How men define manhood can mean the difference between a good life or a lonely death.
A battle is being fought for the right to define what modern manhood is. People are being killed. And let’s not be squeamish about saying why things often turn violent. Some men and women who would enforce what is called “traditional manhood” are attacking those courageous souls who refuse to conform.
People are being beaten and sometimes even murdered for not doing manhood “right”. Those who assault these boys and men do it in the name of tradition, religion, patriotism, community, and god help us all, they do it in the name of their children.
Men like myself can consider ourselves comparatively lucky. Gay and transgender people daily risk being murdered for daring to live outside the narrow rules of traditional American manhood. However far removed straight or cis men may think we are from their experience of manhood, the battle for equality that gay and transgender people are fighting is creating breathing space for all of us; a space in which our smaller choices for difference might someday simply go unnoticed and unpunished. For this reason, we owe a clear and unequivocal debt to those on the front lines of change.
So at the outset here, it is important to say that while I have fought many battles to become who I am, I have never had to fight for my life on some dark street simply because of how I love. But gay or straight, white or black, rich or poor, every single American man feels the looming threat of what will happen if we don’t do manhood “right.” And we feel it every single day of our lives.
Welcome to the Man Box
Enforcing traditional manhood as the only acceptable path for men is called living in the Man Box. Charlie Glickman does a great job of explaining the Man Box here.
The rules of the Man Box go something like this:
1) Real men don’t show their emotions (Anger, yes, but little else.)
2) Real men are always confident. They make all the decisions.
3) Real men are providers not care givers.
4) Real men are heterosexual and sexually dominant.
5) Real men continuously talk and play sports.
6) Real men are never handicapped, disabled or unemployed.
And so on. Whatever else they are, “real men” never do anything that might appear as feminine. And that’s the biggest tragedy of all. Because the emotional capacities we typically label as feminine are capacities that every man is born with. The choice not to develop them is the choice not to live a fully engaged life.
This subjugation of the feminine by remaining emotionally tough or isolated is the basic underlying principle of the Man Box. It has created a culture of male anger, frustration and selfishness. It is at the heart of our raging binary debates. It crowds our prisons and it populates our AA meetings. It leaves us feeling alone even in the midst of our families and our marriages. It has unplugged us from being human.
The battle to define manhood is taking place between those who live in the Man Box and those of us intent on making manhood a much wider-ranging and diverse experience. This kind of collision takes place every single time the status quo is challenged. Power does not give up power willingly. And make no mistake about it, billions of dollars are riding on how we define manhood.
Here’s one simple example: if “real men” are always warriors, then “real men” always go to war. You need look no further than the multi-billion dollar budget of the Pentagon to see how our cultural ideas about manhood directly impact the flow of wealth and political power in American.
Remember: We live the stories we tell. And so do our sons and daughters.
The Truth at the Heart of Manhood
If we want our freedom from the oppressive rules of the Man Box, we need to take away its control over how we define manhood. We need to create a world where being a man can mean being anything. Any work. Any play. Any love. Any life. And just to be clear, the options we’ll need to topple the Man Box will have to be so wide-ranging that being a man can even look just like being a women. And I don’t mean doing the dishes instead of mowing the lawn, I mean a man with a woman’s body.
And before some of you go CRAZY in the comments section saying that I want to turn our sons into girls, think for a moment. This is about creating such a vast range of options for being a man that no one ever again gets to say to any man among us, “you’re doing manhood wrong.” Nobody. This is about a world of boys and men who make their OWN choices based on what comes naturally to them. If America is truly about freedom then this is how free people live.
But there’s a much more fundamental reason why I say our definition of manhood should be vastly more wide ranging.
Because this is what manhood already is. This is the fundamental truth at the very heart of manhood. Men are already everything you can possibly imagine, across any spectrum you can name, gender, race, sexuality, politics, spirituality, or society.
Some people just refuse to see it. Or they hate it. But it doesn’t matter. Man are already everything. When we finally accept a completely diverse view of manhood, when even the most far ranging possibilities are viewed as perfectly normal, we will finally have peace. Until then, we will have judgement, rage, violence, oppression and murder.
The Genie is Out of the Bottle
Often, I hear from self-described traditionalist men bemoaning the loss of the good old days. “When men were men and women were women. When everybody knew their role in the scheme of things.”
We may once have lived in a conformist world, but the vast diversity of the world can no longer be hidden. The internet, mass media and art, along with decades of fierce civil and human rights struggles have shown us just how big, beautiful and varied a world this is. When millions of us look into the kaleidoscope of cultural, racial, sexual and gender difference our world is presenting us, we see the different-ness in ourselves reflected back; whole new versions of who we might become, colorful and rich and tantalizingly real.
The genie is out of the bottle. The cat is out of the bag. We can never go back to a mass culture of conformity. None of us. So, stop crying about the loss of the good old days. They’re gone. And be glad they are, because underneath the deadening blanket of conformity lurks explosive violence, bigotry, racism, sexism and a damaging model of manhood that is, in fact, a killer for men.
The Epidemic of Chronic Male Loneliness
As Good Men Project CEO Lisa Hickey said recently in an online discussion, “The Man Box isn’t serving any man well, even the men who are most committed to it.”
Why? Many many reasons. But here’s a doozy. The Man Box, which demands men model being emotionally tough, isolates and ultimately kills the very men who advocate for it.
Think I’m overstating the case? Ask yourself one simple question: why do men typically live shorter lives than women?
One of the central tenants of the Man Box is the subjugation of women, and by extension, the devaluing of all things deemed feminine. Since we Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait, we suppress it in our boys, demanding that they “man up” and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence, even isolation, as proof they are real men. Behind the drumbeat message that real men are stoic and detached, is the brutal fist of homophobia, ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotions.
Read about how we train boys out of emotional connection in Dr. Noibe Way’s ground breaking book Deep Secrets. What is the result for boys raised in this way? It is a lifetime of emotional isolation.
Recent studies show that Americans are more isolated and lonely then ever before.
In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. Just a decade before, only one out of five of us said that. And men are facing the brunt of this epidemic of loneliness. Research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men, age 50 and over, rose by nearly 50%. The New York Times reports that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”
In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
Men who never learn to connect emotionally are condemned to face lives of isolation (even while married and raising a family) and the damaging health effects this creates. To learn more, read How an Epidemic of Loneliness is Killing the Men We Love.
As men, we must grant ourselves permission to be emotionally vibrant human beings; we must liberate ourselves to live in a much wider range of ways. But when I talk about this liberation of men, self-described traditionalists raise objections. “You are telling us we have to change,” they say. “This new view of manhood is being forced on us.”
No, it is not.
I am a man who has lived for decades under threat of punishment from the Man Box. What has been forced on me is traditional manhood which, for me, is a bad fit and a bad way to live.
I seek to redesign manhood for myself, by virtue of the most basic and natural of human aspirations, the freedom to be who I am. I do not seek to change traditional men. They have the right to choose for themselves their way of life. But not for me. I seek to make room in the world for who I actually am.
Being a traditional man or woman has its own intrinsic poetry and strength. But when people think they must shame and bully others to conform to their way of being, they have lost sight of what is right. Whether that shaming and bullying arises from the church pulpit, the halls of Congress, the locker room or the local bar, its fundamentally evil. It is a sign of moral weakness; a brittle and ugly flaw in our national psyche. It is a fearful need to control others and it is a catastrophic waste of our true potential as human beings. And for the record, it is fundamentally un-American.
And so, for our young sons, for all the boys coming along who are beautiful and varied and different. For the women (and men) who deserve a wider range of partners from which to seek loving companionship. For the rich emotional connection and vulnerability we are all capable of as human beings. For joyous diversity. For peaceful co-existence. For the celebration of what it means to be truly human we will fight for the right for men and boys to live the lives they choose.
The Man Box doesn’t know it yet, but it’s done. Dead. We will never again be cowed by bullies, we will never again back down.
To destroy the Man Box, once and for all: THIS is why we fight.
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