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The Mask of Masculinity and the Double Life




Excerpted from
Real Boys' Voices
By William S. Pollack, Ph.D.

When boys speak about "being themselves." MANY describe a double life in which they are one person in public-a cool guy who plays fast and lives by the rules of the Boy Code-and somebody completely different in his private life, often a much more creative, gentle, caring sort of guy. Others say they can "be themselves" only after they go home, go to their own rooms, and shut out the outside world. What just about every boy says he knows all too well is what I call the mask of masculinity, a stance of male bravado and stoicism boys learn to use to cover over their inner feelings of sadness, loneliness, and vulnerability, to act cool, and to protect themselves from being shamed by their peers. When boys wear this mask, they completely repress their inner emotional lives and instead act tough, composed, daring, unflappable, laughing off their pain. They may wax strong and silent or lash out with fists and fighting words. They may strike to injure others or, more often, simply take things out on themselves. As eighteen-year-old Walt from a suburb in New England puts it, "How many guys do I know who have broken hands punching inanimate objects?"

When life within the Boy Code becomes too much for boys, sometimes the only pathway to safety for a boy is to hide his true self under a mask, and with that self, his genuine voice as well. This helps to explain why many girls may often use rich language to express a wide range of their feelings, while most boys seem to have a myriad of monosyllabic responses to questions about their deepest experiences: "OK"; "I'm fine"; "Leave me alone." This paradox leaves our boys and all of us who love them at a terrible disadvantage. Beginning in early childhood, they become cut off from their vulnerability and their loving feelings, missing out, often for a lifetime, on an essential part of themselves. We, in turn, lose touch with the "real" boys in our midst. As eighteen-year-old Brendan, from the South, laments: "I think guys have a lot of secrets inside of them... They are keeping secrets about who they really are, what they want to be, what they feel, what they think is right or wrong."

As a society, we tolerate, indeed collude in creating the mask boys wear, allowing them to keep their emotional lives secret from us, permitting only one stereotypical, "masculine" feeling to continue to be openly expressed-the "OK" male emotion of anger. When you listen to the voices in this chapter and throughout this book, you'll hear boys say they are "frustrated," "annoyed," "moody," or "pissed off." Most apt, perhaps, is that they say they are "beside myself." These are their words for the OK male emotion of anger, the rage society tolerates in lieu of exploring the angst, anxiety, or depression that lie just beneath the anger.

Sadly, boys know that the mask is off-putting to friends and family, and that repressing all of their emotions is a heavy burden to carry alone. "I know that this shield I have frustrates people sometimes." explains seventeen-year-old Allan, from a suburb in the West, who lost his father as a toddler and lives with a disabled mom. "Sometimes it's just too much, though, and I've had times where I get down in the dumps. I try to work around it, try to get myself out of it. I've been so independent my entire life that I don't like to have to go to other people for help." But boys wear this mask, or "shield," as Allan calls it. not just to defend themselves from their inner pain, but also because they have the distinct impression that this is what society actually wants them to do.

As seventeen-year-old Robert explains, "Men are not supposed to show sadness or fear." Or as eighteen-year-old Brian, from a city in the South, puts it, "Guys close themselves off, or shut themselves down, and put on a disguise for other guys. They do it for girls, too." Put simply, boys wear the mask because all their buddies, girlfriends, parents, and teachers still expect them to "stand tall," "take it" quietly, be "strong," and "tough it out." Some boys still say this is what they think girls and women find attractive in them. Still others boast of physical injuries they've suffered and talk about how they've learned to endure the pain and live with the scars without crying, complaining, or "tattling" about these things.

In essence, the mask is how boys both cope and defend themselves as they try to fulfill what I think of as the Impossible Test of Masculinity. David Gilmore, the cultural anthropologist, has written about a Native-American tribe whose ritual rite for boys approaching manhood translates roughly into "the big impossible." As boys enter adolescence, they speak often of this constant pressure and impossible quest to prove to themselves and others that they are meeting society's traditional expectations of them as males. Many of these tests involve engaging in reckless or hurtful acts of bravado, or showing that they can handle physical or emotional trauma without uttering a word or conveying a single emotion.

The Impossible Test requires boys not only to cut off their emotions and shut off their relationship skills, but also, especially during adolescence, to succeed at sports, work hard, make money, seduce women, and produce children. "It seems like there's a score card," Pierce, a senior in a large Chicago high school, explained to me. "How good are you at sports? Are you 'down' with the other guys-are you cool with them? Do you get the best-looking girls? Can you light if someone starts messing with you? How many fights have you won?"



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