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From a very young age, both boys and girls are taught certain mannerisms that will shape the way they approach life and interact with others. They are taught by parents, siblings, family members, friends, as well as teachers. This lends varied sources of input on what qualifies as social standards for a person in their formative years and throughout adult life as well. Peggy Orenstein discusses this in her article ‘The Miseducation of the American Boy’, which talks about the different ideas that young boys are presented with to define what should and should not be considered ‘manly’. What are some of the definitions we are using to define today’s masculinity, how is society reinforcing those definitions, and what is the overall effect that those definitions have on the male population?

One of the first things we should do is determine what it is to be a man. That is a very confounding answer for some people, while most will answer without hesitation. It seems that there are many different sources for what characteristics constitute a man. Even the dictionary can attribute characteristics to being manly, but what exactly is that definition? Orenstein seems to think that masculinity found its roots in 1955 with the idea of dominance, aggression, rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height), sexual prowess, stoicism, athleticism, and wealth (at least someday), all being on the list of desired traits. This is a pretty unforgiving set of characteristics to live up to, yet it is very evident in the way that men feel the need to present themselves. But what does this mean for the modern man? Are these ideals attainable and what is the effect on mental health because of these seemingly outdated characteristics?

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If studies are showing the negative results of masculinity, why are these characteristics still being reinforced, and how? Orenstein goes into great detail about how this conditioning starts at an early age and proceeds into adolescence. How boys are subjected to “an impoverished emotional landscape” (Orenstein, 2020). Without the emotional vocabulary from the mother, nor the nuances from the father, boys still seem to have a “keen understanding of the emotions and a desire for close relationships” (Orenstein, 2020). These desires are taught to be weaknesses that should be stopped altogether or kept private. Men are still reinforcing these traits today with locker room banter, college frat parties, and office board rooms because they are still unsure what traits to pass on. Orenstein says that “the culture of adolescence, which fuses hyperrationality with domination, sexual conquest, and a glorification of male violence, fills the void” (Orenstein, 2020). Although we are making great strides to change what is acceptable in the masculine definition, we are far from bringing it back to 1910 Boy Scout standards of “loyal, friendly, courteous, and kind” (Orenstein, 2020). With the objectification of women, the encouragement of competition, not just for women, but amongst themselves, and the heckling of anything emotional, it’s no surprise that men are having issues.

Unfortunately, these very characteristics are causing more harm than ever before. Could it be that the very emotions that we inadvertently encourage them to suppress are the leading reason that they are having such issues now? The fact that they are not taught to manage their emotions, but to suppress them at a young age, renders them incapable of processing them properly, and in turn, acting out aggressively instead. This inability to process them in a constructive manner leads to alcohol abuse, violence, substance abuse, depression, and even death because of these things. How could that possibly be something that we would encourage in young boys?

Wouldn’t the best course of action be to give these boys and men the same emotional freedom that girls and women are allowed without attaching a stigma to it? Would it be so detrimental to teach young boys that kindness, caring, and crying are not weakness? In a perfect world, boys would be able to process emotions in a healthy way and not be looked down on for being sensitive to others. They would be given the resources to reach out for support without the threat of bullying from other people. They wouldn’t have to resort to substance abuse to cope with overwhelming feelings that they don’t know how to process because they were never shown how. What are we going to do to make that perfect world a reality for future generations?

Work Cited

  1. Orenstein, Peggy. The Miseducation of the American Boy. January 2020.

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