Judy Y. Chu Ed.D.

When Boys Become Boys

Redefining Masculinity for the Greater Good

How the "Be a man" directive is hurting boys and those around them

Posted Nov 04, 2014

The shooting at a Seattle high school last week raises a point that psychologist Joseph H. Pleck, who wrote The Myth of Masculinity (MIT Press, 1981), introduced in his concept of gender role strain. Namely, Pleck revealed that boys’ socialization towards masculine ideals – for instance that emphasize physical toughness, emotional stoicism, and dominance over women – can be detrimental to boys’ (and men’s) well being, despite the advantages of being male and acting masculine. According to Pleck, the problem is not that boys and men have a hard time fitting into a rational notion of masculinity, but that the role itself is internally contradictory and inconsistent. So, it’s not only boys who lack “masculine” qualities who struggle with masculine ideals. Boys who embody traits associated with masculine power and status (e.g., boys who are popular, athletic, one of “the guys”) may also have trouble with societal expectations and pressures to “Be a man.”

Pleck pointed out that masculine ideals, or social constructions of an ideal masculinity, are often larger than life and therefore seldom, if ever, fully attained. As a result, boys who believe that adhering to masculine ideals is necessary to being acceptable, desirable, and successful are destined to strive towards standards in relation to which they will inevitably fall short. This gender role discrepancy -- between how boys feel they are expected to be and how boys experience themselves to be -- can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a compulsion to hide one’s alleged shortcomings. Even boys who manage to represent most aspects of the “Be a man” directive may have their masculinity called into question at any time and by anyone. All it takes a slight misstep (e.g., crying in public, revealing vulnerability, or otherwise crossing traditionally gendered boundaries) and the most “masculine” of boys can be made to feel insecure or ashamed.

Pleck also described how the process of being pressured to fulfill masculine roles (and punished for failing to exhibit masculine behaviors) might be experienced by boys as distressing or painful. This gender role trauma can result from being ridiculed or rejected for deviating from group and cultural norms of masculinity. It can be hard even for sympathetic bystanders to watch as a young (or older) boy who has been hurt physically or emotionally is told by an adult whom he trusts and respects to toughen up and “Take it like a man.” These experiences of humiliation are the wounds that boys carry into adulthood and can either doom them to repeat the past or inspire them to do things differently.

Moreover, Pleck highlighted the fact that some masculine ideals, when achieved, can be harmful to boys’ health and relationships. This gender role dysfunction does not necessarily apply to every quality and behavior deemed masculine. For instance, images of manhood that emphasize responsibility and integrity can help to bring out the best in boys. Rather, Pleck’s assessment refers to notions of masculinity that glorify macho stereotypes and are epitomized by “alpha males”. As recent (and not so recent) shootings have repeatedly shown, masculine ideals that degrade women, encourage an overblown sense of entitlement, and justify violence and aggression as a response to being denied what they want are problematic for boys who buy into this toxic masculinity and also for those around them.

As sociologist Pedro Noguera has asserted, if we want to disrupt the increasingly common patterns of violence committed by boys, we must consider how their social contexts, which are often characterized by hierarchy, competition, and conformity, are impacting their behaviors. Answers to problems inherent in debilitating norms of masculinity lie beyond simply expanding the range of emotions available to individual boys and men. As sociologist Michael Kimmel explains, we cannot create sustainable change for individuals without acknowledging how our social institutions reinforce patriarchal values and impede real progress. An important first step is therefore to redefine masculinity – for individuals and at the societal level -- to stand for attributes that affirm rather than diminish boys’ humanity, and to instill in boys the kind of confidence (as opposed to arrogance) that will enable them to respect and care for themselves and others.