REACTION: “How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb

(This is not so much a review as a reaction to the book above, but I’ll file it under Reviews as well.)

This week, I read Robert Webb’s “How Not To Be A Boy”. The book is an autobiographical work written specifically to highlight the effects of society enforcing the “rules” of Masculinity and the destructive effects of Patriarchy on young boys (and the men they grow up to be), as manifested in the author’s own life and experiences.

The first thing to say is that many of the passages about being a boy surrounded by other boys and trying to be one of them, resonated so strongly with my own memories of trying to be a boy. Male-Assigned-At-Birth folks have a very strictly-enforced code that, regardless of whether or not their parents try to encourage broader prospects for their child, will be viciously and strictly imposed by every other boy they meet (and many of the men, too).

One thing that struck me was that, while Webb makes a point from time to time of describing how village life works, he missed this particular point when he raised the canard of “I gave my son Barbies and he tied them together as nunchuks” – because the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”. In an otherwise very good (and properly referenced) passage about whether or not gender roles are somehow inate or actually created socially, this point seemed to slip past him.

Webb knows his feminist sources and theory well enough. But the theory is not what makes this book so valuable. The point of this is that it is an insider’s view of destructive masculinity. It’s about lived experience.

This is something that is needed in gender politics, and I do wish there could be more men talking openly about these experiences and how they are almost entirely down to male-assigned people enforcing masculinity on each other.

Feminism has the theory to explain this, and the idea that patriarchy harms men too is far from new to most feminists out there. But when women talk about it, there is something missing. Sometimes, even when so-called “male feminists” or “feminist men” talk about these points, it feels like lip-service rather than the visceral, embodied, lived experience that comes from an honest account like the one Webb gives. Because this isn’t theoretical. It is people’s lives, and it is practical and immediate.

There are many differences between my childhood and teenagerhood and Webb’s. For one thing, he had sex a lot sooner than I ever did, and was even thinking about it before it became a thing I was interested by. More directly, my parents were very different from his, although there were other challenges and different ways of still making the Norm seem like the only way, the way to “be a boy” and the Rules Webb usesas his chapter titles.

But the school playground is where so much gender is reinforced and imposed and regimented. The experiences Webb describes of early school life is sadly too similar.

In the end, though, the biggest difference is that Webb demonstrates that despite his certainty he was innoculated against toxic masculinity by his father’s example, he ended up enacting his own version of it. My own experience is that I was never able to fit in and obey the rules and eventually I just gave up trying.

The sentiment quoted in the above tweet resonates with me for this reason. I couldn’t be a man and, frankly, I was happier with my femininity anyway. Maybe I would have been happier sooner, if I could have learned of nonbinary gender when I was younger and just embraced that sooner, instead of for so many years trying to make myself be male (while in various ways acting out against that).

Would I still be enby if those rules of masculinity hadn’t been there or had been broad enough that I could actually manage to fit them? It’s impossible to say, but I think I always knew I needed the fluidity of gender, I always wanted to claim to be both. So I woud guess “yes” but the answer means little.

The other thing is, what do we do to get men working as a team against masculinity? What would a genuine male-liberation movement look like that aimed to make something better than the formative life experiences Webb (and I) had?

I don’t know the answer. The challenges are not the same as women’s liberation and feminism faced. They had a legal structure to change, and positions of power to wrest from the oppressors. There remains much of that still to do, of course. They also still have fights about bodily autonomy and sexuality, and changing attitudes around such matters.

Men have different challenges, and when Patriarchy works in part by having men be enforcers of each other’s masculinity, finding a point to push against is hard because pushing would look much the same as pulling if it just ends up as a different form of enforcement.

But the more men speak up about the life experiences where Patriarchy did them harm, the better our chances of figuring out a way.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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7 Responses to REACTION: “How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb

  1. Amanda says:

    Why do people say male “assigned” as if someone decided to assign them a gender? They were born that gender not assigned it

    • ValeryNorth says:

      We say male/female assigned at birth because medical practitioners assign gender based on the primary sex characteristics observed (e.g. penis or vulva). In a small but significant number of situations, this initial assigning of social and personal identity is at odds with the reality of the person’s life. They may be trans (meaning that the primary sex characteristics are opposed to their gender) or they may be intersex in any of a number of different configurations. They may also be nonbinary gender, meaning that the binary male/female classification system does not apply to them.

      In short, one is not “born” a gender. It is assigned and one either grows into it, or grows in opposition to it.

      (Which is the general form of the famous quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman”. The same is true of men, which was the whole point of Robert Webb’s book.)

      • Amanda says:

        I thought those situations were people with gender dysphoria? How is it then that nearly all people’s identities in regard to their gender align with their reproductive “sex” (or whatever you prefer to label reproductive organs)

      • Amanda says:

        And ultimately, if you’re saying we aren’t born with genders biologically and gender is character traits and self expression, why does the word gender exist ?
        Why have the label of gender ?

        Why not just have our biological sexes and our personalities?

        • ValeryNorth says:

          Gender is more than just character traits and self-expression. Gender is also a _social_ construct. Again, Robert Webb’s book gives several examples of how that works with specific reference to maleness and his own experiences. But gende ris also an embodied experience, meaning that it is related to our concept of our own bodies and experience of those bodies. Bodies have sex characteristics (primary sex characteristics directly related to reproduction, and secondary sex characteristics such as larger mammaries in female humans or more facial hair in male humans) but these sex characteristics do not necessarily match with the internal map of the self and the body. They may also not match with the internal sense of “belonging” in terms of relations with the outside world. In these cases, as you recognise, there is a condition that is sometimes referred to as “gender dysphoria” (which can also affect nonbinary-identified people, as well as trans men and women).

          Asking how come most people identify with their AAB gender (and have their internal sense of their gender and bodies match with those sex characteristics) is difficult, but it has only as much validity as asking how come there are so many fewer blue-eyed people, or so many fewer red-haired people, or so many fewer left-handed people in the world. The relative frequency of these phenomena does not negate the truth of them, and the same point goes for trans/nonbinary. (Also, I do not wish to suggest here that trans is only valid if it is genetic or prenatal – merely that the frequency of these human expressions does not negate their reality.)

          • Amanda says:

            If gender is a social construct then, again, why does the concept/word exist? For what necessary purpose?
            So gender dysphoria is genetic? (Sorry about all the questions)

  2. ValeryNorth says:

    We don’t know where transness comes from. It makes no fucking difference whether it’s genetic, prenatal conditions or anything else, in order to say that it’s a valid way to be a human.

    As to your other question, why do we need the word democracy? Democracy is a social construct, after all, so why does the concept/word exist? For what necessary purpose?

    I’ve tried to engage and educate here but I think if you have any more questions, Google is your friend.

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