While society is chipping away at giving girls broader access to life’s possibilities, it isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world. To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood. At the earliest ages, it’s about external signifiers like favorite colours, TV shows, and clothes. But later, the paring knife cuts away intimate friendships, emotional range, and open communication.
There’s research connecting this shedding process to the development, in some adolescent boys, of depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. In her 2014 documentary The Mask You Live In, the filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom features the voices of dozens of teen boys describing their progression from childhoods rich with friendships to teen years defined by posturing and pressure to prove their manhood. Some of the boys, who present tough exteriors, admit to having suicidal thoughts. The film flashes news clips from the most notable mass shootings of that time—Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook—each committed by a young man.
“Whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shamed and humiliated, or feel they would be, if they didn’t prove that they were real men,” the psychiatrist James Gilligan, who directed Harvard’s Center for the Study of Violence, says in the film.
There are so few positive variations on what a “real man” can look like, that when the youngest generations show signs of reshaping masculinity, the only word that exists for them is nonconforming. The term highlights that nobody knows what to call these variations on maleness. Instead of understanding that children can resist or challenge traditional masculinity from within the bounds of boyhood, it’s assumed that they’re in a phase, that they need guidance, or that they don’t want to be boys.
Numerous parents of gender-nonconforming children report initially trying to stifle their child’s tendencies out of a protective instinct, thinking they might forestall bullying if only their child would fit more neatly into the box that’s been set up for them. Ultimately, though, most realize that their child is less happy when prevented from gravitating naturally toward their preferences.
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(Lead image: Jessica Love/The Atlantic)