A Working Definition for Schools Regarding Masculin(ities)
All boys’ high schools, which I have worked for as a teacher, administrator and consultant, are simple to understand and, at the same time, can be quite disturbing environments. The conversations that you hear in their hallways are often narrow and predictable. There is plenty of sports talk, athletic status seeking, exaggerations regarding success (today, more than ever, they all seem to have up and running, full blown businesses), and plenty (still) homophobic slurs and misogynistic references thrown into the daily use of language. Loud noises and hollering in the hallways are repeated means of announcing presence and garnering attention. Pushing and shoving are ways of eliciting needed physical contact or creating space because of body discomfort. The other forms of physical interplay, including rough housing, slapping hands, bumping chests, and man-hugs (which include lots of slaps on the back and a refraining from real body closeness), reflect a whole range of emotional sensations and feelings which young men have but do not possess the spoken language to express. This deficit stems from a process of male acculturation which signals that to use such language challenges strict masculine taboos regarding acting “like a girl”. (For more on this subject, please see Act Like a Man: Shifting Perspectives on Gender and the Art of Growing Up)
Many boys do care about their performance in school, but they make it sound like they are playing a video game or even going to war.
“I killed that test.”
“I’m going to make him (the teacher) give me an A or I’m going ballistic.”
“My GPA just gamed up two levels.”
The other forms of physical interplay, including rough housing, slapping hands, bumping chests, and man-hugs (which include lots of slaps on the back and a refraining from real body closeness), reflect a whole range of emotional sensations and feelings which young men have but do not possess the spoken language to express.
What also becomes problematic is that in the biosphere of these all male environments, soft skills, the ability to approach an adult and ask a question or raise a concern, the routines of politeness, navigating space (opening doors for others, walking in and out of spaces...etc.) actually become eroded. When you meet some of these boys outside of the school environment, particularly if they are alone, they fall back into much more polite respectful behavior. Gag humor and joking around lose appropriate boundaries, leading to disrespect and arrogance centered on who can be the biggest smartass.
The basic struggle is one of culture and in the case of boys, the actual absence of a culture. With girls, both in all girls’ schools and in integrated environments, we have spent a Herculean amount of effort and time over the past 60 years reframing the female conversation away from 2nd class status, away from undeserving, away from servile, away from invisible. And, this work has paid dividends. Female students are excelling in school, have access to much more of the entire curriculum and they see themselves much more capable of achieving at the highest levels. While work can still be accomplished regarding teaching girls and young females to assert themselves and make demands on the system, it is a drastically different picture today. However, not much work has been done to support boys through the process of growing up and allowing them to become their best selves.
For boys...what has been the message? What has been the conversation? It has mainly been something about nothing. Be polite. Be respectful. Be aware of boundaries. But what about being a man? What does it mean? In the absence of the conversation, in a void created by not thinking through this aspect of the ecosystem called school, we are left with the following terms of engagement:
A masculinity based on what is NOT feminine which is basically definition by negation. Men are left with an ever narrowing construct which rejects emotional expressions and also violently rejects boys who appear feminine, leading to homophobic and gender rigid responses and reactions.
A masculinity of the body and physicality. Sports, athleticism, hugeness, strength and force.
Verbal and intellectual acumen as a weapon meant to injure and harm rather than as a tool to heal, repair, and create.
Financial prowess as machismo. Making money, by any means necessary, establishes male cred.
Anti-intellectualism and anti-artistic sensibilities, particularly in American culture. (Rappers seem to get a big pass here, but mainly because their art form is often affirming of highly misogynistic values.) Men who develop great minds, more and more, are not necessarily seen as men.
For boys...what has been the message? What has been the conversation? It has mainly been something about nothing.
As schools step away or back away from inserting themselves into this conversation, they allow a default masculinity to develop, one which is fractured, fragile and without much of a future. It actually aids young boys and men getting stuck in unsupportive and insecure circumstances, alone and isolated inside of their own feelings without the courage to ask for help or admit to their own vulnerabilities. They learn to develop hard outer cores to protect that which they fear and do not fully understand. Even young girls are encouraged to take on aspects of male identity (athleticism) and incorporate it into a more complex understanding of their feminine selves. Boys are persuaded to see anything feminine as a threat, like a virus that needs to be eradicated. At the time, it was just easier to jump into the very real struggle for gender equity for females without taking into account the way men are socialized as a critical part of the equation as well. We are now paying a huge price for that approach.
Boys are persuaded to see anything feminine as a threat, like a virus that needs to be eradicated.
What if we were able to work with our boys on a very different set of principles, a very different set of assumptions that would make them feel not only less conflicted, but even valued for their male identities? In working with teachers on thinking through this question, I have come up with a non-comprehensive list of attributes that we may want to talk to our male students about, as early as possible.
Physicality To Serve and to Serve a Purpose: Your physical self is a means to solving problems and to support others. (A great example is reframing students participating in sports as builders of community experiences, not just as individual achievement).
Hard Work, Effort, and What you Earn is What You Get. (Stop telling boys they have naturally inherited abilities just because they are male).
Future Caregivers (Fathers, Spouses, and Adult Children).
Creators and Builders.
Advocates (Seekers of Justice and Upstanders).
Modeling Emotions (Celebration and Loss).
And finally, there is no such thing as a single masculinity. There are many (masculinities) perfectly fine, healthy, and legitimate ways to define your maleness and therefore your humanity.
What is clearly ironic about what you see in all boys' schools, but really in all schools more or less, is how fraile and dangerously tenuous definitions of masculinity truly are. What boys and young men are left with is a cultural definition of themselves which is about negating entire parts of who they are, what they feel, and what they experience.
Schools can play a critical role in opening up our boys to an entire range of possibilities about who they are capable of becoming, and how to feel positive about their contributions to our communities. The blossoming of a flower is the first metaphor I think of when I think about healthy masculinities, as unmanly as that sounds.