In her deeply necessary book about helping boys grow into happy, healthy, productive, and honorable men, Masterminds and Wingmen, Rosalind Wiseman notes that despite the fantastic work that a slew of experts are doing on boys’ issues, “…the reality is that the impact of Boy World and boys’ social dynamics on boys’ emotional well-being has been left out of the national conversation.”
Why is that?
The answer is within a national version of what Ms. Wiseman terms the “Act Like a Man Box,” or ALMB. When asking boys what it takes to achieve high social status—to be the kind of boy who influences others—Ms. Wiseman creates a box, and writes the boys’ responses within it. Most of us could probably come up with the adjectives in this box if asked to describe a “real man” off the top of our heads—he’s funny, strong, good with girls. He’s got money, and he’s handsome—tall, cut, and confident. He’s detached, and he’s tough. Most of us could also probably come up with the words that the boys use for those who don’t fit the masculine ideal—the words Ms. Wiseman writes outside of the box. This guy is sensitive, easily upset, and weak. He’s poor, overweight, and awkward. He follows the rules, and he’s controlled by girls. Or he’s gay and he flaunts it.
The influence of the ALMB on boys’ lives is massive, and it often makes them feel trapped—as Ms. Wiseman puts it, “It stops them from asking for help.” Boys get the message early and they get it often: boys will be boys, but men must be men. Any of the things boys might feel or need that would require them to not “act like a man” aren’t OK to acknowledge, much less deal with. This approach to becoming a man leaves boys struggling with emotions such as depression, anger, and unrequited love with no guidance or help, even though parents often ask about boys’ problems. As a result, boys are struggling—Ms. Wiseman sites statistics that show a much higher suicide rate among males aged 15 to 19 than among their female peers. Boys and young men are also struggling in school: the rate at which men are receiving college degrees has dropped dramatically over the last forty years.
The First Rule of Fight Club
Boys are suffering because of our cultural definition of masculinity, but we aren’t talking about it as a nation. Instead, as Chuck Palahniuk famously put it, we’re following the first rule of fight club: don’t talk about fight club. In other words, if you have a problem with what it means to act like a man, act like a man and don’t talk about it. We are caught in a dilemma of our own making, and it is hurting our boys, both individually and collectively. It is also hurting our girls: one of the core components of maintaining the ALMB is to demean and degrade girls and women, as well as homosexual boys and men.
We find advice about the necessity of following the ALMB—and keeping a lid on how we feel about it—everywhere in our media. This advice is often given within conversations about how feminists aren’t recognizing the harm men are suffering, or the benefits women have already achieved at the expense of men. In these conversations, we read about the high rate of male suicide or the poor academic performance of boys and young men, and the cultural conclusion is clear: female advancement has resulted in male decline. Our half-changed world is hurting men, so women better appreciate what they’ve got and then get on with the business of figuring out how to help men feel like men again—especially if those women are young, and would like to get married. Suzanne Venker made this argument in her Fox News article “The War on Men,” and Camille Paglia has made similar arguments in a recent article for Time.
The argument that men are being harmed by female empowerment—or have been harmed by feminism and feminists—is one of the greatest obstructions to helping boys and men that we currently face. This argument enforces and reinforces the ALMB with statements about the “natural” roles of each sex: the male “need” to provide and the female “need” to depend. As Paglia puts it, if we ever go into survivalist mode as a culture, “…most women and children will be expecting men to scrounge for food and water and defend the home turf.” This idea crops up a good deal in the media, as it did in the conversation among Megyn Kelly, Lou Dobbs, and Erick Erickson about working mothers back in June of 2013: men are “hardwired” to fit the masculine norm, and if our society prevents them from acting like “real men,” we are truly doomed. These arguments don’t hold up in the light of human behavior and accomplishment—either in the past or the present—but they aren’t really supposed to. In a variety of ways, both conscious and unconscious, arguments that claim the ALMB and its infrastructure are both natural and a necessity work to keep us from changing our ingrained ideas about men and masculinity, and thus changing our society.
Wiseman’s work—along with that of the experts she cites (such as Jackson Katz and Michael Kimmel) proves that change is what our boys need. Boys, like girls—and men, like women—are full human beings, capable of a wide range of emotions, and with emotional needs that our society is not meeting, to our collective detriment. Rigidly defining masculinity as a narrow set of characteristics that leave no room for human emotion is hurting boys. Feminism and female empowerment have nothing to do with that harm. On the contrary, feminism is full of conversations that would provide boys with what Ms. Wiseman wants to give them: “…a strategic methodology to rebel against the ALMB so they can come into their own as authentic, strong, and emotionally engaged men.”
Using Feminism to Talk About Fight Club
We must do on a national level what Ms. Wiseman is asking parents to do on a personal level—convince boys that “…pulling back the curtain on Boy World isn’t a waste of time and won’t make their lives worse.” And it’s not just boys we need to convince: it’s ourselves, men and women alike. To do that, we need feminists and their allies. We need feminist terminology, and we need feminist history. Feminist conversations will help us to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being male, having emotions, and talking about or dealing with those emotions. And there’s no need for a boy to verbally or physically abuse someone (or stand by while others do) to prove his manhood. Letting go of this limiting and painful version of masculinity is healthy—it allows people to be who they truly are, which helps us not only survive, but thrive.
Whenever I make the argument that feminism can address male issues, I get raised eyebrows in response. That’s because the major impediment to most women calling themselves feminists is that mainstream culture associates feminism with misandry—man-hating. The idea that feminists are actively working to make boys’ and men’s lives better seems counterintuitive. And yet it is feminists and their allies who are doing the work to help boys and men deal with the ALMB. It is feminists and their allies who make films like Jackson Katz’s Tough Guise and Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s The Mask You Live In, examining the ways in which our cultural view of masculinity (and the glorification of violence at its core) harms us all—boys, girls, men, and women. And it is feminist concepts that Ms. Wiseman is discussing in her book about boys.
That conversation we need to have—the one where we break the first rule of fight club—is waiting in the national wings. It’s time to pull back the curtain and give the experts on masculinity center stage. Ms. Wiseman has done us a great service by starting this conversation. As a mother of both a son and a daughter, I sincerely hope we are ready to join her in it.