My #SASFE17 Talk: Questioning Masculinity 

Just so you know. 

 I am a feminist. This talk is not about women. It is about men. When I say men have it hard, I am not saying women have it easy. When I say men are victims of sexism, I am not suggesting that women are not. When I say that men need help, I am not saying that women should be left to get on with it. I’m telling you this because a false dichotomy exists: this false dichotomy believes that the championing of the wellbeing of one gender is synonymous with the subjugation of the other. This is not the case.

 It all started with whales and penises.

 Once, in a previous school, a set of books was left in the staff room. They were being thrown out of the library and it was thought that maybe the English department would want them. One of these books was titled: ‘Banned Poems: Kids must not read!’ One of these poems was called ‘The Whale’ and it was about a teenage boy, on holiday with his friends, in the swimming pool, and feeling ashamed about the relatively small size of his penis. After we all had a good chuckle at the subtleties of the minnow/whale symbolism, I made a suggestion: ‘In all seriousness though, this could be an issue for some boys. Penis paranoia’, I mean. Everyone went silent. And then someone told me: “Oh shut up. You only like it because you’re a bloke and it’s about cocks. You probably think it’s high art.”

 Another time, I walked into a classroom and had to stand there whilst another teacher encouraged a group of 6th form students to mimic my deep voice. “I’m Mr Pinkett and I’m so tough with my deep voice.”

 I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, ‘You’ll get the job because you’re a bloke.’ As if the possession of penis is more important than the time, money and effort I’ve spent in trying to make myself a better teacher.  

 Anyway, all this got me to thinking. If this is what I’m getting- a professional- from fellow professionals, what are these professionals doing or saying to the boys that they teach day-in, day-out?

 Now I’ve explained my investment in this topic, I’d like to explain a bit about the current state of masculinity in this country. After that, I’ll go into more detail in a school context.

 As of April 7th 2017, 95% of the UK prison population was male. That is, 95% of the convicted murderers, abusers, and robbers in this country are male. 

 At some point, these men, each and every single one of them, was an innocent child yet to commit a crime. So what is it? Coincidence? Is it coincidence that the 95% are all united in their possession of a penis? Course it isn’t. 

 Part of the problem is biological. Men are more predisposed to violence.

 Firstly, biologically, men have evolved to be more aggressive as violence was needed to compete with other men to mate with females.

 Then there’s anatomy. The average male upper body is 75% stronger than that of a woman’s. Men’s skin is thicker, their reactions are faster, their bones denser. Men are primed for battle.

 Then, there’s testosterone. Testosterone is directly responsible for inducing competitive and violent behaviour. Men have more of it. 

 However, it’s not all biological. Not all men are committing crimes. And not all crimes are violent. It’s interesting to note that cognitively, there is little difference in male and female brains. In fact, according to countless studies, there is no significant difference in the cognition of male and female brains.

 A review study by Janet Hyde states that ‘males and females are similar on most psychological variables.’

 So, biological differences aside, what is the reason behind the fact that 95% of the prison population is male? The very same reason that only 5% of the prison population is female: gender socialisation. These innocent children, who would later on to become murderers, abusers and robbers, are themselves victims. Victims of social masculinity.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be brave.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be sexually potent.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be fighters.

 The artist and sculptor, Grayson Perry, who has recently done a number of television programmes exploring masculinity, got it spot on in his book, The Descent of Man, when he says:

 So what happens when men struggle with the requirements imposed upon them by society’s expectations of masculinity? When they fail to be the brave, sexually potent fighters that society expects them to be? Well, a lot of them, jack it all in.


• Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK, with 76% of all suicides in 2014 being men


• A man take his own life every 2 hours in the UK alone


• Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.


 These are shocking statistics. Most prisoners are male. Most suicides are male. Clearly, there is a problem with masculinity. And it is a problem that we, as teachers, need to address just as we’d address issues of female inequality, racial prejudice, and religious intolerance.  

Grayson Perry makes another interesting point in his book. He argues that in society we need to actively discriminate against men to ensure total gender equality. This means that women should get jobs that more deserving men should get. I think there’s something in this. True gender equality can only be achieved when everybody is equal. When there is a 50/50 gender split between men and women in terms of job roles and job pay. There is a problem with this though. The problem is, that we are going to end up with a lot of proud men, who are unable to get the jobs they feel they deserve and have come to expect to be rightfully theirs because they are men. This means we’re going to have a lot of angry, upset men on their hands. And this is a problem.

So, as teachers, what can we do to make this transition to a new, less patriarchal age, more manageable for the boys in our case? For the boys who are more likely to go to prison or commit suicide than their female counterparts? The answer is simple. What can we, as teachers, do to combat the effects of biology and society? We need to question masculinity.

In fact, under this umbrella of ‘Questioning Masculinity’ we can break down the areas of questioning. We can:
• Question Ourselves

• Question our Curriculum

• Question our Boys


Let’s start with questioning ourselves.

In 1998, psychologists Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek developed a test of our subconscious racial prejudices, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The test aims to measure our implicit or ‘automatic’ responses to black or white people. 80% of people who have ever taken the test ‘end up having pro-white associations.’ This is regardless of whether they are black or white themselves This doesn’t mean these people are evil. It just means that you’ve been brought up in a world where you are bombarded with images of ‘goodness’ being white and ‘blackness’ being bad.

This has huge implications when it comes to gender prejudices. Regardless of how liberal or discriminating of gender prejudice we consider ourselves to be, the simple fact is, that many of us must sub-consciously hold gender based prejudices in regards to both females and males. How could it not be the case? The media machine reinforces gender stereotypes every day. So does the world of business and commerce. The fact is, we live in a sexist society and it is inevitable that these prejudices would embed themselves firmly in both our conscious and sub-conscious thought processes.

The research supports this. In a study by Susan Jones and Debra Myhill, it was found that although 80% of teachers sampled said that it was their expectation that boys and girls should get the same results, interviews conducted with these very same teachers showed that teachers actually:

Posit a view of girls as compliant, but posit a counterbalancing view of boys as confidently immature, disruptive, and disinclined towards writing.

In fact:

 A simple tally of comments made of boys and girls, respectively, revealed 54 positive comments made about girls as compared with 22 negative comments, and 32 positive comments made about boys compared with 54 negative comments. Teachers give voice to a deficit model of male achievement.

Ask yourself, have you ever said any of these things about boys?

  • Boys are lazy
  • Boys are immature
  • Boys have worse handwriting
  • Boys don’t value learning
  • Boys would rather be cool than clever
  • Boys are poor readers
  • Boys don’t like sitting down
  • Boys are poor writers

As a male English teacher, I’m acutely aware of other teachers’ tendency to group boys using stereotypes. I hear things like ‘I’ve got a boy-heavy class so I’ll do Macbeth; boys love death.” Another one is, “I’ll do war poetry. Boys love war.” And the ultimate one is: “He won’t read? Give him a book about football.”
It’s all bollocks.

The fact is, all boys love war, death and football no more than all girls love unicorns, baking and pixie dust.

As teachers, we need to be aware of this tendency-whether it’s conscious or otherwise-among practitioners of our profession to be group boys using stereotypes. We need to question the way we are talking about boys and how are we talking to boys.

Going back to the experiment I mentioned earlier, research has shown that participant subjection to positive images of black people did play a part in reducing racial bias. Therefore, reminding ourselves of what boys can achieve academically; thinking about the boys who are quiet and just get on; reminding ourselves that even the most challenging of boys are so, not because they were born with a penis, but because they have suffered elsewhere along the way, will go, I believe, some way to improving the chances of our boys experiencing success.

We also need to question our curriculum.

We need to be aware, that the national picture is bleak. In all aspects of education, boys are behind girls.
So, based on this, let me tell you the first thing we can do instantly:

Ensure that our classrooms are gender equal.

This means, if you are setting by gender, stop. If your bottom sets are full of boys, change that. Take some up and put some girls in. It makes absolutely no sense to put the weakest learners-boys-in classes with a load of other boys. They will learn nothing from one another. Get some girls in there.

I think there’s a problem with our curriculum. I’m going to talk about English now, to illustrate a point which I think can be applied to the wider curriculum and other subject areas.

In a blog post from 2016, I stated the following:

Teachers across the country are so focused on addressing, combating, and undoing the deplorable wrongs inflicted on women in society, media, and literature for centuries, that they’re inadvertently alienating the boys.

In a curriculum that is largely dominated by the works of dead white men, I feel it my duty to challenge sexist representations of women at every opportunity. Some questions I might ask are: 

• Is it okay for the poet to refer to the recently conquered country as a woman?

• Why it is that Curley’s wife has no name? Why is she referred to as Curley’s wife?

• What do you think about the way Juliet is treated by her father?

Such questions are vital. They are vital for one reason: they all lead to a discussion around the fact that women have been unfairly subjugated, exploited, and abused for thousands of years.

And yet, I am increasingly starting to ruminate: What is this doing to the self-esteem of the boys in my class? Is this constant hammering home of the fact that men have treated women unjustly for centuries going to make them like English? Or will they be bored to the teeth of hearing how hard it is to be a woman, without due consideration for how tough it is to be a man?

I teach ‘A View from the Bridge’ to Year 9 and every year, in reference to the tragic ending of the play, I say something along these lines:

“See what happens when you let masculine pride take over? It’s ridiculous. A man dies, for nothing else than masculine pride. It’s stupid; it’s idiotic. It’s childish.”

And, sure enough, the whole class and I laugh in utter disbelief that a grown man could be so infantile. Look how liberal we are! Stupid men! Boo-hiss stupid men!

Let’s consider an alternative comment:

“Don’t you think it’s disgusting that Catherine refuses to consider Eddie’s suspicions about Rodolpho? Hasn’t Catherine considered the pressures society puts on a man to protect those he loves? How unfair of her not to try and understand him!” And yet, nobody ever asks this question? Why? Because men are in the privileged position of being the default setting and the default setting never gets questioned.

I think of other novels I’ve taught over the years. The Great Gatsby. Routinely, Gatsby, as a character, is denounced by female teachers as an idiot; someone who fails to realise that lies and deception aren’t a means to obtain love. Okay, good point, but what about considering this: Isn’t he actually great? He sets himself a goal and he very nearly achieves it. The thing that leads to his downfall, isn’t his own ego, or his own failure to realise what true love is, it’s the whimsical nature of the object of his affections. The fact is, Daisy chooses to spend her life with a racist prick (yes a man), instead of Gatsby. She’s the idiot.

Let’s talk about Rochester in Jane Eyre. He locks his made wife up in an attic. Horrible man. He is routinely discussed in English classrooms all over the land as a symbol of patriarchal dominance. A metaphor for a society determined to keep women quiet. Rarely do I hear anybody discuss the fact that actually, Rochester is forced into marrying someone he doesn’t want to marry because of the social conventions of the time. Rochester begrudgingly embarked on a marriage purely to satisfy the needs of a society that says men need to make sacrifices to ensure success. Which is exactly what Rochester does.

As teachers of all subjects, we need to ensure that we’re not only asking questions that expose racial prejudice and anti-female biases for the crock of shite they are; we need to be ensuring that we are asking questions that put masculinity under the spotlight too.

People often criticise the literary canon for being dominated by men. And this is true. Here’s a list of GCSE English texts that I have taught in my time as a teacher.

• Macbeth

• Romeo and Juliet

• Othello

• Lord of the Flies

• An Inspector Calls

• The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

• A Christmas Carol

All dominated by male characters. True. But virtuous male characters? Not quite. In fact, in these 7 texts alone we have:

• Rapists

• Child killers

• Mass murderers

• Thieves

• Monsters

• Misers

• Adulterers

Yes. The English curriculum is more male-centered. But, all this simply means is, we get more males than females doing shit things to other people. Do we get more male heroes though? Let’s see. This isn’t limited to English. Take History for example. Here’s a list of 10 key historical figures studied at Secondary school. Mostly male. Okay, I’m not great at history, but all these men aren’t all good blokes. They’re not all positive role models.

So what can we do? Schools need to audit their provision. They need to work with subject teachers to find answers to some key questions.

Once this audit has been completed, schools need to adjust their pastoral focus. They need to accept that there are some issues specific to males. And they need to be addressed.

Questioning Them:

A study by Brody and Hall found that at a young age:

Girls become more adept at reading both verbal and non-verbal emotional signals, at expressing and communicating their feelings, and boys become more adept at minimizing emotions having to do with vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt.

In fact, many studies have shown that girls are more likely to express ‘sad’ emotions, such as the ones above, whereas boys are less likely to. Add this to other studies which have shown that boys use between ten to 30 times less spoken language even before school and we have a lot of boys that a) refuse to acknowledge their ‘sad’ emotions and b) boys who lack the skills to acknowledge their ‘sad’ emotions.

This does not mean that boys are less likely to feel sad.

If boys lack the skill and inclination to discuss the feelings of vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt, that inevitably plague them, they revel in their assertive emotions. The anger, the bitterness, the cruel ‘banter’.

And some of them even kill themselves.

So here’s what we need to do. We need to move away from a ‘grunt’ culture. When we ask our male students to voice their opinions on a historical event or a religious law or a piece of theatre we need to refuse to accept a grunt or ‘I don’t know’ as a valid answer. In fact, at an early age, we need to ban I don’t know from our classrooms.

If students genuinely don’t know, then we can change the wording off our questions. Instead of saying ‘Why did the Wall Street Crash happen’, we can say ‘Why do you think the wall street crash happened?’ ‘How does Ralph feel when Piggy dies’ becomes ‘How do you think Ralph feels when Piggy dies?’ And so on.

We can also empower students by giving them the vocabulary needed to express themselves. How? Well, first off, reading. Boys need to be reading. Students who read for 20 minutes a day will be subjected to 1.8 million words in a year. Those who don’t will see 8000.

What about the boys who don’t read? Well, they need a whole school programme of carefully designed and explicit vocabulary instruction to be completed in school, during form times, or English lessons. All teachers of all subjects need to be aware of these vocabulary words and they need to be encouraging students to express themselves in them.

I want to finish my talk today by addressing an issue which I think is a disgrace:It’s the language of sex in our schools.

A recent report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that:

• Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.

• 71% of all students say they hear terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ on a regular basis at schools.

• 59% of females aged 13-21 have faced some sort of sexual harassment at school in the past year.

 I’ve written about this (Dear Boys) and I want to read you it. It’s a message that we need to be telling our boys.

Objectification is the process of making another person feel as though they are less than human; an object to be used as others wish. Women are objectified every day. They are whistled at, and they are grabbed, and they are pinched. Whatever your intentions, making non-consensual physical contact with a woman is unacceptable. So don’t do it. Talking about women as some of you do, using crude and unsavoury sexual language, is also a form of objectification. Stop it.

You’d do well to remember that men are objectified too. When female panelists on daytime chat shows whistle and leer at that geezer from Poldark or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are objectifying him. When Sunday supplements lead with articles like ‘Britain’s Sexiest Scientist’, they are objectifying him. When females say things like ‘come and give us a hand with this muscle man’, they are objectifying men. There’s more to men than their physicality.
This message-this constant reinforcement of the fact that objectification of women is wrong needs to be reiterated again and again and again. But we also need to ensure that our boys are not being objectified too.
The fact is, our boys are biologically and socially primed to be sexual beings. We can make pastoral efforts to change this, but it’s also something we can challenge in the classroom. The way to do this is by challenging the language we hear from boys-and girls-, in classrooms, up and down the country.

Words such as:

• Slag

• Slut

• Pussy

• Gash

• Paedo

• Nonce

• Dick

These words are used as part of student vernacular. This is normalising violent and predatory attitudes towards sex. The fact is, they are used so often and so routinely, it can be easy to overlook them.

Most worrying, for me, is the use of the word ‘rape’ as a verb, used light heartedly, to mean ‘beaten severely.’ As in, I got absolutely raped on call of Duty last night.’ I’ve even heard kids shout ‘Sir! He’s raping me!’ as his friend play fights with him. This needs to stop. As teachers, we need to come down hard on this. Such language needs to have instant and severe sanctions. If this isn’t an option we can take our own direct approach. If I hear a boy, in my lesson, use the word ‘rape’, I take it upon myself to explain, very bluntly, that ‘rape is the forced insertion of a penis into the vagina, anus or any other orifice of another human being who doesn’t want it.’ I’ve found that this normally stops it.

The same goes for the word ‘paedo’ and ‘perv’ and one I hear often: stalker.

Which leads me to a story about a colleague of mine, who once told me she was ‘stalked’ by someone she described as a ‘little perv.’ When I probed further, what I actually found was this. When this colleague was at school, a boy who fancied her, followed her home, but not having the courage to make known his affections directly, posted a letter through her door, explaining his reasons for following her home. A story which began as a sinister tale of a male predator actually turned out to be a story of a slightly awkward teenagers inability to make his affection for the object of his crush known. And I see this happening everywhere. Boys who message girls on Facebook after school are denounced as ‘Stalkers’. Boys who awkwardly stare at someone they fancy are described as ‘perverts’. Boys who date someone in the year below them are mocked as ‘paedophiles.’ And this is from girls and boys.

The fact is, this needs to stop. Trivilisation of terms such as paedo, rape, stalker, and perv only serve to soften the stigma attached to these terms where they are rightfully attributed. As teachers, we need to question boys and girls every time they choose to use a sexualised term. We need to question the girls who denounce their male peers as paedos and stalkers. We need to question the routinely sexualised language that some students aren’t even aware they’re using.  





Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

8 thoughts on “My #SASFE17 Talk: Questioning Masculinity ”

  1. All the GCSE texts that you list were written by men. Surely that’s the biggest positive argument. Whilst some of the male characters are depicted doing heinous things (and some female characters are too) these things are recognised and held up for critique by the men who wrote them. Shakespeare is surely drawing our attention to the misuse of patriarchal power in Romeo and Juliet. Golding is surely identifying the flaws in the ideology around ideas about British boyhood and manhood. Dickens’ depiction of Scrooge is surely intended to have readers reel back in horror.

    If we look at authorial intention when we teach these books then different depictions emerge to the ones you suggest above: one where male authors are portraying flawed male characters in order to draw their readers’ attention to them and hopefully inspire a better way. I would never teach these texts and use them to point out that (all) men are flawed – I would point out that some of the male characters are flawed in order to deliberately draw our attention to the fact that their behaviours are considered abhorrent by their authors as well as by readers. There are many other depictions of male characters in these texts that I would consider too: Banquo, the Friar, Simon, Bob, Marco and Rodolpho. A multiplicity that allows a much more nuanced picture of masculinity to emerge.

    Please don’t think all female teachers are man bashing when we read these texts – I certainly never teach anything that simplistic. As you suggest, we should be, and I believe a lot of us already are, demonstrating the ways that gender roles are socially constructed and the ways that literary texts reflect and take part in this construction.


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