One of the difficulties that those of us who are looking to challenge the Act Like a Man Box (see my post The Performance of Masculinity for an explanation of that, if you aren’t familiar with it) is that the Box itself gets in the way. My observation is that’s because “believes in the Box” is inside the Box, so when a man starts to question it, the guys in the Box immediately perceive him to be outside it and dismiss anything he says about it.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen a lot of men who want to break out of the Box do so by rejecting everything inside it. I’ll come out of the closet here and admit that for a few years, I was a Sensitive New Age Guy. I never liked watching or talking about sports and I’ve always been more attuned to my feelings than most men seemed to be, so it was pretty easy to do. And what I eventually came to see is that by rejecting everything inside the Box, I was just as trapped as the men who were buying into it.
To oppose something is to maintain it.
-Ursula Le Guin
The most tricky thing about the Box is that nobody can ever be everything in it. Some men will never be able to meet some of the requirements. I’m 5’6″ (167 cm for those of you in a country that has a sensible measuring system). I’m never going to be tall, which immediately puts me outside the Box, and even when I was lifting weights four times a week, I got tone instead of bulk. And of course, men who are queer and/or transgender and people who are genderqueer can’t fit into the Box, even if they comply with all of the other requirements. Some of the other characteristics of the guy in the Box are achievable for some men, but only for a while. What happens to men who become disabled or who are too old for the Box? And some of the items in the box are contradictory. You can’t be a mechanic and a CEO. I’ve talked with men who are convinced they’re not Real Men because they aren’t rich and I’ve talked with men who are convinced they aren’t Real Men because they don’t work with their hands.
The Box is a game that you just can’t win. You might be able to for a while, but if you live long enough, you’ll find yourself on the outside sooner or later.
So I understand what prompts some men to reject everything inside the Box, but I don’t think that’s the way to go because not everything in the Box is inherently bad. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a caretaker unless it becomes controlling. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive until you start hurting others. There’s nothing wrong with liking sports or cars, or being muscular, or having multiple sexual partners, or being a leader, unless you’re doing it to perform masculinity rather than because it’s what you genuinely want to do. Performing masculinity tends to lead men to become controlling or abusive or hurtful to other people because the performance is more important than respecting other people and making room for their needs. And the problem is the performance rather than masculinity itself.
I think that the challenge is to figure out which ingredients of masculinity feed you and which hold you back. To decide which parts support you and which ones can you prune away. We don’t need to reject everything that’s in the Box, we need to reject the Box itself. And then we need to figure out which of the pieces are worth keeping and which ones we can get rid of.
In my observation, butch women, transgender men, and other non-cisgender-male folks who run masculine energy often move through this process with more ease and grace. I’ve talked with quite a few people about how they tried on the Box as part of their explorations of gender and identity, and how they learned how to pick and choose what felt authentic to them. It’s a very similar process to the one that cisgender men face, but without the years or decades of training and habit, it’s usually a much smoother journey. But the similarity highlights that it’s possible.
So how do we do it? I can think of a few parts of the process. These aren’t listed in order to priority and this isn’t a suggested sequence of steps. You can do as many of these at the same time as you have bandwidth for.
First, we can let go of the idea of gender being an either/or. And we can also let go of the idea that gender is a zero-sum game. You can have as many characteristics that are traditionally thought of as male as you like and you can have as many that are traditionally thought of as female as you want, without that coming into conflict. It isn’t as if you have to give up one in order to get the other. What if you could imagine having both? What if you could fix cars and bake cakes? What if you could enjoy sports and talk about your emotions? Gender isn’t a spectrum, it’s a buffet. And you can have as much of any of the dishes on it as you like.
Second, it’s important to find other people who are engaging in this work. My grandmother told me that we should give our time to the people who are like the person we want to be. I’ve found that to be really good advice. Most people are social creatures and we tend to shift how we act and (eventually) how we think and feel in response to the people around us. Building a community of people to support our explorations helps. That can be hard to do when you’re starting out because you might have some negative judgments about the men who are outside the Box. That’s part of the experience and all you can do is lean into your discomfort and explore it.
Third, learn how to identify and process your feelings. Boys and men have all of the same feelings and combinations of emotions that women do, but most of us didn’t learn how to talk about them. When little kids are taught colors, they learn red, yellow, blue. As they grow up, they might develop the ability to name different shades, like royal blue, sky blue, or robin’s egg blue. Similarly, children can learn to identify their feelings in some basic ways and then learn a more nuanced language as they grow up. But imagine if you never taught a child about the color blue. How could you expect them to be able to tell the difference between the different shades when it’s time to paint something? Isn’t that pretty much what happens to men who never learned how to talk about their feelings?
Learning how to make room for your emotions and how to talk about them takes practice. It takes time. And it’s easier with a little help. Whether you get that help from a book, or a therapist, or a men’s group, or somewhere else, you need someone to reflect things back to you, just as children need that from their parents/caretakers. As hard as it can be to learn how to do it, it’ll make your interpersonal relationships a lot easier. Plus, it’ll help you live longer. My one big suggestion is to not make your partner the only person who helps you with this. They certainly have a role to play and can be a major support, but you need more than that because relying only on your partner is almost guaranteed to stress your relationship out a lot. Plus, your relationship will inspire some of your emotions and your partner has a bias- they can’t help it. You deserve to get support from people who don’t have that bias.
Fourth, examine your internalized homophobia, sexism, and transphobia. Rigid gender roles are closely linked with them and learning to let go of gender essentialism and gender-based prejudices will go a long way to letting go of the Box. After all, the Box’s foundation is the idea that rigid gender roles are natural and that Real Men are better than everyone else. If you want to get rid of the box, you need to get rid of that, too.
As part of that, you’re going to need to learn about the very real privileges that come from being male, from being heterosexual, from being cisgender (assuming that you are, in fact, heterosexual and cisgender). You’re going to need to learn to recognize it, to make room for the effects it has on other people, and to try to let go of it as much as possible. Male privilege is the prize you get for being in the Box and you can’t get out of the Box when you’re trying to hold onto it. Listen to what women, queers, transgender and genderqueer folks have to say without trying to correct them. Learn to set aside your defensiveness and justifications so that you can hear their words. Thank them for taking the time to share their insights with you- they don’t owe it to you (believing that they do is another manifestation of privilege) so show some gratitude, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. And don’t expect them to be grateful that you gave them the opportunity. See above- they don’t owe it to you.
This step might be easier if you take a break from the overwhelmingly common images of the Box that we get from the media. When we’re constantly being reminded of what men are supposed to be, it’s harder to let go of the Box. That’s especially true when you’re starting out and don’t yet have the solidity that comes from experience. Try it and see if it works for you.
Fifth, learn new ways of being sexual. The guy in the Box is caught up in a very narrow view of what sex can be. One of the pleasures of breaking out of it is discovering how much more there is to sex. It’s as if you’ve been limited to just one flavor of ice cream (or maybe one flavor with some occasional toppings) and then finding out that there are dozens more. And it isn’t just different types of sex that you can experience when you aren’t worried about being outside of the Box. It’s also exploring what sex looks like when you aren’t trying to perform or to score. It’s about learning how to receive as well as give pleasure. It’s about letting go of thinking that all sex requires your penis and that your penis needs to be big and hard in order for sex to happen. And it might even be about trying types of sex that you think Real Men don’t do, like prostate play, erotic submission, or using vibrators. There are whole worlds of pleasure and sex that the Box doesn’t let you experience, and they’re waiting for you. Have fun!
Sixth, remember that this is a process. It took a long time for you to get to this point in your life and it’ll take a while to create new ways of moving through the world. Make room for that and it’ll go a lot more smoothly.
I don’t think that these are all of the pieces of the puzzle, but they are the first ones that come to my mind. If anyone has additional suggestions, feel free to comment below.
It’s easy to demonize and reject men and masculinity. But my experience is that our problems come from our relationships to masculinity rather than masculinity itself because there’s a lot of good stuff there, too. Learning to let go of the Box gives us the room to envision other ways to think of masculinity and to create new relationships to it. It gives us room to change the part it plays in our lives so that it can support us instead of crushing us. And it lets us recognize that masculinity has a lot to offer, no matter what your gender, sexual orientation, and gender expression happens to be.