The Power of Literacy: Changing the Narrative of Toxic Masculinity by Travis Crowder
“…And of course there must be something wrong in wanting to silence any song.” -Robert Frost
“I want to question the idea that it’s weak to be emotionally open, to demonstrate that it’s fine for men to be vulnerable and kind, and to recognize the courage it takes to be different.” -Ben Brooks
“There are no “boy” books. There are no “girl” books. There are just good books, and they are for everyone.” -Libba Bray, ALAN Conference speech
It happened on a Sunday. Sitting with my family at lunch, I was engaged in deep, thoughtful conversation with my brother-in-law about his work as a rope manufacturer. To discuss his work with him is to navigate technical jargon, the vocabulary of machinery and rope classification, words that are the soul of his profession, ones that I have to negotiate with context clues and requests for clarification. Conversations about his incredible and noble work often leave me amazed because they are filled with vocabulary and jargon unfamiliar to me. I told him how interesting his work was, then disengaged momentarily to continue eating, when someone interrupted: “You should go work with him. It would be good for you.” Considering my history with this person, I was stunned and rather hurt. On the surface, the sentences were innocuous, framed without aggression and judgment. Buried beneath them, though, I knew of the insidious underbelly of subtext, encased in an allegiance to tradition, and fueled by toxic masculinity.
This was not the first time I have been privy to such statements. In fact, this individual has spoken to me, both in front of people and in private, about my need for manual labor and how it would be better for me than the work I currently do. In the past, I disregarded the comments, feeling that they were uttered in innocence, without thought about the work I do across a school year. I am an educator and a writer. During the summer, I dedicate innumerable hours to scouring books and the internet for ideas and resources that will engage my students on a deep, personal level, pulling these resources together and collecting information on shared documents, ones that students will access. I talk with educators, present at conferences, and write for educational journals, blogs, and publishers. I work, and I work a lot. But underneath this comment was the suggestion that my work was somehow less important. I know it may seem as a stretch, but past comments and conversations have directly communicated negative associations and invalidation about my occupation. And even worse, this comment suggested that my work was somehow less masculine than the work of a manual laborer. Although I view manual labor as incredibly noble work, why did I feel that my work as an educator was omitted?
Frustrated by this passive-aggressive advice, I felt compelled to respond, “Why do you never tell my brother-in-law that he needs to come to work with me? That learning the work of an English teacher would be good for him? That spending time working with books, writing, and kids will help him later in life?” This was not a personal jab at my brother-in-law, or the important work he does. He has been supportive of my work as an educator and is always willing to discuss the things I do in classroom. And he reads a considerable amount. I also know that he works many hours to provide efficient service and quality products to his customers. Honestly, I deeply admire him. My questions were not aimed at him. They were a response to destructive thinking, the thinking that elevates one career over another, causing me to defend my profession to the individual who felt compelled to speak liberally. Although subtle, the person’s comment was a definite jab at my career, and it felt demeaning to the work that is such a part of who I am. The person’s comments were hurtful and although I have moved past them, I have lived with this type of feedback about my work since I began teaching. Why does choosing an intellectual, white collar profession make me less male?
Toxic masculinity exists in our language, in the way we phrase things, in television shows that demean any action by a male that isn’t socially-prescribed and approved, and in cultural norms that cause boys to avoid any type of sensitivity. This is the type of world our students are growing up in. A recent article in The Guardian entitled Authors Steer Boys from Toxic Masculinity with Gentler Heroes follows the thinking of several children’s and young adult authors. These authors express the genuine need for sympathetic, gentle representation in books, the types of models young boys need to see. Aggression in many instances is normalized while male sensitivity is relegated to non-masculine behavior. In addition to the information provided by the authors, books, ones that provide positive portrayals of male characters, are listed. These characters are comfortable in their displays of emotion, such as fear and sadness, and they do not resort to violence or aggression as a result of their feelings.
This view of masculinity runs deeper than displays of emotion and physical aggression. Shannon Hale, an author whose books are adored in my classroom, wrote a blog about an upsetting experience during an author visit. The girls, excited about her most recent book cheered, while the boys, as she expected, were less than enthusiastic. One boy said that the book was too girly and was not at all of interest to him. The subject and color scheme of the cover were not within his view of masculinity. What is so shameful about a boy reading a book that features a princess? What has caused this form of hatred which leads to misogyny, aggression, and suppression of emotion? Where did this originate and why do we perpetuate it? The answers to these questions can all be traced back to toxic masculinity, whether subtle or extreme.
Boys need books and access to stories and models where male characters are vulnerable, dealing with a wide range of emotions and refusing to let those emotions lead them to aggression, anger, and violence. Bringing positive narratives to students is a simple act, but it can initiate critical conversations. These positive narratives can show them that not all boys adopt the athletic inclinations and desire for manual labor, that some boys enjoy color schemes that may not fit the traditional idea of “boy colors.” Bringing such books and topics into our classrooms shows kids that we believe in inclusive masculinity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and information synthesized by Berhost (2014), alcoholism, behavioral/unintentional injuries, and workaholism are among the leading causes of death among men in the United States and fall within the scope of toxic masculinity. This is hardly surprising in a world where men are expected to show their maleness in ways that are not only toxic for those around them, but for themselves as well. When we appear to value one form of masculinity above others, we are silencing the voices of boys and men who are unable to satisfy the unhealthy, unfair requirements set before them. We reinforce toxic masculinity with our language, when we say that this is a “boy book,” or we appeal to male students with athleticism, when we fail to be vulnerable in front of our kids, and when we refuse to speak out against deleterious actions against men and boys who are not within the parameters of the norm.
So how do we begin to migrate away from toxic masculinity in our classrooms? My advice is to use books and conversations about texts as ways to move students to deeper thinking about this issue. For example, My Seventh Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin is a middle grades book about a young man who wants to be a dancer, but his father wants him to play football. A chance at a football scholarship is within his grasp, but his passion for dance still lives within him. This dilemma would be a great way to frame a book talk about this novel. Students could also write their reactions to this book talk—what are they thinking about in regard to the main character and dilemma that he is faced with? Encourage students to be honest in their responses and their considerations of this character. Give them time to sit with their truth and the experience they bring to this book talk. Asking students to share their thinking with a partner might open up more conversation and questions. Let them share. Let them feel. Let them engage.
In addition to book talks, give students a chance to stand beside the thinking in Shannon Hale’s blog and the spoken word poem “Man Up” by Simar Singh. After reading/listening to these pieces, I would encourage them to respond in quickwrite fashion to their thinking and questions about these pieces. How do these texts show society’s expectations for males? Do you agree or disagree? You may also invite them to respond to parts that resonated with them. Let them stand beside the ideas in these works and consider their own thinking and bias. Once again, let them share. Give them a chance to ask questions and wrestle with their interpretations of society. Stand beside them and nudge them to deeper analysis of their ideas. Encourage them to consider why they think the way they do, and the effect their thinking may have on others. Encourage them to examine their definition of inclusivity and their shortcomings.
Lastly, I would encourage you to find books that include positive portrayals and inclusive models of maleness for your classroom library. Social Intercourse by Greg Howard is a book that centers around two male high school students, Beck and Jax. Both teens are attracted to each other, but friends and family ties create barriers for them, especially when Beck’s father begins dating Jax’s mother. The relationship between Beck and his father is portrayed as amiable, demonstrating the type of healthy connections that males, especially LGBTQ youth, need. The picture book Pink is for Boys by Rob Pearlman and Eda Kaban shows how color is not specific to one gender and would be good as a read-aloud, a quickwrite, a conversation among students. Both books include positive portrayals of masculinity. Using them to generate writing and conversation helps create a ripple. Using them to ask students to examine their own thinking and affect change has the potential to create waves.
I am asking that you join me in promoting books and conversations that feature positive, healthy attitudes and messages about masculinity. Standing beside you in this venture will make me stronger and ultimately, it will help our students. Your awareness and willingness to try are the beginnings of beautiful, world-changing ripples.. Our kids are not waiting for us to get this right. We have the power to change this narrative of toxic masculinity, and it can start with literacy. These conversations around books are critical, and by starting them with students, we are asking them to consider their own biases. They are growing and maturing, and they are carrying the messages and understandings that have been planted within them. But we can change that. We can remove language that separates “girl” books from “boy” books. We can host classroom conversations that unpack the reasons behind negative associations and discussing why anger and aggression are normalized, yet sensitivity and less violent expressions of emotion are undermined and undervalued. We can avoid statements that minimize the power of someone’s work based on our own interpretations of masculine jobs and unpack our own biases. We can view the jobs that men do in our world, whether it be teaching, rope manufacturing, or writing, as noble, creative, important work, and we can validate those occupations thoughtfully and respectfully. We can cheer our young males on as they find themselves and search for work that will be extensions of their true selves, mirrors of their interests. And as we do, we can know that we are working toward a place where every person’s unique song is heard, validated, and loved.
I want to thank Donalyn Miller, Jennifer LaGarde, and Beth Duncan for previewing my work, stretching my thinking, and helping me blend story with suggestions for societal change. You all gave me incredible things to think about, and I could not have written this piece without you. #thankyou
Travis Crowder is a 7th grade English and social studies teacher in Hiddenite, NC. He is the co-author of Sparks in the Dark, a book that discusses how educators can illuminate reading and writing lives in their students and themselves. Travis is a writer and voracious reader. He loves working with students and teachers, helping them develop their own unique reading and writing identities. You can follow his work on teachermantrav.com/blog and on Twitter @teachermantrav.