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What It Means to Become a Man
By Rachel Giese
Read by Ellen Archer
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Whether they’re being urged to “man up” or warned that “boys don’t cry,” young men are subjected to damaging messages about manliness: they must muzzle their emotions and never show weakness, dominate girls and compete with one another.
Boys: What It Means to Become a Man examines how these toxic rules can hinder boys’ emotional and social development. If girls can expand the borders of femaleness, could boys also be set free of limiting, damaging expectations about manhood and masculinity? Could what’s been labelled “the boy crisis” be the beginning of a revolution in how we raise young men?
Drawing on extensive research and interviews with educators, activists, parents, psychologists, sociologists, and young men, Giese — mother to a son herself — examines the myths of masculinity and the challenges facing boys today. She reports from boys-only sex education classes and recreational sports leagues; talks to parents of transgender children and plays video games with her son. She tells stories of boys navigating the transition into manhood and how the upheaval in cultural norms about sex, sexuality and the myths of masculinity have changed the coming of age process for today’s boys.
With lively reportage and clear-eyed analysis, Giese reveals that the movement for gender equality has the potential to liberate us all.
On a late spring day a few years back, around the time of my son’s tenth birthday, he and I were running errands in our neighborhood when he spotted a friend. The boys shouted each other’s names in delight, and as we passed the kid on the sidewalk, he and my son paused and leaned into one another, clasping right hands and pressing right shoulders together while patting each other’s back. Then, seamlessly, they released their grip, and each continued on his way.
I’d seen men greet each other like this—or some other hand-slapping, fist-bumping, dap-giving variation—thousands of times. There’s even a famous GIF of president Barack Obama meeting the men’s Olympic basketball team in 2012: After offering a sober handshake to an older white staff member, he turns with a high-beam smile to star player Kevin Durant. Palms smack; shoulders bump; backs are slapped. The greeting has its roots in African American culture—in his 2014 photography project, Five on the Black Hand Side, Chicago artist LaMont Hamilton traces its origins to the late 1960s during the Vietnam War, when black GIs gave dap as a symbol of unity, brotherhood, and survival.1 But like so many black inventions, the dap has been co-opted and gone mainstream, especially among younger guys of all races. And in these circles it’s less often a signifier of political solidarity than of masculine cool and a socially acceptable way for men to express and share affection. It’s not a hug. It’s a bro-hug.
Witnessing the handshake between my son and his friend was a small marvel, one of those sweet and sharp parental moments of realization that your baby has become worldly and less familiar. It was also a curiosity. I had no idea where he picked it up or how often he’d tried out this gesture to make it look so graceful and confident, as though he had been born doing it.
My son’s childhood and early adolescence, and his growing mastery of the rituals of manhood, are more an amazement to me than they might be for other parents. My wife and I adopted our son when he was one, so we have no genetic connection for comparison—no he has your musical talent, no he got his dexterity from me—nor did either one of us have a boyhood of our own. And our son, with his swagger, his inability to sit still, his gross-out humor, and his love of sports, video games, and skateboards, ticks many of the boxes of the traditional boy profile. A family member once joked about the twist in fate that placed such a stereotypical boy in a home with two women. But I don’t see it that way. Our son’s rough-and-tumble spiritedness didn’t appear to me as more male than female (I know a lot of rowdy girls), nor did I think his ample affectionateness and tenderness made him an exception to his sex (I know many gentle men). Our son has had plenty of male role models: uncles and grandfathers, family friends, teachers, mentors, and coaches. When he was around eight, I asked him if he ever wished he had a dad or felt that he was missing out by not having one, and he paused for a moment to consider. “There’s one thing,” he said. “I think if I had a dad, I’d get to go to McDonald’s more often.” Not wanting to let this go unchallenged, I told him we knew a lot of dads who didn’t go to McDonald’s, like a neighbor who was vegetarian and a foodie friend who bought meat only from the organic butcher. My son shrugged, already bored and regretting this conversation. “Okay, fine,” he said. “All I know is that you two lesbians never take me to McDonald’s.”
Aside from making a family joke out of depriving our son of Big Macs, my wife and I didn’t dwell on what it meant to be two women raising a boy when he was younger. We figured he could call on his uncles when it was time to learn to shave. But pretty much everything else a kid needs to be taught, qualities like decency, resilience, empathy, honesty, and tenacity, are genderless. A greater consideration for us was race. We’re both white, and our son is Oji-Cree and Ojibway. When it came to our son’s sense of self, we were far more consumed with ensuring he was connected to his indigenous roots and culture than we were with worrying about whether he’d know how to tie a tie or throw a baseball. (My wife taught him to do both.)
Besides, we have a certain slant on the issue. Just as we had no preference for adopting a boy or a girl, we didn’t anticipate that we’d raise a boy or a girl all that differently. Within our own circle of friends and in the larger LGBTQ community, gender isn’t a garrison but an amusement park, where rules about masculinity and femininity are questioned, exaggerated, and turned upside down. From the time he was a toddler, our son has been around all manner of men who express all manner of manliness, from macho to fey, including a gay uncle who embraces both—he’s a former high school football player who’s knock-out gorgeous dressed in drag. Masculinity isn’t solely a male domain, either. There are butch women in my son’s life, most notably my wife, who gets her hair cut at a barbershop, has tattoos snaking down both arms, and even now, in her forties, is regularly mistaken for a teenage boy. When our son was young, we aimed to raise him without a strict gender agenda. Like good feminists, we bought him a toy cooking set as well as Thomas the Tank Engine trains. How much this would inoculate him against gender stereotypes, we didn’t know. But at the time, his adulthood felt so distant that it was impossible to imagine what our little boy would be like as a man. Until, one day, it wasn’t.
The glimpse I had of my son giving dap to his friend made me stop short. When had he become such a guy? I wondered. And now that he was older, how would his transition from boy to man alter him? I began to more seriously consider the ambient noise of the rules of masculinity, the lessons both implicit and overt that my son was absorbing about male culture and manhood. What did he think it meant to be a man? Was manliness for him simply about endearing and benign rituals like handshakes and a fondness for “guy stuff” like basketball and Call of Duty? Or was he also picking up on the more troubled and troubling manifestations of masculinity, such as aggression and emotional detachment? What did he think of being a man in relation to women? My son is now in his early teens, and his coming of age coincides with a moment when masculinity is under examination: terms such as male privilege, patriarchy, misogyny, and toxic masculinity have made their way from university gender studies departments into the mainstream.
It’s also a moment when masculinity is felt by some as being under dire threat, as evidenced by the growing allure of online forums and websites populated by men’s rights activists, so-called pickup artists (PUAs), outraged male gamers, and other guys expressing varying degrees of confusion and fury about the changing social order. To many of them, feminism and the achievements of women have emasculated men and upended natural gender roles. “Aggrieved entitlement” is a phrase used by Michael S. Kimmel, a sociologist at Stony Brook University in New York and the author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men and Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, to describe the general mood of this subset of predominantly white men who feel they have been usurped by others who appear to be progressing: women, immigrants, and people of color.
An extreme version of aggrieved entitlement was articulated by twenty-two-year-old Elliot Rodger, who killed six others and himself in a rampage in Isla Vista, California, on May 23, 2014. Troubled since he was a little boy, as a teenager Rodger retreated into World of Warcraft and online forums like PUAHate, which was created to mock suave pickup artists who boasted about their sexual exploits. It was there that Rodger, resentful of his lack of romantic success, found common cause with fellow “incels”—or “involuntary celibates.” In forum posts and in videos he shared on YouTube, he ranted about both the women who turned him down and the men they found attractive (“Stacys” and “Chads,” in incel slang): “Men shouldn’t have to look and act like big, animalistic beasts to get women. The fact that women still prioritize brute strength just shows that their minds haven’t fully evolved.”2
Hours before his killing spree, he posted a video in which he said, “All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men. And all of you men for living a better life than me, all of you sexually active men. I hate you. I hate all of you. I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve, annihilation.”3 He also emailed a 137-page manuscript titled “My Twisted World” to his therapist, acquaintances, and family members. In it he recounted his obsession with status and power, as well as his self-loathing and humiliation at having to “suffer virginity [his] whole life.” Rodger began his attack by stabbing three men in his apartment and then, as part of his plan to punish “sluts” for their “crime” of not being attracted to him, drove to a nearby sorority house. There he shot three women walking outside the building, killing two of them, and then he shot and killed another man at a convenience store. Driving away, he exchanged gunfire with police and injured another thirteen pedestrians before turning the gun on himself. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Rodger’s murders were an extreme but not entirely unforeseen demonstration of a brewing backlash against women. His language echoed much of the content on the forums he frequented, and his actions brought into relief the mounting tension between what boys and men have long been told is their birthright (power, money, status, and female attention) and the present-day social reality in which girls and women increasingly have more agency, independence, power, and choice. Soon after the attack, the #YesAllWomen hashtag went viral on social media to highlight the ubiquity of male aggression directed at women and to suggest that Rodger’s actions represented a broader male fury. Writing on Rodger, feminist philosopher Kate Manne observed that “misogyny often stems from the desire to take women down, to put them in their place again. So the higher they climb, the farther they may be made to fall because of it.”4 (On April 23, 2018, in what appeared to be a copycat attack, Alek Minassian, a twenty-five-year-old student in my home city of Toronto, allegedly drove a van onto a sidewalk and into crowds of pedestrians. Ten people were killed and more than a dozen injured—the majority of the victims women. Shortly before the attack, Minassian had written on Facebook: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys. All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”)5
My Generation X girlhood and adolescence encompassed a similar clash between progress and retraction. Growing up post sexual revolution and post–Second Wave feminism, my opportunities for education, a career, and personal freedom were far beyond anything afforded to my mother and my grandmothers, but in the broader world women’s gains in independence were being spun as both a threat to our happiness and a danger to men’s identity and self-esteem. I was a teenager when Newsweek published its infamous (and since debunked) 1986 story warning that a single forty-year-old woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married.6
Three years later, on December 6, 1989, in a horrifying assault that presaged Elliot Rodger’s attack, a twenty-five-year-old man named Marc Lépine stalked the corridors of École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada, armed with a rifle and a hunting knife. He entered an engineering classroom and separated the men and women. Then he turned to the female students and said, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, I hate feminists.”7 He killed six women instantly, and then eight more, before he shot himself. In his suicide note, Lépine, who had applied to the school’s engineering program and been rejected, said he blamed feminists for destroying his life, and he said he believed women shouldn’t become engineers, because they would take jobs from men. (The anniversary of the Montreal Massacre is recognized each year in Canada as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.)
Like Rodger, Lépine was a disturbed individual, and his anger at feminists felt familiar. When I attended college myself, the reading list of my women’s studies courses included Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, tracing the mounting hostility toward the movement. As far as women had come since the 1960s, true equality—in the form of pay equity, reproductive rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and safety from violence and harassment—remained elusive. In fact, by the late 1980s, feminism was not only declared “dead” but had become the scapegoat for everything from infertility and a lack of marriageable men to female depression and a spike in eating disorders.
In the thirty years between my son’s childhood and my own, gender roles and expectations have continued to evolve and progress. Millennial and postmillennial women have enlivened feminism, reconstituting the movement as more dynamic, inclusive, and intersectional—the last a term coined by US law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s to describe overlapping social identities (such as being black, female, and lesbian).8 Beyoncé has proudly proclaimed herself a feminist, as have a growing number of young celebrities such as Amandla Stenberg, Rowan Blanchard, Zendaya, and Emma Watson. Teen Vogue and Rookie run stories about rape culture, reproductive rights, and transgender pride. In popular culture for girls, strong, smart female characters have flourished, in movies and TV series, including Inside Out, Doc McStuffins, and Moana, and in the arrival of a big-screen Wonder Woman and Star Wars Jedi heroine Rey. As a culture, we have poked enough holes in assumptions about femininity and femaleness that most of us now celebrate the idea of girl power and female strength. We believe that girls can and should play sports, that they’re capable of excelling at science and math, that they can be both vulnerable and strong, that they may grow up to be soldiers, presidents, teachers, doctors, and engineers. There has been a wealth of academic research and media conversations about the impact of gender stereotypes on girls’ self-esteem, behaviors, and opportunities. We recognize the value of strong, varied female role models, and we have well-honed critiques about the influence of Barbie and porn on girls’ body image and sexuality.
But when it comes to challenging gender stereotypes and their effects on boys, we haven’t been nearly as thorough or thoughtful. In her 2004 book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks argues that one of the oversights of feminism “has been the lack of a concentrated study of boyhood, one that offers guidelines and strategies for alternative masculinity and ways of thinking about maleness.” One reason is that, generally speaking, boys have a higher status than girls in a sexist culture, so it’s assumed they only benefit from this inequality. But as hooks points out, “Status and even the rewards of privilege are not the same as being loved.”9 She’s correct: we haven’t yet cast enough of a critical eye on the demands of masculinity—for instance, the expectations that men be physically aggressive, sexually dominant, emotionally stoic, tough, and in control—and the impact those expectations have on boys who do and don’t live up to them. Even when we are cognizant or critical of these rules, it’s usually in response to an act of violence (a school shooting, a gang rape, a campaign of online harassment), or it’s in reaction to an alarming statistic about boys’ dysfunction (their struggles in school, their failure to launch into adulthood, or their escalating rates of depression and suicide). We’re afraid for boys or afraid of them. But this fear does little to help or change them. Instead, it pathologizes: they’re violent; they’re dropping out and abandoning college; they’re addicted to their phones and video games and porn; they’re wallowing in their parents’ basements; they’re becoming radicalized in online forums; they’re succumbing to drugs or gangs.
In this framing, “boy” is an unquestioned, unchanging, and homogenous identity, and boys themselves are presented as the problem. What’s rarely acknowledged is the role adults and the broader culture play in shaping the way boys are perceived and the way they perceive themselves. Nor does it recognize the agency boys use to either conform to or rebel against norms of masculinity at any given time to suit their individual needs. The kid who can’t sit still, the one who is forever starting fights, the guy who catcalls his female classmates, the boy who hates to read, the one who spends all his time playing video games—are these just “boys being boys”? Or is there something else at work? Are they responding and adapting to rules created long before they were born?
The sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights movements, technological innovation, globalization: taken together, these movements have altered, to an unprecedented degree, what it means to be male. “I began to realize that something seismic had shifted the economy and the culture,” writes Hanna Rosin in her 2012 best seller, The End of Men and the Rise of Women.10 “Not only for men but for women, and that both sexes were going to have to adjust to an entirely new way of working and living and even falling in love.” Recounting the ways that some women have surpassed some men—in schools, in the workforce, and in the home—Rosin argues that the balance of power has profoundly and irrevocably been transformed. And as old notions about masculinity and femininity fall away, there is a palpable angst about what should replace them. This time of instability and change has given rise to a pervasive belief that gains in rights and power for women must mean men are losing out. And this thinking has trickled down to girls and boys as well. According to a 2015 poll by MTV on gender bias, young men have mixed feelings about equality.11 Twenty-seven percent of boys aged fourteen to twenty-four said gains by women have come at the expense of males, while 46 percent of them said feminism implies negative feelings about men.
It’s not hard to understand why boys and young men might see it that way. If we imagine gender equality as solely focused on empowering girls, then what’s in it for boys? What would induce them to participate in dismantling a status quo that continues, in many ways, to serve them? As Gloria Steinem once said, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.” Put another way: in order for change to be real and lasting, feminism can’t stop at transforming the lives of girls and women; it has to transform the lives of boys and men, too.
My friend Elvira Kurt, a comedian and writer, has a son and a daughter. In one of her stand-up shows, she did a bit on being a feminist mother raising a boy and a girl. With her daughter, she said, she’s always trying to fill up the basket of her self-esteem, telling her she’s talented, smart, and strong and can do whatever she wants when she grows up. As for her son—who, she pointed out, is at the top of the pecking order as a white male—she thought it would be a good idea to take a few things out of his basket, to lower his self-esteem a little, to even things out. She was kidding, but she also revealed an uncomfortable dilemma for anyone who cares about the well-being of young men. How do we uncouple their maleness from misogyny and male entitlement? How do we encourage them to think critically about the messages they receive about masculinity and push back against gender expectations that hurt themselves and others? And what can we learn from feminism and the fight for equality for girls and women to create more liberating, positive, and expansive forms of masculinity for boys and men?
Boys grew out of a desire to make sense of these questions for my own son, not only because I want to raise him to be a good person, but also because I want him to feel freer to express his whole self. This book isn’t an argument against masculinity. It’s a case for how we might rethink and reimagine the meaning of manhood for all our sakes, men’s and women’s, boys’ and girls’, and for those who don’t conform to any of those categories.
I begin with a look at the social and biological basis of gender and sex. Chapter 1 explains the idea of the “Man Box”—a metaphor used to describe common attitudes and understandings about what it means to be a man as well as the consequences of those beliefs. Chapter 2 focuses on the science of sex and gender difference and the attendant anxiety about those who don’t fit the norms. Then in Chapters 3 through 6, I look at some of the spaces where these beliefs about boys and masculinity play out: within friendships, at school, in sports, and in popular culture. Finally, in Chapter 7, I profile a remarkable sex-education program for boys in Calgary, Alberta, that puts all of this into action, teaching participants to think critically about gender rules, to build healthy friendships and romantic relationships, to be good communicators and positive leaders, and to tend to their emotional and psychological health.
Throughout the process of writing Boys, especially after a story broke about the latest boy crisis, in which a young man was either a perpetrator or a victim of violence or in which boys were reported to be in some general state of dysfunction or despair, I’d be asked by a friend or colleague if I felt optimistic about the possibility of better outcomes for boys. I was and remain hopeful, and here’s why: A few months after my son’s encounter with his friend on the street, his hockey team traveled to another city for a tournament. The team’s families took over a floor of a hotel for a weekend. On the first night, a half-dozen boys congregated in our room to hang out and raid our stash of junk food. I was tidying up nearby when my son grabbed his teddy bear, which we had tucked away, and gave him a snuggle. Our son was ten or eleven, an age when a lot of kids have long since given up their stuffed animals and blankets. But Blue Bear had been with our son longer than we had, had comforted him through his transition from his foster family to us, and had taken on a talismanic quality. He was not easily relinquished, and he traveled with our son everywhere. Almost at once the other boys noticed our son holding his bear, and their playing stopped. I froze, fearful that they—a collection of hulking jocks just shy of puberty—would ridicule him. There was a moment of silence, as all of us waited to see how this would play out. My son broke the tension with a little joke. “Guys, meet Blue Bear,” he said. Immediately, the other boys relaxed and began comparing notes: One had brought a stuffed dog; another kid had a toy elephant. One boy said that he had wanted to bring a few of his own stuffed animals but worried no one else would have them. Then the boys shifted back to wrestling and swapping Pokémon cards.
As for me, I was embarrassed. Not for my son, but for myself. This roomful of goofy, burping, rowdy boys had just schooled me on what it means to embrace a full range of humanity, where a person, whatever their gender, could be tough and soft, brave and vulnerable, competitive and compassionate. This book is for those boys.
THE BOY BOX
The Making of Masculinity
The first time I heard about the Man Box was five years ago in a college classroom on the outskirts of Toronto. Jeff Perera, a public speaker and community organizer who regularly talks to schools, businesses, and sports teams about gender equality, was leading a workshop for students on stereotypes about masculinity. He drew a large square on the blackboard in chalk and labeled it “The Man Box.” Inside it, Perera wrote a string of words and phrases describing traditional views of masculinity: tough, strong, head of the household, stud, stoic, in control, brave, emotionless, heterosexual. Outside the box were words used to describe men who don’t meet these standards: pussy, fag, batty boy, bitch, mama’s boy.
He then asked the small gathering of college students for suggestions to add to his two lists. Shouts of “Wimp!” “Leader!” “Boss!” “Queer!” bounced around the room. As Perera wrote them down, he explained that the object of the exercise was to show that “the formula for manhood is the denial of everything perceived as soft, or gentle, or emotional, or feminine.” In other words, a man might be described as being in every way the opposite of a woman.
Perera, professorial with a shaved head and rectangular-framed glasses, is a born performer, funny and gregarious. In his talk, he drops references both pop cultural (Breaking Bad’s Walter White is an example of “toxic manhood”) and personal, drawing on his own childhood growing up as a man of color in Canada and the son of immigrant parents from Sri Lanka. To explain how early boys receive these messages, he tells a story about having once conducted an exercise with fifty boys in the fourth grade to see how much they’d begun to internalize the limits of the Man Box. He asked them to write down what they didn’t like about being boys, and they returned a list that included “Boys smell bad,” “Supposed to like violence,” “Supposed to play football,” “Having an automatic bad reputation,” “Not supposed to cry,” and “Not being able to be a mother.” He projected an image of the actual list, made all the more heart wrenching by the wobbly printing and typos (suppost and vilence).
The concept of the Man Box is used by sociologists and equality advocates to describe the behaviors and expectations associated with a conventional, rigid form of manliness, an exaggerated, archetypal machismo that academics describe as “hegemonic masculinity.” Admittedly, the metaphor of the Man Box is a little cutesy, but its utility lies in how it clearly separates sex and the biological identity of maleness from gender and the cultural creation of masculinity. (A caveat: there are some who argue that sex is, at least in part, a construction as well, but I’ll get into that in the next chapter.)
This is a significant, even radical, distinction to make, since these markers of masculinity continue to be seen not only as normal but also as the rightful traits of those who do and should hold power. It’s why we associate a deep voice with authority, while a higher voice sounds weak or shrill; why a suit and tie seem more fitting in a corporate office than a dress does; and why the socially awkward solo inventor, rather than the emotionally attuned collaborator, has become our go-to image of a tech genius.
- "Boys is a multifaceted exploration of masculinity . . . Rachel Giese's vision of boyhood--and therefore manhood--is an enlarging, humane one. This is a beautifully reasoned work that should be required reading for anyone interested in detoxifying masculinity."—Michael Redhill, author of Giller-winning Bellevue Square
"A broad, readable take on the limits of modern-day masculinity, and how to push its boundaries to better serve our children and ourselves. It's full of love but unsentimental, with new tidbits for scholars of gender, race and identify, and valuable insight for parents of little boys, like me."
—The Globe and Mail
- "Giese looks at masculinity with a surprisingly heartfelt curiosity and objectivity."
- On Sale
- Dec 11, 2018
- Hachette Audio