Part two of Rosalind Wiseman’s groundbreaking new book on the world of teenage boys.
The following is the second part of an excerpt from Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, by bestselling author Rosalind Wiseman.
You can read the first part here on GMP.
THE POWER OF THE GROUP
We all want to feel a sense of belonging. This isn’t a character flaw. It’s fundamental to the human experience. Our finest achievements are possible when people come together to work for a common cause. School spirit, the rightful pride we feel in our community, our heritage, our religion, and our families, all come from the value we place on belonging to a group. But it’s also true that our need to belong can be the cause of our greatest inhumanity. It can be our collective Achilles’ heel as it pushes us to say nothing when faced with injustice, or to join in the abuse of people the group has identified as different and therefore deserving of unequal treatment.
What I’m talking about is how we maintain our ethics and moral compass when we’re in a group. Why? Because conflict is inevitable, and at some point one person will abuse his or her power over another person. When conflicts and power plays arise, a cascade of decisions are made by every other individual in the group based on their own personal characteristics and history. It’s critical to realize that it’s these decisions that develop both our collective and individual ethical framework, moral courage, authentic voice, and social competence.
For most boys, the goals of being ethical and honorable, while valued, are vague. In the short term, it’s the experiences a boy has in a group that will teach him about friendship and what kind of boy is accepted or rejected by the group. His experiences in groups will influence how hard he tries in school, how he presents himself, his level of respect for women (including his mother) and girls, when and how he makes choices about sexual activity, and how he faces situations such as bullying, drinking, and drugs.
Each group has certain “morals,” and to be part of that group a guy has to follow the group code. If he doesn’t, he’s out. —Brian, 16
Within these moments are ethical choices and complex dynamics that frame the way a boy will act throughout his life. Should he say anything when someone is being excluded and treated cruelly? What’s the price of speaking out? What’s the price of silence? If a person speaks out, is he disloyal? Does he believe that seeking revenge or teaching someone “his place” justifies humiliating someone? What issues are more important than that?
THE ACT-LIKE-A-MAN BOX
Paul Kivel created this paradigm to explain how masculinity “boxes” men in.
Group dynamics have distinct but unwritten rules. Understanding what those rules are and how they’re created is critical to understanding boys’ social dynamics. To do that, I’m going to begin with how we define culture.
The dictionary defines “culture” as “the attitudes and behavior characteristics of a particular social group.” I define it as everything you intuitively know about how a person in your community should think and act to be accepted.
Of course, each of us lives in more than one community. The largest, loudest culture we all live in is our national culture, and we get constant messages from the media about what is valued (and not valued) within it. But we also live in smaller communities. Where we live, our ethnicity or religion, our economic class—all have their own cultural guidelines that react to or reinforce the value messages we get from the overall culture. But almost all cultures, no matter how big or small, base their greatest expectations for how a person is supposed to act on whether they’re male or female. If you’re born a boy, you have to act X way. If you’re born a girl, you must act Y way. These specific, detailed gender rules are often the invisible puppet strings controlling people’s social behavior.
Not every guy reacts to these rules in the same way. Some guys really drink the Kool-Aid. Others openly despise or rebel against the rules. Some guys are in the middle. But one thing is always true: in order for a boy to come into his own, he has to come to grips with how these messages exist inside his head and how they influence what he thinks, says, and does.
Let’s go back to my classroom and the boys high-fiving each other after they see the pictures of Batman, Halo, or whatever image I think is most credible to my students at the time. I ask guys if these images represent the way they think guys are supposed to act. Not surprisingly, they don’t think that’s what these images represent—or maybe they do, but only a little bit. Then I ask this question: “Describe a guy who can influence people or has high social status. This is a person everyone knows, and if he has an opinion, everyone listens and agrees. What does he look like, and how does he act?”
I write their responses on the board like this, inside the box:
- Good with girls
- Always relaxed
- Good at “right” sports
- Slacker attitude even if he does well at school
- Good at comebacks
Then I say, “Describe a guy who doesn’t have high social status. This is someone who is likely to be teased, ridiculed, or ignored. What does he look like? How does he act?”
I write their responses around the first set of answers like this, outside the box:
- Sensitive, easily upset
- Acts like a girl
- Bad style
- Shows pain
- Tries too hard
- Rule Follower
- “Flaunting” being gay
- Controlled by girls
In this exercise, called “The Act-Like-a-Man Box” (from now on I’ll abbreviate it to ALMB), I write down all the normally unwritten rules for boys. Even after I’ve written them down, boys can still have a hard time admitting how much control the ALMB has over their lives. Some get upset about the unfairness of it. For example, money can make them angry. Which is exactly the point. It’s not fair, but it’s still true that it’s easier to have more status if you have more money. Then I ask them what they would do in the following situations:
- Four guys are friends. One guy in the group gets teased a lot and hates it, but doesn’t say anything.
- A star athlete wants to quit the team, but feels he can’t.
- A guy won’t tell his friends that he got an A on his science test and that he studies really hard.
- A guy won’t tell his friends that his girlfriend puts him down all the time.
- A guy is really struggling in school, but doesn’t want to admit to anyone how much it bothers him.
Then everyone in the room gets serious, because they see how the box traps them. Doing the ALMB exercise isn’t about the boys figuring out how to increase their social status or where they fit in the Act-Like-a-Man Box. Instead, it’s about understanding how these invisible rules convince them what emotions they’re allowed to have and how to express them. It stops them from asking for help. But its impact is even bigger. It teaches boys to value a person who has more in-the-box characteristics and devalue a person who doesn’t. It’s about understanding that power and privilege are at work when one person believes he has the right to speak for everyone and no one contradicts him. It’s about how people with power abuse it and why they choose the specific weapons they do to humiliate or isolate others. Because, if everyone believes that people with a lot of the in-the-box qualities are better or have more power, then it follows that the people who don’t must have qualities that are inferior and must have less power. This is the foundation of how we all learn the different “isms” that separate us, like sexism, racism, classism, and other types of bigotry against people who are different (i.e., outside our particular cultural box).
Guys in the box (and often their parents as well), like any other group of privileged people, often don’t recognize their privilege. Privilege can make people blind. Many parents have been convinced that they’re raising their son to achieve future success, and are being good parents, if they steer him toward having as many ALMB characteristics as possible.
It never occurs to them that putting their son in the ALMB has costs. Either he’ll feel immense pressure to conform to these expectations and believe that the only way his parents will truly approve of him is if he stays in the box, or he’ll believe his placement in the box makes him better than others (and no, he won’t say that, but his behavior will reveal this belief ). As Brad and Jack describe it here, it doesn’t feel so great if you’re a boy who feels this internal conflict.
What’s weird is that in ninth grade I think we were all trying to be in the box. That’s all we wanted. But by senior year it feels like such a trap and all you want to do is get out. I look at me and my friends who are trying to always keep up with what people expect of us and it’s exhausting. —Brad, 18
In the eighth grade I went to a Catholic boys school where the real religion was homophobia. The toughest guy in school called me gay, and I lost a fight with him about it and was pretty much history for the rest of the year. So I changed schools and stopped doing anything remotely brainy or fruity like writing for the school paper or playing chess and now spend my time playing hockey and acting like Bluto from Animal House. I bet every second guy in every high school acts like me. Maybe it doesn’t excuse it, but I’ll bet nobody really changes either. Besides, college is two years away, I guess I will become that great guy then. In the meantime, my mom, my girl- friend, and my six-year-old sister (and now possibly you) are the only ones who can really know my dark secret. That I’m only a stupid jerk half of the time. —Jack, 16
Remember, every boy is an individual. The boy you know may not care about conforming to what’s inside the box. He may despise it, but he still interacts with people who judge both him and themselves according to its rules. He’s getting a constant stream of messages from the culture about what a real man is like.
One of the clearest lessons the ALMB teaches is that the easiest way to prove your “in-the-boxness” is to demean and dismiss girls and out-of-the-box boys. And we contribute to it. In boys’ daily lives, adults still often motivate them by equating bad performance or weakness with femininity. Without even realizing what we’re doing, we say to boys, “Don’t throw like a girl!” or “You’re screaming like a little girl!” or “Don’t cry! You’re a big boy!” (which implies that girls cry and crying is always bad and weak). Some people excuse these comments by saying, “But it’s true. Most boys throw better than most girls. Little girls scream at a higher pitch. Girls cry more easily than boys.” When people say those things to boys, though, they lead boys to draw a connection between acting incompetently or in a way that people can ridicule and being like a girl.
Obviously, going after boys who are outside the box is usually connected to being called gay. It’s the knee-jerk reaction to condemn and marginalize anyone who is acting outside the narrow range of the ALMB. Of course, rarely do any of these behaviors have any- thing to do with sexual orientation or sexuality. Specifically, the word “fag” is no longer exclusively used as a put-down against boys. I’m regularly accused of being a fag by some boys and young men when I speak out about racism or violence against women. Here are a few recent examples from my Twitter account:
@rosalindwiseman I beg she got raped by a whale cock and the jizz turned her into a fag. Everyone tweet @rosalind wiseman is a fag
@rosaline wiseman F****** fag
This is all happening at a time when official tolerance for homophobia is decreasing in the arenas that often mean the most to boys. In the past year the National Football League and the National Hockey League have both taken official action against homophobia. Pro basketball player Jason Collins has come out as the first active professional athlete from one of the top four team sports, and there’ll be more athletes who come out after him. But homophobia is still the dominant hand in Boy World that compels boys to be silent in the face of cruelty and teaches that they will be punished for speaking out. Just as important, boys feel that they can go after one another in this way either because they see adults use these terms in similar ways or because adults won’t say anything if they hear it (unlike racist put-downs, which boys know they should usually say only among their peers, and which I’ll discuss later).
Continued in Part 3, here.