Guilty of Unmanly Behaviour? Musing on Man Codes

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It was an uncharacteristically cold and rainy day, when, on my way to the grocery, I found them, a litter of kittens abandoned in a cardboard box beneath the supermarket’s air conditioning unit. They were new born, eyes not yet open, soaked and shivering, with the stale and icy water from the AC unit splashing on them. Not wanting them to die, I first informed the deeply uninterested grocery staff, and then the overstretched Trinidad & Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TTSPCA), before finally finding an animal shelter in South. So, with one eye on the box of tiny animals, trembling under an old towel, and the other on the rain-blurred road, I raced down the highway.

On receiving the kittens, the very pleasant woman at the shelter told me, “Wow, it’s so unusual for a man to do something like this!”

“Wow, it’s so unusual for a man to do something like this!”

She didn’t mean it as an insult, I’m sure. Yet it stung like the worst castigation your physical education teacher could give for failing at scoring a goal.

Sarcastic voices started echoing in my head, “Awww, you wuvs da wittle kiddies! So pwecious!” Real men don’t save kittens. I should have been conducting a power meeting, monitoring my stock portfolio, or been in the studio laying down tracks for my Carnival 2k11 hits, etc. I had, in other words, been found guilty of unmanly behaviour, and even though I had just done a good deed, it didn’t feel good.

Most men won’t admit it, but all of us are at least unconsciously bound by some pretty stringent codes of being. The masters make it look effortless to follow them, but it isn’t always so, even for the toughest, hardest Alpha Don. In fact, maintaining that code can often have some pretty heavy, emotional consequences.

Educator and activist Tony Porter calls these codes the “man box”. He uses “box” because he sees it as a sort of emotional prison that incarcerates men, which not only hurts them, but also their relationships with others and society itself. Porter, an African American from the inner city of New York, was particularly affected by how his father acted, how the neighbourhood bad boys behaved, and how he in turn was raising his own son.

Within the man box, he put characteristics like – not showing emotion, not showing fear or weakness, aggression and dominance, being protective, athleticism and strength, and the ability to make decisions. And the punishment for straying out of the man box? Comedian Bill Burr summed it up nicely in his bit “What are you, a fag?”:

“What are you a fag?”

“This is how it works with guys. Any time you do anything remotely sensitive, heartwarming – anything that’s going to make you more of a loving, caring individual – immediately all your guy friends suggest that maybe, just maybe you want to suck a dick…”What are you a fag?” is the reason guys drop at 55 out of nowhere. It’s literally from decades of suppressing the urge to hug a puppy, admit a baby is cute or say you want a cookie.”

As Kevin Campbell rightfully wrote in his Outlish article, “My Boyfriend Does My Makeup: Hypermasculinity, Society and Relationships”, “Any deviations from the expected masculine behavioural and emotional repertoire are swiftly, subliminally and ruthlessly eliminated.”

So is the solution, therefore, to tear down the man box and live more open, expressive and happy lives? Not so fast. There’s another side to this that makes this a much more challenging problem to solve than we think.

Go back and look at some of those man box characteristics – stoicism, will-to-power, strength. Think about men you know with these behaviours (if you know any). I submit to you that although they may have emotional problems – although it may be incredibly taxing on them to maintain these superman codes – these men will be the leaders, stars and champions of any society they belong to. Businesses will rush to hire them, communities will look up to and follow them, and women will flock to them. Society rewards men who can successfully adhere to the rules of the man box.

That’s another very important aspect of this. Both Tony Porter and Bill Burr (and many, many others) act as if these codes are put upon men by men alone. Certainly men are harsh enforcers of the man box. But then again, so are women. So are institutions.

Human societies have always been heavily invested in men ignoring danger and pain for the purpose of protecting their communities or gaining power. Remember, once upon a time the world wasn’t safe streets and air-conditioned offices with food readily available at the grocery.

Human societies have always been heavily invested in men ignoring danger and pain for the purpose of protecting their communities or gaining power.

“Throughout all of history we had to train men to be disposable,” explains men’s rights writer Warren Farrell. “Because the more disposable they were, the more they would be willing to save the community.”

On men’s urge for conquest he added, “What men have learned is that we wouldn’t be worthy of a woman unless we had money or property.”

But most importantly, we can already see the consequences of liberation from the man box. Over the last six decades, a host of conditions have conspired to smash those old, incarcerating codes – urbanization, industrialization, technological advancement, social stability, safety, relative prosperity, fatherlessness, new ideas on gender. Ironically, even though there is still a basic, underlying requirement for traditional, masculine behaviour and roles, they are incessantly ridiculed and disparaged in film, literature, television and song. That’s precisely why men with those characteristics are so coveted. They’ve become rare.

Many men have been “liberated” from the man box, and they can tell you it’s not all it’s cut out to be. A mid-level cog in someone else’s machine, a woman’s fourth or fifth relationship choice, the instinctive urge for success dulled through alcohol, videogames and porn – have they been rescued or de-engineered?

The late Tupac Shakur was the quintessential thug bad boy – quintessential in his disdain for women and in his enduring appeal to many of them. But what people don’t know is that he grew up very differently to what he eventually became. There’s a YouTube video of a young, smiling Tupac, almost effeminate, saying how much respect he has for women (because he was raised by his mother). Flash forward to “Thug Life”. Tupac wasn’t molded in the man box. He erected one.

It leaves you with the question – if adhering to the codes of the man box can make you more successful in life, then should we really be in such a hurry to destroy it? And if without it we are more vulnerable and less effective, then maybe this urge to do away with it has actually harmed men to an extent.

One of the first Star Trek episodes was entitled “Enemy Within”. In it, Captain Kirk was separated into two, different beings. One Kirk was the hypermasculine villain and the other Kirk was his sensitive self. Of course, evil Kirk had three priorities, as soon as he stepped off the transporter – liquor, woman and control (in that order).

But what made the episode especially interesting was that “good” Kirk was unable to lead. He couldn’t make decisions, even when his crewmembers’ lives required it. He gave up and curled into the fetal position, while Spock and the others had to solve the problem and restore him. Captain Kirk needed both sides of his self to be an effective human being.

Maybe that’s the solution, a better understanding and acceptance of both sides of our nature as men. Why not reach for masculine ideals? And why not embrace the kind of sensitivity necessary to achieve that most worthwhile goal – being a good father? Maybe the man box doesn’t have to be a prison. Maybe it’s a toolbox.

Joel Henry

Joel Henry is a fiction writer, essayist and critical thinker with roots in both T&T and the USA. He earns his livelihood in the advertising industry as a corporate writer and editor. His goal is to confront any and all orthodoxy through his writing - including his own.


  1. Kevin C

    October 9, 2012 at 12:39 am

    Very insightful and well written piece, Joel! Thanks for the shout out :)

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  3. jingo

    December 31, 2017 at 9:41 pm

    Rescuing kittens is a fine display of dominant and protective behaviour. It’s perfectly manly.

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