Tony Porter is an educator and activist who is internationally recognized for his effort to end violence against women.
Note: this post has been co-written by two interns: Daniel and Annie.
Last December, Tony Porter spoke to a crowd gathered for TEDWomen, a conference held by Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) to promote women’s rights and women’s issues. The topic of conversation? How to be a man. Or, more specifically, how to be a better man.
“Growing up as a boy, we [sic] were told that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, had to be dominating–no pain, no emotion, with the exception of anger, and definitely no fear,” Porter said, describing life growing up as a boy in New York City. As an adult he came to realize how false these perceptions and lessons were, but as a young man he felt powerless to defy these gender roles and apparent realities, whether he agreed with them or not. That was irrelevant. To defy a gender-stereotyped behavior was to defy not only social convention, but to incur the ridicule of one’s peers as a result. Porter goes on to define these gender-stereotyped behaviors as the collective socialization of men–or what he colloquially refers to as, “the Man Box.” According to Porter, the “Man Box” is inscribed with all the predictable trappings of socially-acceptable (or rather, expected) male social behavior; what he calls “all the ingredients for being a man.”
Porter recounts how, as a father of a young boy and a girl, he became keenly (and suddenly) aware about how he too, was reinforcing some of these stereotypes in the upbringing of his own kids, and noted with particular concern his very different treatment of his daughter and his son in roughly identical situations. When his daughter came to him crying, for example, he immediately became comforter, regardless of what the situation was. But when his son came to him in tears, he said it was as if a clock went off in his head, giving his son a finite amount of time before he’d be instructed to calm down, “man up,” and come back to his father with the appropriate amount of restraint, calm, and poise expected of a man in distress. “Out of my own frustration, of my role and responsibility of building him up as a man to fit into these guidelines and structures that go into defining this Man Box,” he said, “I’d find myself saying things like ‘Go to your room [...] until you can come back and talk to me like a…man.'” It almost didn’t seem to matter that his son was, at the time, only five years old.
Annie: Porter also discusses how the “Man Box” perpetuates men being dominant, controlling and violent towards women. A critical piece of being a man, it seems, is learning to oppress others and deny emotion. Distancing oneself emotionally and seeing victims as only an object facilitates sexual violence and relationship abuse. When men perform in ways that fall outside of the “Man Box” it also leads to ridicule or violence from other men, specifically because that man is acting “like a woman”. Porter recounts talking with adolescent football players and asking them how they would feel if their coach said “you play like a girl.” Expecting the response “embarrassed” or “frustrated” it shocked Porter to hear one boy say “it would destroy me”. What does that say about women? That we value them so little that being compared to one, particularly in a male dominated field like sports is enough to destroy someone? The “Man Box” not only stifles men emotionally it also reinforces the idea women matter less and deserve to be controlled.
Daniel: “As a man myself, I was struck at how deeply I related to Mr. Porter’s message, despite the fact that, aside from our gender, we had next to nothing else in common. Growing up, I vividly remembered a similar incident from my childhood when, at age five or seven, I casually asked my mother a question that (for the first time) seemed to really stump her: “Mom, when was the last time Dad cried?” In contrast to my mother, who cried at everything from UNICEF commercials to the ending of Notting Hill, I’d only ever seen my father exhibit three emotions: anger, amusement, and boredom/disinterest. This perception was, if anything, reinforced by my mother’s answer; in the twenty-three years that I’ve known him, the last time my father was visibly moved to tears was in 1987, apparently on the day I was born.
My parents taught me to not only stay in touch with my emotions, but to express them in healthy, nonviolent ways. This was a surprisingly important lesson, since the popular societal message that I received was that there were only two acceptable ways for a man to openly display his emotions:
- Through violence (preferably against inanimate objects like walls and furniture)
- Not at all. (like Tony Porter learned from his dad)
My parents said that it was okay to talk about my problems, to ask for help and guidance, and even to cry. However, regardless of what they said, by age 8 I had learned that crying in front of others was a sign of weakness – something to be avoided at all costs. And for this reason, I adopted tactics to overcome or disguise what in any other context might be a natural emotional response. I learned how to wipe your eyes without looking like you were crying, or how to conceal the act of crying itself. But despite their best efforts, they couldn’t insulated me against what I felt to be negative pressures applied by popular society onto men and young boys.
Even into early adulthood, when it would seem that we are freer to make up our own minds and less inclined to be peer-pressured in a way of thinking of behaving, I found it difficult to break out of the “Man Box” society had constructed around me. Especially because it seemed that other men had no trouble conforming to that “Box”, and as a result, had no problem with judging me for not doing the same.
The best example of this came in college when I pledged a fraternity. I was careful to pick an organization that reflected my own beliefs. I was particularly pleased by the fact that, at least initially, a point was made to actively recruit members who could be built up and shaped into “real men”: men who were honorable, reliable, and respectful–both to women, and to other men. But, as it became increasingly difficult to compete with more traditional, “Man-boxed” fraternities, we found ourselves routinely bowing to external pressure to become more stereotypically male.
We adopted an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with respect to our openly gay member. We didn’t ask, they didn’t tell, and even if they did, we wouldn’t listen or pretended not to hear. We also lionized members who were promiscuous, encouraging them to boast loudly about their numerous sexual partners during our weekly meetings, while simultaneously dismissing or marginalizing those in faithful, mutually respectful, and monogamous relationships or even worse, those who had had no relationships or sexual encounters. But it was the “Man Card” game that really got me.
The rules of the game were simple: each member was given a physical card depicting some exemplar of stereotypical masculinity. (Mine had an image of a machine gun-toting Sylvester Stallone, taken from Rambo: First Blood). At any point during the year, if a member of the brotherhood was behaving “unmanly,” and two or more members of the fraternity were present, any other member of the fraternity could “Man Card” that brother, and demand that he surrender his “Man Card,” symbolically forfeiting the manliness he was no longer worthy of having. The point was to keep members protective of their manliness and to keep them constantly on edge, for fear of being perceived as “unmanly” and thus losing their credibility as a man. The hope was that in so doing, the public perception of the fraternity would improve.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, that while I was appalled at the game, it nevertheless had its desired effect. So conscious was I of my own public persona and perceived “manliness,” that even though I deplored the practice, I did nothing to stop it. And even though I eventually did voice objections to the game, I did so quietly, and only in private.
I know of just one brother who had the courage to reject the game, voluntarily forfeiting his “Man Card” almost immediately. But even he stopped short of saying publicly that he objected to the game itself; instead, he said it was because he “knew” it would only be a matter of time before he lost it anyway, and that he would rather get it out of the way. Naturally, he endured a torrent of “good-natured” ribbing and abuse that would’ve reduced a lesser man to tears.
I found myself envious of Brother X. Because while he had violated every code of “manliness” we had learned after the initial derision died down he was essentially “free.” He could behave however he chose, and be as “unmanly” as he cared to be, because he no longer had anything left to prove. In essence, he could be his own man, and define that however he chose, without worrying what the “Man Box” had to say on the matter.”
Tony Porter’s commentary as well as Daniel’s shows us how much men have to lose by staying within the “Man Box”. While the “Man Box” functions to oppress women and reinforce the idea of them as objects, it also harms men by not allowing them to display emotional empathy, expression, or fulfillment. Breaking gendered stereotypes for men will not only allow women greater safety and equality with men, it allows men the chance to be emotionally open and create more meaningful relationships with both women and men in their lives (as well as those that identify as LGBTQ although Porter does not reference them specifically).
How can we all work to dismantle the “Man Box” and harmful gender stereotypes? As women, we can support the men in our lives when they make choices or express their emotions, acting in ways that fall outside the typical norms that Porter and Daniel allude to. We can also have discussions with the men in our lives about the repercussions that acting in violent, “masculine” ways has on interpersonal violence and how it impacts and hurts us as women. Men can show both other men and boys in their lives them what being a real man is. That is, to create a masculine identity outside of what is expected. Men can also work on doing something that is supressed within them from a young age- express feelings and vulnerabilities. But if we all engage in more open dialogues about what it means to resist gender stereotypes that we are all taught, we can begin to create better, more meaningful and less violent relationships with one another.