The Mask and The Man Box

“Youtube” celebrates its 10th birthday this month, and for those who fear that your life will be determined by the brand of your university, you may find some consolation in knowing that the 3 young, now fabulously wealthy founders of this billion dollar venture are graduates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neither of which is in the Ivy League. So there is hope for all of us, regardless of our standardized test scores!

One of my favourite Youtube talks is Tony Porter’s lecture on “the Man Box.” (I think Mr. Sturino has shown this to some of you in health class.) For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about the danger of having a narrow understanding of masculinity. Tony Porter tells some stories that I couldn’t repeat here in Laidlaw Hall, but if you are interested, I hope you’ll go to your Google machine and take in his TED talk.

I have spent a good chunk of my adult life in boys schools, and while I enthusiastically support single gender institutions as an option for some students, not everyone is all that keen when it comes to boys schools. Some see institutions like UCC as semi-misogynistic bastions of boys will be boys, “Please pass me the Grey Poupon” privilege. While we may not be everyone’s cup of tea, being a boys schools does give us a special opportunity, and I’d argue, a special responsibility to focus on developing a healthy understanding of what it means to be a man.

We believe there are many roads to manhood, many paths to success. We think it’s important for you to feel a sense of belonging, to be a part of an open, affirming and challenging brotherhood, and we hope that this culture of camaraderie will give you the grace to find your voice, find your passions, and ultimately find yourself.

But that’s where Terry Porter’s “man box” comes in.

The Man Box

There are all kinds of cultural obstacles we have to overcome, and what makes this task extraordinarily difficult is that we may not even see these limitations for what they are. What’s in the box are the invisible assumptions that limit our vision, our relationships, and ourselves. If we fail to recognize these myths of masculinity, we can end up paying too great a price to “man up.”

One of my favourite books about boys is Michael Thompson’s “Raising Cain”. We’ve had Dr. Thompson speak many times at UCC, and he believes that the tale of Cain and Abel is the original story of male adolescence. Both boys want to please their father. One succeeds. One fails. And because of Cain’s frustration, because of his lack of affirmation, and because of his impulsive nature, he kills his brother Abel. Thompson argues that boys who experience failure have a choice: they can either act out or “process” out.

Acting out is easy. It’s what we do naturally and impulsively. Thompson believes, though, that boys can and need to be taught how to process things. We have to learn how and when to hit the pause button. We need to learn how and when to look at things from another person’s point of view, how to consider options, and how to think through the ramifications of our decisions. And we also need to figure out how to express what’s in our heart, as well as what’s in our head.

Let me give you one quick example of someone who has learned how to “process” a setback. Last week was a tough one for some of the boys who ran for leadership positions. I happened to be in the hallway last Friday, when I bumped into a Grade 11 student the day after he learned that he would not be wearing a white jacket next year. I didn’t know the boy all that well, and I didn’t want to be intrusive, but I wanted to make sure he was alright. As our brief conversation was coming to an end, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I had made a fist with my hand, when I asked, “Are you going to be ok?” At that moment the Grade 11 boy, who seemed be the very model of resilience, saw my gesture, laughed and gave me a fist pump as he said, “Strength and Honour!”

His action completely caught me off-guard; it took me a few seconds before I began to understand what this was all about. And then it dawned on me. Last fall the psychologist Adam Cox had talked to us in Laidlaw Hall about positive notions of masculinity, and he finished his lecture by fist pumping his way around Laidlaw Hall, as he promoted the virtues “strength and honour.”

So the processing of obstacles, challenges, and frustrations can be done — it just may take some of us old guys a little longer to understand when it’s completed!

I’ll end this morning with the trailer from Jennifer Sibel Newsom’s new documentary about the cultural challenges of masculinity. There are a lot of factors that can affect mental health, and when your inner state does not match the external demands of “The Manbox,” that dissonance can create stress. It seems appropriate then that, as we begin our “Mental Health Awareness Week,” we should also be aware of some of the social pressures we all face, as we try to figure out what it means to be a man, about what it means to be a good man.






5 thoughts on “The Mask and The Man Box

  1. Thanks for this reflection, Jim. I’ve heard Jeff Perera from the White Ribbon Campaign speak at masculinity discussions at Queen’s University. He’s smart and engaging and would be a great assembly speaker if you’re looking for someone to address this topic again.


  2. Dear Jim,

    It’s interesting that the ‘Strength & Honour’ theme has resurfaced again, and that it’s found resonance with some of the student body.

    I wonder if perennial themes are perennial for a reason? i.e. they reappear because they really do connect on a level that matters, and echo some kind of ‘truth’ (or somebody’s truth, at any rate).

    John Eldredge in ‘Wild at Heart’ says “Masculinity is an essence that is hard to articulate but that a boy naturally craves as he craves food and water.”

    From what I’ve read, the notion of strength is central to many concepts of masculinity:- juxtaposed with the idea of behaving with honour, (and thus arguably exercising ‘strength with honour’), this becomes a powerful motif.

    I’ve always liked (and rarely been able to follow!) Stephen Covey’s quote “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I wonder if ‘Strength & Honour’ could become one of the core motifs of the character work? Is it (one of) the “main things”?

    As Eric Metaxes argues, character has to be seen and witnessed in action. (In other words, and simply put, boys need role models and heroes.)

    I just wonder whether there might be any scope for a series of character studies on ‘Strength & Honour’? Could a segment of one or two student-led assemblies provide opportunity for this, with students choosing and presenting on heroes from history, literature, and film whom they deem to have acted with ‘Strength & Honour’. (I guess the distance afforded by analyzing the actions of figures from the past, or even those of fictional characters means it’s potentially easier to offer critical commentary.)

    Maybe this might lead to some interesting follow-up conversations around what ‘being strong’ looks like in different situations and contexts.

    (As an aside, I’m reminded of the power of two contrasting models of male ‘strength’ in Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’:- We get to witness Mason witnessing both his stepfather’s violent outbursts at the dinner table (‘strength gone bad’ as John Eldredge might say), as well as the arguably courageous efforts of Mason’s once-estranged father to recommit to involvement in his children’s lives, despite the initial skepticism of Mason’s mum – perhaps a show of real strength (perhaps strength doing good.)

    Anyway, just some wonderings.

    Best wishes,

  3. Jim, I went to an all-boys school, back in the ’70’s, and it was unreformed. A fund-raising booklet arrived at our house, featuring a brutish-looking football football player seated on a locker-room bench, contemplating our team’s crested helmet. “Faith, Family, and Football” read the legend across the bottom of the cover.

    We trained year-round and won the championship that year, the championship game taking place in a professional stadium under the lights, with thousands in attendance. Even freshman year, my football team had eleven coaches, and our weight room looked like the Dallas Cowboys’.

    The hazing at the school was savage and fully countenanced by the administrators who ran the place. Our principal was a former Golden Gloves boxing champion, and I saw him punch a boy who had said something disrespectful, sending the boy tumbling down a staircase as if in an action movie. Our Dean of Discipline, (I am not kidding) still used the wooden paddle, “Dead Poets Society” style: whack, “Thank you, sir!”

    So I’m all in favor of different models of masculinity. Though I got an excellent education, those were the four worst years of my life–a daily rite-of-passage ordeal. I like how you illustrate your points with examples your boys will find current and close to home.

    Does the popular culture offer different models of manhood for young men to emulate? I find it terribly dismaying that a lot of adolescents regard Leonard DiCaprio’s repellent Wolf of Wall Street character as an icon of swag success–almost as dismaying as the fact that all these independent, strong feminists are flocking to Fifty Shades of Grey to fantasize about submission. Christian Grey–there’s another rich, materialistic, decadent role model. I suppose the Byronic hero will always be with us.

    Maybe we should force our boys to watch “Downton Abbey.” It’s costume soap opera, but what I like about it is that the entire show is about behaving decently: gentle men in the best sense.

  4. Jim-

    Well done.

    I have watched Ted Porter’s video multiple times.

    It dawned on me that there is an equally influential “Woman Box”. I know for sure because I am raising three daughters at various ages and there are all sorts of societal assumptions and pressures on women.

    For example, it is well documented that many very bright girls in middle school and high school “dumb down” so they don’t threaten the males in the class. What guy wants to date a girl who is smarter than he is?

    Even more interesting, girls dumb down more frequently in math and science classes, the hard “masculine” subjects that some how are supposed to be the domain of boys.

    And I won’t even get started with the appearance, body type and clothing issues.

    Perhaps there is just a “Gender Box” of which the “Man Box” and “Woman Box” are subsets. I don’t we have quite answered what it is to be a good man and/or good woman and, in fact, whether there is any real difference other than anatomy and how we reproduce as a species.


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