Men are often compelled to posit their bodies in ways that reassert their masculinity. A group of male friends skip a seat between one another in the movie theater. Two men sit across from each other on the train despite the unoccupied adjacent seats. A father pushes a stroller from the side with one hand instead of from behind it. These methods are a means to navigate a society with a very constricted notion of manhood.
Boys, like girls, are conditioned from the moment they leave the womb. They are dressed in blue clothing or their toys are mostly trucks and action figures. They are taught to be tough, aggressive, to excel at sports and to not be emotional. Paul Kivel writes in his essay ‘The Act-Like-a-Man Box,” “The key to staying in the box is control. Boys are taught to control their bodies, control their feelings, control their relationships—to protect themselves from being vulnerable.”
Control (and lack therefore) is a highly nuanced concept when looking specifically at Black males. Anti-violence educator Jackson Katz notes, “If you’re a young man growing up in this culture, and the culture is telling you that being a man means being powerful…but you don’t have a lot of real power, one thing that you do have access to is your body and your ability to present yourself physically as someone worthy of respect.” As a result, many Black men posit their bodies in ways that connote a command over their space and their immediate surroundings.
The distance men often create from other men and from “women’s work” (for instance, the father pushing the baby stroller) is a way to remain inside this box. Stepping outside of the box can lead to physical or verbal abuse. When our boys and our men step outside this box, they’re labeled “wimp”, “pussy”, “fag” or “bitch.” They are often emasculated. These men are then associated with the two things society has deemed antithetical to manhood: homosexuality and femininity.
“Behind the bravura they are often confused, scared, angry, and wanting closeness with others,” Kivel adds. “But being in the box precludes closeness and makes intimacy unlikely.” As Kivel notes, men crave closeness and intimacy—both physically and emotionally. In other cultures, it’s commonplace for two heterosexual men to hold hands while walking down the street or for two men to embrace and look each other directly in the eyes when holding a conversation.
Men can certainly make the choice to step out of the box, but it’s important that mothers teach their sons that it’s okay to do so. We can encourage our brothers, boyfriends, husbands and friends by not instinctively questioning their sexuality or “manliness” based on how closely they engage with other men or how comfortably they perform tasks typically done by women.
Manhood and masculinity are both social constructions—they are created and enforced by individuals like you and me. They are also malleable. We have the ability to change or eradicate them.