I’m a 36-year-old, cisgendered, heterosexual, white male, who writes Young Adult novels that are boy-centric, and I’m bothered by the slim definition of what it means to be a man.
I was raised under very stereotypical precepts about manhood, and I was always bothered by them. Instead of watching sports, I read. Shyness overtook bravery. I did not demand, I accepted, and it was problematic.
Until I flipped the switch during middle school and played the part. It was instantly apparent how much easier it was to be a loud-mouthed punk than it was to be me. But in spite of the ease, I was unsettled, because I knew who I had abandoned.
Painful, yes, but excellent training for the work I do today. Because those expectations, those norms of masculinity, still exist, are extremely pervasive, and put boys and teens into extremely uncomfortable situations where they either have to behave the part or suffer the consequences. The pressure is real and terrifying, and something I try to address in my work.
In summary: Tap Out is about what one does as a very stereotypical “tough” male in a hostile and violent environment that has only one use for him. One he doesn’t want, but is hamstrung to escape.
Dare Me explores what it’s like to want to break the profile of “nothingman” and win acclaim, earn money, and come out on top by succeeding at feats of valor––or more commonly known today as YouTube stunts.
Press Play is about pushing back against the dominant, violent culture, by fighting with technology and intelligence, instead of fists. It’s about choosing not to hide, in spite of the enormous danger of exposure.
Much of my decisions regarding what I write and how I address issues of gender, in particular masculinity, are informed by my own experience, but equally by my students. We talk. A lot. And I tell stories of my youth because they want to understand how I’ve arrived at my perspectives. I’ve addressed aspects of drug use, sexuality, violence, suicide, rape, privilege, and any number of humorous/disgusting combinations about life you can think of. Often we talk about expectations placed on girls and boys, even if my students don’t realize that’s what they’re talking about.
One day we discussed fighting. There had recently been one, and based on the details, I innocently asked about a broken nose. The class sensed I knew more about this topic than I was letting on and asked me to tell a story of what I knew of breaking someone’s nose.
I did, briefly, but more importantly, then asked, “What are the expectations for males in our society, especially contact sport athletes, when it comes to fighting?”
This led to an engaging conversation that quickly turned from only males in sports to males and females broadly. And it was an interesting experience for many of the girls to hear the boys talk about the pressure of fitting in. They deftly detailed that on some level the dirty jokes and swearing and fighting are part of the roles in which they are asked to play (Yes, they struggled to word it this way––they’re teens––but the message was clear: forced stereotypes are universal).
I was so proud of our conversation because it was obvious that I had provided a space for my students to think about concepts they’d never fully entertained, which is exactly what I try to do in my stories. Yet, the issue stuck with me. Because what didn’t emerge in that conversation was that those pressures don’t go away. They morph and become stronger. And in light of very recent events of parties and rape and fight clubs, I felt a bit hopeless. How is a male, today, supposed to successfully navigate the pressures of being “a man” and evolve into someone who is unafraid to embrace a balance of masculine and feminine traits? In essence, how are they to succeed where I failed?
I won’t say books are the answer, because that’s naive. Parents, adult figures, older brothers and sisters, and by very large measure peers and pop culture all have a hand in shaping boys and girls. Books are a part of that, and a significant one if they flip preconceived notions on their heads. If they challenge the stereotypes. If they offer alternatives to the norm of cisgendered, heterosexual, white protagonist. Or if they expose and explore the trappings of how and why the stereotypes abound.
And they already exist. But the audience needs to be wider. I know men and women who haven’t read a book since high school, and so for all the good that I can do by writing novels that challenge societal assumptions, how are my stories ever going to find a way into the hands of the sons and daughters of these adults, who do not value reading, who may be completely comfortable with the expectations of the standard male and female models because they were never challenged to think otherwise, and who have not had conversations with their children about the fact that “being a man” or “being a woman” is an ever-evolving process that is a paramount pursuit in order to have a fulfilling life?
But there are others. Like me, and not at all like me, who are having these conversations, who are reading and helping teens navigate. There are teachers and librarians and adult figures in various capacities who are open and willing and helpful. There are allies in every struggle. And I feel that the issue of redefining both masculinity and femininity is a pressing and important concern. Not so that we can foist new roles on boys and girls, but so that we can accept the traits of masculinity and femininity, the fact that they are a part of us all, regardless of gender or sexuality. If only so that the “boys will be boys” mentality, that is one of the most ignorant concepts in our culture, can die.
And so with it, some of that pressure. I say “some” because there will always be pressure. But it is up to us to decide how it is applied, and to what end. Do we want to continue the binary opposition of male versus female in our culture, or do we want to move forward with a better understanding of humanity and of ourselves?
Because in the end, even my freshman understand the pressures are they same, they just manifest differently. Therefore, we should be seeking virtues of behavior and not categories. Because breaking the mold is beautiful, but never again having to fill one is stunning.
Eric Devine is a high school teacher and the author of Tap Out, Dare Me and the upcoming Press Play, all from Running Press Kids. He blogs here at Teen Librarian Occasionally and wrote a chapter in The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services, edited by myself and Heather Booth and published in July from ALA Editions. You can follow Eric online:
Win Eric Devine’s Books!
Eric and Running Press Kids have generously donated a copy of Tap Out which I am putting together with my arc copies of Tap Out and Dare Me picked up at various library conferences to give to you as a prize. You can win a complete set of Eric Devine books! If you live in the U. S. you can do the Rafflecopter thingy below until Saturday the 23rd, The Tween’s birthday and the debut of the new Doctor, to enter.