A primary school teacher recently got in touch to tell me that he spent yesterday ‘dealing with five 10 year olds hell bent on proving their masculinity’ because one of these boys had questioned another’s masculine credentials. This same teacher went on to explain that these boys ‘can’t occupy themselves anymore with anything that isn’t fighting.’
It’s a depressing state of affairs, and whilst I’m not sure where I stand on the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, I certainly agree that there is a problem with certain elements of masculinity as a construct. Namely, the way it can point large numbers of men towards a life of physical and sexual violence, aggressive posturing and emotional repression.
Although I’m sceptical of ‘toxic masculinity’ as a phrase, one phrase I do like is ‘tender masculinity’ as discussed in this excellent blog post by Terra Loire. According to Loire, Tender Masculinity is ‘a necessary antidote to our media portrayals of men’ as either hyper-macho meatheads or incompetent buffoons. Loire suggests that if you ask the following questions of a man, and can answer in the affirmative, then he embodies tender masculinity:
• Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?
• Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?
• Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?
• Does he commit to personal growth?
• Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?
• Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for instance, can he express affection for male friends without making a gay joke?
Lots of people contact me regularly and ask for advice on how they can combat what they deem to be ‘toxic masculinity’. My answer is this: ‘Militant Tenderness’. Militant tenderness refers to the act of relentlessly and doggedly modelling a masculinity which values kindness, vulnerability and love over the power, violence, and emotional mutism which makes up the toxic masculinity that the media-in all its forms-seems so determined to instill amongst our young people.
So, what does militant tenderness look like? In my classroom it looks like this:
1. Relentless politeness at all times, wherever possible.
I always say please and thank you, at all times. When people answer the register, “Yes Sir”, I say “Thank You.” When guests come and observe my lessons, I thank them for visiting as they leave. When a child thanks me at the end of the lesson, I’ll say, “Thanks for saying thanks! It means a lot.” Because it does mean a lot. Saying please and thank you shows that you are grateful for everything; that you don’t take anything for granted and that you don’t feel entitled. One of the problems of toxic masculinity is misguided feelings of entitlement. By saying please and thank you, as often as the opportunity presents itself to do so, I am showing boys that I respect people, and I value their respect for me. Nothing is assumed. I am owed nothing because I am a man. I am owed something because I am kind.
2. Relentless honesty, at all times, wherever possible.
I try to be as honest as I can with students when it comes to my emotions. Whilst I would never discuss my personal life in any depth, I will openly discuss the feelings and emotions that arise in the context of what’s being studied or discussed in the classroom. If a poem makes me very sad, I’ll tell the class. If a kid makes me look at something in a new and exciting way, I’ll express my childish delight. And, if a kid does a piece of work that’s absolutely mind-blowing, to the point where it makes my heart swell with pride, and my eyes with tears, I’ll acknowledge that fact, frankly and openly. In fact, I’ll intentionally draw the class’s attention to it. I’ll say: “That’s making me well up with pride, that”, and face them, smiling and watery eyed.
I’ll be open about the way topics affect me and if appropriate, I’ll attempt to explain why they affect me that way. A good exemplification of this is when I read the ending of ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Inevitably, as I read the final pages, my voice will falter and waiver with emotion. I don’t try to hide this fact and when the kids notice it, and ask me why I am so affected by the ending of the book I’ll explain to them that I see in Lennie and George, the closeness I feel to my brothers and this informs my emotional response to the end of the novel.
Sometimes honesty can be something as simple as, ‘I like your haircut Jack’, or ‘Ah, it’s good to see you lot this morning.’ The fact is, as a teacher, I need to show my students that it’s okay for a man to feel and to want to express those feelings. Do this whenever you can.
3. Relentless critique of negative aspects of masculinity
Often, I’ll take the time out to poke light-hearted fun at masculine behaviours I believe to be undesirable. Humour comes in handy here. I’ve got a number of go-to routines with this one, but here’s an example the kids always laugh along with.
Me: Nice haircut Jack
Me: Sorry Jack. Didn’t mean to embarrass you. Number one rule of teacher training is ‘never draw attention to a kid by complimenting them’. Thing is Jack, I’ve got no hair, and you have, and I like your haircut. So I’m going to compliment you, right? Why wouldn’t I? Isn’t it weird how some men can’t ever just compliment each other? Last week, I bought a new jacket. And I went to meet my friends in a place that definitely wasn’t a pub, and as I’m standing there with me mates, enjoying a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, I realise that all my mates are looking at me jacket. And I’m looking at them looking at me jacket. And not one of ‘em says anything! I know they like my jacket. I know they think I look good in my jacket- I mean, how could they not? But not one of them says anything! So we’re in this ridiculous situation where they know that I know that they know how good I look and we all just stand there not saying anything. Until someone breaks the silence with “So…er…football.” I’ve never understood it! If there’s the opportunity to compliment somebody, compliment them! Jeeez….
It makes me cringe, seeing this written out. But the fact is, once upon a time, this was off the cuff. But after seeing the boys in that class agree with me, and the positive impact it had on the way that it had on their behaviour (they began to actually be nice to each other openly), it became a story I fine-tuned and worked on. Find your opportunities to critique masculinity, come up with a personal story of your own to which the kids can relate, and perfect it.
My critique of masculinity isn’t always so light-hearted. At times there are situations when something needs to be seriously addressed. This year, I took considerable time to criticise Mercutio and Tybalt’s masculine posturing, that results in both their deaths.
I’ve also scrutinised-and expressed my outright disgust- at the following passage from A Christmas Carol:
She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty. With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face; a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed–as no doubt it was; all kinds of good little dots about her chin, that melted into one another when she laughed; and the sunniest pair of eyes you ever saw in any little creature’s head.
And this one from Gerald Croft in An Inspector Calls:
She was very pretty…She looked young and fresh and charming
The Dickens case is an interesting one. It demonstrates that all men, however great, are products of a sexist masculinity that needs to be interrogated. What’s key is that students see me – a man- interrogate it.
On the flipside, I have also spent considerable time praising Romeo for his emotional honesty, something which I have written about here. I’m sure that many books, at primary school, contain many outdated masculine stereotypes, but also examples of a new kind of masculinity which is tender. Criticise the former, and praise the latter relentlessly. Constantly.
4. Relentless attention to the language I’m using.
There was probably a time when the anecdotes and questions I used to illuminate a concept were heteronormative. For example, in a lesson on love poetry, I might have asked, “Why might a man write his girlfriend a sonnet?” Now, for everytime I’ll ask that question, I’ll ask another that is homonormative. For example, “Why might a man write his boyfriend a sonnet?”
One of the many foundations upon which toxic masculinity is built upon is homophobia. I want to remove that foundation and I can only do that by chipping away at it as often as possible. Everytime I use homonormative pronouns in the classroom, I am not only chipping away at normalised homophobia, but also demonstrating that I am a man who is tolerant and empathic.
5. Relentless acknowledgement of my own faults.
There are times when I’ve made mistakes and reprimanded a child who didn’t deserve it. There are also times when I’ve found myself engaged in childish tit-for-tat arguments with a student. Every time I falter in this way, I hold my hands up and admit my wrong-doing. If I’ve told a kid off, and been a little too harsh, I’ll apologise to them, directly. If the student was unfairly admonished in front of the whole class, then I’ll apologise to that student in front of the whole class. Boys need to see that men can get it wrong sometimes. But more than this, they need to see that it’s okay to say sorry because saying sorry means I care about people’s feelings.
6. Relentless attention to negative masculine behaviours
It’s tiring at times, but necessary. Every single time a student uses the word ‘gay’ pejoratively; every time a student comments negatively about the way a woman looks; every time a student mocks another student for exhibiting behaviours he considers to be feminine and therefore undesirable. I call them out on it. Relentlessly.