“Don’t cry, you’re a boy” is a phrase I’ve heard a teacher or teacher’s assistant say, more than once, at primary school when a boy was crying. Sometimes when they cry, they even stop being a little boy for their fathers and mothers, and quickly turn into buddy.
Not crying or expressing some emotions is still one of the first lessons too many young boys learn. It’s an essential condition to being or becoming a real man. But what does this mean exactly? What are the standards that society tells men follow?
Voces de Matria (an El Toque podcast) took this question and others as the basis for its conversation with feminist lawyer Alina Herrera in Mexico and historian Maikel Colon Pichardo in Barcelona, the latter being the author of Is it easy to be a man and hard to be black?
Alina mentions “hegemonic masculinities” that stem from two core ideas: one in a horizontal sense, of men against their male counterparts, and a vertical variant, of men against women.
The activist explains that these views are first established in the home, as it’s the “first place that men learn that women have to take charge of household chores.” In touch with this “free, invisible, ‘non’-work”, children gain their first notions of hierarchy, where men don’t take an equal part in housework and are placed above women. “It’s where the first oppressions are established.”
When it comes to men’s relationship with their male counterparts, there “is a kind of oppression among them, that stems from pacts to prove their own masculinity, proving their virility, strength.”
Other men’s requirements might be hard to satisfy “and even extremely oppressive.” Herrera talks about a study that was called “The Man Box”, which sought to prove, with an exercise, that the men inside the box were the ones who felt most pressured to be what is “a man”.
The box is made up of many pillars, Alina explains. Rigid masculine gender roles, linked to participating as little as possible in tasks that traditionally assigned to women; self-sufficiency, the ability to solve their problems without anyone’s help, which implies weakness, incompetence; both physical and emotional strength, not crying, or showing any weakness at any cost; being physically attractive but without people seeing that you take care of your appearance because you would otherwise fall into feminine stereotypes; prove your heterosexuality at all times, even your hypersexuality, which means not accepting “no” as an answer, and never refusing a woman if she offers herself to you. As well as aggression and control in any kind of conflict.
Questioning behavior models
It has to do with the book Macho, varón, masculino by the Cuban Julio Cesar Gonzalez Pages. The notion of “male honor”, linked to being “tough, strong”, unlike women who are pure and innocent. “Masculinity depends on keeping calm and being a rock in a crisis, with emotions in check. In fact, the way to prove you are a man is never to show any emotion. Boys don’t cry!”, he explains in his guide Masculinities in Motion.
Over the past few decades, both the academic world and gender diversity movement have called into question and broken down this single vision of being a man. “They suggested questioning these behavioral paradigms, which have a negative impact on society in many regards,” Colon says. One of the symptoms of this is directly manifested as the role of “provider”. Likewise, the image of being “risk takers”, which can put men’s health at risk. Men normally behave as if their risk perception were lower. Or they go to the doctor too late, in order to hide pain or weakness.
“We are all affected by patriarchy’s oppression, but oppression isn’t equal for men and women.” We women suffer the consequences more, Alina explains; men are more prone to being violent. This is encouraged by their childhood, social and cultural education. “We aren’t equal when it comes to violence.”
So, is being a man easy? Maikel admits the question “is a bit of a trick question.”
“Patriarchal culture tells you that being a man is easy.” Because society is structured so that it’s easy for men, who abide by its patterns for success.
He explains that, “later, in every man’s development, in the public and private space, we are constantly forced to stick to certain roles and paradigms that make it hard for men’s lives to be full in every aspect.”
Defectors of machismo
Maikel says not all men “are open to leaving this space that they hold in society, which gives them privileges.” This, even if it means they free themselves from some pressure. “They aren’t willing to negotiate these spaces and create a face off between demands from the feminist movement and what many men believe to be symbolic spaces that belong to them.”
Herein comes the question of men’s space within feminism. Can you be a man and feminist? Alina says that this is a “sensitive issue”.
“I don’t believe that a man can be a feminist, but he can be an ally of feminism,” the expert says. “Those men that propose changes to their own machismo. (…) Within this hegemonic masculinity, they can be an ally of feminism or not, depending on how they work on their own toxic masculinities (…) and their ability to break down these notions.”
Meanwhile, Maikel says that he knows men who are feminists. “It’s a movement that defends women. It also pushes the reconstruction of this idea of what it is to be a man. (…) Some people might be willing to break away from these privileges and others not so much,” he admits.
“I like it when we talk about defectors of machismo, and the patriarchy,” Alina says. “This oppression is what has triggered these movements, led by women in this case because we are oppressed. Not led by men because they are the ones who benefit the most from the system.” It’s not only a matter of interpersonal relationships, but also socially visible relationships. Every historic structure is designed for them to dominate.
Maikel insists that men are also “subjected to this patriarchal configuration of society, (even though) women continue to suffer the most.” These movements are what have “dealt with masculinity as a plural concept.” And they contribute to the idea that there is more than one way to being a man, being discussed in certain spaces. It’s a lot more liberating than the pre-established historic standards.