This widely adapted exercise is a good starting point for conversations on gender socialization and violence. Through this exercise you can open up discussions about gender roles and how they are enforced, and masculinities and their connections to violence. This is not a stand-alone exercise. To understand how the male violence works as part of a system, men also need to reflect on how they benefit from gender roles and the impact their behavior has on women and the other males around them.
The Oakland Men's Project developed this exercise in the early 1980s and called it "Act like a Man", Men Can Stop Rape uses a version called "The Strongest Man You Know and Real Men" (below). The exercise below can be adapted for use with different groups - young men, young women, mixed youth groups, or adults. It can also be used to discuss the gendered nature of other issues, such as sexual and reproductive health. Groups can create a box for young women (the Act Like a Lady or Be a Good Girl box) to discuss separately or in comparison with the Act Like a Man box. In addition, you can use the gender box exercise to make the connections between gender norms and other forms of oppression such as racism and heterosexism.
Below are a generic version of the gender box adapted for this toolkit and a version from the Oakland Men's Project.
The Gender Box
1. Discuss "act like a man" messages.
Ask the group: What are some of the messages boys are given when they are told to "act like a man"? For groups of older men and women, you may want to draw a boy (give him a name), and ask, "What messages do your society and community send to this boy when he is told to be a man?"
Write these messages on a flip chart or chalkboard. You can:
- Discuss where these messages come from. (Who is the messenger?)
- Discuss earliest influences in boys' lives and how socialization occurs. (When do we first receive these messages?)
- Discuss whether the messages or delivery differ if they come from a man or a woman (mother, father, teacher, sibling, peer).
- Have participants act out how the messages are delivered.
2. Draw a box around the messages-this is the gender box. (If you have drawn a boy, write the first set of messages near the boy, then a box drawn around the boy and the messages.)
- Ask young men or men, "Does this seem familiar? Do you visit this box?"
- Ask participants to share experiences and feelings related to the messages.
- You may want to discuss masculinities and dominant masculinity, and start to define the dominant masculine roles from the list of the "act like a man" messages suggested by participants
3. Discuss behaviors, roles, and norms that lie outside the box. What is missing when we try to describe men?
- List the behaviors and roles that participants name outside the lines of the box.
- Discuss the nature of these qualities - are these considered "feminine"? How do they differ from those listed inside the box?
- Discuss the uniqueness of each person, and how each person has a variety of traits that change over time.
- Ask the male participants to discuss what is missing from the box
- Ask participants to describe men they know, and ask them if these men fit into the box.
4. Ask the group, What does it cost individual men to live inside the box? What does it cost the community? Are there any costs for moving beyond the box? How are the lines of the box are enforced by gender-based violence? Continue the discussion:
- What happens to men who do not conform to the messages inside the box?
- What methods are used to keep you (or the boy) inside the box?
- Talk about name-calling, threats, and use of violence. (This is a good way to help participants understand gender-based violence as a policing mechanism.)
- If you also created a gender box for women, you can discuss various forms of men's violence against women and how these are related to the masculine and feminine traits listed inside the two boxes and to the male expectations about women that arise from them.
5. Discuss the opportunities for men and boys to move beyond the box:
- Ask participants for examples of men in their own lives who do not conform to the messages inside the box - and how they are able to move beyond these messages.
- Discuss what participants can do to change their own behaviors and attitudes and become better role models for the boys and young men in their lives.
- Circle the positive qualities listed in the box and ask participants to redefine them in ways that do not include dominance and control. For example, Men Can Stop Rape's Strength Campaign is helping to redefine what it means for young men to be strong see www.mencanstoprape.org
Act Like a Man Box
Excerpted from Men's Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart by Paul Kivel, 1992, rev. 1998.
At the Oakland Men's Project, we have used a role play of a father yelling at and being verbally abusive toward his 9-year-old son, who is getting a D in math, to capture the essence of our training to be men. Most men are very familiar with the scene. Many of us can remember some adult yelling at us when we were younger. I have seen many, many men moved to tears during this role play. It triggers memories of their own experiences of pain, humiliation, abuse, lack of love and acceptance, and powerlessness. The last sentence the father says as he storms out of the room at the end of the role play is, "Why can't you grow up and act like a man around here?"
"Grow up!" "Act like a man!" What do we, as boys, learn about what it means to "act like a man" ? Think of some of the adult men in our lives when we were children and the messages they gave us.
men . . .
men are . . .
yell at people
have no emotions
get good grades
stand up for themselves
don't make mistakes
know about sex
take care of people
don't back down
push people around
can take it
dominant over women
We draw a line around these expectations and call it the Act Like a Man box. As young boys we are supposed to learn how to fit in and live inside that box. It's a list of expectations of who we should be, how we should act, and what we should feel and say.
Every time we step out of the box - when we're not acting tough enough or strong enough - we get called names. When I walk down the halls of any junior or senior high school, I hear these words ringing off the lockers.
These words are little slaps, everyday reminders designed to get us to stay in the box. They are also fighting words. If someone calls a boy a "wimp" or a "fag," he is supposed to fight to prove that he is not. Almost every adult man will admit that as a kid, he had to fight at least once to prove he was in the box.
Notice that many of the words boys get called refer to being gay or feminine. This feeds into two things they have been taught to fear: (1) that they are not manly enough and (2) that they might be gay. What is it telling boys when they hear that the worst thing in the world they can be is a girl or mama's boy? It teaches them to devalue and feel superior to women. In addition, homophobia, the fear of gays or of being perceived as gay, is an incredibly strong fear they learn when they are young and carry with them throughout their lives. The walls of the box are reinforced and policed by homophobic and anti-women messages. Much too often boys try to relieve their fears of being gay or effeminate by attacking others.
There is other training that keeps boys in the box. Besides getting into fights, they are ostracized and teased, and they fear that girls won't like them, if they step out of the box. Many adults keep pushing them to be tough, and that process begins early. Often adults, particularly men, are convinced that if they "coddle" boys, they will be weak and vulnerable. Somehow, withdrawal of affection is supposed to toughen boys and prepare them for the "real" world.
Withdrawal of affection is emotional abuse. And that's bad enough. But it often does not stop there. One out of every six of us is sexually abused as a child. Often, the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse continues throughout childhood.
Another part of the training comes through the positive portrayals of violence in our culture. Politicians pursue aggression and violent strategies to resolve problems and are extolled for it. Movie stars and sports heroes use violence and are rewarded for it with power, status, money, and women. In either sphere, the costs of violence are rarely shown.
Nobody is born in the Act Like a Man box. It takes years and years of enforcement, name calling, fights, threats, abuse, and fear to turn boys into men who live in this box. But by adolescence many believe that there are only two choices - they can be a man or a boy, a winner or a loser, a bully or a wimp, a champ or a chump.
Nobody wants to live in a box. It feels closed in; much of who we are has to be left out, including most of our feelings. It can be a revelation for a boy to realize how he has been forced into the box. It is often a relief to understand how it has been accomplished and to know it doesn't have to be that way. It inspires boys to see adult men choose to live outside the box. They are role models, showing young men how to be strong and powerful without using violence to get their needs met. They demonstrate that it really is possible to live outside the box.
- Resource Type:
- Toolkit Sections:
- Why Men & Boys
- Toolkit Sub-Sections:
Why Men & Boys - Making the Case to Men & Boys
Get to Work - Work with Young Men
Last modified 2004-10-20 03:00 PM