Is the next frontier of feminism empowering young men?
“Most of us now celebrate the idea of girl power,” writes Rachel Giese. Where does that leave boys?
BY Rachel Giese
In journalist and author Rachel Giese’s new book, Boys, she talks to experts, activists, parents and boys themselves about the challenges facing today’s young men, from toxic masculinity to gender stereotypes to that most enduring—and damaging—of phrases: “man up.” In this excerpt, she argues that while young women have been empowered by decades of feminism, we haven’t spent enough time thinking about the messages our boys are receiving—or how those messages contribute to the men they’ll become.
In the thirty years between my son’s childhood and my own, gender roles and expectations have continued to evolve and progress. Millennial women have enlivened feminism, reconstituting the women’s rights movement as dynamic, inclusive and intersectional—the last a term coined by U.S. law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s to describe overlapping social identities (such as being black, female and gay, or disabled and Muslim). Beyoncé and Katy Perry proudly proclaim themselves feminists. Teen Vogue and Rookie run stories about rape culture, reproductive rights and transgender pride. In popular culture for girls, strong, smart female characters have flourished, in movies and TV series including Inside Out, Doc McStuffins and Moana, and in the arrival of a big-screen Wonder Woman and Star Wars’ Jedi heroine Rey. As a culture, we have poked enough holes in assumptions about femininity and femaleness that most of us now celebrate the idea of girl power. We believe that girls can and should play sports, that they’re capable of excelling at science and math, that they can be both vulnerable and strong, that they may grow up to be soldiers, presidents, teachers, doctors and engineers. There has been a wealth of academic research and media conversations about the impact of gender stereotypes on girls’ self-esteem, behaviours and opportunities. We recognize the value of strong, varied female role models, and we have well-honed critiques about the influence of Barbie and porn on girls’ body image and sexuality.
But when it comes to challenging gender stereotypes and their effects on boys, we haven’t been nearly as thorough or thoughtful. In her 2004 book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks argues that one of the oversights of feminism “has been the lack of a concentrated study of boyhood, one that offers guidelines and strategies for alternative masculinity and ways of thinking about maleness.” One reason for this is that, generally speaking, boys have a higher status than girls in a sexist culture, so we assume they only benefit from this inequality. But as hooks points out, “Status and even the rewards of privilege are not the same as being loved.” She’s correct: we haven’t cast enough of a critical eye on the demands of masculinity—for instance, the expectations that men be physically aggressive, sexually dominant, emotionally stoic, tough and in control—and the impact those expectations have on boys who do and don’t live up to them. Even when we are cognizant or critical of these rules, it’s usually in response to an act of violence, a school shooting, a gang rape, a campaign of online harassment; or it’s in reaction to an alarming statistic about boys’ dysfunction, such as their struggles in school, their failure to launch into adulthood or their escalating rates of depression and suicide. We’re afraid for boys or afraid of them. But this fear does little to help them.
The sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights movements, technological innovation, globalization: taken together, these movements have altered, to an unprecedented degree, what it means to be male. “I began to realize that something seismic had shifted the economy and the culture,” writes Hanna Rosin in her 2012 bestseller, The End of Men and the Rise of Women. “Not only for men but for women, and that both sexes were going to have to adjust to an entirely new way of working and living and even falling in love.” Recounting the ways that some women have surpassed men—in schools, in the workforce and in the home—Rosin argues that the balance of power has profoundly and irrevocably been transformed. And as old notions about masculinity and femininity fall away, there is a palpable angst about what should replace them. This time of instability and change has given rise to a pervasive belief that gains in rights and power for women must mean men are losing out. And this thinking has trickled down to girls and boys as well. According to a 2015 poll by MTV on gender bias, young men have mixed feelings about equality. Twenty-seven percent of boys aged 14 to 24 said gains by women have come at the expense of males, while 46 percent of them said feminism implies negative feelings about men.
It’s not hard to understand why some boys and young men see it that way. If we only imagine gender equality as being about empowering girls, then what’s in it for them? As Gloria Steinem once said, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.” Put another way: in order for change to be real and lasting, feminism can’t stop at transforming the lives of girls and women; it has to transform the lives of boys and men too. My friend Elvira Kurt, a comedian and writer, has a son and a daughter. In one of her stand-up shows, she did a bit on being a feminist mother raising a boy and a girl. With her daughter, she said, she’s always trying to fill up the basket of her self-esteem, telling her she’s talented, smart and strong, and can do whatever she wants when she grows up. As for her son—who, she pointed out, is at the top of the pecking order as a white male—she thought it would be a good idea to take a few things out of his basket, to lower his self-esteem, just a little, to even things out. She was kidding, but she also revealed an uncomfortable dilemma for anyone who cares about the well-being of young men. How do we uncouple their maleness from misogyny and male entitlement? How do we encourage them to think critically about the messages they receive about masculinity and push back against gender expectations that hurt themselves and others? And what can we learn from feminism and the fight for equality for girls and women, to create more liberating and expansive forms of masculinity for boys and men?