(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.