What does it really mean to “be a man?” That depends on whom you ask, but the stereotypes go something like this: A “real man” is stoic and unemotional. A “real man” is physically strong, a protector. A “real man” doesn’t show weakness, ask for help or show vulnerability.
Research shows these traditional expectations of masculinity have harmful consequences. Men are far less likely than women to seek mental health treatment, and data indicates that men commit a huge majority of the violent crimes reported in the U.S. each year.
According to Dr. Wizdom Powell, an associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health who has studied the intersection of masculinity and health, the correlation between these statistics is simple.
“If you think about the common narrative around men and boys that teaches them that boys don’t cry or that they should be able to walk it off, take it like a man under any circumstance, you could imagine how the habitual practice of not telling anyone about your pain or worries could have significant implications,” Dr. Powell said. “There are downstream consequences of not really having a healthy outlet to dispense negative emotions. If you’re bottled up all the time, it’s like Whac-A-Mole, it will pop up behaviorally in another way.”
That’s why there’s a growing movement of men who are rejecting society’s rigid definition of masculinity and redefining what it means to be a man.
Meet three men who are leaders in this conversation, engaging others in important dialogues and asking the questions: What does it mean to be an ally? A feminist? A father, son or brother? What do we expect from men, and why? And how can we all teach the next generation of boys and men that their options are endless?
pro tackling stereotypes
meet wade davis.
Wade Davis describes his professional football career as one of the more exciting times of his life—and also one of the most tragic.
“I was doing this thing that I always wished for and dreamed for, but I never did it as myself,” he said. “I was always hiding my identity, I was always performing ideas of manhood and masculinity that were really stifling and almost choking. Even though I was living out a dream, I was also in the midst of a nightmare.”
Davis never talked about his sexuality. Not when he was growing up, in Shreveport, La., or when he moved to Colorado as a teenager. Not in 10th grade, when he first realized he was attracted to boys. Not when he went to college. And not when he played professional football.
He felt trapped, compelled to wear a “mask of masculinity.” He remembers bullying people and treating women like ornaments, instead of human beings, to adhere to the “rules” of manhood that were so deeply ingrained. He remembers intentionally targeting other boys whose masculinity fell outside the norm, and using derogatory names as "weapons" against them. “As little boys we learn that being labeled ‘tough’ grants you a certain type of social capital,” Davis said during a 2016 TEDx talk.
Davis did not speak publicly about his sexuality until 2012—almost ten years after he retired from professional football.
“There's this old adage, and it says that it's very hard to become what you don't see,” Davis said. “I never saw men who were attracted to or loved other men being embraced. [I never thought] that that was something to aspire to.”
No one had ever explicitly told Davis that it was unacceptable to be gay, but he didn’t have gay role models in his life. He didn’t see openly gay athletes playing the sports he loved. He saw his peers making jokes about anyone who wasn’t straight, and making dismissive comments about women and gay men.
“No coach, no teacher, no parent ever said ‘I will love you, I will embrace you, I will accept you if you decide to tell anyone that you're lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,’” Davis said. “That would have had a transformative impact on the way I thought about myself.”
Davis says his turning point was when he began working with LGBTQ youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and saw young people being true to themselves. He finally felt ready to come out, and began to talk publicly about all the different things being a man can mean. He made it his life’s mission to help other men and boys understand that it’s OK—and necessary—to break free from the rigid gender scripts they’ve been given.
Davis, now 40, became a LGBTQ inclusion consultant for professional sports leagues. He launched the #BlackMenAndFeminism campaign with the Ms. Foundation and Ebony magazine. He became heavily involved with You Can Play, an organization that tackles homophobia and equality in sports. And his TEDx talk addressed how the mask of masculinity is harmful to humanity as a whole.
In Davis’s experience, societal change happens when you really try to understand another person’s point of view—without judgment.
“My job is to expand the lens, to create new conversations so that I can continue to do the work,” he said. “If I show up in an NFL locker room to do a training, and I walk in there believing that everyone in this room is homophobic, the conversation never happens and I don’t create the conditions for both parties to learn from each other and grow... I believe that we as a country, as a world, have to make more connections with people who think differently than us.”
Many things have changed since Davis was a professional athlete. There are openly gay players in pro sports leagues, and players who can talk about their sexuality with their coaches and teammates. This, and the work Davis has done with young LGBTQ people continues to inspire him. And, he said, stereotypical “straight men” are having crucial conversations about masculinity, too.
“I think that we're in a time of reckoning,” he said. “All of us are reckoning with the exhaustion of being someone else. I think that men are starting to realize that there is no benefit in always showing up as this hyper-masculine man who doesn't know who he is and has never really thought about who he is.”
As for Davis? The work he does now has changed his life.
“I've never been happier,” he said. “I’ve never felt more alive.”
The dad blogger
script on fatherhood
Meet Mike Reynolds.
Mike Reynolds’s older daughter was 3 or 4 the first time someone made a “blonde” joke about her. And one month into kindergarten, she declared that “blue is for boys and pink is for girls.”
Kids pick up on messages about gender early on, and Reynolds believes it’s up to parents to flip the script.
Reynolds, aka “Everyday Girl Dad,” tweets and blogs about his life as the father of his 8- and 6-year-old girls and partner to his wife, Andrea. He writes about everything that parenting involves—the highs and lows, difficult conversations, hilarious experiences and times when you don’t know the answer.
In recent years, Reynolds has focused on engaging other parents—especially dads—in conversations about gender equality, masculinity and fatherhood through his blog. “I'm trying to find my voice to see what kind of impact I can have in social change and everything,” he said.
Reynolds has seen firsthand how the more harmful rules of masculinity—the ones that say men should be tough and always ready to fight—evolve as men become fathers, which allows the cycle to continue.
“You'll see on Facebook the ‘dads against daughters dating’ things, or the dad with a shotgun at prom time, or daughters being protected by dad's police force,” he said. “That's the first time that I really saw, ‘Okay, there's an opportunity for me, as a dad of daughters, to speak to the way that we need to change the messaging around that.’”
Reynolds launched a t-shirt line with slogans like “Dad who cries when Bing Bong dies” and “Dads for daughters dating...and other choices they make for themselves” to show a different narrative about what fatherhood can look like.
He also writes about the ways in which he challenges stereotypes at home, to help other parents think about what they’re modeling as well. “I like [my kids] seeing me cry,” he said. “For me, not putting up this false front as Dad as the stoic person who is emotionless and is a rock…some people may naturally be and that’s great for them, but I don’t think that is a defining characteristic of masculinity or manhood.”
Through his blog and social media accounts, Reynolds has found that his followers are perceptive to his message and even like-minded parents know there’s always more to learn. He knows he’s making a difference when he receives comments from strangers saying things like, “Hey, I never thought of it that way."
In addition to blogging and tweeting about fatherhood, Reynolds writes about his own experiences with topics men tend to shy away from. He talks about mental health struggles and attending Weight Watchers. He talks about the gender and sexuality studies classes he’s taking at the university where he works. And he talks about his interests and hobbies. Right now he’s trying out cross-stitch, and he does a lot of drawing with his kids.
“There's so much fun stuff that guys might want to do that they don't do because they're afraid of being made fun of,” he said. “I'm trying to show myself doing it because I have wanted to do it—trying not to hold back from doing things that interest me just because it's not manly, or masculine or whatever.
Ultimately, Reynolds wants to help change the conversation about what’s expected from fathers.
“If you're a dad who is involved with the kids, who does their daughter's hair or paints nails, you tend to be held up to this really high standard when all you're doing is parenting a kid,” he said. “That narrative is just as damaging as ‘dad is useless.’ Dads shouldn't be praised for being dad. This isn't exceptional fatherhood, this is what dads of daughters can do.”
Meet Tom Keith.
It wasn’t until Tom Keith became an educator that he started thinking critically about the way he was raised. He grew up in southern California and was heavily involved in sports. He spent years in the music industry. Eventually, he got his Ph.D., began teaching college students and explored other scholars’ work about gender.
“Some of them were talking about the need to empower women and others were talking about the need to create better men,” he said. “I started to explore that. To see what they meant by ‘better men.’ More empathetic, compassionate, caring men. Kind men who treat one another better, and that treat women better in the service of making a better world.”
Keith, a professor of philosophy and gender studies, noticed that writing peer-reviewed papers about gender and discussing issues at conferences wasn’t galvanizing much change outside of academia. He saw how his students engaged with movies in his classes, and realized that films could reach a much broader audience. He teamed up with film students from local universities and has since written, directed and produced three movies: "Generation M: Misogyny in Media and Culture" (2008), "The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men" (2011) and "The Empathy Gap: Masculinity and the Courage to Change" (2015).
Through his films, Keith wants to challenge what men and women are taught about manhood and masculinity. “I view bro culture in a particularly toxic way,” he said. “Guys are taught to womanize, to see women as sexual objects, to make jokes about sexual assault and rape. [It’s] just a very toxic environment for guys that hurts both men and women.”
Keith also hopes that his films can help explain why that culture so common. In The "Empathy Gap," he sought to answer questions about sexist behavior
“Why do men do this? Why does this appeal to men? Is there something missing? As I was reading books at the time on empathy, compassion, kindness… it sort of struck me, do we have an empathy gap? Is it the case that men can empathize with other men but not with women? Is there something going on in the way that we're raising boys to become men that they minimize, marginalize and dismiss women's voices?”
In the two films he is working on currently, Keith says wants to explore how homophobia and race contribute to negative behavior associated with masculinity.
“The number one way that men in our country insult other men is by calling them either some name that's female or that's gay,” he said. “That's how they try to insult, which speaks volumes about American manhood—that we think that women or gay people are somehow far beneath us in some kind of hierarchy.”
Keith says that talking to men about these issues can be difficult, but he’s very optimistic. He says that speaking to men in a nonjudgmental and open way about their behavior can lead to real change.
“If we really want to spread these messages of progressive masculinity, we need men to come to the table,” Keith said. “We need them in the classrooms, we need to be reaching out and talking to them in a way that they don't feel threatened, that they don't shut down and immediately become defensive. I take the same approach when I'm speaking around the country. I say, ‘I'm not here to bash you and I'm not here to make you feel like you're bad, or that there's something wrong with you. We're just trying to find ways to become better, for all of our sakes.’”