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 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, do not 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 differences. For example, more males fall on the masculine end of the masculine-feminine spectrum, and more females are feminine. However, there is approximately a 90% overlap between the two populations if you assess 50,000 boys and 50,000 girls, with a normal distribution for males and females. Given this, a large percentage of children 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 schoolyards, you’d never realise this.
Males and females begin with minor biological differences at birth due to having an XX or an XY chromosome. These differences do widen further once children reach puberty. The gender roles that we now perceive to be normal are still much more socially created than biologically predetermined. Thanks to the media, the entertainment industry and marketing, we now see 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. Instead, they are socialised into these roles as they grow and are encouraged by their parents, TV, or peers.
If boys are generally 90% similar to girls and yet socialised to disavow anything that 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 of knowing how to deal with these emotions when they arise efficiently? Indeed it has to be damaging to continue encouraging 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 effects are:
- 1-in-4 boys are bullied at school.
- Only 30% of bullied boys notify adults because it is considered “weak” to get help or tell someone else.
2. Drinking and Drugs:
- By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking.
- 1-in-4 boys binge drink.
- The average boy tries drugs at age 13.
- Boys often use drinking and drugs to treat loneliness.
- Also, under the influence is often the only time they can be emotional and connect with their friends and tell them how much they love them.
9.3% of Australian males aged 16 to 54 meet the criteria for substance use disorder in the past 12 months. One-in-three (35.4%) males experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime. The highest rate of substance abuse is in males under 24 years of age (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).
- Every day, three 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 three times that of females.
- By 15–19 years of age, the suicide rate for males increases to five times that of females.
Five out of the nearly seven people who die of suicide in Australia each day are males, equating to 1,885 male deaths by suicide in 2013. For the 15–19 age group, 34.8% of all male deaths are from 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 three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
5.3% of Australian males over 15 experienced depression in the past 12 months. One in eight males experiences 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 one in five experiencing 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 two times more likely to be in special education.
- Boys are two times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be expelled.
- Every nine seconds, a woman is beaten or assaulted in the U.S.
- One-in-six boys suffer abuse sexually.
- A gun kills more than three people every hour.
- That’s over 30,000 lives annually.
- 90% of homicide perpetrators are male.
- Almost 50% are under 25 years of age.
- Mass homicides (where four or more people die) occur on average every two weeks.
- Males commit 94% of mass homicides.
- 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 the same access to guns, so why are males committing nearly all mass shootings?
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. A boy’s sadness or fear is either dismissed or criticised. The boy is then left on their own to deal with these overwhelming sensations that they struggle to name. Most boys are not taught to be introspective, tune into what they feel, or be self-aware. They are trained to bottle it up, deny what they feel, or distract themselves by keeping busy. The one emotion that often isn’t discouraged in boys, especially in the media, is anger and violence. So in time, boys begin to learn that if they feel inadequate, it must be the fault of 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 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 best for assisting boys. It helps them 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 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 of 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 help boys develop 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 want to understand your emotions better, change your behaviours, or feel whole, an appointment with a psychologist could help.
Dr Damon Ashworth