The mask many boys and men live behind

Dominant social pressures encourage many boys and men to wear a mask. To hide their authentic selves behind a wall. A barrier that prevents getting emotionally close to other men, and to women. Thrust into an unforgiving world of bullying, one-upmanship and power struggles amongst men — Many boys and men learn that to stay safe, in the world of males, they must hide their authentic true selves — pretend they are “real men” — and suppress half their humanity.

Alex said, “the mask is like a cover of a book, it’s an image thing. Men have to give that rough, tough image, and to keep part of themselves in check…. maintain a front.”

Don’t be Weak

I interviewed male perpetrators of domestic violence for my PhD research. Men learn throughout their lives that they must always look manly in front of men. Other men judge men and their manliness far more than women do. As Peter said, “No bloke wants to look like a dingo, or cowardly in front of other men.”

Sam told me:

“You couldn’t show your soft side in the big open world. If I showed that I was weak people would pounce on that. I was raised never to cry. Never ever to cry. And to be strong. If I showed weakness other males call you names, you’re gutless, you’re yellow, you’re a dog. And it’d make you just put the wall back up.”

Our society makes these demands on men on a daily basis.

Men, such as Alex, said they learned from multiple contexts: “Don’t be weak, only women be weak, you don’t be weak, you’re a male, you don’t cry, just put up with it. Don’t act like a woman. Don’t tell anybody your personal business. Don’t have a problem, you must act like you don’t have a problem at all!”

Most men I interviewed said that a cost of being a boy or a man is they can’t show psychological or physical weakness around other males, or they’ll be destroyed.

It’s Wrong to Get Close

Joe said he could never express a level of feeling he might like to, and get relief from that, like he did when he finally attended a men’s stopping abuse programme. He said, “I don’t let mates close to me. Nah everything you see in society is to tell you that it’s wrong to get close.” Peter, agreed that, “Blokes don’t really share too many emotions.” If a man started disclosing he was upset because his girlfriend left him, Peter said his mates would keep any caring at a superficial level saying, “Yeah, she’s alright, don’t worry about it, it’s not a biggie.”

Man-Up! Be a “Real Man”

Joe said, “I’ve heard all different things. ‘You got a thumb print on your head’, or, ‘Shit you better go home, it’s past your bedtime’.” If men don’t measure up to dominant social dictates about what masculinity should be, other men degrade, abuse and ostracise them.

It’s Right to Struggle for Power Amongst Men

Geni had a physical illness growing up which led to him being bullied and being at the bottom of the pecking order amongst other boys. Because of this, Geni said that as a way of claiming a higher status on the hierarchy amongst men, he became “very sharp with the tongue”. He said, “You may not be able to physically beat them, but I could say something very scathing that could push their buttons, and usually something quite clever that all their friends would think was really funny, so it was humiliating. That’s probably grown with me from a child in a way of standing up for myself. Like sarcasm and things I can really say things that humiliate the biggest and strongest.”

You’ve Got to be a Man’s Man in Front of Your Mates

Joe said, “You’ve gotta be a man’s man in front of your mates. You’ve gotta be a bloke’s bloke.” To prove your masculinity you must spend time with other men and disregard women. For example, Joe said that despite intending heading home from work to spend time with his wife a man should put on a performance to prove to their mates they are loyal to mates and not women. For instance: “It’s like a barbecue and a beer with your mates, you gotta protest, ‘No I can’t’, then say, ‘Oh stuff it, I’ll tell her to jam it, I’ll stay and have a beer’. So there is a lot of front in front of your mates, ‘Oh stuff it, I’ll turn my phone off’, and show your mates you’ve turned your phone off, and you say it in front of them.”

“A man should put on a performance to prove to their mates they are loyal to mates and not women.”

You Must Use Violence or be Willing to Use Violence

James said rubbing shoulders with men who behaved in aggressive masculine ways was like a pack mentality. James said, “I felt, more comfortable around people who were either violent, or prepared to be violent. I felt safer with that for some reason, especially if I was their friend, certainly not an enemy. It was very difficult going to a new school where everyone’s got their groups and because you’re usually on your own you tend to be picked out, a soft target for a lot of people. And generally, the bullies will come out, there’s no doubt about it, but if you submit to it, I’d see myself as being lower down the masculine rung. But if I met it head on and dealt with it as quick as I could, and usually with violence a lot of the time too, I felt that I was more masculine in that way, by dealing with it with violence.”

Putting up a Front to Other Men Crosses Over to Relationships with Women

To deal with the lack of safety and trust amongst men, Peter said he and other men he knew handled this by developing the “Look at me! Big bravado strategy.” He said, “It goes on all the time, but the damage is done underneath. Putting up the front all the time would cross over to your relationships with women as well. To open up to aspects of yourself that you sort of keep hidden, or have to keep hidden. For, years and years and years.”

Cultural representations of masculinity are believed to be one of the strongest factors leading to men’s abuse and control of women

I asked Bob if there was anything about the law that would motivate him to stop hitting and controlling his wife. Bob didn’t think getting into trouble with the police would have changed him in any way. It was more important to him to fulfil the social pressure to appear in charge of ‘his’ woman. Bob said that “at the time, when I hit my wife I didn’t really care about too much at all. My wife actually grabbed the phone. I said, ‘That’s my phone, what are you doing with my phone? I pay the bills, it’s mine.”

This reflects Bob’s dedication to maintaining his status as the boss, owner of his wife, and the king of the castle role which are all hyper-masculine beliefs learned from a range of social settings such as schools, sporting arena, drinking establishments and workplaces (not always learned from the family, but yes sometimes).

Bill believed:

“There’s nothing out there that tells you how to have a respectful relationship with women, there’s plenty out there that tells you how to treat women like they’re sexual beings.”

Other Social Influences on Men’s Behaviours

Chris said he had a “blokey bloke brother-in-law” and that if he told his brother-in-law that he sat down and talked to his wife about how he felt, his brother-in-law would “let fly” and call Chris “a poof”. This exclamation is just one of the ways that men keep other men in check — ensuring other men tow the masculine line.

Chris said experiences like this taught him to never reveal to another man that he might actually enjoy talking to a woman in a healthy way.

He said that to maintain safety amongst other men, “Guys would just talk about blokey bloke stuff in front of each other.” For example protect themselves by lying to other men such as: “‘The football’s good’, even though I don’t watch football, saying ‘Aah it was great’!”

James said wearing the mask was a form of “defence of yourself, that setting up a bit of a barrier towards males who would otherwise feel that they would walk over you.” As Bob said, wearing the mask helped achieve to hide any feelings or behaviours that smack of femininity. “You don’t want that weakness to be out there.”

Any sign of expressing feelings, these men think they are “dropping their guard”, risking their masculine identity. Except, as James said, “With certain friends of mine I know that whatever I tell them stays with them.” This experience is rare amongst men who wear the mask of masculinity — a mask that entails behaving in ways our society currently believes is the honoured way of being a man.

Only doing what is considered very masculine and avoiding doing anything that is considered feminine chokes the lifeblood out of boys and men who are caught in this destructive social web.

Our Society Rewards Men for Performing Dominant Ideas about Masculinity

James said that at school, being tough increased the chances of having friends. Sam said his high masculine status amongst males meant he “could get anything, do anything and get away with it. People were scared of me, but I thrived on it.”

Other men considered to have high masculine status in our society include White, Able-bodied, Educated, Middle-Upper Class men.

Our Society Punishes and Marginalises Certain Groups of Men that Society gives Low Status to

There are costs for men who our society considers low on the hierarchy of masculinities — short men, skinny men, men with disabilities or physical ill health, men who read books instead of kicking a ball around, men who earn low wages, unemployed men, homosexual men, men of colour, uneducated men…… the list goes on.
Men that our society considers to be low on the hierarchy of masculinities are, according to Bill, “outcasts and invisible” and as Rick worded it, “the underknowns”. Other boys and men “sling shit” at marginalised males and men who society considers to be low on the rank of different kinds of masculinities.

Coming Out from Behind the Mask

Some men crave to be authentic and to stop pretending in front of other men. Joe said that, “younger in life, when I was growing up as a kid, it was a big issue to me to be a man in front of me mates. But now later on in life, wouldn’t bother me, I don’t care who thinks what about me.”

The irony is that dominant masculine behaviours are supposed to entail courage, strength, toughness — yet it is exactly those qualities that are needed to stop wearing the protective mask and to actually feel the vulnerability of being human.

Joe thought, “the whole thing here is just change and just do it in front of your mates and go with the consequences. Like being a role model, set the example. If your mates wanna follow it, they follow it. That’s the way I look at it now.”

Anthony said, “I’m doing a lot of this change for myself and for my son, because I don’t want him to go through a lot of the confusion, the pain that I went through. If I can educate him and make him aware and make him a much better man, then I think I’ve achieved my role in life.” And finally, Anthony has become a male ally supporting healthy masculinities and respectful relationships with women: “Coz that’s my biggest role, to make the next generation far more capable, far more respectful of women, far more loving of women, far more confident in himself. I know it may not happen, but my input’s going to be hopefully as positive as I can make it.”

Change takes place at the individual level, so Joe and Anthony are influencing individuals around them.

Change also takes place at the social level. This is where the majority of the influence on men comes from. Change has to occur within every institution — legal, political, educational, sporting arena, religious, media, etc.

We all play a part in speaking out loud to remove the mask of dominant forms of masculinity. This role is especially a man’s role… to support boys and men to be authentic — and embrace their full humanity — strengths and weaknesses.

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.