The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence
The constant bullying of boys and men ultimately puts us all at risk.
Humankind is in the throes of a savage epidemic. It is a blight on every continent and is at the heart of every bloody war and every catastrophic environmental disaster. It reigns over the bodies of Trevon Martin and Matthew Shepard alike.
We police, condemn and assault difference. It is an illness that has been with us since we came down out of the trees and its time to shake it off before it kills us all.
In America, we have many ways of isolating and attacking difference.
For American men, man box culture is the dominant frame for enforcing conformity. Charlie Glickman writes eloquently about it in his article titled Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box.
The man box as defined in the work of Paul Kivel and Tony Porter, is a set of rigid expectations that define what a man is. A man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is an aggressive winner in the battle for domination and power. And whether or not we’d actually want to spend any time with him, we all know who he is.
This “real man,” as defined by man box culture, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. And if he happens to get aggressive, belligerent and violent some times, well, that’s just the price of real manhood.
If man box culture was simply about performing its constrained version of masculinity it would not be so problematic.
Man box culture enforces aggressive policing of those who do not perform gender according to its rules, reinforcing homophobia, racism, sexism and religious bigotry in the process. Policing is also applied on randomly subjective levels; being triggered by differences as minute as the color of a person’s shirt or how they might carry a book. All of this is done simply to keep men off balance, to keep them proving their manhood over and over again.
Why does man box culture dictate attacking difference? Is the man box’s ultimate goal to create a completely uniform culture?
Actually, no. Insuring universal conformity is not the purpose of the man box, it is the need to police that defines the man box. Man box culture exists to accrue power upward in its internal hierarchy and it does so by isolating men emotionally and then channeling their resulting anxiety and anger into the repetitious and addictive act of policing and punishing others.
Micro Aggression and the Man Box
The level of conformity needed in order to be fully accepted within the man box is not, in fact, possible to achieve. The more that men are herded toward conformity, the more slight the differences that are needed to trigger comment, harassment or attack. A central purpose of man box culture is to insure some part of the population of men will always be deemed different, othering some percentage of our population no matter how much we collectively seek to conform. Man box culture requires a population of outsiders to continually abuse, a constant warning to those who seek to conform that their status is always under review, always tenuous.
Take five of these men in a group. Put them in a bar. Much of their dialogue will center around the question of who gets to define the local standards for conformity. It can play out as follows:
Frank enters and approaches his friends. He is wearing a Dallas Cowboys shirt. All turn and say hello. Dan, who is wearing a New York Giants shirt says, “Frank, what the fuck? The Cowboys suck, dude.” Dan is smiling, but the message is clear. I’m dominant here. I’m the alpha. This is central to how the man box functions as a hierarchical system. Someone is always on top. Power and influence flows to him.
The other men in the group do a quick calculation. Is supporting the Cowboys not normative? The issue may play out as regional or based on the team’s win-loss record. Or the men in the group may know that Dan is more aggressive and don’t want to challenge him. Within seconds they chime in.
“Dude, the cowboys suck.” There is laughter all around. Frank shrugs off the aggression. He remains in the group. This momentary marking of difference plays out as a reinforcement of the group integrity and an indication of Dan’s alpha status within the group. The one thing Frank is not allowed to do is to exhibit emotional distress. His feelings can not be seen to be hurt. He is allowed to show aggression or disinterest but nothing else. In passing this test, he remains in the group.
This dance plays out dozens of time each hour. As more alcohol is consumed, the group’s interactions may become more volatile. It is a closed loop of internal judgment and policing which, at any moment, can switch its focus to external judgment. This constant internal policing within the man box is stress-perpetuating for all except those at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. Which makes the moment that policing goes external to the man box a great relief for those at the bottom of the pecking order. As such, they are always on the hunt for an external target. This is the most powerful factor encouraging the marking and attacking of others.
The (Man) Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box. And as each one’s performance becomes more vigorous, it forces the others to do the same.
The internal pressure to police others leaves men little choice but to attack what they are told to attack.
As their capacity to connect emotionally is suppressed and their need to shift policing to others outside the group is constantly reinforced, the stage is set for disastrous results in the social, political, religious and corporate cultures these men inhabit. We see this playing out in right now in our national politics.
Corporations and the Man Box
The conditioning man box culture provides to reinforce authoritarianism and obedience is particularly useful in rigid top down hierarchical command structures. The downside is the systemic suppression of community, creativity, individual initiative, and risk taking.
The illegal and unethical behavior by big banks like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs in the lead up to the subprime mortgage collapse is the result of corporate cultures that have internalized the contempt for difference inherent in the man box. Put simply: those who do not reside within a corporate culture are different and therefore are not simply disposable sources of revenue. They are, in fact, worthy of deception and punishment.
A startling glimpse of this institutionalized punishment dynamic was revealed in 2004 when CBS News gained access to tapes of Enron energy traders who, after artificially spiking energy prices that had plunged California into rolling blackouts, then laughed at the results.
During California’s rolling blackouts, when streets were lit only by head lights and families were trapped in elevators, Enron Energy traders laughed, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales.
One trader is heard on tapes obtained by CBS News saying, “Just cut ’em off. They’re so f __ked. They should just bring back f __king horses and carriages, f__king lamps, f __king kerosene lamps.”
And when describing his reaction when a business owner complained about high energy prices, another trader is heard on tape saying, “I just looked at him. I said, ‘Move.’ (laughter) The guy was like horrified. I go, ‘Look, don’t take it the wrong way. Move. It isn’t getting fixed anytime soon.”
To hear sample audio of Enron employees blaming the victims of Enron’s morally corrupt policies, listen here.
The man box long ago came to underpin our entire culture of masculinity which, in turn, dehumanizes and preys on others on a vast scale, resulting in wide scale economic, environmental and military violence. Public institutions like the US Congress attack the safety nets meant to cushion populations from the vicious boom and bust cycles unregulated corporate malfeasance creates. When individual othering goes global: the poor in other countries are defined as different and deserving of their suffering. Entire continents are marginalized and the body counts runs into the millions.
The Collapse of the Devil’s Bargain
Man box culture told men in the last century that they were the king of their castles. At a time when women were economically powerless and vulnerable, the devil’s bargain men struck was to accept rigid hierarchical work lives in exchange for absolute authority at home. Man box culture granted legions of men permission to dish out whatever dictum they saw fit to their wives and children. It’s not something men in the man box are willing to give up lightly. The raging backlash against equality for women is proof of how tightly men are clinging to this dying power disparity.
The devil’s bargain of our man box culture is directly tied to privilege, patriarchy and the good old boys club. But the implied agreements that sustain man box culture are collapsing under their own belligerent weight; under the litany of broken promises from elites who have abandoned even the slightest illusion of responsibility toward American men and their families.
The collapse of the man box’s social contacts are resulting in epidemic levels of addiction, depression, suicide, divorce, violence and early mortality among American men. In large part, because the suppression of genuine emotional expression within the man box has cut men off from the kind of authentic relationships that resource us during times of economic or personal crisis.
No matter the declarations of politicians who would have us pine for a culture of manhood fifty years dead, we have little hope to return to what was. What we need now is a more purposeful acknowledgment of our exit from the man box and all its attendant costs. There is little left there of value for any of us.
The Great Opportunity
In a time of social and economic upheaval, what may seem like a raft of challenges for men and women also represents great opportunity. The man box’s promise of economic security in exchange for social conformity is crumbling. Job security is a thing of the past.
Out of the ruins of these broken social contracts, a new breed of men and women are emerging. Change is happening because a generation of men have stepped out of the narrow confines of traditional manhood and are seeking more personally meaningful lives, either by creating companies that take a progressive view of their responsibilities in the world, or by finding entirely alternative ways to earn and live.
The work of undoing our man box culture is ongoing. As men, we must model for our sons and daughters how to center relationships in our lives, how to encourage the entire diverse range of expression that defines what it means to be human, and how to enjoy caring for the world instead of seeking to dominate it.
We can support companies that value diversity and social justice. We can invest in more locally-based economies around how we buy food and services. While the halls of power continue to preach hate and policing, vast subterranean cultural changes are in motion that will challenge and end the primacy of man box culture once and all.
For men, we have the opportunity to live fuller and more authentically connected lives. With that simple choice, change for the better follows.
“There’s nothin’ in the world so sad as talking to a man
Who never knew his life was his for making.”
Ray Lamontagne, Old Before Your Time (click here to listen)
The article is a excerpt from Mark Greene’s book, REMAKING MANHOOD
Photo by: Jussi Ollila