The messages that we deliver to boys about what it means to be a man can have a powerful impact on who they become
I recently watched a fascinating documentary on Netflix titled ‘The Mask You Live In’ about the American masculine ideal and the consequences of teaching boys not to value emotions, sensitivity, connection, caring, and empathy.
Although the data that is presented throughout the documentary is related to American males, the messages that they refer to at the beginning of the film are all things that I remember hearing growing up in Australia:
- “Man up!”
- “Be a man!”
- “Don’t be a mamma’s boy!”
- “Stop being weak.”
- “You’ve got to be tough!”
- “You’ve got to be strong!”
- “Stop crying!”
- “Boys don’t cry!”
- “Don’t be a pussy!”
- “Grow some balls!”
- “Don’t let anybody disrespect you!”
The constraints of idealising hyper masculinity
“Our boys are born with empathy just as our girls are, and yet we socialize that sensitivity, emotion, and empathy out of them.” – Jennifer Siebel Newsom
In ‘The Mask You Live In’, they explain that there are typically more similarities between boys and girls than there are differences. Yes, more males fall on the masculine end of the masculine-feminine spectrum, and more females fall on the feminine end. However, there is approximately a 90% overlap between the two populations if you assess 50,000 boys and 50,000 girls, with results being normally distributed for both males and females. Given this, there is actually a large percentage of children who identify as girls that are more masculine than some boys, and a similarly large percentage of children who identify as boys that are more feminine than some girls. Yet if you looked in toy stores, or on the TV, or even in playgrounds or school yards you’d never realise this.
Males and females do begin with small biological differences at birth, due to having an XX or an XY chromosome, and these biological differences do widen further once children reach puberty. Even so, the gender roles that we now perceive to be normal are still much more socially created rather than biologically predetermined. Thanks to the media, the entertainment industry and marketing, we are now seeing hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity as the ideal.
If you don’t believe me, pay attention to the first answer that pops into your head when you read these questions:
- What are girls favourite colours?
- What are boys favourite colours?
- What toys do girls play with?
- What toys do boys play with?
If you instinctively thought 1. pink and purple, 2. blue and red, 3. dolls, make-up and ponies, and 4. cars, balls, and action figures then you have proved my point. Most children do not fit into these categories naturally but are instead socialised into these roles as they grow and are encouraged to do so based on what their parents and the TV says, or what their peers do.
If boys are generally 90% similar to girls, and yet socialised to disavow anything that even resembles femininity, how whole or authentic can they indeed grow up to be? Of course, we all want our children to succeed in life, but can this even be done without feeling pain, vulnerability, sadness, and fear, or knowing how to efficiently deal with these emotions when they arise? Surely it has to be damaging to continue to encourage boys to switch off from themselves at such a young age and to externalise their emotional pain by lashing out at others if they feel vulnerable, insecure, disrespected, or under threat…
The consequences of idealising hyper-masculinity
Based on the research presented in ‘The Mask You Live In’, the consequences are:
- 1-in-4 boys report being bullied at school.
- Only 30% of boys that are bullied notify adults, because it is also considered “weak” to get help or tell on someone else.
2. Drinking and Drugs:
- By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
- 1-in-4 boys binge drink (have five or more drinks in one sitting)
- The average boy tries drugs at age 13
- Both drinking and drugs are often used to treat loneliness
- Also the only time where they can often be emotional, connect with their friends, and tell their friends how much they love them.
9.3% of Australian males between the ages of 16 and 54 are likely to meet criteria for substance use disorder in the past 12 months, with 1-in-3 (35.4%) expected to experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime. The highest rate of substance abuse is found in males under 24 years of age (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).
- Every day, 3 or more boys in the U.S. commit suicide
- For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
- For 10-14 year olds, the suicide rate for males is 3 times that of females
- By 15-19 years of age, the suicide rate for males increases to 5 times that of females
Five out of the nearly 7 people that die of suicide in Australia each day are males, which equated to 1,885 male deaths by suicide in 2013. For the 15-19 age group, 34.8% of all male deaths are a result of suicide, with each suicide likely to profoundly impact at least another six people for the rest of their lives (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; 2015).
4. Mental Health
- Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health difficulties seek help
- Boys are 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD
5.3% of Australian males over 15 are likely to have experienced depression to a clinically significant severity in the past 12 months, with 1-in-8 expected to experience a mood disorder in their lifetime. For anxiety, 10.8% of Australian males are likely to have experienced it to a clinically significant amount in the past 12 months, with 1-in-5 expected to experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).
5. Academic Performance
- Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
- Boys are less likely to go to College
- Boys are 2 times more likely to be in special education
- Boys are 2 times more likely to be suspended and 4 times more likely to be expelled
- Every 9 seconds, a woman is beaten or assaulted in the U.S.
- 1-in-6 boys is sexually abused.
- Every hour, more than 3 people are killed by a gun.
- That’s over 30,000 lives annually.
- 90% of homocide perpetrators are male.
- Almost 50% are under 25 years of age.
- Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks.
- 94% of mass homicides are committed by males.
- The youngest mass shooter was 11.
- The rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2011.
- There has been almost one school shooting per week since the Sandy Hook Massacre.
Girl’s in the US have just as much access to guns, so why are nearly all mass shootings being committed by males?
The documentary suggests that it is because men are taught to externalise their emotional pain. If a girl feels sad or scared, they are usually trained to look within to identify what it is, put a label to it, and express how they feel to someone else (without acting on it). They then decide what (if anything) needs to be done to feel better in time. But if a boy feels sad or scared, it is either dismissed or criticised, and the boy is left on their own to deal with these overwhelming sensations that they cannot even put a name to. Most boys are not taught to be introspective, to tune into to what they feel, or to be self-aware. They are trained to bottle it up or deny what they feel or distract themselves by keeping busy. The one emotion that often isn’t discouraged in boys, especially when you look at the media, is anger and violence. So in time boys begin to learn that if they feel bad, it must be the fault or someone else who was disrespecting them. In a world void of communicating how they feel, the easy way for boys to get this respect and to be heard is through violence.
Research by John Gottman in his 2002 book ‘The Relationship Cure’ supports an emotion-coaching (“I understand. Let me help you!“) environment as being the best for helping boys to develop more prosperous and more connected relationships when they are older. An emotion-coaching environment can also encourage boys to turn towards adults more frequently because they learn how helpful guidance from empathically attuned adults can be when they are trying to cope with overwhelming feelings.
We need to create an environment where:
- it is okay for boys to feel scared or sad or embarrassed or vulnerable or ashamed
- it is okay for boys to share or express how they feel without having to act it out
- boys are encouraged to learn and identify what is going on for them internally and to develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence
- boys are encouraged to seek help and support if they are struggling, whether this is from their peers, family, teachers, coaches, mentors or a psychologist or counsellor
- we try to understand what boys are going through emotionally instead of dismissing their feelings (“You’ll get over it!“) or disapproving them (“Don’t feel that way!“), and
- it is not seen as a sign of weakness to be emotional or seek help when things are challenging, as this can actually help boys to develop greater long-term resiliency.
As they say at the end of ‘The Mask You Live In’:
Everyone deserves to feel whole, and each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.
Take the challenge. Exert your influence. We all have a role to play in creating a healthier culture.
If you are a male and are wanting to understand your emotions better, change your behaviours, or just feel whole, an appointment with a psychologist could help.
Dr Damon Ashworth