, as an educator, or as a role model, there are few resources and agreed upon methods. What to do when boys are falling behind in school? Are boys being over-diagnosed with ADHD? How can we teach boys to respect not only women, but also other boys and themselves? How do we help with the challenges of boys of affected by racism? How do we have conversations with boys that let them know they can be victims of sexual assaults, an area that is seldom talked about? What about boys who are growing up outside the socially accepted gender spectrum? What about violence and aggression—how do we prevent things like bullying and school shootings? Do boys who are being raised by single moms or by two gay dads need more support than boys in traditional households? If so, what does that look like? Boys have unique challenges, and the past the two ways of raising boys were to either dismiss bad behavior with “boys will be boys” or to admonish boys for showing signs of weakness, particularly emotional weakness, with the phrase “be a man.” Where is the recognition that boys are complex creatures, with a range of needs, and that growing into a man is not a one-size fits all proposition?
3) The Disposability of Men & Boys
From the invisibility of boys who are being sex trafficked to men who are being exploited as cheap manual labor, there is something in our collective consciousness that treats men and boys as disposable. Men have historically been the first to war, the first into a burning building, the last to exit a sinking ship. Men are seen as the champions of economic progress and the ones who are there to put into place the infrastructure that drives our transportation and communication systems. Every year thousands of men die in the coalmines, railroads, sewers, satellite towers and other dangerous workplaces that are too often taken for granted.
What we think of as “progress” often comes with an enormous price tag for men and boys. A clear example of this is in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong. Cruise ships, ocean liners, freighters get pulled up on a beach and the most impoverished men and boys in the surrounding community break them down with mallets and bats. This is where ships go to die; it’s where men and boys do, too.
Men and boys are also the invisible victims of rape and sexual assault. There is no clear language, few outlets for them to talk about it, and an often society-driven reluctance for them to come forward.
4) Parenting, Stay-At-Home Dads and Paternity Leave
While times are changing and stereotypes along with them, there are many places where moms are still seen as the default parent, the one who is more “natural” at the act of parenting and caring for children. Dads are clearly present in the lives of their children, but Stay-At-Home-Dads are all too often seen as slackers or losers, when nothing could be further from the truth. They are there for their children because they want to be a part of their children’s lives. Men—even men with money and status and privilege—cannot take paternity leave without it being questioned. The role of active, engaged fathers should be coveted. That is not going to happen if men are only seen as financial providers who are incapable of nurturing.
5) The Prison Industrial Complex
The prison system affects men disproportionately, and we don’t talk about it nearly enough. Does the prison system work to create people who are better humans than they were before they went in? How does a man change while inside? Are men and women given equal sentences for equal crimes? What role does mental illness play in those who commit crimes and are imprisoned? What it is like for kids who have a parent in prison? How difficult is it for guys who are trying to parent their children from prison? What impact is the school-to-prison pipeline having on our nation’s boys? And how do we work towards better understanding how violence and aggression lead to the most horrific of crimes so we can prevent them from occurring? The answers to questions like these will bring about change, and change is needed to solve the societal impact of crime and punishment in the 21st century and its effect on men.
6) The LGBT Movement and Gender and Sexual Fluidity
For all the strides that the LGBT movement has made, it’s still difficult to be a man and to fall outside the gender and sexual norms. There is still real homophobia, transphobia and gay-bashing. Why? What is it about the perception of what a “real” man is that allows those to occur? On the flip side, men of all kinds are becoming more vocal and more supportive of the entire gender spectrum. How long will it take for all types of gender and sexual expression to be seen as “normal?” We are now seeing many stories of same sex families with grown children who seem to have turned out just fine, thank you. We are heartened by the speed at which LGBT rights have made progress, but the work is far from over.
7) Relationships of Every Kind
When people think of men and relationships, the first thing that comes to mind is sexual relationships. But the truth is, men are just as interested in and committed to a host of other kinds of relationships. Male friendships, fathers and their sons, sons and their fathers. Long term committed relationships between loving partners. Familial relationships of all kinds. Platonic friendships. Work relationships. Friendships between gay and straight men that go beyond stereotypes. Men loving their children with their whole heart and soul. ALL of those relationships are part of the psyche of today’s man, and all are relationships they care about. After all, a loving relationship with any other human being is a sign of strength.
8) Sports as a Lens of Culture and Masculinity
Sports has typically been the domain of men—not that women aren’t wonderful athletes and fierce competitors, but it’s inarguable that men on average have been faster, stronger, more powerful. Sports highlight so many positive aspects of traditional masculinity—strength and power, after all, is wonderful when used for good. Sports icons are our heroes; they are beautiful, golden boys, idolized. But all sides of masculinity come out in the world of sports—bullying, power struggles, homophobia, and sexual abuse. The difficulties of parenting (or taking paternity leave) when you have a high-profile, high-paying job—and people depend on you for their sports fix. The high incidence of concussions in the NFL leads to discussions about mental health. Covering up of sexual abuse so that sports heroes can keep playing affects everyone. The conversation about men and sports ends up being a conversation about men, however you look at it.
9) The Young and the Old, the Strong and the Weak
Men who are old and men who are young don’t fit into the two biggest parameters of idealized masculinity— older men are seen as weak and feeble while younger men are not yet financially successful.
But beyond age, there are other forms of societally defined weakness that keep men out of the traditional man-box. If you are not able-bodied—i.e. if you are disabled in some way, weakened by injury or disease, or suffering from mental illness—you are told to “man up” and “take it like a man.” Or worse, you are simply excluded, rendered invisible, somehow excluded from the boys club. It may be reasons why body-image problems are becoming increasingly in the realm of the masculine. A quest for perfection of the physical body is a way to prove strength and prove manhood.
Granting men permission to be whatever they are—young, old, weak, strong, able, physically challenged, happy, depressed—is not a just part of manhood. It’s a part of life in the 21st century.
Racism, Sexism, Homophobia. Environmental Issues. The negativity and polarization in politics. War. Sexual Violence. The failing economy and inequality of wealth.
Yes, men want to help solve all of those.
What do you think? What are we missing?
Photo credits: [Main] simple insomnia / flicker — [boys jumping] samnas — [disposability] Courtesy of photographer Pierre Torset — [father and son] oabe / flickr —[prison] chris miller 513 / flickr — [young man] _airrun / flickr —- [relationships] parker knight and ratha / flickr — [Jackie Robinson and friends] AP file photo 1951 — [hands] oregondot / flickr — [future] hatwoman / flickr