Raising boys in the #Metoo era

Will this boy who will rescue a bee from the swimming pool suddenly become one of those men? I don’t think he will. But Me Too doesn’t seem to leave much space for him.

“I’d like to write an essay in praise of men,” I said to the editor. They’ve been getting a hard time lately. My son is growing up and I don’t want him thinking everything to do with masculinity is harsh and sleazy and shameful.

“Oh-kay,” she said.

So when it was the kids’ bedtime, I sat down with my laptop. I made a new word document. I called it ‘We’re not all Harveys’. Let’s see. Bill Nighy! He’s lovely. Lin-Manuel Miranda; John Campbell; Nick Cave; ooh Idris Elba; that guy from that Scandi noir who’s sort of balding and podgy but hot….

Oh shit. I’m objectifying men! That’s not going to help, is it? And the men I’ve just mentioned are all limo-taking megastars. What about ordinary men?

I stared into space a bit. My toenails needed painting. I wondered if I should try to make sourdough? I’m a prize procrastinator any time, but this was different. It turned out to be really painful to try to find the right thing to say about being a man. Why was it so awkward?

Oh, come on, chook, focus. Write this sucker. ‘Good men’ can’t be that hard a topic. My boyfriend walks his rescue dog on a wild west coast beach and cries at funerals. My kids’ father is a good egg and so unsporty he can’t name the captain of the All Blacks. But praising them seems a bit smug and self-serving. Look at me! I found a good one.

So I googled ‘toxic masculinity’. The results were: Bette Midler tweeted that men were worthless. Hillary Clinton spoke at a fancy dinner and said men were trying to ruin everything. Drinks called Toxic Masculinity were served. I wonder what they tasted like? Bitter, I guess. Men make war; men commit crimes; men rape; men infuse their aggression into everything.

Ah, and then there is my son. Who still hadn’t brushed his teeth.

He was laying out all his hand-drawn Godzilla cards on the floor. There was Flame Rage and Destoroyah.

He is 10. He likes to go night swimming at the local pool, group hugs, bad puns, crunchy toast and marshmallows. He wants to get a golden retriever called Scribbles. He wants to be an actor when he grows up. Every day he runs after me when I drop him at school so he can give me a last hug. When I look at him with his too long fringe in his eyes, I find it hard to think this little guy is going to become the patriarchy.

Will this boy who will rescue a bee from the swimming pool suddenly become one of those men? I don’t think he will. But Me Too doesn’t seem to leave much space for him. Or the other kinds of men. The men who aren’t arrogant CEOs, gormless comedians, cocky frat boys or testosterone-fuelled masters of the universe. Not all men are big-chinned or play poker.

But being an ordinary, good man, in our culture seems hard to me. Having to be the breadwinner and never getting to spend time with your kids, or not be the breadwinner and feel you should be. And to feel guilty your gender is being held responsible for all the mayhem and war. It sounds a bit shit. And it is. Boys do worse than girls at school. Men make up most of the suicides, prison population, adults who go missing and rough sleepers.

Men are reluctant to seek help and male loneliness has been described as a silent epidemic. The comedian Robert Webb titled his memoir How Not To Be a Boy: whereas Caitlin Moran wrote How To Build a Girl.

I sometimes wonder whether women make men bear our shadow, be the receptacle for our aggression so we can breastfeed and bake bread. And then bitch about them. But if you say this you will find yourself in some weird company.

Debunkers of toxic masculinity are people like Garrett White, described by the New York Post as “a 40-year-old blond with tattooed biceps who looked like a video-game soldier” who runs an Iron John type camp to turn men into warriors. For a mere $25K, White will run you ragged with a programme that includes being punched in the face and reciting the poem Invictus.

Also among the debunkers is celebrity shrink Jordan Peterson. He calls women chaos, says boys aren’t manly enough and has a catchphrase: ‘Toughen up, you weasel’.

Or down the Kumbaya end of the spectrum there are the feathery stroker men. At Men’s Movement 2.0 meetings men “hold space” and share their “fierce loving energy” and help each other grow. A man must “do the work” to develop his own independence and grow into a “relaxed masculine confidence” that is not threatened by the feminine. All power to them, but do they get to watch the footie and go to the pub too?

Peterson says: “If men are pushed too hard to feminise, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.”

It is just really hard to find any vaguely comfortable place to be in this discussion. A place that acknowledges there is a certain sort of male energy which is vivid and strong and life enhancing: “We are turning against boys and forgetting a simple truth: that the energy, competitive-ness, and corporal daring of normal, decent males is responsible for much of what is right in the world,” writes feminist Christina Hoff Sommers.

She doesn’t deny boys’ aggressive and risk-taking tendencies must be socialised and channelled toward constructive ends. But she doesn’t think masculinity is toxic either.

Neither do I.

My son is a good boy. He is going to be a good man. You know how I know that? Because part of him will still be that gentle boy. And when it comes to telling him about masculinity, I’m going to tell him exactly what I tell my daughter: all that matters is, be kind. But maybe I’ll make him some sourdough. After I’ve got him to paint my toenails.

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