Breaking the man box

Breaking the man box

Sadly, in our society, many boys still learn to view their future selves primarily in terms of a limited and limiting narrow set of stereotypical norms. The term, ‘act like a man’ conjures up the idea that it is all a performance. Rather than acting like a man, what is a real  man?

These are questions that inform curriculum decisions at Trinity and play an important part in the School’s pastoral care. Head Master, Mr Tim Bowden, comments that if the measure of a Trinity education is measured in the character of the man long after he has left our gates, “then as a Christian boys school, we have a responsibility to consistently lean on the tiller to counter an inevitable drift to entitlement and the formation of unhelpful attitudes, particularly misogyny, that our boys may ingest from many sources in our society.”

A term often used in this context is toxic masculinity. “It tells boys they need to be the best, to never show weakness, to be the last to cry, and the first to throw a punch. However, it’s not always signposted. Instead, we can perpetuate generations of learned behaviours, which quietly signal that emotional vulnerability is bad, physical strength is good, and, of course, the tissue-thin cover-all that ‘boys will be boys’.”

There is no simple step-by-step recipe for creating a well-rounded, healthy, respectful, and engaged man, and ultimately, the decision to be a good man rests on the shoulders of the man himself, but there are things that schools can be doing to guide boys effectively as they grow.

“This is something that Trinity is particularly invested in, bringing in programmes to help our boys to critique the norms they encounter. We want them to see that there are many ways to be a man, to have the courage to speak out against destructive stereotypes, and to be willing to embody better forms of masculinity,” said Mr Bowden.

One such programme is Trinity’s ‘The Man Box’. Named after the term coined by researchers to describe the dominant form of masculinity at this time known as Hegemonic Masculinity, the Man Box implies a rigid set of expectations, perceptions, and behaviours of what is ‘manly’ behaviour.

Developer of the Trinity programme, Dr Rachel O’Brien, said it’s not about making students feel bad or discouraging them from being ‘manly’. Rather, a key message was to address the negativity that comes from society putting the words ‘toxic’ and ‘masculinity’ together.

“There are so many good things about masculinity!” Dr O’Brien says. “But we also encouraged the boys to talk about how the narrow ways and definition of masculinity or fitting inside that Man Box can stop them from experiencing life to the full.”

Dr O’Brien published her PhD in 2019. Titled A Critical Ethnography of Health and Physical Education in an Elite Boys School, it explored the history of elite boys’ schools in Australia and their efforts to disrupt masculine traditions over time.

“The Man Box programme helps students to explore and critique the expectations of gender roles and relationships and the effect they have on behaviours. Throughout their time in the programme, students are encouraged to think deeply about their beliefs and understand where they might be getting stereotypical and unhelpful messages from,” she said.

“So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27

 In Christian thinking, respect is the recognition of the imago Dei – the image of God – in the other person. Every single person is made in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect.

Respect for other people must be non-negotiable in the Trinity community. Our hope is that being immersed in a community wherein respect is the norm will have a formative effect on each one of the boys. As they move on from Trinity and engage in other communities, they will do so with respect for others as their habitual disposition.

We won’t always get it right. We are humans which means we will make mistakes and make them often. The Christian faith gives us the privilege of new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we accept a relationship with Him, we also accept the challenge to be better.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,  which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

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