[CW: maybe TMI? 🤷♂️]
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what I might be able to add to the discussion on male privilege and toxic masculinity.
I think there are a lot of things we go through as boys and young men that no one really unpicks or even talks about and, from where I sit, they look an awful lot like part of the problem. Here’s a couple of fairly random thoughts on that topic.
I’ve never been what I would call a “stereotypical guy”, a “man’s man”. I’ve always recoiled from displays of machismo, “locker room” talk, boasting over sexual “conquests” and the like, and have never felt comfortable engaging in that stuff.
I know many sons don’t have great role models to follow but, happily, I never had the experience of my dad giving me a conspiratorial nudge and saying something like “Cor, look at the legs on that!” or whatever (*puke*).
The absence of that type of objectification from my own dad definitely shaped who I am and I only realised later that it is not what everyone experiences growing up.
I was brought up in a home that was very much against gender stereotypes and my deep hatred of the “blue cars for boys / pink dolls for girls” mentality (which is sadly still alive and well in the world today) is something that was instilled a long, long time ago. I was never told “boys don’t cry” or to “man up” or any of that shit.
I went to an all boys secondary school, so obviously a very male-heavy environment but there was at least an adjacent girls school and we were allowed to hang out with at break times etc. which made it a bit more … normal, I guess?
It was a fantastic school, and I honestly loved being there, but one thing I dreaded were the mandatory showers after PE. These were taken naked, in a big row of open showers at the end of the changing rooms. So there was – bluntly – no hiding who was developing at what rate.
The showers were policed by the PE teacher to make sure that – in the name of hygiene – no one skipped them, and now that I recount this it seems pretty massively fucked up with hindsight. I sincerely hope it’s different nowadays.
I went through puberty pretty late and had a lot of insecurity around that, especially given how keenly aware I then was that other male friends around me had developed sooner.
Taunts of “no pubes” etc. were commonplace insults and although those were thrown at me a few times, luckily, I wasn’t singled out for any prolonged bullying on that score.
These seemingly burly figures (laughable now I picture them as teenage boys) with deep voices and hair sprouting were figures of admiration; I wished fervently that my body would hurry up and develop the way theirs had.
The upshot of this environment was that, in general, being visibly masculine, physically developed – “manly” – was a thing that gave you status, it was a thing to aspire to, to show off.
Unfortunately, we were a bunch of teenage boys who had fuck all first hand idea what it might actually mean to be “a man”.
This was the 1990s – the heyday of FHM, GQ and Esquire – and the image they (and the media in general) presented was – to put it mildly – not a great example to work from.
“Lad” culture was in full swing and essentially, the message I think we received from the wider world was that “real men” had an insatiable libido, should “treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen”, get wasted and smash shit up. And the corresponding “ladette” narrative told us that this was indeed the way to a woman’s heart or – more importantly (ofc) – into her knickers.
(Aside: I don’t think the ladette thing was devoid of positives in so far as it made it more socially acceptable for a woman to – shock! horror! have sexual desire! – something that needed and still needs to be normalised)
This LADZLADZLADZ thing really did not play to my strengths and wasn’t really something I felt like I could do or something I could be. I guess I’m glad about that now, but it didn’t stop me feeling like I should have been that way on some level, and that I was somehow less of a man because I wasn’t.
As a “late bloomer”, it was perhaps inevitable that many of my friends had girlfriends before I did. Often we would all hang out and I’d usually find myself chatting to the girls more than my friends – I’ve always found it easier to connect with women, in general – possibly because I felt like all that machismo bullshit could be checked at the door.
Knowing that I was behind my peers in physical development, I felt like a kind of sexless prepubescent blob and didn’t imagine anyone saw me as a romantic or sexual being, even though those were things I was (hypothetically) very interested in.
So, it’s certainly possible that envy coloured my reactions but I used to hate hearing the way some of those male friends talked about their girlfriends when they weren’t around.
It always seemed to be deliberately flippant like they were making a point of the fact they didn’t care. Boasting about dehumanised body parts or what they had or hadn’t done, barely acknowledging there was another living, sentient human involved.
I hated it but, because it was coming from these guys I aspired to be like, it wasn’t something I felt like I could challenge. I saw them as practically men and I was a silly little boy – what could I possibly know?
I remember one time a bunch of us were in McDonalds and one of the guys randomly decided to spit a mouthful of burger at his girlfriend, across the table. He thought it was funny and seemed to revel in not giving a fuck. She was rightly unimpressed by this, and did not hold back in letting him know.
But the weird thing is that stuff like this had an inexperienced me wondering on some level: “is this how I need to behave if I want a girlfriend?”
Of course, looking back, I can see now that those guys were stupid inexperienced kids too but those ideas had to come from somewhere.
Who decided it was cool to not give a shit? Who decided it was *uncool* to show you care about your girlfriend and treat them like – I don’t know – a person, with respect?
I don’t have a definitive answer, but it was certainly A Thing. I’d guess that some of it came from the media, maybe some from the bias in the institutions we grew up as part of, and some must have come from more specific, direct male role models: the older boys they in turn looked up to, fathers, older brothers, etc.
I think it’s a pretty big ask for an inexperienced 13 or 14 year old, fully submerged in a world where this is seen as “normal”, to spot this and have the bravery to call it out.
But hopefully as you get older, at a certain point, you develop enough sense of self and enough first hand experience to question what the world presents you with, and challenge things that you can see are wrong.
The sad truth is though that there does seem to be plenty of grown men who have not progressed beyond the way those pubescent teenagers talked about their girlfriends. It’s more than a little pathetic.
These are just my random recollections, but I hope this strikes a chord with some of you and gets you thinking about your own experiences. It feels to me like this kind of thing is where this misguided notion of being “manly” and this performative, exaggerated and toxic masculinity stems from.
What can we do to change this?
I don’t think you can realistically alter the fact that as kids grow up, they aspire and wish to be more adult, or that there will be envy and insecurity around the different rates of development.
Pretty much the only point where I think we can affect some change is in the role models that we present, both personally and in the media. It’s especially important for kids that are learning about the world, but it’s also important for those adults around us who maybe got a less than ideal message at a younger age.
Obviously that means not exhibiting problematic behaviours yourself. But it also means showing others around you how to call out those behaviours in other people. Seeing a first hand example where someone you know stands up and calmly says “dude, that’s not ok” can be an incredibly powerful thing, and provide a model for how you can do that yourself. Examples in the TV, movies and other media can do the same.
And talking openly about the examples in front of us is important too. Characters in TV shows and movies are flawed – and that’s ok – as long as we all understand what is and isn’t acceptable about them. And they are great ways of discussing those behaviours without the defensiveness and emotional baggage that comes from confronting someone who is exhibiting these traits themselves.
This hopefully goes without saying in – say – stories of serial killers but, in other cases, it may be less clear whether something is being presented in a positive or negative light.
Obviously, not many people are going to enjoy watching a movie with someone who sits through it passing moral judgment on every single action. That said, I think it’s worth thinking about what the reaction might be if you spoke up and said “Wow that was misogynistic, wasn’t it?” or “That guy clearly has zero respect for his girlfriend” or “Yikes! Survey says … creepy!”.
If you find yourself thinking it would go down badly, that might be a sign something needs to be said. If that’s the case: challenge yourself; don’t let those things pass awkwardly without comment; voice those issues, and keep voicing them until you are sure they are passing nobody by.
If they roll their eyes – good! That means they were already half-expecting you to say it and so it has started to enter their thinking too. Maybe they’ll hear you saying it even when you’re not around and maybe they’ll start saying it too.