“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”
A while back, Met’s baseball player Daniel Murphy chose to take parental leave. The resulting debate swamped the internet for days. The overheated discussion see-sawed between angry condemnations of Murphy’s decision to attend the birth of his baby and equally vehement support for his choice. It played out on every major broadcast network and every morning sports page.
Murphy made a decision that is unusual for a professional athlete. And because professional sport is the holy grail of American masculinity, Murphy took a beating for his choice. Mostly this beating has come in the form of newspaper articles quoting outraged fans. Because, well, they’re fans. And fans are supposed to be ignorant hot-headed idiots. That’s why we love them, right?
Sports page editors can smile and say, “Hey, we’re just reporting the news.” Meanwhile, the attack on Murphy’s parental leave choice amplifies. Emboldened by the uproar, nationally known sports commentators mocked Murphy’s choice on sports radio, triggering a second backlash in support of Murphy.
I think the backlash against the backlash surprised some people in the man-centric sports world. To those who support Murphy’s choice, I say thank you.
This high profile policing and ensuing cultural fire fight around one man’s personal decision raises a much bigger question. How much policing of this kind is aimed at men every day? And from how many directions? How many macro and micro aggressions are used every hour to control men? To make them behave like “real men.” Just how bad is it?
I’ll tell you how bad it is. It’s f**king horrible.
And the worse part is, men are so used to adjusting to accommodate this crap we hardly notice we’re doing it. A sideways glance here, a raised eyebrow there, it doesn’t take much to signal when we’re failing to to act like real men. We have to watch what we say, how we speak, how we walk, point, and gesture, what we discuss, how we dress, what we drive, who we date and how we greet, address and express affection for the people in our lives. The wrong color socks can start jokes about our masculinity. Seriously. Socks.
Men in America are subject to an endless list of stringent perimeters from within which we are expected to perform masculinity. All of us, every single person in America, lives with the same set of asinine rules that has come to be called the Man Box. For us men, these rules are diligently policed and enforced by the other men, women and even children in our lives. In our “boys wear blue, girls wear pink world,” children begin enforcing these rules by the time they are in kindergarten. If you’re a man, just wear a pink shirt in front of your first grader and see how quickly you hear about it.
The Man Box specifies a mind numbing array of rules for being a real man including:
- Real men do not talk about their emotions, except for anger
- Real men are bread winners not care givers
- Real men play sports and support sports teams
- Real men are able bodied and physically strong
- Real men are hetero-normative and sexually dominant in and out of the bedroom
- Real men are leaders and have the final word in any discussion
- Real men are never out of work
- Real men are never uncertain or in need of help
Men who chose (or are forced) to reside in the Man Box are the first to talk about freedom and personal liberty. The fact that they are living within the mind numbingly narrow perimeters of the Man Box is so deeply ironic that it boggles the mind.
Men who follow the rules of the Man Box are anything but free. Seriously, bend your wrist the wrong way and you’re labeled as homosexual. Hold your son if he cries on the playground and you’re making him a wimp. And god forbid you publicly or even privately express uncertainty, sorrow or fear. In that moment, you have failed those who depend on you to be unerringly strong, stoic and dependable.
And here’s the dirty little secret of men in the Man Box. Even though they never express it, and may not even be fully aware of it, men who live in the Man Box live in fear. Its all about conforming emotionally and socially because being kicked out of the Man Box is terrifying for them. The abusive policing of men’s behavior even inside the man box is brutal. The pecking order is relentless. The jockeying for position goes on night and day. There is no equality there. You’re either on top or trying to get there. It’s a life long hamster wheel that never stops turning. And yet, it is all some men know. It is their only world.
- Am I earning enough?
- Is my wife beautiful enough?
- Am I competitive enough?
- Am I in good enough shape?
- Is my son tough enough?
- Am I surrounded by men who are doing manhood right?
- Am I enforcing the rules of manhood often enough?
- Will the others reject me if they find out my secrets?
Once you have spent a few years on the Man Box, it becomes the only way you know to live. These men never learn how to express their emotions. They do not know how to engage people who are different. They rely exclusively on the rules of the Man Box and the fear of expulsion it inspires. And that is how the Man Box controls men. By threatening any man who does not conform with expulsion and forcing them to suppress any part of themselves, sexual, social, racial, professional, or otherwise that does not fit the mold of “real manhood.”
Which begs the question. Who is truly tough, brave, courageous? Those who conform inside the Man Box, suppressing their own individuality and punishing others, or those who who reject the Man Box and live with all the personal and professional risk of attack that implies?
I have no problem with any man who chooses to perform masculinity in what is thought of as traditional ways. Any man can make this choice and not be in the Man Box. You are only in the Man Box if you enforce this view of manhood as the only acceptable version. The days of what was once considered to be “typically American” are already passing. America is becoming more diverse. The Man Box is coming apart at the seams. The sooner the better. But it is still a powerful force.
Meanwhile, if you are living in the Man Box, bullying others to be what is supposedly a “real man”, you are not free. Every time you attack another for not behaving the way you think a real man should, you become less free. When you attack gays or nerds or some spindly kid with pimples. When you attack a person who is overweight, or a kid who can’t quite kick a football. When you attack a boy who’s got a strange accent or a man who is homeless. When you attack a person because of the color of his skin or his country of origin. And yes, when you attack a sports figure for wanting to attend his baby’s birth. Every time you do this, you become less free. More trapped. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.
The rigid Man Box agenda is never going to make any man happy or truly at peace. It will only make a few men at the top of this abusive societal pyramid scheme rich. And as we all know, even very rich men can be some pretty miserable bastards. Apparently, its an ugly revelation, finding out that the top of the heap provides little in the way of human connection or emotional security. Just more distrust of why and how human’s interact. Why is this person talking to me? What do they want? What are they after?
Please, choose to be a traditional American man. If that is how you want to perform masculinity, that’s fine. Its one good way to do it. But isn’t it about time we collectively said, “Enough of this crap about what a real man is!” None of us really knows. There are too many ways to be a real man. Too many colors, styles, sizes, sounds and emotions that make up what it means to be a real man.
But I can tell you one thing for sure. The moment you ditch the part of the Man Box that says everyone has to be like you, you free all of us. Men, women and children. Loud, quiet, athletic and bookish, gay and straight, black, brown and white, rich, poor, strong, weak, religious and heathen alike, you free us all.
But the person is who is really set free when you break out of the Man Box? You free yourself.
Photo: Steve Gibson
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