“Be a man.” “Man up.” “Grow some balls.” “Don’t let yourself be disrespected.” “Who wears the pants?” “You’re bigger for a reason.” “Don’t let your woman run you.” “Don’t cry.” “Boys don’t wear that color or say those words.”
I could go on.
The more I research how society is hurting women, the more I realize that society is also failing men, just as much. I see it in the ways my students group themselves; whom they sit with, whom they slide away from. I see it in the way they pass each other in the hallway; whom do they fist bump? Whom do they roughly push aside? Whom do they ignore? Whom do they ogle?
We have a peer group culture in the U.S. school systems, and the young men are trying to secure their masculinity by parroting other men or aligning themselves with guys that will make them look more like the norm. There are certain forms to being masculine, just like we’ve created forms for being feminine. Both are oppressive, and I’m sorry for it. I want the best for my students.
The more we tell our guys to “be a man”, the more they think they have to live up to a certain standard of masculinity; the more they have to “prove it” to the world. Anything outside of that sphere becomes lesser; it becomes “not being a man.” And though we may not want to admit it, we can all think of things that fit an image of being un-manly. And that’s a failure on our part. When we tell a guy that he shouldn’t let himself be disrespected, and then we link protection and respect to hurting others or being the biggest dog on the block, then manliness becomes linked to violence.
Are there positives behind telling someone “be a man?” Yes, the case can be made. But I’d rather tell him, “Express yourself. Be human. I know this grade sucked, but we’ll work on it. I know you like your classmate, but don’t try to dominate.”
I have guy students come to my office hours upset about their grades. Once or twice they tear up. Then they beg me not to mention it. Or they hide it as fast as possible.
What’s worse are the guys who are so upset about their grades or are struggling in school and don’t express it AT ALL. I’d prefer that they cry or yell. Instead they sit across from me, stone-faced, hands twitching, muttering, asking the same questions again and again: “what if I work on this? Can I still pass the class?” I think years of “be a man” is taking its toll. What’s going to happen when it’s not just a D grade on a college essay? There are greater things that will shake their worlds and how will they get that out of their system, safely and healthily?
If we’re going to tell our girls and women that they should be allowed to wear and feel and express themselves how they want without worrying about harassment, then we should be able to tell our men the same thing. Maybe next time don’t tell your guy “be a man” when he’s not acting the way we think he should. Maybe there’s another way to express that.