MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 05-May-16 15:56:05

Guest post: "The pressure for boys to 'man up' harms both sexes"

We need to challenge stereotypes of male masculinity, says Rebecca Asher

Rebecca Asher

Author, Man Up

Posted on: Thu 05-May-16 15:56:05

(45 comments )

Lead photo

"It is assumed that boys will be more interested in tearing around rather than talking, making noise rather than nurturing."

Pink. Princesses. Patriarchy. As soon as I found out that I was expecting a girl, I worried about what life would have in store for her. But I don't recall any equivalent concern when I had my son three years earlier. Eight years down the line and it turns out that I do worry about what life holds for him.

"Boys do all right, they don't even need to be clever," a female friend once remarked to me. I am a proud feminist and readily agree that, generally, men do better than women when it comes to cash, careers and clout. But this ignores the pressure to 'act like a man' that boys and men face, to their detriment – and the detriment of girls and women.

It is assumed that boys will be more interested in tearing around rather than talking, making noise rather than nurturing, and competing rather than co-operating. Too often, they are seen as a 'problem'.

These sexist expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Boys are three times more likely to be excluded from school than girls and four times more likely to suffer from behavioural difficulties. Later in life, 95% of prisoners are men, as are 75% of suicides. Even problems such as eating disorders that in the past have been almost exclusively associated with girls are increasingly affecting boys too. Hollywood blockbusters and reality television promote a male physical ideal that is as unhealthy as the long-standing female equivalent. Often, girls bear the brunt of boys' fixation with power and domination. Sexual harassment in schools is an everyday occurrence: the problem is so severe that the Commons' Women and Equalities Committee has launched an inquiry.

Boys are seen as a 'problem'. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boys are three times more likely to be excluded from school than girls and four times more likely to suffer from behavioural difficulties. Later in life, 95% of prisoners are men.


As a parent, it's possible to feel helpless in the face of all this disturbing information. But in writing my book, Man Up, I came across inspiring mothers, fathers and others who are challenging male stereotypes, from local projects to national campaigns. Josh Lee set up Bristol Dads, to open up support networks for fathers like himself, and promote the role of dads as carers. As he explained to me, the smallest interactions with our children can make a difference: "If I push a buggy and change nappies then why shouldn't a little boy play at doing the same thing? What I'd like to see is positive action, like men playing with dolls with their sons." Parent campaigners such as Ros and James from @GenderDiary and the group Let Toys Be Toys are making canny use of consumer power and social media to hold to account those peddling sexist assumptions about both girls and boys.

Ros is nonetheless aware that we can't hold back the sexist tide from our children forever, particularly as their social circles open up at school. I found the observations of Judy Chu, a human biologist at Stanford University, particularly helpful here. Chu carried out a study of a group of boys as they progressed through the early years of school and found that they adapted their behaviour and attitudes to fit the dominant view of what boys should be. What's important, says Chu, is that: "At times when they are reluctant to speak up, they can still preserve their integrity by remaining aware of what they really think, feel or want … That said, we can also help kids to identify and focus their efforts on relationships in which they wouldn't have to chose between being themselves and being with others."

Of course, it's not just parents who can play a part in supporting boys. Most people, in one way or another, come into contact with boys. Everyone can help liberate boys from limiting social expectations, whether by encouraging them to talk about how they feel or refraining from making assumptions about their interests. This won't just make for happier boys, it will benefit others too. As Amy, a mother of sons, remarked to me, "My boys will be adults one day; they may have children of their own. I want them to feel free to live their lives as they would wish and to have the same respect for women as they do for men. I believe that the values we are instilling in them will make a difference."

Rebecca Asher is the author of MAN UP: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules, priced £14.99 out on 5 May.

By Rebecca Asher

Twitter: @BeccyAsher

RiverTam Thu 05-May-16 17:04:32

Very interesting. There is a massive problem with manhood in 2016, it seems to still be stuck in the dark ages at times. Gender stereotypes are so damaging for both boys and girls.

MephistophelesApprentice Thu 05-May-16 19:47:07

Ah, yes, correcting boys by making them more like girls.

Making one sex's innate traits the base measure of normality was toxic under patriarchy and will be no better with the polarity reversed. Better to find ways to empathise with and prosocially channel the drives of those who grow up with testosterone, rather than see ’masculinity' as something that needs to be cured.

powershowerforanhour Thu 05-May-16 22:11:47

Hang on, nobody said masculinity needs cured! Just expanded to include more choices. Nobody is forcing boys into pink princess dresses. Nobody has forced my tractor driving, chainsaw wielding, rugby fan husband to change his little daughter's nappy, burp her after a feed and push her around in the pram showing her off to all the neighbours- he does it because he loves her and likes spending time with her. His bollocks aren't going to fall off and his firearms licence isn't going to get confiscated just because he turns out to be very good at settling her when she's crying.

Biffsboys Thu 05-May-16 22:25:36

Your husband is a father behaving like a good father should - not because he was taught to push a pram when he was a child ? I have no issues whatsoever with boys playing with stereotypical girls toys but it shouldn't be forced on them either ?

TwoLeftSocks Thu 05-May-16 22:29:55

Quite an interesting and moving programme with Grayson Perry at the moment about macho men.

DioneTheDiabolist Thu 05-May-16 22:30:29

Co-operation, nurturing and talking about feelings are not "innate" to any sex. Encouraging boys to display and develop these traits is certainly not "toxic".hmm

almondpudding Thu 05-May-16 23:33:40

Suicide, criminality and being labelled as having 'behavioural issues' are all serious issues. I'm not sure how much of that has got to do with how boys are raised, how much of it is to do with the way the traditional roles of men have changed and how much of that has very much to do with men being carers of children.

Men have traditionally been held responsible for a. holding down a job and b. income. These things are often very important to men. These have been made significantly worse by a. weakening workers' rights, b. massive personal,debt caused by deregulation of money lending and c. the housing crisis. Rather than blame masculinity, or femininity, shouldn't we resolve those issues? It's rather the same thing with SAHMs and women working part time. We could get just as many men to be SAHPs or part time workers to even up the misery, or we could just stop treating SAHPs and part time workers like utter crap.

So I'm not claiming to be an expert on male suicide, but I'm not convinced it is mostly about masculinity itself being flawed, but about the way people who do masculine things are treated. Although there are problems with certain kinds of extreme masculinity.

As for prison, the vast majority of men have very little chance of going to prison. It is very poor and marginalised men, particularly care leavers. So that requires looking at the most marginalised parts of society and what is happening with men there.

I think any attempt to increase men's expectations that the route to happiness and participation in society is through fatherhood is probably just going to exacerbate the problem. Society is changing - increasing numbers of women don't want kids or have them through non nuclear situations such as sperm donor or with men who have kids with multiple women. That means very many men are never going to have kids. We need to find ways of organising society in ways that allow people to support each other and build relationships and communities in ways that are not all about either romantic relationships or the raising of kids. Ultimately men do not have a uterus; they don't get the same freedom to choose to start a family that many women in the UK do.

I want my son to be confident and be able to build good relationships with other people and value all sorts of relationships. I don't want him to put fatherhood on a pedestal. My advice to him, as to my daughter, is to really value and work at building and maintaining relationships. And yes, they did all that playing with a dolls' house stuff, but building good relationships that are not all about either work or romance (both easy to lose) are hugely protective against low self esteem, bullying, loneliness, isolation, suicide and despair.

MrSnow Fri 06-May-16 10:13:59

I see the "War on Men" is gathering pace.

A totalitarian society can only survive if the male population has been gelded, emasculated and disenfranchised

beccyasher Fri 06-May-16 10:25:45

Hello

Thank you for reading the piece and for your comments.

RiverTam - I completely agree that stereotypes are damaging for boys and girls (and that you have to tackle both to really bring about change).

MephistophelesApprentice - DioneTheDiabolist's response to your point is spot on!

AlmondPudding - "Rather than blame masculinity, or femininity, shouldn't we resolve those [economic/employment] issues?" I don't think it's an either/or. I agree the economic and employment issues you mention need to be tackled. I also think that notions of masculinity and work (and the changing nature of work) are intricately bound up with each other for many men. On fatherhood - perhaps fewer men may have children in the future because of the factors you list (although the numbers of gay men starting families is increasing), but fatherhood and the role of fathers and what that means for men, women and children is hugely important and will remain so. Making the case for active, loving father/child relationships does not equate to putting fatherhood on a pedestal. I agree, though, that encouraging boys and girls to build and value strong relationships of all kinds - and to nurture those throughout life - is crucial for all the reasons you set out.

Thanks again

Rebecca

PacificDogwod Fri 06-May-16 10:32:31

I truly wish we, as a society, were more able to see children, well, as children - some tear around and are very physical, some are all quite and cuddly, some are in-between and some go from extreme to another and all sorts of other qualities and personality traits. And of all of those fascinatingly different children roughly about half will be boys and half will be girls grin

I have 4 boys and much as I would have welcomed a girl to our family, I do often think that I am glad that all their many, and at times extreme, differences cannot be put down to their sex. They. Are. All. Different.
And yes, they are being damaged by stupid gender role expectations places on them which I try to mitigate, but peers and society are powerful influences.
I also think that girls have very different but equally horrible pressures to conform put on them - I truly wish we could let children be children.

I'll look out for your book, Rebecca.

WhenSheWasBadSheWasHorrid Fri 06-May-16 10:53:33

I agree that some gender stereotypes are damaging to both girls and boys.

I truly wish we, as a society, were more able to see children, well, as children - some tear around and are very physical, some are all quite and cuddly, some are in-between and some go from extreme to another and all sorts of other qualities and personality traits. And of all of those fascinatingly different children roughly about half will be boys and half will be girls

I do agree with the children should be allowed to be children message. I do think however that when it comes to being more physical, on average boys are more physical than girls.

Of course it should be said that it is absolutely fine for a boy to be less physical and a girl more. I think this is really important, if your son isn't actually a very rough and tumble sort of kid you shouldn't try and toughen him up to fit in. He's fine just the way he is.

Peach1886 Fri 06-May-16 11:20:50

I will also look out for your book - we (my husband and I) are trying to bring our one year old son up to be who HE is, with all the complexities that implies, one minute tender and thoughtful and cuddling up to soft things, the next charging about terrifying the cat...

The pressure on him to be someone else's idea of a boy/man started even before he was born, with the ridiculous pink/blue/neutral "choice" of clothing and accessories, and as he gets older that choice has become more marked - I'm sure he won't be the only baby boy wearing girls' T-shirts this summer because their bright flowers and lively colours are so much more interesting than the blue, grey, dinosaurs or tractors allocated to him by most of the high street retailers. We love dinosaurs and tractors, but they are not the only fruit...

We also get many admiring "he's definitely a boy" comments when he's trashing the place, as well as negative "such a mummy's boy" remarks when all he wants is a cuddle...why can't he just BE?!

Surely in these supposedly enlightened times we should be encouraging our kids to reach their full potential irrespective of whether that potential has been historically defined as masculine or feminine? I don't care whether DS turns out to be a fine artist, a farmer or a pharmacist, or any combination of those. It doesn't matter whether he is the family breadwinner or a stay-at-home dad. I just want him to be happy, and to be happy being himself.

MephistophelesApprentice Fri 06-May-16 12:08:36

DioneTheDiabolist

Co-operation, nurturing and talking about feelings are not "innate" to any sex.

Swap your estrogen for testosterone for month or two then get back to me.

PacificDogwod Fri 06-May-16 12:22:39

Meph, you do know that women have testosterone too?
And that men for all their testosterone come with different levels of muscliness and hairiness and aggressiveness, just as women do?

Sex hormones may contribute to feelings and behaviour, and are an explanation for some but are not a verdict or any kind of excuse.

My father saying 'women are more suited to looking after young babies because it's in their nature' is just rubbish and insulting for men and women. Anyway, that's one generalisation that did not really work for me grin

singingsixpence82 Fri 06-May-16 13:01:34

Mephistopheles

Co-operation, nurturing and talking about feelings are not "innate" to any sex.

Swap your estrogen for testosterone for month or two then get back to me.

Strangely I have had relationships with men who were cooperative, nurturing and talked about their feelings. And they were high earning, high achieving, high testosterone males who worked well in stressful, high pressure environments. They wanted to be successful in all aspects of their lives, not just at work, so they learnt how to be successful in relationships. They were amongst the happiest men I have known. If they could learn these skills there's no reason why other men can't too. Men who are unable to do these things are ultimately unlikely to keep the women they love. Women instigate approximately 2/3 of all divorces and this is one of the reasons why. Men aren't cooperative, nurturing or emotionally competent which means there is nothing in the relationship for the women they marry. Women typically leave these men. This harms everyone; women, children and men.

DioneTheDiabolist Fri 06-May-16 14:07:40

Swap your estrogen for testosterone for a month or two and then get back to me.

What a bullshit response!

beccyasher Fri 06-May-16 14:24:41

Thanks so much for these latest comments: I'm really pleased that the argument seems to resonate with some (if not all!) of you.
PacificDogwod & Peach1886 - clearly, I would love it if you looked out for my book! If you do read it, I'd be keen to know what you make of it (the good and the bad...).
Thanks again.

VestalVirgin Fri 06-May-16 20:40:46

Making one sex's innate traits the base measure of normality was toxic under patriarchy and will be no better with the polarity reversed

Men are violent at much higher rates that women - this has not been made the base measure of normality in patriarchy (women are still expected to be submissive and not lash out against the oppression), so your argument falls flat.

And if men wish to engage in this "innate trait", then they are free to do so - in prisons.

For all I am concerned men can refuse to talk about their feelings and not cry all they want - it is not my problem if they feel like shit as a result. They just shouldn't come and complain about having high suicide rates and stuff.

hownottofuckup Sat 07-May-16 00:30:07

I think the point is they may well wish to talk about their feelings etc but feel pressure from society's ideals of masculinity not to do so. As a result it would not be suprising if it led to depression for some.
Just as the ideals of women being 'feminine' should be left behind, so too should the ideals of men being 'masculine'. If one persists it will continue to harm the other.
So, whilst you may feel it's not your problem, it might well be that actually, it is.

Theydontknowweknowtheyknow Sat 07-May-16 10:57:00

Just as the ideals of women being 'feminine' should be left behind, so too should the ideals of men being 'masculine'. If one persists it will continue to harm the other.

Are we pretending that extreme femininity is as harmful to society as extreme masculinity?

What are the supposed traits of femininity? Submission, patience, nurturing, empathy and cooperation. Now if everyone were like that, yes the world might be a tad boring, but it wouldn't be destroying itself like it is at the moment.

Obviously NAMALT and it is only a minority of men who take this macho dominant BS to destructive extremes, but it only takes a few to affect everyone.

PacificDogwod Sat 07-May-16 11:05:16

No, it's the expectation to be one or the other that's harmful.

almondpudding Sat 07-May-16 11:21:07

I don't see how expectation of gender roles can be anywhere near as harmful as extreme masculinity.

PacificDogwod Sat 07-May-16 12:36:38

No, I agree with that, but it's the expectation that all boys/men ought to follow certain gender specific behaviour that is damaging to individuals.
As a society of course what is almost accepted as 'typically male' behaviour is far more damaging than 'typically female' behaviours.

I think we are agreeing with each other? confused

almondpudding Sat 07-May-16 13:04:49

Quite possibly Pacific, as I was responding to you who was responding to someone else, who was responding to someone else! It can all get a bit convoluted.

To go back to Vestal's point, I don't want to fall into the trap of women have to sort it out.

I know that hypermasculinity is a problem that needs to be resolved.

But a major part of masculinity is the belief that you are entitled to women, to their time, energy, emotional support and so on. What leads to so much anger and depression in many men is not that they have no place in society (because generally they do have a place in society in both youth and middle age) but that they haven't got a close personal relationship with a woman or that not enough women are cheerleading about how amazing their role in society is.

Which is why I think it is so important that men find ways of building and developing relationships and support networks that are not about women's time and emotional support.

And I don't feel women should take on a lot of this resolving the extremes of masculinity project. Men are the experts on that anyway.

And I don't like the clarion call (not meaning the OP here) that if we don't give a group even more support and attention, they're going to start a war, or murder more of us, or kill themselves. Because that seems manipulative to me.

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