Boys, you’re in cages too!
Two weeks ago, after having dinner and cleaning up the dishes, NTV news droned on. I walked over to flip the channel, but then I noticed a particular and disturbing pattern in the reporting.
The first story was about several male government officials who had been caught lying and cheating to keep their power. The
second story included footage of a police officer brutally beating an unarmed teenage boy.Then these stories:
Woman found in septic tank kept diary of torture by husband.
Man kills wife, maid after botched rape attempt.
Gender violence top cause of stress among refugee women.
10-year-old boy kills father in Rukungiri.
I stared openmouthed at the TV and thought:
Oh my God.
This is what it looks like for boys to try to comply with our culture’s directions.
They are not allowed to be whole, either.
Boys are in cages, too.
Boys who believe that real men are all-powerful will cheat and lie and steal to claim and keep power.
Boys who believe that girls exist to validate them will take a woman’s rejection as a personal affront to their masculinity.
Boys who believe that open, vulnerable connection between men is shameful will violently hate physically weak or “sissy”boys.
Boys who believe that men don’t cry will become men who rage.
Boys who learn that pain is weakness will die before they ask for help.
Being a Ugandan boy is a setup.Our cultures train boys to believe that the way to become a man is to objectify and conquer women, value wealth and power above all, and suppress any emotions other than competitiveness and rage. Then we are stunned when boys become exactly what we have trained them to be. Boys cannot follow our directions, but they are cheating and dying and killing as they try to.
Everything that makes a boy human is a “real man’s” dirty secret.
Our men are caged, too. The parts of themselves they must hide to fit into those cages are the slices of their humanity that our culture has labeled “feminine” — traits like mercy, tenderness, softness, quietness,
kindness, humility, uncertainty, empathy, connection. We tell them, “Don’t be these things, because these are feminine things to be. Be anything but feminine.” The problem is that the parts of themselves that our boys have been banished from are not feminine traits; they are human traits. There is no such thing as a feminine quality, because there is no such
thing as masculinity or femininity. “Femininity” is just a set of human characteristics a culture pours into a bucket and slaps with the label
Gender is not wild, it’s prescribed. When we say, “Girls are nurturing and boys are ambitious. Girls are soft and boys are tough. Girls are emotional and boys are stoic,” we are not telling truths, we are sharing beliefs — beliefs that have become mandates. If these statements seem true, it’s because everyone has been so well programmed. Human qualities are not gendered. What is gendered is permission to express certain traits. Why? Why would our culture prescribe such strict gender roles? And why would it be so important for our culture to label all tenderness and mercy as feminine?
Because disallowing the expression of these qualities is the way the status quo keeps its power. In a culture as imbalanced as ours — in which a few hoard billions while others starve, in which wars are fought for oil, in which children are shot and killed while gun manufacturers and politicians collect the blood money — mercy, humanity, and vulnerability cannot be tolerated. Mercy and empathy are great threats to an unjust society. So how does power squash the expression of these traits? In a misogynistic culture, all that is needed is to label them feminine. Then we can forever discount them in women and forever shame them out of men. Ta-da: no more messy, world-changing tenderness to deal with. We can continue on without our shared humanity challenging the status quo in any way.
Of recent I watched an “ALEXA” advert on YouTube, the commercial was about a couple who had just become parents. The young mother left the baby with his father to return to work for the first time. The camera followed the father around the house as their Alexa chirped constant reminders that the mother had programmed the night before: “Don’t forget music class at nine! Don’t forget lunch at noon, the bottle’s in the fridge! You’re doing a great job!” Viewers were meant to swoon at the sweetness. All I could think was: Did this father just arrive on Earth? Is he new here? Why does he need minute-by-minute coaching in order to care for his baby? What did preparation for this day look like for this baby’s mother? In addition to getting ready to go back to work, this mama spent the previous night thinking through every minute of her husband’s next day. She anticipated each of his and his baby’s needs, and then she trained Alexa to hold the father’s hand all day so he did not have to think at all. But this father appeared to be a grown man who loved his son. There was no earthly reason why he would not be every bit as capable of caring for his son as his wife was. They were both new parents. How had one of them become so helpless?
Mothers send their sons the wrong message from a young age. Using the excuse that he takes tough classes, stays up all hours of the night studying, he has more “manly” responsibilities to cater for. You straighten his room for him while he is at school[Even at home in the holiday], you do his laundry, and clean up the nightly mess he leaves out in the family room[or in most cases call his sister to clean it out yet it took two to mess it up]. He can ask to skip the dishes to go finish his homework, while his sisters finish up the dishes.In doing all these you have accidentally taught boys that achieving out there is more important than serving their family . Mothers have taught boys that home is where you spend your leftover energy, out there is where you give your best. I need to course-correct by giving boys this bottom line: I don’t give a two damns how much respect you earn for yourself out in the world if you are not showing respect to the people inside your home. If you don’t get that right, nothing you do out there will matter much.
Another scenario, of recent one of my male friends asked me why women claim to want men that have vulnerability but yet are attracted to masculine men.
I read a story online about a man named Jason. He and his wife, Natasha, were trying to raise their son differently. They want Tyler to be able to express all of his emotions safely, so Jason has been modeling vulnerability by expressing himself more openly in front of his son and his wife. He also mentioned that, “This might be in my head, but I feel like when
I try to get vulnerable, Natasha gets uncomfortable. She says she wants
me to be sensitive, but the two times I’ve cried in front of her or admitted that I was afraid, I’ve felt her pull back.” Natasha when asked about it she confessed that “I can’t believe he noticed that, but he’s right. When he cries, I feel weird. I am embarrassed to say that what I feel is kind of like disgust. Last month he admitted that he was afraid about money. I told him we would get through it together, but, on the inside, I felt myself thinking: Man up, dude. MAN UP? I’m a feminist, for God’s sake. It’s terrible. It doesn’t make any sense.”
It’s not terrible, and it makes perfect sense. Since women are equally poisoned by our culture’s standards of manhood, we panic when men venture out of their cages. Our panic shames them right back in. So we must decide whether we want our partners, our brothers, our sons to be strong and alone or free and held.
Perhaps part of a woman’s freeing herself is freeing her partner, her father, her brother, and her son. When our men and boys cry, let’s not say to them with our words or energy, “Don’t cry, honey.” Let’s get comfortable allowing our men to gently and consistently express the pain of being human, so that violent release isn’t their go-to option. Let’s embrace our strength so our men can take their turn being soft. Let us — men, women, and all those in between or beyond — reclaim our full humanity. Our boys are born with great potential for nurturing, caring, loving, and serving. Let’s stop training it out of them.