How toxic masculinity is hurting our boys’ friendships and what we can do about it

I know I’m not the only parent wringing her hands about The Miseducation of the American Boy. After all the progress we’ve made, Peggy Orenstein’s article exposed an underbelly of stubborn toxic masculinity that still pervades locker rooms, frat houses, and athletic teams.

The TL;DR version is that while feminism has opened up multiple avenues for being a woman — you can be an athlete! a businesswoman! a politician! — men have not enjoyed a parallel expansion of their role. We still measure masculinity by a strict rubric of sexual conquest, strength, stoicism, and wealth. 

And just like the prescribed housewife femininity of the 1950s, it’s incredibly limiting.

Related: A tall mom’s manifesto on how to raise tall girls. 

There’s a lot to rally against in her article, but one thing that jumped out at me was the poverty of male friendships these boys were experiencing. One teen Orenstein interviewed said he could only express his feelings with his girlfriend. Others avoided teaming up with guys for class projects, fearing that they’d be judged more harshly if they asked a question or got something wrong.

Most disturbingly to me, the boys in her book felt the need to employ the hashtag “#nohomo” when posting about anything that could possibly be construed as gay or feminine.

Aside from the obviously disturbing homophobia, this troubles me because my same-sex friendships are a huge source of support and fun for me. I can’t imagine how restrictive it would be to treat each other with this level of suspicion.

So how can we avoid this miseducation?

In thinking through these issues, I was reminded a scene in The View from Here, a documentary about a man named Kevan with spinal muscular atrophy whose friends help him take a trip to Europe. They tweak a toddler backpack to suit Kevan’s needs and take turns hauling him around the subways, side streets, and trails of Europe. I watched the short film while doing research for our book on male role models, and after seeing it, I was so excited to include Kevan and his friends.

The film is a manifesto on the way friendship and community can transform accessibility for someone with a severe disability. Their tight bond allows Kevan to transcend the limitations that would have stopped him from seeing these sights.

The first time I watched this film, I was thinking of it only through the accessibility lens, but the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the more mundane scenes. Not Kevan and his friends dancing on the streets of Paris. Not them summiting a peak on an island. But the simple scenes of his friends bathing and dressing him. The normalcy of the act.

These men weren’t paid to help care for Kevan. They’re not medical professionals. They don’t use a hashtag. There’s no plausible deniability in the intimacy of their friendships. And to me, that’s maybe the greatest act of courage in the short film — that Kevan entrusted himself to these friends, and that the friends were confident enough to step into this care-taking role.

Maybe this is another way to be masculine: to be brave enough to care for someone who’s vulnerable. To carry their burdens. And…to be vulnerable enough to accept this care. 

I’d rented this movie when I was writing my book, but after reading Orenstein’s work, I purchased it. This is a film I want to show to my own son when he gets a little older.

I’ve spent a lot time thinking about how society has limited women, about how much time we waste trying to be smaller, quieter, sweeter than we are, how we spend our whole lives trying to escape these confines. But I never stopped to think about what we’re taking from our boys, how they’re forced to be small in different ways.

“The definition of masculinity seems to be contracting,” writes Orenstein. It’s closing in around our boys, locking them away from themselves. But if we can give them examples like Kevan and his friends, maybe we can wedge a foot into the door of this cage and let them out.

Or maybe we can just point them to Jesus, the one who already demonstrated the perfect way to be a man. After all, he , refused violence, cared for children, nurtured male friendships, and made space for the voices of women. I hear a lot about how he conquered our sins, but most pastors fail to mention how he conquered toxic masculinity and restrictive gender roles, too.

I’d like to hear a few more sermons about that. For now, go watch Kevan’s film.

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