Violence in communities: Examine what it means to be a “real” boy or man in society

Examining cultural messages about masculinity is a key aspect of violence prevention.

If you’re concerned about issues of bullying, school shootings, rampage killings, day-to-day gun violence and sexual assault, scholars who study gender, violence and larger cultural patterns urge us to examine these issues through the lens of gender. According to educator and cultural theorist, Jackson Katz these serious issues are linked with gender in important ways. Mainstream media and other commentators – while speculating every other possible cause for violent tragedies – often tend to ignore the role of gender. For example, 98 percent of the perpetrators of school shootings and mass killings over the past several years have been boys and men. While much discussion has focused on how and why these tragedies could happen, little attention has been paid to what Katz calls the increasing role of “violent masculinity.”

These issues are explored in a new Media Education Foundation documentary called Tough Guise 2. In it, Katz extends his work from the original Tough Guise documentary and examines the link between violence and pervasive societal norms about what it means to be a “real” boy or man. Boys and men get messages from their parents, families, peers, neighborhoods, schools, faith communities, sports, the media and many other sources about what it means to be a boy and a man. Some scholars, including William Pollack have called this the “Boy Box” and contend that boys and men get subtle and not so subtle messages throughout their lives such as the following:

Don’t show emotion

Don’t think too much

Never back down

Show toughness

Being sexually aggressive with women

Boys and men also get the message that if they step outside this box because of who they are, how they look, or the activities they want to engage in, they risk being seen as weak, soft, feminine or gay. Boys and men get policed by other boys and men (and by girls and women) to stay boxed into rigid codes of masculinity out of fear of not measuring up to what it means to be man.

In dozens of educational sessions focused on issues of bullying conducted by Michigan State University Extension involving hundreds of people from across Michigan, workshop participants have explored these issues. Interestingly, they’ve provided similar responses when asked how the larger culture defines “Real Boys” and what are boys and men called when they step outside this box.

These limiting and damaging messages, which are linked to issues of bullying and violence, begin when boys are very young and continue through adolescence and into manhood. Katz says that “Tough Guise” is the shield or mask that so many boys and men put up in order to avoid being ridiculed, called names, teased, bullied or beat up for not measuring up to codes of masculinity. This all comes at great costs to the health and wellbeing of boys and men and to their relationships with others.

MSU Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that gender and other aspects of human differences are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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