The gender equality discussion which has again risen to prominence as a result of “Me To” has also prompted a re-visit of the notion that men are boxed in by stereotypical notions of what it is to be a real man. According to some masculinity writers the “Man Box” is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is. A real man is most importantly strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a man’s man. This “real man” represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. He has dominated our movies and television. He defines what we expect from our political leaders.. He is our symbol for what is admirable and honorable in American men..
My question is,” Is this all bad?” To begin with we all need boxes -more formally role expectations. These are shaped both by biology and culture and give us a structure to help us define ourselves. Clearly it is important that these expectations are not overly rigid and do provide some room for re-definition. However, it is a mistake for a man to pretend to discard the Man Box leaving him with no sense of what it is to be a man. Instead we need to redefine not abandon the notion of the Man Box.
The rubric that real men don’t show emotions – real men don’t cry – misses an important distinction between feeling emotions and how we express those emotions. Are strength and stoicism negative characteristics? The first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that stoicism is about suppressing one’s emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. Rather, stoics are taught to transform emotions in order to achieve inner calm. Emotions – of fear, or anger, or love – are instinctive human reactions to certain situations, and cannot be avoided. But the reflective mind can distance itself from the raw emotion and contemplate whether the emotion in question should be absorbed and cultivated. What does this look like? Basically it is keeping one’s cool in order to respond to a situation in the most thoughtful way despite what one is feeling. I don’t think it much of a stretch to imagine a situation where a man is feeling fear or extreme sadness but chooses to not share the feeling in order to protect his family and take necessary action.
It would be helpful for both men and women to look at the Man Box with a more discerning perspective instead of simply accepting the simplistic narrative that the concept of a real men is an artifact of an earlier age.