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The many faces of masculinity

Meet three leaders inspiring others to rethink what it means to be a man

The many faces of masculinity

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Meet three leaders inspiring others to rethink what it means to be a man


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?

The football
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.

“[We] have to make more connections with people who think differently than us.”

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.”

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.”

“All of us are reckoning with the exhaustion of being someone else.”

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
flipping the
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.’”

“I like [my kids] seeing me cry.

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.”

The filmmaker
dissecting bro

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).

We're just trying to find ways to become better, for all of our sakes.

“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.’”