Escaping 'the man box': How parents raising sons are rethinking masculinity
Boys no longer have to be raised into sexually aggressive and emotionally stoic men, say critics
What does it mean to be a man?
Ask 15-year-old Tristan Hay and he'll tell you: "Masculinity is a performance."
It's an answer that Brandon Hay calls a proud dad moment, after the two finished watching the film Moonlight.
Hay has a lot of re-learning to do when it comes to masculinity, he said. The learning continues as he teaches his three boys.
"In the last two years I've learned the most around masculinity, or black masculinity, from gay black men or trans black men, " Hay told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
"I think that has done me a great service in terms of how I parent, and [to] let go of certain things that I was taught."
Hay is the founder of the Black Daddies Club, a movement to change the negative image of black fathers. Born and raised in Jamaica, as a youth he was given what he calls an "immature script" — a stereotypical, traditional and sometimes extreme version of what it means to be a man.
The ideologies around black masculinity, such as "having a lot of money, not being gay, having a big penis or having a certain kind of body" were destructive, Hay said.
"I do think there has to be a stepping outside of 'the man box,' so to speak."
Building a manhood
The "man box" is familiar to Clay Dennison who regards his father as an "alpha male."
"The lessons he typically taught me were you have to win, you have to succeed, you have to dominate. You have to be stoic when times are tough and push through," Dennison explained.
He said that in many ways, his relationship with his father was very difficult. Despite this, becoming a parent himself has taught him to appreciate certain aspects of his own father's lessons.
I was in the man box. And in many ways that was my identity and I felt secure in that.- Stay-at-home Dad Clay Dennison
Now the parent of a 10-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, he sometimes struggles to find the right balance between the traditional concept of masculinity and more contemporary interpretations.
Dennison transitioned from a successful career to a stay-at-home dad when his son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes five years ago.
"What I'm trying to do with my son is to teach him that many of the old-school concepts were toxic if they were extreme … but we can bring in more contemporary concepts like, it's okay to be sensitive, it's good to collaborate, it's good to communicate. You don't have to be so stoic that you're silent when you need help," he explained.
Defining male and female attributes as direct opposites of each other is effectively a trap, said Rachel Giese, journalist and author of Boys: What It Means to Become a Man.
Men are prescribed to be stoic, hard, emotionless and aggressive, while women are told to be docile and quiet, she explained.
"I feel like at a moment when men and women are living lives that are more and more similar and equal in a way, there has been this blowback — the desire to move back a bit to more defined male and female labels and roles."
Deconstructing 'the man box'
The "man box" is based around the idea of a culturally understood set of norms that govern masculine behaviour, Giese described. It tends to include being sexually aggressive, financially successful, traditionally attractive and emotionally stoic.
The problem with this box, Giese points out, is many men get shut out because of race, class, sexuality.
"I was in the man box. And in many ways that was my identity and I felt secure in that," said Dennison.
He said he notices people's reactions when he says he's a stay-at-home-dad. In the past, their reactions made him feel humiliated and embarrassed.
While Dennison describes his relationship with his son as better than he ever could have imagined, he admitted that he has worried that his son doesn't have a traditional role mode.
"If he just sees me making daddy's famous spaghetti sauce, is that enough?" he wondered.
How race plays into parenting boys
With incidents like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Hay says he's got no choice but to have conversations with his boys about the idea that black men are "seen as unhuman or unlovable."
Hay said it's hard to straddle teaching his boys not be afraid and go out and engage in the world but also make them aware of what's out there.
"I think for me as a black father I get scared. I get legit scared when I see Eric Garner getting choked out on TV and nothing happens," Hay said.
"The challenging part is knowing that I can't protect them."
Giese says she's seen incidents where her adopted son, who is Indigenous, has been more harshly penalized for things than other kids in his school.
"I also saw very early on the desire to call in the police to deal with things, even in elementary school," Giese said.
Giese talks candidly with her son when these issues that come up. It's important to her to emphasize he's not the problem.
"He's a great kid. He's a lovely person but the world is going to perceive him differently and he needs to be conscious of that," she said.
Listen the full conversation near the top of this page.
This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Halfiax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.