The latest Masculinity Research article, originally published at The Good Men Project.
Defining the “Man Box”
These days it is common to read about the “man box.” In a recent report, the progressive organization Promundo described the man box as “a set of beliefs, communicated by parents, families, the media, peers, and other members of society, that place pressure on men to be a certain way.” Specifically, these pressures “tell men to be self-sufficient, to act tough, to be physically attractive, to stick to rigid gender roles, to be heterosexual, to have sexual prowess, and to use aggression to resolve conflicts.”
On my model The Five Stages of Masculinity, the man box maps to Stage 2, which is where people have traditional ideas about how masculinity should look. Given The Five Stages of Masculinity contains three further stages beyond Stage 2, it comes as no surprise that I would consider the man box to be limiting to everyone.
Progressive critiques of the man box are undoubtedly well-meaning: their intention is to free men from their constraints so they can enjoy greater levels of wellbeing. But good intentions do not necessarily result in good effects, and I want to sound a word of caution about how progressives frame their alternative to the man box.
Out of One Box and into Another
On The Five Stages of Masculinity, progressives are mostly located at Stage 3 and typically align with values sympathetic to feminism. Progressive alternatives to the man box suggest that men should get in touch with their emotions, become comfortable with vulnerability, acknowledge that men can cry, and so on. That all sounds fine, but let’s take a moment. While this looks like men becoming in some way more holistic, there is actually a specific vision for men being communicated via this progressive alternative to the man box. Stage 2 tells us that men should look tough, whereas Stage 3 tells us that men should look vulnerable. Both stages tell us how men should look.
Note, there is also some redefining of terms going on here. Stage 3 tells us that men should get in touch with their emotions, but what they really mean is that men should get in touch with a specific set of emotions. If we look at Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions we can see emotions that progressives claim define the man box, such as anger and rage. So men in the man box are already in touch with emotions, just not the ones deemed acceptable by progressives. Of course, it is probably better for everyone not to be engulfed by anger and rage, but this linguistic revisionism suggests a lack of intellectual honesty.
Further still, what of those men who simply do not feel like being vulnerable and crying? Of course, it is better to get out of the man box and be allowed to be vulnerable and cry. But what if, once liberated from the man box, being vulnerable and crying is just not your thing? Maybe Stage 3 claims you are still stuck in the man box or are repressed. Whichever way, you are not living up to what progressives believe men should look like. This sounds suspiciously like just another man box. Sure, the progressive man box is probably less harmful, but it’s a man box nonetheless.
Genuine Liberation from the Man Box
If we are to genuinely escape the man box we must be allowed to be our genuine selves (assuming this does not harm others). Telling men to toughen up when it is not in their nature is a form of psychic abuse that progressives will be happy to confirm. But telling men to soften up when it is not in their nature is equally abusive. Progressives do not seem to understand the authoritarian nature of their vision for men: either this is due to a lack of self-awareness, or a lack of honesty; neither is a good foundation for a lasting solution to men’s wellbeing.
Stage 4 on The Five Stages of Masculinity offers an opportunity for men to be their genuine selves. Sometimes this is going to look like a pink-haired social justice warrior. Sometimes this is going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. As long as neither the SJW nor Arnie claim that this is what masculinity should look like, both are fine and should be celebrated.