“Boys don’t cry.”
“You’re acting like a girl.”
These are the types of things that people tell boys frequently, and there are negative consequences. Crying is a normal human reaction to excessive emotion. Girls are not told to not cry; in fact, tears are often expected from girls in our culture. Boys learn that certain emotions are for girls only, and as boys grow up, they gradually forget what healthy emotion feels like, and how to express it.
Discussions of gender inequality aren’t complete without talking about what inequality does to men. Teaching men that being emotional is unmanly leads to violence, because men typically don’t understand how to handle strong emotions in other ways. In 2014, men made up nearly 80% of those arrested for violent crimes in the US.
There are many different factors that go into this statistic, but the way we socialize boys as they grow into men has to be a big part of it. When a boy is told that he can’t cry or that he can’t be affectionate with his parents or his friends, or that anger is the only emotion that is okay for boys to express, this leads to men being violent and aggressive when they grow up.
The Women’s Center invited Carlos Andrés Gómez, award-winning poet, actor and author of Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, to speak about his own path through socialized masculinity, and how he learned to create a new path for himself.
The first thing I noticed about Carlos was how friendly and open he was. He greeted everyone who came to see him with a bright smile and seemingly genuine happiness. He wanted to be there, and he wanted to share his experiences with all of us in the hope that we would learn and grow as well.
Carlos opened his performance with a story about falling hard on his face while playing soccer when he was very little. When he saw his coach running towards him, he had expected words of comfort, but instead his coach berated him for crying and told him to “man up,” despite the fact that Carlos was bleeding from his mouth and nose.
When I heard this story, I was upset for the little Carlos, but I wasn’t surprised.
Carlos talked about how he was taught to be unemotional, unaffectionate, and tough, despite being a sensitive child. He described this as the “one and only version of being a man.” There is only one way we expect men to act, and any man who exists beyond this bubble of proper manliness is berated, ostracized, and bullied. Carlos described how unnatural this felt, but how it eventually stuck, as it does for many boys.
Throughout his talk, Carlos included spoken-word poems that described significant moments and issues in his life, from expectations of femininity, his biracial experience and some of the issues he’s faced as a light-skinned Colombian man, and his experiences with the rules of masculinity when he did something as simple as hold his friend’s hand when talking to an Army recruiter. These beautiful poems made me tear up.
One story in particular stood out to me, an experience Carlos described as life-changing. He was in a bar in New York when he bumped into a man, and the two of them immediately stood nose-to-nose, ready to fight over a simple accident. Suddenly, and without understanding why, Carlos started crying. This broke up the impending fight faster than anything else could have. The man and his friends scattered, and Carlos’s own friends acted as though he had done something terrible. He had broken the rules of masculinity.
From that moment on, Carlos decided that he wanted to challenge what society expects of men, and for him, it required a lot of relearning about what it meant to be emotional and sensitive. Carlos urged us all to reimagine what it means to be a man, if we are going to stop the violence that men carry out against one another and against women. We must destroy the idea that there is only one way to be a man.
At the end of Carlos’s amazing performance, I bought his book and waited in line to talk to him and get an autograph. He shook my hand, and with a big smile told me he was glad he had the opportunity to speak to us. I told him how inspiring I had found his performance. It’s always great to know there are passionate people out there who are working towards making this world better.
Carlos is an amazing man, and I hope that with each performance he gives around the world, more and more people, more and more men realize that they don’t have to perform their masculinity the way that society demands. Maybe we can begin to change what it means to “man up.”