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Think Outside the (Gender) Box


By Ben.

Recently we did a podcast episode on Gender boxes. But Podcasts are long and not for everyone. So, I decided to do a quick blog post to help people understand some of the basics of Gender boxes and the problems they create. To learn more please visit the work of Tony Porter and A Call to Men as they are the people that introduced us to these concepts many years ago.


The basic premise of the Gender Box theory began with the Man Box. The Man Box is a a restrictive set of adjectives regarding what it means to be a man. You can test this out yourself. With each of the following couplets pick the word that you think society typically associates with being a man. This word goes inside the Man Box. The other words are cast out. Remember, don't use your definitions of manhood, but rather how you think society represents manhood.

  • Strong vs Sensitive

  • Angry vs Afraid

  • Dominant vs Cooperative

  • No emotions vs Emotionally aware

  • Leader vs Follower

  • Aggressive vs Thoughtful

  • Hypersexual vs Loyal

The words on the left side of each couplet are typically picked as words that society deems more manly. Because of this, we start socializing young boys from a young age to to be Strong, Angry, Dominant, Unemotional (except for angry) Leaders, Aggressive, and Hypersexual. Think about how boys are treated if they cry openly. Think about how sports have used shame for generations by telling boys they are participating like girls in order to motivate them to do better. You hit like a girl. You run like a girl, etc, etc. Think about all the movies you grew up with and who the main actors were in your favorite action movies and they attributes they displayed. Think about your own experience, if you identify with male, about times you stepped outside of the Man Box and how quickly you were policed to get back in.


The problem with these narrow definitions of manhood are at least two fold: (1) Many men do not fit inside and are thus raised with a great deal of shame about who they are, which then leads to emotional and physical health issues later in life. (2) Many of us do not want our children to partner with someone who represents each of the words on the left, however we are raising 50% of the population with the ideals of being aggressive, angry, hypersexual, only willing to lead and not follow, dominant, strong, and without emotion. The results of this are the high numbers of violence towards women each year.


Lets just take one of the couplets. Angry vs Afraid. Anger is displayed by many clients who come into Three Trees, and time and time again they do not recognize it as an emotion. FOr some reason they consider every other emotion an emotion but not anger. The rpoblem with this is that anger is an emotion. It is actually considered a secondary emotion meaning it is made up of the primary emotions of fear and hurt. The only effective way to manage anger problems is to work with the fear and hurt that underly it. But if a person is socialized to not recognize fear and hurt the only option available to them is anger. Wife leaves them, anger. Fired at work, anger. Problems with traffic, anger. Kids not listening, anger. No matter the situation the only emotion available to them is anger, and they are unable to access the two foundational emotions of fear and hurt to even work on the anger. The result of this is very angry people unwilling to manage the pain they are feeling, and instead it is taken out on others.


During the podcast the two hosts who identify as female discussed similar restrictions around traditional definitions of being female. That they felt a lot of pressure to be passive, quiet, pretty, accommodating, and not to enjoy sexual behavior. We discussed on the episode how combining these two restrictive definitions of gender creates all the ingredients necessary to lead to the violence we see against women each and every day. They also create conditions for women who operate outside this gender box to experience shame on a daily basis for who they are which leads to mental and physical health problems later in life. In addition, if you do not fit into these traditional definitions, not only are you more likely to experience violence and shame, it is also difficult to rise up through the ranks of power structures that often support and strengthen these narrow definitions. Which in turn contributes to the lack of diversity we see in leadership positions across political, business, law, and faith systems.


Challenging these stereotypes and definitions can be very difficult as they are so ingrained in our culture and family systems. But is very important work for those of us want each individual to feel safe and respected. The work involves a lifelong commitment to grow and to learn. It requires the ability to admit mistakes we have made. It requires us to deal with the shame we may feel about previous behaviors and not allow this shame to derail our better intentions. As always, this work requires us to working through emotions skillfully, align our thinking patterns with reality, and make sure our behaviors match our goals. Let us know how we can help you on this journey as we work on this journey ourselves.


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