Ep 79: How “Manhood” is Hurting Our Boys (and Girls!)

Episode Summary

Dr. Michael Kimmel, author of the NYT bestselling Guyland, speaks with Andy to discuss boys, men, and everything in between. Masculinity doesn’t have to be “toxic” but the way we teach (or don’t teach) our boys about what it means to be a “man” has dire consequences for us all.

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

“Boys will be boys,” right? Unfortunately, the playing field of masculinity in society today is more dangerous than you might believe. From hazing gone wrong, to depression and suicide, to jail time, the consequences of not understanding masculinity and what it means to be a man can be dire. It can literally be a matter of life or death for some. 

Not only are young men harming others by learning harmful behaviors, such as not processing emotions and being overly aggressive, but they’re also hurting themselves. They’re limiting themselves by acting in ways that were dictated to them by media, pop culture, their peers, and older men who perpetuate a “traditional” sense of masculinity. 

Growing into adulthood is hard enough for anyone, but there can be a particularly toxic mindset when it comes to teenage boys. Leaving our teenage boys and young men completely unchecked is not a healthy way to raise them. When boys transition into manhood in their late teens, they’re forced to figure out what it means to “be a man” on their own. The late high school, college, and early adult years are perceived to be a proving ground for young men, and they’ll go out of their way to show off their machismo in order to be accepted by their friends. 

These rituals, such as hazing and initiations into social groups, have become dangerous, harmful, and completely unnecessary elements of masculinity in society today. Binge drinking, experimenting with illicit substances, and physically dangerous tasks are usually dictated to them by their peers or by other young men who are only a year or so older than they are. And no one is talking about manhood, so the question remains: what does it mean to be a man?

This is an important question for any parent raising a young man. For the answers, I turned to Michael Kimmel, the man to reference when it comes to understanding men. Author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men and books on masculinity and gender, Kimmel is dedicated to dissecting the world boys grow up in and revealing how and why boys are impacted by the idea of “manhood.”

Trying to Define Manhood 

In this week’s interview, Kimmel notes that at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a clear cut distinction between when someone was a child and when someone was an adult, and that distinction usually came at 14 years old. They went straight to work as an apprentice, assisting in their family business, or if they had the means, left home to pursue higher education. 

Today, the transition from child to adult is not as quick. The term “adolescence” was coined to describe the gradual process of growing into adulthood, starting at about 14 and continuing into one’s early twenties. Kimmel claims adolescence and early manhood have blended together. Because of the lack of a clear demarcation between “young boy” and “young man”, masculinity in society today has turned this stage of youth into an unstructured, unsupervised playground to show off their “manliness”. 

Kimmel notes that when it comes to parenting boys, parents often take a hands-off approach. Although there is a sense of freedom given, young boys experience a sense of being lost and unsure of the road ahead. This is particularly true in American culture where young men are “self-governing.” Kimmel notices that it’s usually the younger men, such as the team captain or the president of the fraternity house, who call the shots within their peer group. Young American men don’t have the same positive influence from masculinity in society today compared to other cultures and countries. 

Without learned guidance from older, more experienced men, young men often learn harmful tropes about masculinity in society today from porn, movies, and pop culture because those are the most accessible mediums to gather information from. It’s crucial for adults—especially parents—to step in and guide young men on this journey and influence them in an empowering, positive manner so they don’t hurt themselves or others in the process of growing into adulthood. 

Consequences of Toxic Masculinity 

In our conversation, Kimmel deconstructs the concept of masculinity in society today and lays it bare. Young men are traditionally taught to be in control. When they feel emasculated, they feel they have to reestablish their status in order to regain respect and control of a situation. This is known as the “alpha male” mentality. 

The “alpha” mentality is a slippery slope and can lead into truly unsavory and dangerous ways of expressing masculinity in society today. Specifically, toxic masculinity leads to a sense of entitlement, and entitlement feeds into other toxic ways of thinking, such as racism, sexism, and nationalism. Tune in to this week’s episode to hear Michael and I discuss at length how masculinity in society today has created a sense of entitlement in young men. 

When insecure men feel threatened by women in the workforce, the men assert their dominance by acting out in ways that are misogynistic and unfair. Why? Because insecure men feel entitled to being the sole presence in a company or even in an entire industry. The mere presence of women threatens their grip of control

This sense of entitlement bleeds into the issue of race and nationality when it comes to masculinity in society today. When insecure men feel threatened by the presence of immigrants, they act out by saying things like “This is my country” and “Go back to where you came from.” This stems from a toxic sense of entitlement to a country and what they believe to be their rightful land. Insecure men feel like the presence of “outsiders” threatens and challenges their power and sense of control. 

Let’s face it, men have been in control for the longest and have benefitted the most. It’s important to teach teenage boys and young men that although there is nothing wrong with embracing your manliness, masculinity in society today should go hand in hand with using your strength as young men to help lift others instead of break people down.

Kimmel argues that the norm for masculinity in society today is to encourage breaking others down in order to only build themselves up. Another topic we touched on is about hazing and how the basis of hazing is humiliation. If young men used as much of their strength to empower their peers instead of break them down, the world would probably be a different place. 

How do I Teach Positive Masculinity? 

When raising children, you want them to be compassionate, fair, and honest people. And that goes for everyone, no matter their gender. When it comes to raising young boys who will eventually become young men, it’s imperative to instill respect and kindness in them. This week’s episode explores ways to do exactly that. 

Embracing masculinity is not a bad thing. There are so many ways to positively influence and uplift teenage boys and young men. However, there is work that has to be done to unlearn toxic, misogynistic, homophobic, and other generally prejudiced ways of thinking that have been normalized. Michael Kimmel and his research is a perfect point of reference. 

Here are some of the topics related to masculinity in society today that we cover in our conversation:

  • How to teach boys and girls to set realistic goals
  • Why boys often act out violently or aggressively, and how to prevent it
  • The pros and cons of sports
  • How to discourage feelings of entitlement in young men

Kimmel breaks down complex sociological relationships in words that everyone can understand. I know this podcast episode will prove valuable to all parents raising both sons and daughters. The world boys grow up in doesn’t just affect boys; it impacts everyone! For some amazing perspective on gender, parenting, and masculinity in society today, tune in and hear what Kimmel has to say.

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. The Man Retreat:

As Dr. Michael Kimmel pointed out in our interview, there are a lot of books and discussions surrounding what it means to be female in the modern world. However, very few discussions are devoted to masculinity and what it means to be a “man” in today’s world. The problem with this, according to Dr. Kimmel, is that boys are left to grasp at straws and have narrow views of masculinity and manhood that are outmoded and often damaging to their development into “men.” To open up a conversation about what it means to be a “man,” Dr. Kimmel suggests teen boys and their fathers, father figures, uncles, friends’ fathers, male coaches, and teachers discuss manhood together. One way to kick start the conversation is to have a “retreat.” The focal point of the retreat should be a discussion on what it means to be a man–not on anyone ‘proving’ their manhood. The retreat could be an afternoon dedicated to the discussion, or a long weekend with multiple discussions and other activities. In order to really dig deep into what it means to be a man, write down at least five areas of life in which to discuss manhood. For each area, come up with at least three open-ended questions to drive conversation.
Here’s an example for the area of romantic relationships: “What does being a “man” look like in the context of romantic relationships? How should a man behave when pursuing a relationship? What should a man do as a partner in a romantic relationship? If a man doesn’t do those things, is he any less of a man for it?”

2.  What Makes an Adult?

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3.  Welcome Your Teen into Adulthood:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I’ve been reading Guyland now for the past few days. And it’s got me thinking about all kinds of issues from my own life and from other things that we’ve talked about on this podcast. So I’m really, really interested to get your take on a lot of these issues. Can you just briefly tell us how you got into this field of study and what propelled you to write these books?

Michael: Well, the first book on masculinity that I wrote was Manhood in America and it was really a book about what has it meant to be a man in America and no one had ever really done it. There are library still with books about women. It was really never a book about men as men. What does it mean to be a man to men and how did they know it and who told them what it meant to be a man? So that was my first book. And I basically traced the idea of masculinity historically in America. As I was writing that book, so that book came out initially in 1996 and three years later, I had my son, and while my wife had my son. And so I started to watch him and watch him develop and watch the world that he was entering.

Michael: And at the same time I was teaching at a university. So I was looking at college age guys as a particular age group, like what was going on with college age guys. And the newspapers were just filled with stories about hazing deaths and binge drinking and hooking up and all kinds of stuff. And I realized that, this is the world my son’s about to enter on the one hand. And on the other hand, this is the world that I inhabit professionally. So I wanted to begin to look at what does it mean to be a man for young men, 16 to 26. Now, the reason that I picked that is because this is a new stage of development. In 1904, a psychologist, one of the most famous psychologists in American history, G. Stanley Hall. He was the president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Michael: Hall said in 1904, and this is the part that I think is really interesting. He said, in the 19th century, children went directly from being children to grownups. And they did that around age 13 or 14 because they graduated from primary school. And then they went right to work as an apprentice, right to the family farm, right off to the military. They go West, seek your fortune. But he said now 1904, he said, “Well, there’s a new stage of development in between childhood and adulthood.” And he named that stage of development, adolescence. He’s the one who invented the term. And he said, something’s new. This is a period of identity searching and questioning and turmoil, et cetera. And he said that usually stops by age 18 or 19. 18 or 19 he said, I remember he’s writing in 1904. 18 or 19 he said, “You’re a grownup.”

Michael: And let me tell you that was true for the first half of the 20th century. You think about like, what does it mean to be a grownup? There are five stages that a demographer will tell you. You have to be an adult. You finish your education, you get married, you get a job, you’ll move out of your parents’ house, and you have a kid.

Andy: Have a kid, right.

Michael: Those are the big five.

Andy: Yeah.

Michael: Not virtually, none of my students who are 20 has had that. I’ve had to complete it, all five.

Andy: Right. Nor are they planning to for a significant number of years now.

Michael: My mom completed all five of those within three months. She graduated from college in May, got married in June, immediately got pregnant with me, moved out of her parents’ house. And that September she started her [inaudible 00:04:01]. Right? That the average age of marriage in 1950 was about 21 years old today. Today, it’s about 25. Most of my students plan to get married when they’re in their late 20s. Right? 28, 29 30. So here’s the thing. There’s a new stage of development in between adolescence and adulthood, and both from about 18 to 26, which is perfectly, sort of coincidence with late high school and early college. So that’s what I did in Guyland, is I tried to map this world because it’s a world curiously where grownups are completely absent in the lives of young people. They go off to college and they’re basically self-governing. Right?

Michael: So what happens is you think of your own high school experience. You’re in high school and your parents are always like on your case, monitoring what you’re doing, checking in with you all the time. And suddenly you go off to college and like, there’s nobody there to wake you up in the morning. There’s nobody there. I always tell this to my students. I say, look, if your parents have to wake you up three or four times to get ready for school, don’t take 8:00 classes your first year. Right? Because you’re not used to it. So what happens is these young people come into colleges and they’re self-governing. And what happens is when you… Once upon a time you had your father or your coach or your mom to tell you what it meant to be a man. Now, what you have are 19 year olds telling 18 year olds, what it means to be a man. And that’s the kind of context that are crucible. And I know that my work here really does coincide with the work that Peggy Orenstein is doing about sex, was where most guys seek to learn about sex. And this is much to the consternation of their parents is from each other and from porn.

Michael: And if you think it, just to continue or probably anticipate what we’ll talk about later. If you think that pornography is what sex looks like, if you think that’s a documentary, right? Then you are in trouble. Because it doesn’t look very much like that. So my point is, okay, you come into your last years of high school, your first couple of years of college. And what you have is a world in which guys are constantly being asked to prove their masculinity to other guys. And this, I think, Andy, is that real key to understanding Guyland is what I… When I first wrote the book, people said, “Oh, Kimmel hates young boys, young men.” And I think there’s nothing more, more untrue. And reality is what I was trying to do is I was trying to explain to young men and to, of course, their parents.

Michael: This is what your sons are being asked to do in the name of proving their masculinity to other guys. Right? This is what they’re asked to do. They’re asked to do all kinds of things that they would never in their right mind to do otherwise. And what you don’t understand is they’re constantly being policed by other guys. They’re constantly being scrutinized. I often give this example and I don’t know if this is true for you. But when I was in middle school and you know how middle school kids are. So what we learned is your instinctive reaction reveals your true self. And what that meant was before you have time to think about it, your instinct reaction, will reveal something about yourself. So here’s what we did, we would sneak up behind the guy on the playground. And we would say, “Look at your fingernails!” Now, do you see what I’m talking about?

Speaker 3: Right. Right. And does he look this way or this way.

Michael: [inaudible] radio. So if you hold your palm to your face and curl your fingers towards your face, that’s okay, that’s masculine. But if you hold your palm away from your face and look at your fingernails that way, that’s feminine, you could beat him up. That’s legit. You have called out his inner fairy or whatever. That’s what we… Right. So think about this for a minute. You have to think all the time about how you look at your fingernails, how you walk, how you talk, how you dress, how you cross your legs, how you move, right? Your voice, the tone of your voice, right? Because at any moment someone could say, that’s so gay, any moment. So you have asked to constant… So this takes a lot of thinking. You got to be sitting there in the playground say, “Now remember, curl your fingers in, when you look at your fingers.

Andy: And don’t cross your legs, and right. Yeah.

Michael: Exactly. So what I’m saying is that this is what guys are up against. I tried to write a book that’s compassionate that says to parents, listen, this is what your boys are being asked to do in the name of proving their masculinity. And if that’s true, then we can offer support. We can say, I get that. I’m going to give you some resources so that when you go out into that kind of gender policing, you’re more stable. You’re more armed. You can navigate it better.

Andy: A lot of what you do in here also seems to be kind of pointing out how ridiculous some of the things are. And it makes me think, wow, I wish I would’ve read this when I was 16. And just kind of entering into this phase that you talk about, it would have saved me a lot of missteps and kind of having to figure things out for myself. Because so much of these like rituals and these tests of masculinity that men put each other through and put ourselves through are, if you really examine them closely, it’s totally stupid and totally ridiculous.

Michael: Yeah, I know. I know. And when you look back on these things later in your life, you think, oh my God, I did that.

Andy: I would do that again. Yeah. Right.

Michael: Where did we think that was a good idea? And yes, of course, some of it, in order to get people’s attention, I go to some of the more extreme versions obviously. But I did feel like it’s important to sort of, you could have not done some of those things, if you would had a couple of, if you had some resources. If you had some good friends who would say, it’s cool, you don’t have to do that stuff. Or if you had voices in your head of your coaches or your parents or good friends saying, that’s nonsense. You don’t have to deal with that. It’s the fact that we don’t really know that there’s a world outside that world in a way. So that’s often what I think gets in our ways, that’s the only voice in town. And I want to write it. I wanted it to write it so that you could have read it at 16, but I also wanted to have written it so that your parents could read it with you. And they could understand why you seem to think it’s a good idea to do the idiotic things that you’re doing.

Andy: One of the things that I thought was really interesting on page 60. You’re talking about sort of the underpinnings of Guyland, and one of them is entitlement. And is like this culture of entitlement. You mentioned this show that you, I think, were a guest on called a black woman stole my job. So it’s like these white guys in their late 20s and early 30s who are all just really angry because of black woman stole their job. And you come on and point out say, well, I have just a question about the word, my, where did they get the idea that it was their job? Why wasn’t the show called a black woman got a job or a black woman got the job. These men just felt the job was theirs because they felt entitled to it. And it’s just such a great example of the entitlement that you’re talking about. So where does that come from and why do you call that out as one of the main underpinnings of Guyland culture?

Michael: Okay, well, there’s two answers to that question. I’m really glad that you read that passage because that passage stuck with me after finishing Guyland. And the next book I wrote was called Angry White Men. And that is the example that I use at the beginning of the book to talk about men’s rights groups and father rights groups. And I interviewed Neo Nazis and white nationalists. So the idea of entitlement is that we thought that these jobs were ours. When we say, when people say like, you will not replace us. Right? And as they did in Charlottesville or when they say, “This is our country. Go back to where you came from.”

Andy: Right.

Michael: I think, what racism or sexism often sound like, is we white men, we’re supposed to run the show. If we’re not able to, you can’t do it. That’s not fair to us in a radio format. It’s hard to visualize. But we think that this is a level playing field. And when I say this, what I’m doing is I’m holding my hand at a really strong angle. So we take a policy that tilts it. Oh my God, even a little bit, like water’s rushing uphill, it’s reverse discrimination against me. Right? So what entitlement means, I think is that these were our jobs, our positions, they’re taking it from us. The last people who support democracy is the hereditary aristocracy. Because they don’t want to share. They got everything. Let’s face it, white men have gone from 98% of all of the positions of power to about 88% of all the positions of power. So when people of color or women look at that, they go, “Wait a minute, you’ve got 88% of the fit position of power.” And we say, “Yeah. We’re losing.”

Andy: Losing our edge.

Michael: So here’s the thing. You can’t tell people that their feelings are wrong, their feelings or their feelings. You can’t tell them, well, it’s wrong to feel that way. You should feel differently. Well, no, I feel this way. But what you can do is you can say your feelings are real, but they’re not necessarily true. And the difference is your feelings are real. You feel them, and I’m happy for that, but they’re not based on an accurate assessment of the situation.

Michael: The reality is, and I mean, this is what I say in Angry White Men, to angry white men who think like we’re the new victims of reverse discrimination. It wasn’t immigrants who created the climate crisis. It wasn’t feminist women who outsourced your job. It wasn’t LGBT people who canceled your retirement benefits. You know. It’s like, yes, you should be angry, but that’s not the enemy here. Right? So the timely piece is really important because that’s where the resentment comes from. You know, it’s weird because on one scale, on an objective scale, from outside, you would say white men in America control pretty much everything. That doesn’t mean that white men, you or me, we don’t feel particularly powerful,

Andy: Right. Yeah. On a day to day basis.

Michael: When you say that to people, guy said, “What are you talking about? I don’t have any power. My wife bosses me around. My kid bosses me around. My boss bosses me around. So we don’t come from a place of feeling like we’re in power. We come from a place of not feeling like that we’re more powerless. And that’s really important how we list that feeling is really important when you put it next to the ideology of masculinity, which is to be in charge, be in control, king of the hill, win at all costs.

Andy: You can stir that up with some entitlement and I should be in charge. And, yeah. Yeah. Right. And now here I am feeling powerless.

Michael: Exactly.

Andy: And that’s a recipe for yeah.

Michael: Yeah. It’s a recipe for harm, for self-harm, for fear, their depression. You know, in older men, it’s a recipe for that kind of despair with seeing that people are now talking about depths of despair, right? You hear this language, about men in their 40s and 50s, depths of despair. Well, that is a gender despair, right? That’s a despair about not being the man you thought you were going to be or that you should be. You are unable to support your family. You’re unable to make a connection with your partner or your wife. You’re alone. Where do you go with such a feeling of failure? It’s impossible.

Andy: One thing that this makes me wonder as well so is the answer that you want to not make your kids feel entitled. You want them to feel like empowered to go out and take the world by storm. But then is the answer maybe more like helping them find proactive ways to get that feeling of power in their life? I guess, what, as a parent, what do you do with this? And how do you kind of interpret that into how you should parent or be?

Michael: There’s some really good research for example, on achievement in school. And it turns out that girls and boys are almost identical in fourth grade. And by eighth grade, girls is doing much better in English and Language, but they’re doing about the same as boys in Math and Science. So I’m going to give you some of the parenting advice about how to deal with this. The data suggest that girls tend to underestimate their abilities. And you see this, for example, in Research on the Workplace. If there’s five criteria for a job and a woman has only four of them, she won’t put herself up for promotion. But if a guy has two of them, he will. Right?

Andy: He will. Yeah. That’s pretty good.

Michael: I’m there. So, okay. So girls tend to underestimate their abilities. What that means is that in Science classes, there are very few girls, but the ones who are there are really good.

Andy: Yeah. Right.

Michael: Fewer numbers, really good. So their levels of achievement are about the same as boys. Now boys tend to overestimate their abilities. Which means that there are far more boys who aren’t as good so they bring mean scores down. Right? In my university, when I went to college. So many guys wanted to be doctors, wanting to be premed.

Andy: Yeah.

Michael: That the story was that in your first semester of your first year, organic chemistry was your first semester of your first year. This was the course they weeded people out and half the class would fail, half. Because they wanted to let you know, early on in your college career, you weren’t going to be a doctor, right?

Andy: Yup. Give you time to go to the different major.

Michael: [inaudible] you make, seek life elsewhere.

Andy: Right. Yeah.

Michael: So this is what I mean by overestimated. So what can parents do? Help their children. Get a realistic assessment. For girls that often means, you go girl.

Andy: Give them a little push.

Michael: You can do it. [inaudible] Girls code, girls rule. Pushing us to be more assertive. And with boys, it often means being more realistic about seeing where, what they can and can’t do.

Andy: Interesting.

Michael: So they’re not devastated by these kinds of things because it’s in that devastation. It’s in that failure that they interpret that as humiliation. And humiliation, shame is very often psychologically the origin of violence. The moment you feel emasculated , you’ve got to do something to restore your manhood. And that I think is where violence often comes. You do that to me, I’m going to do it back to you.

Andy: Yeah. And there was a statistic in here that I thought was so interesting on page 209. You say, you ask guys all over the country, what they think the percentage of guys on their campus who have sex on any given weekend. And the average answer you hear is about 80% when the actual percentage is closer to five or 10%.

Michael: Right.

Andy: So I just think it goes back to what you were talking about earlier about you feel that way, but it might not necessarily be the truth. So I think a lot of these guys are feeling like, wow, man, I should be getting laid a lot more. And as a man, why am I not having more sex? And then that feeling of entitlement, and then when the actual statistics are five to 10%, well, most of the time you’re not going to be getting laid. And so that unrealistic expectation, I guess, kind of just sets you up for like-

Michael: Yeah. To put bigger pressure. Think [inaudible] on you at this moment, when you think… Look it’s 80, you think 80% are having sex on any given weekend, then you know that 20% of the campus is pretty much a write-off in some way or another. You go to a party-

Andy: Right. They’re just totally unattractive or not even interested in it.

Michael: Or married or what if.

Andy: Right. Right. So that means basically every eligible guy must be out there just totally slaying it.

Michael: Except you.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Michael: And then you’re going to a party this weekend. You are saying to yourself everybody on this campus got laid last week and except me. I am getting laid this weekend. And then you go to the party, and that’s what women have to put up with. Right? And I think this is sort of where that insane stuff comes from. Like everybody else is getting some but me. And rather than say, there’s something wrong with me, I’m going to say there’s something wrong with them.

About Michael Kimmel

Dr. Michael Kimmel is one of the world’s leading experts on men and masculinities. He is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University. In addition to his NYT bestselling Guyland, additional popular books of his include Manhood in America, The Politics of Manhood, and  Angry White Men. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, he founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook in 2013.

A tireless advocate of engaging men to support gender equality, Kimmel was recently called “the world’s most prominent male feminist” in The Guardian newspaper in London. He has lectured at more than 300 colleges, universities and high schools, delivered the International Women’s Day annual lecture at the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Europe, and has worked with the Ministers for Gender Equality of Norway, Denmark and Sweden in developing programs for boys and men. He consults widely with corporations, NGOs and public sector organizations on gender equity issues.

Want more Michael Kimmel?

Find Michael on his website, Twitter, TedTalks, and at SUNY Stony Brook.