Those who’d like to redefine manhood and engage men and boys in promoting gender equality have a very basic challenge. Ideas about gender are not simply disembodied thoughts or ideas that float around in our heads. If that were the case, then change would be simple: let guys know how our current gender ideals hurt both women and men and, the rational creatures that we are, we’d toss out the old ideas for the new. It would be like an anti-smoking campaign: not simple, but ultimately straight forward.
The problem is this: gender is deeply embodied in our bodies and our brains. I don’t mean that sexist ideas are “natural” nor, as some would have it, that men’s and women’s brains are fundamentally different (they’re not) nor that we have a fundamentally different genetic makeup (99.8% of our genes are the same.).
What I mean is that we begin to learn to be “real men” before we can even speak. As we grow, we are unconsciously bringing in our culture’s ideas of manhood into our developing brains. The intense process of brain development in our first few years – in which we are creating millions of new neuro-pathways each day – is one in which we absorb society and, in a sense, turn it into neurons. Our brains become gendered. Our bodies are not only male or female bodies but, become gendered: masculine and feminine. (You can see that every day in how men and women often walk or sit differently.)
This means that change is extremely difficult. I might deeply believe in gender equality, I might hate men’s violence and the codes of tough masculinity, but I still look forward to the next James Bond movie. It’s not just that I know that James Bond is pretend, it’s that his daring, his bravado, his invincibility still tugs on things that are deeply embedded in my brain.
It gets worse! What makes it hard to reach men and boys with a message of change, though, is not only how deeply these ideas are held. It’s also that we carry a huge amount of fear about not being real men. (I’ve written a lot about this, including in my book, Cracking the Armor: Power, Pain and the Lives of Men which will be republished in 2012 as an eBook.)
Manhood is defined not only in terms of what we should be, but even more, but we should not be. In many cultures this means we should not be weak, not be too soft, not show too many feelings. Why? Because the more you display those things the more you are, supposedly, like a woman and hence, not a real man.
This combination of deeply-embedded ideas and paralyzing fear presents a huge obstacle for reaching men and boys with a message of change. It is also the reason why many men don’t challenge sexist comments or violent behaviour: we’re scared the guys around them will think we’re not a real man, we’re scared to reveal our own feelings even to ourselves.
With that in mind, some of us have worked hard over the years to figure out ways to overcome this fear. So, for example, our original slogan in the early 1990s of the White Ribbon Campaign was: men working to end violence against women. It wasn’t men being more sensitive to the problem; it was doing something men have learned to define as part of masculinity: we work hard. Or, in another example, my pamphlet about preventing dating violence is called “Man Talk!” and the cover proclaims this in big bold letters as if talking about dating violence is as manly as hand-to-hand combat. Or why, in White Ribbon Campaigns in many countries, we’ve recruited tough-looking athletes to be on posters.
Another approach has been to use humour. Michael Kimmel’s and my new book, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism uses a lot of humour to allow the male reader to laugh away his fear and take in ideas of equality. (Visit out our new website at: www.guysguidetofeminism.com.)
And so, as you can imagine, I love a new video project that encourages young men to talk about their feelings and to get help. “Soften the Fck Up” takes the idea of men “toughening up” or “hardening up” and turns it on its head.
An Australian bloke named Evon Chan (who describes himself as a social entrepreneur and digital branding professional) created the one-and-a-half minute video as part of a project to prevent suicide by young men but it has a broader implication.
Of course, in videos such as this, we’re walking a fine line. There is, indeed, something very macho about throwing the “fuck” into “soften up.” And White Ribbon is explicitly using images of macho guys speaking out to end violence against women. In doing so, we are trying to create a safe space for a boy or man to actually listen.
Take this approach too far and you reproduce and encourage sexism. Do it right (and give your audience some respect that they’ll get it) and it will allow them to get beyond the fear and actually take in some new ideas.
Taking in those ideas means to create new neuro-pathways, just like we did when we learned how to be a real man.
And that, my friends, is part of the pathway to change.
Have a look at Evon’s video, below, or visit www.softenthefckup.com.au