America Is Not Doing Right By Boys

Thoughts on our culture imbued with a toxic model of masculinity

By James Falciano

Art by James Falciano

Art by James Falciano

America is not doing right by boys. The ripples of this shortcoming can be felt throughout society far and wide. It is a sad and unfortunate reality. If you look at all the mass shootings that are currently plaguing our country, what is the common denominator? All the perpetrators are maladjusted men.  If you were to look back through all of human history to the origin of major worldwide conflicts, genocides, atrocities, and pain, more than likely what do you think you’ll find as the root cause? Men. I say it often, and I stand by it – if we were to change how we raise males, I believe we can eradicate many of the problems facing our country, and the human race as a whole.

I don’t think men are inherently broken. I think they are trapped in a paradox, a system that sets them up to fail from the start. They are living in a model of masculinity that is stifling, constricting, limiting, exhausting and quite frankly, painful and damaging. And the sad thing is they don’t realize it, because they are not taught to accept and confront their own emotions, let alone process them in a healthy manner. Emotional well-being is deemed the feminine realm, and our current standard of masculinity is nothing more than a negation of all that is feminine. So we in turn raise men who do not understand themselves or their emotions, and send them out into the world bumbling around in the dark so to speak.  Their pain is transferred towards others, and the system of violence continues. They are trapped because they are not encouraged to seek any kind of help for their mental and emotional well-being, or to show any kind of vulnerability because that is seen as a sign of weakness.

A hallmark of our perverse standards of masculinity seems to be a show of strength and dominance over those who are deemed “weaker”.  Look no further than our current president, who could teach a master class in how to ostracize anyone he deems as a “weak link” in our society. This model of masculinity is unavoidable if you are an American man. Our version of manliness seems to boil down to power over others.

Power at all times! Never show emotion! Never show fear! Be a man! Man up!

Those words are so incredibly damaging, and depressing. They set young boys up with this seemingly unattainable yardstick of the masculine ideal that they are constantly measuring themselves, and other boys, up to. In their pain and insecurity, many times they identify a boy in their midst who very obviously does not fit the mold of this ideal, and use them as a verbal (and in many cases physical) punching bag for their own pain. I was such a boy, but at the very least I am thankful that it was only verbal insults hurled my way.

It is perhaps sad, and extremely enlightening, how easy it is to emasculate most men. One little remark about how their appearance or interests may be straying towards the feminine could completely derail their sense of self and cause them to withdraw or lash out. That seems to be the default of most men, to retreat further into themselves and bury their emotions, or to externalize their pain by putting down or even physically hurting others, many times women. Men are not allowed to show vulnerability, so their pain is internalized, and they become ticking time bombs of pent up emotion. Many press on and adjust, but some (like the shooters we are seeing or the high powered men who exploit women) quite literally explode. In that sense we are creating our very own, home grown terrorists and sexual predators in these men who have no healthy outlet for all their pent up pain and aggression.

It is to our detriment that we deny any kind of feminine expression in men. It speaks to the deeper issue of inherent misogyny in our culture, that femme = weak and somehow “less than”. I truly believe gender identity and expression is a spectrum, and we all fall somewhere on it rather than this extreme binary our society seems intent on propagating. I know in myself it has taken years to accept those parts of myself that are femme, but there is such beauty and power in the duality of masculine and feminine energies found within.  When you allow them to, they work in perfect harmony together and it is a natural, beautiful thing. I believe that duality is present in many queer men for sure, but I also have to believe given the opportunity even heterosexual men would be freer with their appearance, expression and interests if they felt like they could do so without the constant fear of emasculation. It’s crazy to me how the “be a man!” mentality seeps into all aspects of our culture. From movies to music, clothing to hair, sports culture to cars…even the products we buy are categorized for men or women. Shampoo is labeled “For Men” and slapped into a blue bottle. It’s insane to me how much men are in constant need of validation for this extreme identity they are trying so hard to fulfill. It seems like such a waste of energy and genuine authenticity.

I do wonder sometimes if many men are born with an inherent penchant for aggression. You see it when they gravitate towards action movies and violent video games and intense sports. I accept that some of this must be genuine and possibly linked to the hunter/gatherer days of our species. Yet I HAVE to believe we can find more balanced, healthier ways for boys to channel natural aggression and testosterone rather than towards one another, women or anyone deemed “weaker”. I have to believe we can change the definition of a “real men” to be one who is in touch with himself, his emotions, and his more sensitive sensibilities. I have to believe we can teach men to respect women and appreciate femininity as a whole right from the start. We can give them the option to freely explore interests that may stray towards what is now strictly “femme territory”, such as experimenting with hair and clothing in new and exciting ways outside the limitations we’ve placed on the expression of masculinity.

I hope we can re-write what it means to be a man; that we can nurture a generation of men who are more nuanced, self-aware and empathetic. I hope we can teach young boys that there is strength in showing emotion; that there is strength in taking care of one’s mental health and respecting those around you. True strength isn’t a show of aggression; rather it is in allowing oneself to be vulnerable sometimes. I wish we could teach boys to dig under the surface of someone they may not understand and try to empathize with them, to stand in solidarity with them rather than put them down for their differences. I have to believe that we can raise a kinder type of boy, who will in turn become a kinder type of man; one who knows his mind, heart and soul, understands his place in this world, and respects life in all its many diverse forms.