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Bullying and the Man Box

Bullying is a big problem for many young people today, especially boys who might be the perpetrators or victims.  With school starting next week, it can be terrifying for those who have dealt with bullying from previous years. Boys can be utterly vicious to other boys. Why is bullying so much more pervasive (and sometimes fatal) than it was when I was in school? Through my research on masculinity, I have some ideas.

The image of the bully is ubiquitous: he’s big, tough, and uses his brawn to get his way and respect from his peers. In my school, the bully was Aubrey (who happened to be my grade 6 boyfriend). He was rough, dangerous, and was both feared and idolized by everyone, including the teachers. He was perceived as the coolest kid on the playground. Just as in Aubrey’s case and in the movies, the bully usually comes from a broken, violent, or dysfunctional home. Aubrey – and others like him – was acting out as a cry for love and attention. But bullying is more than just a needy call.

Bullying occurs when boys feel the compulsion to defend masculinity, either theirs or others’. Boys and men are subjected to a very narrow version of masculinity. In the Man Box, men/boys are supposed to be athletic, unfeeling, sporty, hyper-sexual, and slightly dangerous. If a boy falls outside the prescribed masculine mould by being effeminate, peculiar, overweight, or nerdy, their behaviour threatens the status quo.  In the bully’s mind, the victim must be punished in order to maintain order, usually through violence, intimidation, aggression, name calling, or embarrassment. What a tight little painful box in which to live!

I think that bullying has increased because men (or boys) are lacking other male role models (along with the pervasiveness of social media used as a tool for intimidation and poor nutrition). Boys don’t know how to be men outside of what they see on violent video games and mind-numbing TV shows. Men are depicted by narrowly-defined types that do nothing to boost boys’ self-esteem (think Homer Simpson, Happy Gilmore, Urkle, or Don Draper). Even if boys wanted to express a different form of masculinity, there is virtually nothing in our culture to support that desire.

I believe that fathers need to step up to show their kids love and affection in order to build their self-esteem and self-worth. Recently, I read an article about a father who dresses in skirts to support his son’s desire to dress in women’s clothing. I was really impressed by his dedication to normalizing his child’s behaviour and making it ok. When we feel that we are loved and cared for, we are more resilient to life’s bumps and bruises. Fathers also need to be impervious to the judgements of others, cool in their reactions, and kind in their resolve to show their children that real men don’t have to be violent to be effective.

Little boys need to know that it is ok to be different. Different is interesting. Sticking to the pack is boring. We go through life learning how to be ourselves, standing up for what we believe in, and celebrating our uniqueness. Growing comfortable with ones’ self and owning your own brand of manhood is a lifelong journey. If you are a parent, encourage your boys to be who they truly are. Tell them that high school is a short (sometimes bothersome) chapter in an otherwise long and full life.

Bullies are usually insecure and empty. That is the very antithesis to masculinity.

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