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How a Boy Learns to be a Man: Three Moments

Michael Kimmel

As someone who is both a researcher and an activist about masculinity issue, I’m often asked: where does it start? How does a boy learn all that stuff about masculinity? While these images surround us, bombard us, on a daily basis, it’s only through watching my son, Zachary’s experiences that I’ve seen so clearly how one comes to understand that masculinity is a performance, a pose, a posture, how it is extracted from us, and the psychic and physical toll it demands.

Below are three vignettes from three different moments in that process.

1. Age 3
Zachary loved to play a game we called “opposites.” You know the game: I say a word, and he tells me the opposite. They’re simple and fun, and we have a great time playing it. One evening, my mother was visiting, and the three of us were walking in our neighborhood park playing Opposites. Scratchy/smooth, tall/short, high/low, fast/slow – you get the idea. Then my mother asked, “Zachary, what’s the opposite of boy?”

My whole body tensed. Here it comes, I thought, Mars and Venus, the “opposite” sex, the whole gender binary.

Zachary looked up at his grandmother and said, “Man.”

2. Age 8
As Zachary’s 8th birthday approached, his mother and I asked what sort of theme he wanted for his party. For the past two years, we’d had a skating party at the local rink – the rink where his hockey team skates early on Saturday mornings. He rejected that idea. “Been there and done that, Dad,” was the end of that. “And besides I skate there all the time.”

Other themes that other boys in his class had recently had – indoor sports activities, a Red Bulls soccer game, secret agent treasure hunt – were also summarily rejected. What could he possibly want?

“A dancing party,” he said finally. “One with a disco ball.”

His mother and I looked at each other. “A dancing party?” we asked. “But Zachary, you’re only eight.”

“Oh, no, not like a dancing party like that,” he said, making air quotation marks. “I mean like Cotton Eye Joe and the Virginia Reel and Cha Cha Slide and like dance games.”

So a dancing party it was -- for 24 of his closest friends (his school encourages inviting everyone to the party). And a perfectly even split of boys and girls.

All twelve girls danced their heads off. “This is the best party ever!” shouted Grace. The other girls squealed with delight.

Four of the boys, including Zachary, danced right along with them. They were having a blast.

Four other boys walked in, checked out the scene, and immediately walked over to a wall, where they folded their arms across their chest, and leaned back. “I don’t dance,” said one. “Yuck,” said another. They watched, periodically tried to disrupt the dancing, seemed to make fun of the dancers, stuffed themselves with snacks and had a lousy time.

Four other boys began the afternoon by dancing happily, with not a hint of self-consciousness. But then they saw the leaners, the boys propped up against the wall. One by one they stopped, went over to the wall, and watched.

But they couldn’t hold the pose for long. They kept looking at the kids dancing their hilarious line dances, or the freeze dance, and they inched their way back, dancing like fiends, only to stop, notice the passive leaners again, and drift back to the wall.

Back and forth they went all afternoon, alternatingly exhilarated and exasperated, joyously dancing and joylessly watching. My heart ached for them as I watched them pulled between being children and being guys.

Or is it between being people and being guys. People capable of a full range of pleasures – from smashing an opposing skater into the boards and that down-on-the knee fist pump after scoring a goal, to do-si-doing your partner or that truly inane faux lassoing in Cotton Eyed Joe. Or guys, for whom pleasure now becomes defined as making fun of other people’s joy.

Poised between childhood and adult masculinity, they were choosing, and one could see how agonizing it was. They hated being on the sidelines, yet stayed impervious until they could stand it no longer. But once they were back on the dance floor, they were piercingly aware that they were now the objects of ridicule.

I thought of this today when yet another journalist asked me a question I am probably asked once a week, as each newspaper or magazine “discovers” that men are confused about what it means to be a man these days.

This is the price we pay to be men: the suppression of joy, sensuality, and exuberance. It is meager compensation to feel superior to the other chumps who have the audacity to enjoy themselves.

I pray my dancing fool of a son will resist the pull of that wall. His is the dance of childhood.

3. Age 10
As Zachary and I were walking to school, I asked him the same question I usually ask young men in workshops in college campuses and high schools. “What do you think it means to be a man?” I asked.

Zachary thought about it for a moment. “That’s funny, Dad” he said. We were just talking about that on my soccer team. One of my teammates said ‘Who cares if you’re hurt! You gotta be a man, be tough enough to play through the pain.’ So I guess it means being tough.”

A few steps later, he stopped walking. In one of those moment s familiar to parents, he simply stood there thinking so hard that one could imagine seeing the gears in his head working away. “Actually, Dad,” he said, “I think it’s not about being tough. I think it means acting tougher than you really are.”

Michael Kimmel is a renowned American sociologist whose specialty is pro-feminism. A professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he is the editor of Men and Masculinities, a spokesperson of NOMAS (The National Organization For Men Against Sexism), and the author, most recently, of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.

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