Rachel Giese’s controversial, prize-winning book Boys: What it Means to Become a Man asks a simple question that, once asked, has no end of complex, interwoven answers. The question is one most readers will be surprised has not been asked before: feminism changed how women live and how girls are raised. But what about boys?
In Giese’s wide-ranging study, Boys posits that masculinity is not something to be downplayed, nor automatically dismissed as “toxic”, but instead is a daily reality lived by half the human population and a construct that is centuries overdue for a cultural and psychological tune up. Boys and young men can be raised to be empathetic, nurturing, and emotionally open, but our culture inhibits such growth. Subsequently, boys become men before they are ready to be adults – and the pressures to perform a masculinity that is not only outdated but self-harming is relentless.
During a long, sprawling conversation, Giese – a popular Toronto-based writer and the editorial director for DailyXtra (an online LGBTQ news hub) – described her own journey raising a son with her partner, and how she came to realize that boys are constantly caught between what they feel and how they are expected to perform their feelings. Meanwhile, all around them, boys are sold a version of masculinity (in everything from toys to sports to movies to music) that traps them and leaves them unfulfilled while simultaneously promising, quite literally at times, the moon and the stars. Fatherly spoke to Giese about her book and the state of boys today.
When a father becomes aware that his son is adopting “masculine” traits without examining them, as kids do, what can a father do to expand his son’s view of maleness?
The first thing is just to be conscious of how masculinity is constructed in the first place. Years and years of feminism have raised awareness for girls, with questions such as, What does the princess craze say about women as young adults? Or, What do dolls and toys say to girls about their bodies, and, What does the lack of representation in every field signal to girls? All of these cultural cues have outcomes for boys too. We have a very good analysis now of how girls’ ideas about themselves are constructed by popular culture. But with masculinity, we treat it like a default, tell ourselves that masculinity is not a construct but a natural extension of being male. If you are male, we tend to assume, then a whole bunch of interests, capacities, and developments will follow, like a natural force.
What can be done?
The first thing is to just recognize that there are cultural forces at work shaping masculinity from the day the boy is born. For instance, there’s the very weird rise in gender reveal parties. At 20 weeks gestation, people are deciding whether or not to have “Cowboy or Princess” party themes. Even before birth, we instill the idea that boys are one way: usually rough and tumble, sporty, and out of touch with their emotions. And then as the boy grows, the culture amplifies those ideas. Studies by sociologists show that even by early school years, educators use a smaller emotional vocabulary with boys. We teach them that their emotions are not nuanced or complicated.
Do fathers remember, for instance, when they were told to get rid of their teddy bear, or at what age being affectionate with other boys began to be frowned upon? It’s important to say here that I’m not arguing that any activities or interests we typically encourage boys to pursue are wrong in themselves. Being sporty or being bookish, neither are good or bad – but we have gendered them and need to be aware of that.
That’s a very long-winded answer! Ha! All to say, just be aware of the cultural forces at work that are shaping how your son thinks about his maleness.
What is the root of this default thinking around boys?
Patriarchy, but also a set of assumptions that have built up over many generations. A simple way to counter those assumptions is to offer boys a wide variety of images and experiences that don’t match those assumptions. More female characters in the pop culture they absorb, more team work, more of an array of different kinds of people and different kinds of boys and men.
My son likes watching superhero movies and TV shows, and he likes Supergirl – not because we sat down and gave him a big feminist agenda reading of the show, but because he likes it and we like watching it with him. In a way, it’s simple: mix it up.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of popular culture, but we all know it shapes what we consider norms. Here’s an example: you hear all the time that “boys aren’t readers”. Well, if that’s true, why is so much of the Western literary canon dominated by male writers?
As parents, we actually have a lot of power. Because we’re paying for these products. We can fix this.
One of the pop culture tropes fathers face today is the fathers are less necessary because women can (and do) raise sons on their own. And many fathers feel threatened by the kind of conversation we’re having now.
I know that, and I would say the exact opposite to fathers.
But let me step back first. We have established this cultural norm that the domestic realm belongs to women. The male arena is the work force, being the breadwinner. Even our governmental policies around paternal leave reinforce this idea. Yet, I know a lot of fathers in their 30s and 40s who are engaged directly in the day to day raising of their sons. And these are not super woke, feminist guys either.
While I understand where that dialogue about fathers being inessential comes from, at this particular and pivotal moment in our culture, all of that is being upturned, by fathers of all kinds. It’s never been more socially acceptable for fathers to be present and active with their children than it is now.
It’s also true that too many fathers use this alleged “men don’t matter anymore” moment in our culture as an excuse to not engage. But they really can’t say that anymore. Not if they look around.
Did you have any anxiety about writing a book on boys? The easy critique would be, What do you know, you’re not male and you and your partner are both women?
I got that all the time.
When I started writing the book and reaching out to researchers, families, and dads, I made my position and who I am very clear. I also made it clear that I have a lot of experience, decades of experience, writing about gender, sexuality, and social constructs of identity. And, I’m raising a boy. Most of the time, people got it.
I interviewed a lovely guy, a boys’ football coach in Texas and a very Christian, conservative fellow. He told me how he used Trump’s excuse of “locker room talk” as a moment to tell his team that there is no place for that language, it’s degrading to women. And, I think he was kind of amused that this Canadian lesbian feminist was writing a book on boys and asking questions in Texas!
When the book came out, I did get some “what has she got to tell me?” responses from men, but also a lot of curiosity. Unfortunately, there’s a hardcore group who hate me, hate the book, and think that I have no right to write about men. I’ve been accused of “femmesplaining” masculinity, and of cultural appropriation. Usually by men who have not read the book.
This book is for anybody raising a son who has questions, but who is probably not going to take a class in gender studies! Ha!
What’s the one thing everybody who raises boys or works with boys tends to overlook?
A big blind spot is vulnerability. We overlook and downplay and teach boys to run from anything that reveals or speaks to their vulnerability. Even very young boys.
“Don’t be a wimp, man up, don’t cry, don’t be a sissy.” Those are the messages we give boys when they express vulnerability, and then boys repeat those messages to each other. We rob boys of their vulnerability – often with good intentions, because we don’t want them to be picked on or easy prey for bullies.
What happens in the long run when we do this?
We have a crisis of loneliness in young men. Young men crave closer bonds with their male friends but don’t know how to ask or are afraid to ask. And as these young men grow, it becomes harder and harder to change, to make more intimate friends. And one of the reasons we are seeing an increase in really toxic behavior – bullying, the INCEL movement – is because men have been taught to hate and suppress their weaknesses.
Vulnerability is a wonderful asset. It’s part of our humanity: it helps us to work out risks, fall in love, to protect ourselves, to make healthy choices, and be empathetic. Think about it: if you are told vulnerability is wrong, how are you likely to treat vulnerable people?
Of course, boys should be taught to be strong and brave as well. Everybody should! But vulnerability is the companion of bravery and strength, not its opposite. Without knowing your own vulnerability, strength just becomes aggression.
What traditions and concepts from the old ways of raising boys are still valuable and worth preserving?
Again, I really want to be clear here: girls can play with dolls, boys can play with trucks. Kids want what they want. I’m not talking about absolutes. There are aspects of older forms of masculinity, particularly the emphasis placed on self-sufficiency, that are very healthy and very valuable.
Despite the troubling, colonial history of boys’ groups, like scouting, the development of a relation to nature that these groups encourage is beautiful. That tradition in boyhood culture of testing your physical limits as well as your ability to look out for others, deserves to be preserved. For all kids.