We humans

A father and son talk: What does it mean to be a man?

Aug 2, 2017 / +

Is a private Facebook group the 2017 version of the all-men’s golf getaway? What’s the difference between being “a good man” and “a real man”? In an honest and eye-opening conversation, Baby Boomer Michael Kimmel and his Generation Z son, Zachary, share their experiences of masculinity.

Michael Kimmel (TED Talk: Why gender equality is good for everyone) is a sociology professor at Stony Brook University in New York and the founder of its Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Yes, you read that right — masculinities, plural. He believes there is no one masculinity in society today but a number of masculinities, shaped by the intersection of gender and influences like race, class and sexuality. Age is also an important factor, and in June, Kimmel, 66, and his 18-year-old son, Zachary, discussed how their respective generations — Baby Boomer and Gen Z — understand and experience masculinity. (Editor’s note: the following conversation was edited for clarity and length.)

Michael Kimmel: Let me start by asking you, What do you think are the differences between being a man today as you experience it and what you perceive in previous generations?

Zachary Kimmel: While my experience might not represent the totality of all men’s experiences, one noticeable and important change to me is the balance of work and family. I think there’s an expectation for men of my generation that both work and family will be shared between the spouses/partners, and I can imagine that wasn’t always the case for you.

Michael: That was a real issue for my generation. I remember my father telling me that when he was in college, he and his friends would ask each other, “Are you going to let your wife work?” And they said, “No, that’s my responsibility. I take care of supporting the family. She should stay home with the kids.”

Zachary: Another important shift that’s happened between our generations is the acceptability of cross-gender friendships. For men now, it’s far more acceptable to have females as friends, not only as romantic partners.

Michael: Yes. I go to a lot of campuses to speak, and when I started doing it 25 years ago, I’d walk into a class and ask, “How many of you have a good friend of the opposite sex?” Like ten percent of the class raised their hands. Now I could walk into any college classroom and ask, “Is there anybody here who doesn’t have a good friend of the opposite sex?” I’d never see a hand.

Zachary: Absolutely.

Once upon a time, the whole world was a locker room — now there’s women everywhere. I hear men my age say, “Where can a guy go where he can just relax and not get policed all the time?”

Michael: You’ve painted a pretty happy picture of your generation. At the same time, every day there seems to be a steady parade of young men behaving badly. For example, there was the Facebook page that the Marines had which shared nude photos of female service members and condoned violence against women, and the private Facebook group in which recently admitted students to Harvard said all kinds of bad things. Tell me a little bit about that side.

Zachary: Obviously, we haven’t fully overcome the tendency for men, particularly in all-male groups, to degrade women and engage in activities like hazing or sexual assault. I think there might be a correlation between women becoming more integrated into the workforce and public sphere and some men retreating into insular, all-male groups — the fraternity, sports team and the online Facebook chat — to keep up that traditional understanding of masculinity.

Michael: Once upon a time, the whole world was a locker room — the corporate boardroom was a locker room, the faculty meeting was a locker room, and of course, the locker room was a locker room. Now there’s women everywhere. I’d imagine this has affected my generation more than yours because it’s new to us, we weren’t prepared. We expected locker rooms everywhere. I hear men my age say things like, “Where can a guy go where he can just relax, say stupid stuff, and not get policed all the time?” Do you hear that from guys your age?

Michael Kimmel and Zachary Kimmel, during their Facebook Live conversation in June 2017.

Zachary: Absolutely. The generational difference may be in the location of those conversations. Your generation invested in the man cave or the weekend golfing trip; we went online. We make Facebook groups, group chats, use all forms of social media to talk between men. Last year, sports teams from elite institutions — Harvard men’s soccer, Princeton men’s swimming and diving, Columbia wrestling — all got in trouble with their universities for their all-male team chats, group messages and texts. We’ve retreated to our online spaces.

Michael: My generation grew up with the expectation that our world would be pretty much like Don Draper’s in Mad Men. My dad’s world looked like that, and I expected my world to look like that. I feel like my generation has this sense of loss because we expected something we didn’t get. You didn’t expect it, so you aren’t angry. That thwarted sense of entitlement fuels a lot of the angry men I’ve written about. But I want to switch topics. When we’ve talked before, you’ve used the word “toxic” to describe masculinity.

Zachary: Yes.

This traditional, inherited idea of masculinity is a recipe for loneliness, emptiness, a lack of connection and a suppression of compassion and empathy.

Michael: What about masculinity would you say is toxic or poisonous?

Zachary: Masculinity in its rigid, norm-driven form can harm men. It can cause physical harm when it’s pressuring men to binge-drink or submit to hazing rituals to get into a group. It can also lead to an emotional shut-down in which men are discouraged from having women as friends or pursuing activities because they’re worried about social consequences.

Michael: What you’re saying is this traditional, inherited idea of masculinity is a recipe for loneliness, emptiness, a lack of connection and a suppression of compassion, empathy, etc. I take your point. But what I see in you and in many of your guy friends and in my generation are men facing tension in their notions of masculinity. Let me ask you, What does it mean to you to be a good man?

Zachary: Responsible, honorable, does the right thing, protector, provider, honest — all those words come to mind.

Michael: OK. Now tell me if those same ideas come up when I say, “Man up, dude! Be a real man.”

Zachary: I get all kinds of other ideas — show no weakness, show no pain, real men don’t cry, they get rich, they get laid, show no emotions.

Michael: That’s pretty different.

Zachary: Vastly different.

Michael: Where do you learn those ideas?

Zachary: Other men, particularly older men, coaches or the captains on the sports teams when I played sports, media, music — a variety of sources.

If I’m in a group of guys and someone makes a sexist comment, instead of saying “Hey, don’t say that word,” I say, “Hey, man, please don’t say that around me.”

Michael: I’ve been asking this question a lot, and most guys say pretty much what you said. They list, in this order, my dad, my coach, my guy friends, my older brother. I don’t want to say it’s about toxic masculinity vs. healthy masculinity. I think every one of us knows what it means to be a good man and we want to live up to those ideals. Yet sometimes in the name of proving we’re real men, we’re asked to betray our values. Don’t you think there were guys on the Harvard soccer team who were not down with what was going on?

Zachary: Absolutely.

Michael: But they can’t say it because there’s a tremendous amount of gender policing that goes on among guys. How do you deal when you’re in a group and some guy makes a sexist comment?

Zachary: When I was younger and still learning how to engage in this stuff, I’d react in a didactic, holier-than-thou, “Don’t say that, that is wrong” approach.

Michael: You’d police them back.

Zachary: I’d also get emotionally riled up and angry. Since I’ve had struggles and failures, I’ve taken on new strategies. Instead of saying “Hey, don’t say that word,” I say, “Hey, man, please don’t say that around me.” It’s a little declaration that this is not cool with me. I think you bring up an interesting point about that tension between what I feel like I should be doing versus what I feel like I need to do to fit in, and how lonely that can feel. If you’re in a situation and something is being done or said that doesn’t fly with you and you say something, you almost hope or assume there will be somebody else in the group who agrees. You hope he has the courage and strength to stand with you. Once you have another person, it’s far easier.

Michael: So how do you raise a boy to navigate this world between good and real? What advice would you give to parents on raising a good man?

Zachary: The first thing I’d say is beware of the birthday party effect. That’s the name that some psychologists have given to the phenomenon in which as kids get older, particularly when they hit puberty, parents and kids subconsciously begin to narrow the people invited to their children’s birthday party, by race and by gender.

Michael: Up until fourth grade, there’s a rule you have to invite the entire class.

Because of the love and respect between you and Mom, and your egalitarian relationship, we never needed a conversation about what men are expected to do or what women are expected to do.

Zachary: Encourage boys to cultivate cross-gender friendships — these friendships are so valuable. The second thing I’d say is, Don’t push your child into an activity that is stereotypically associated with their gender. If your son doesn’t want to play football, allow them the space and give them the confidence and trust to find their own path. If it’s ballet or tap dancing, I hope you’re as equally loving and involved a parent as if they were playing quarterback. The third thing I’d say has to do with role modeling. In our family, we never spoke about gender roles when I was younger because I grew up in a house where it was likely that I’d come home from school and see you doing laundry or the dishes.

Michael: And I’m the family cook.

Zachary: Because of the depth of love and respect between you and Mom, and the egalitarian nature of your relationship, we never needed to have a conversation about what men are expected to do or what women are expected to do. It’s just what I saw — my father is involved with me, he loves me, my mom has a career, she cares about work but she’s involved with me as well.

Michael: So what would you say to men who are resistant to the idea that masculinity should change? How would you get them on board?

Zachary: That’s the big question behind your work, and to a lesser extent, it’s my work as well. Your thesis is that a more holistic understanding of masculinity and a rejection of rigid, toxic masculinity — to use that term — is good for men. It helps in all facets of our lives and allows men to live the lives they really want to live.

Michael: I couldn’t agree more. Look, men should support gender equality because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s minimizing the moral imperative to say, “It’s also in your interest.” But I don’t think it’s easy to tell men we need to change masculinity, because men will experience this as if you’re saying, “Give up what has worked for you.”

Zachary: Power, privilege, everything.

Michael: It’s asking too much. Instead, you have to say, “You already are doing it; you just aren’t recognizing it.” Every single man is genetically connected to a woman. They know what it feels like to love a woman and want them to thrive. They’re fathers, sons, brothers, partners, lovers, friends, husbands. We need support from other men to act. When a guy says “I’m going to take parental leave,” his colleagues shouldn’t say, “I guess you’re not committed to your career, are you?” but “Good for you, man. You have your priorities straight.”

Those brotherhoods in which you defend wrong behavior — those are inauthentic. They ask you to put your own self aside. I don’t think that’s being a good brother at all.

Zachary: So much of it is about men holding our fellow men accountable. There was a football team in which a few players were accused of rape and the university said, “You can’t play in your bowl game.” Rather than support the woman or condemn their teammates, the rest of the team said, “We’re going to support the guys accused of rape.” Too often, we get caught up in notions of brotherhood or solidarity that are harmful to each other and harmful to ourselves.

Michael: I want to push back a bit, because there are positive things about brotherhood.

Zachary: I agree.

Michael: Those brotherhoods in which you’re defending the wrong behavior — those are inauthentic. They ask you to put your own self aside in order to be a brother. I don’t think that’s being a good brother at all.

Zachary: If you really are a brother, you have to say, “Hey man, this is not good for you. I wouldn’t do this.” You have to protect him.

Michael: That’s right. A real brother says, “Dude, I love you, you are my brother. I’m not going to let you do this.” The close guy friends you have, the fact that they don’t compromise, they don’t ask you to compromise your friendships with girls, that’s great. This is a place where we older men can learn. Too often on college campuses at homecoming, I hear old grads say to the young guys, “You’re not hazing them hard enough! We made them do all this horrible stuff. You guys are wusses.” And the guys are like, “We’ve got to ramp it up here.” The dads should just let them find their own way.

Zachary: I agree.

Michael: I think this is a good place for us to end. Zack, any last words?

Zachary: I wanted to say again that so many of the problems we see with men today can be solved by men holding their fellow men more accountable. Be the kind of brother who looks out for your fellow man.

Michael: I want to add one piece to that. It’s not only about holding each other accountable; it’s about being willing to be held accountable ourselves. I’ve grown most from the challenges I’ve gotten from other men and from feminist women friends who said, “We need to talk about this.”